Book Review: Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman

Being born into a royal dynastic family in ancient time was more of a curse than a blessing. None of the sons or daughters of Ptolemy XII Auletes (the Piper) would live to see old age. The Ptolemaic Dynasty, in fact, rivals the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and the Angevin Dynasty in its degree of familial dysfunction.
The year is 51 B.C. The people of Alexandria, Egypt, unhappy with their weak King, Ptolemy Auletes, who has lost Cyprus to the Romans, have overthrown him and installed his sister and first wife, Tryphaeana and her daughter, Berenice on the throne. Ptolemy has fled to Rome with his daughter Cleopatra. His current wife has fled Alexandria with her two small sons and is in hiding. Only his eight year old daughter, Arsinoe, abandoned by both of her parents, remains at the royal palace.
In Cleopatra’s Shadows, Emily Holleman tells the stories of Cleopatra’s two sisters, Berenice and Arsinoe in alternating narrations. Berenice, the elder, is the daughter of Ptolemy XII and his sister and first wife Tryphaeana. She is their only surviving child, as Tryphaena’s other pregnancies all resulted in monstrous still births. The younger sister, Arsinoe, is the child of Ptolemy’s concubine and second wife, as are Cleopatra and two young sons.
Arsinoe has been abandoned by both of her parents in the wake of the palace coup which has put her half-sister Berenice and Berenice’s mother Tryphaeana on the Egyptian throne. She is traumatized by witnessing the deaths of some of her favorite palace guards, and by the disappearances of her nursemaid Myrrine and her tutor, the eunuch Ganymedes. Are they prisoners? Have they fled? Have they been killed? Arsinoe is alone and terrified. Only the middle-aged guard she calls Menelaus takes pity on her and provides her with food.
Berenice, aged 19, has ascended to the throne of Egypt along with her mother Tryphaeana. What should she do about her half-sister Arsinoe? The bitter and hard bitten Tryphaeana wants her to execute the child, but Berenice cannot bring herself to do it. Her problems are manifold. Famine stalks the land as the Nile fails to rise. She must arrange food assistance to the Upper Kingdom. Her deposed father has gone to Rome to seek military assistance. Will he come back at the head of a Roman army? Can she trust her advisors who once loyally served her father? Should she take a husband? Her tutor and advisor, the Eunuch Pieton advises her to wed her half-brother, a child of three or four. Her heart, mind and soul rebel at the notion. She needs someone who will provide her with an army so that she can fight her father’s Romans when they come. Her advisor Nereus suggests Seleucus, a scion of the now deposed Seleucid dynasty.
Cleopatra’s Shadows is a fascinating tale of complex family dynamics and palace intrigue, and Holleman tells it well. The story of Cleopatra is well known, but what led to her brilliant rise and precipitous fall remains obscure to most modern readers. Cleopatra’s Shadows gives the reader a bold insight into this age.

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