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By Karen Essex
(Kleopatra, Volume II)
Again, I can report that Karen Essex has given us a beautiful, literate novel, albeit with some reservations as outlined later on in the review.
"Pharaoh" is the sequel to “Kleopatra” and the conclusion of the life and times of Kleopatra VII Philopater, to use the Greek spelling of the name, which Ms. Essex prefers. Both novels are written from the perspective of the Egyptian queen, whom the author rightly considers to be greatly maligned by her contemporaries and the historians of antiquity.
The book begins and is interspersed with short chapters – distinguished from the rest of the book by italics – depicting the queen and Mark Antony in the last weeks and days after their defeat and before Octavian reaches Alexandria. These chapters often appear emotionally and descriptively excessive, contrary to the rest of the book, and even to its ending. One might question the need for this technique.
However intended, these chapter serve as backdrop to the story which begins where Volume I left off: The exiled Kleopatra has herself smuggled into her palace in a rug in order to meet Julius Caesar, who has come to Alexandria in search of Pompey, the latter however having been murdered before Caesar could reach him. Both the queen and the imperator have ulterior motives for their mutual pursuit, but are clearly attracted to each other from the beginning, not the least intellectually. The story unfolds as many readers know it already: Caesar's prolonged stay in Egypt, the birth of their son Caesarion, Kleopatra following him to Rome, his murder, and the subsequent struggles and civil wars; and the ascents of Mark Antony and of Octavian, later known to the world and history as Augustus. Finally the failed dreams and the deaths of Kleopatra and Mark Antony.
More than half of the novel is devoted to the relationship between Kleopatra and Mark Antony, and their rise and fall. Here, the partners are more equal than in Kleopatra's earlier relationship with Caesar. Expediency brings them together, but, closer in age, they are also more sexually attracted to each other. They dream of a joint empire enveloping the Greek and Roman world; but, though largely unspoken, their agendas are different ones. Anthony is a Roman with an affinity to the Greeks, but a Roman first, a fact against which the queen has to fight, time and time again, and offer her riches to the man whom she has come to love so deeply, and whom she has born three children. Where Antony really stands, as long as he is an equal adversary to Octavian, we do not learn – but then history cannot tell us either. The major events in their history are emphasized: Their famous meeting in Antioch, their doings in Alexandria, the Parthian war, the disastrous civil war against Octavian.
The book ends with the spellbinding tale of Kleopatra's suicide.
Ms. Essex's stated aim to rehabilitate Kleopatra has been successful. However, along the way she does, and admits to doing, Octavian some injustices. She considers this a necessary “balance of the historical record.” However, while she decries Augustan propaganda, she accepts the Antonian one, and others, such as Caesar's involvement with the King of Bithynia, or Clodius' supposed successful seduction of Pompeia. There are other irksome historical inventions which do nothing to help or hinder the story. There is Caesar getting drunk during the first night with Kleopatra, though it has always been reported that he was mostly abstinent. In her repeated tale that Octavian had 300 notables killed in Perusia, she relies on Dio alone and ignores other historians. Dates are misrepresented: Octavian was not yet married to Scribonia at the time of the siege of Perusia, and it is doubtful that he met and spared Livia there – a perceived event grippingly told – as it is reported that she and her family escaped. Only afterwards did Octavian marry Scribonia, and he did not divorce her and had Livia divorce her own husband until two years after Perusia. Essex repeatedly stresses Octavian's “depravity” in forcing Livia to divorce her husband. But Livia may well have been a willing participant.
Another item that tests credulity is the statement that the rapprochement between Octavian and Anthony, which led to the triumvirate, was mediated – Ms. Essex's term – by their respective mothers. And most historians discount the story of Caesar bedding Octavian, or Cicero bedding his secretary Tiro. One of the most annoying assumptions is that Caesar liked to refer to himself in the third person. The only known instances are his Commentaries, which are based on his dispatches to the Senate from Gaul, and this was most certainly done for political purposes, and his famous statement to the Senate about “Caesar's wife.” He could have used the same tactic when dealing with Pothinus and the young Ptolemy, but it is hardly likely that he did so in talking to Kleopatra, or in his letters to her. Nor is it likely, for that matter, that Caesar, Anthony, and Kleopatra formed a “secret triumvirate” while Kleopatra was in Rome, as Essex has us believe.
In the end, the reviewer gets a bit tired having to check for historical veracity.
On the plus side, the Romans are depicted less as cardboard figures than in the first novel, although Essex comes close again where Roman matrons such as Servilia and Calpurnia are concerned.
Thus, while the book is one of excellent craftsmanship and enjoyable when read purely as a novel, history buffs may be a bit disappointed.
Another view on the book by N.S. Gill on About.com
© 2002 Irene B. Hahn
Pharaoh (Kleopatra, Volume II)
by Karen Essex
Hardcover, 400 Pages (August 2002)
List Price US$24.95
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