Monday, August 19, 2013

Song of the Nile

I was excited to read this book by Stephanie Dray, a new author for me, about Queen Cleopatra's daughter Selene.  I had read about her before in Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter.  Therefore I chose to skip her first novel Lily of the Nile where Selene is taken from Egypt after her parent's death, and taken to Rome as a trophy with her brothers.  I don't have much time to read, so I wanted to read something new about her.  This book follows Selene from Rome to Mauritania, where she is finally made a Queen and marries Juba, her childhood scholar.  They build their palace and a lighthouse to look like Alexandria, or what she remembers of it.  Selene's mother Cleopatra had killed herself with a snake bite after Octavian's armies invaded.  Her mother was famous both for her beauty, ambition and wit but also for her relationships with Julias Caesar and Marc Antony, her father.  Selene was a Ptolemaic princess, of Greek and Rome heritage. Her fraternal twin Helios by this point had disappeared, many assumed dead.  Selene had one last surviving brother, Philadelphius.  He was being kept back in Rome as a sort of blackmail for her good will. 

It was the emperor's sister Octavia that had convinced Octavian to let them live and raised them with other orphans.  Her kindness had spared Selene's life but not those of her other brothers.  Octavian had a fantasy of having his own Cleopatra, and seems to have had an obsession with Selene.  Selene also was smart and played her cards well; she pledged her loyalty to Augustus aka Octavian.  In Mauritania, Selene makes herself a capable ruler.  She brings about great harvest for Rome and wants to build a temple to her god, Isis.  She has a daughter not long after and in the book it is Augustus's baby, forced on her before she left Rome with her new husband.  It seems her relationship with Juba was platonic for some time, and she ruled capably without him when he traveled. 

Throughout the novel she is obsessed with finding her twin Helios, and of having Augustus restore her to Egypt's throne as Queen.  She wants to live for her dead parents and siblings, for the Ptolemaic dynasty.  She visits Augustus in Rome a few times, hoping he will grant her her greatest wish.  Along the way, she decides she is happy to be Queen of Mauritania, where her daughter was born and where Juba is.  She finally returns to reign with Juba, and they reconcile and make a son together.  Isis is a central belief to her; she was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife, and patroness of magic and nature.  Isis is often depicted as the mother of Horus, the hawk-headed god of war and protection.  Her headdress was a throne and she listened to the prayers of all. Selene sees her brother but whether in spirit or the flesh isn't clear.  She remains allies with Rome and they name their capital Caesarea.  She went by Cleopatra Selene and had many coins minted with images of her choice.  She isn't well written about, probably fading in the background after her mother. 

My Thoughts:  By the time Selene married Juba II of Numidia, she was actually the last living sibling.  Helios and Philadelphius were already dead, but in the book the author chose a different viewpoint.  The bond between twins is strong, as it shows in this book with Selene and Helios.  She feels him when he is near and sees him on several occasions.  After such powerful and well known parents, and such a tragic end, I'm not surprised Selene's life seems to have faded in history.  I'm sure her deepest desire was to return to Egypt and be restored to her parent's throne, but it seems she created a kingdom of her own in Mauritania where hopefully she was happy.  She seems to have known how to play Augustus, becoming his ally and living safe fully with a generous dowry.  She must have had some of her parent's spirit to have made it through what she did.  I enjoyed the book, but the worship of Isis and the parts where she displayed her magic were a bit sci fi for me.  Overall though, a great book that I would recommend.  I look forward to her next one in the series.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora

This was the first book of several I had on hold at the library that came available, and I was excited to read it.  I heard about this book on Kate Quinn's Facebook page, and she has a remark on the front page.  This novel took me to sixth century Constantinople, to the life of Theodora.  She had a hard life for some time following the death of her father.  He had worked for the Greens at the Hippodrome, training bears.  The Hippodrome was the main arena of entertainment then; chariot races and circus acts.  The Greens and Blues were the main 2 factions and had political power to support or topple emperors.  Her mother remarried not soon after.  During this time there weren't many choices for a woman to make money.  Because of their address they weren't able to get the widow handouts, so Theodora and her older sister Comito took to begging.  The Greens just jeered them even though their father had worked for them, so the Blues took them in.  Their step father was given a job.  Her mother drank a lot which took up a lot of their money, and their little sister Anastasia was still starving.  Sometimes parents would mutilate their child because they usually received more when begging on the streets.  Their stepfather cut off Anastasia's ears, not long after he left the family and the little girl died, probably from an infection and malnutrition.

Theodora and Comito took to the stage at a very young age.  An actress was no better than a prostitute, because they often took their clothes off or were courtesans at the same time.  Theodora served as Comito's assistant, until she earned her own role.  She was good at being a comedian as well as taking off her clothes.  To make more money, both girls had also become courtesans.  During her career Theodora met a rival named Antonina, who later became her best friend.  Despite her attempts to not conceive, she gave birth to a daughter at age 18.  Her sister Comito had kicked her out because Theodora got in the way of her love life.  Antonina found her in labor on the streets, and took her and her daughter in.  She saved her life and helped to watch her daughter so she could go back to work.  Theodora's mother eventually came to find her and moved in as well.  They lived in an upper apartment for some time, Theodora acting and Antonina using her "skills" on men and her mother babysat.  It was well for a woman to find a patrician to fund them to live with them, a patron.  She met a man named Hecebolus, and he wanted to take her to Pentapolis in North Africa to begin his role as governor there.  She took the risk, leaving behind her daughter and took off.  The lovers didn't last long and he abandoned her.  She had no money and no way to get back to Constantinople.

Theodora managed to get herself to Alexandria in Egypt, where she met an important person in her life, Severus.  At this time there was much unrest in religion.  The Emperors had been trying to force religious unity throughout the empire.  Christians in a few areas believed in Monophysitism whereby Christ had only one nature. But the Orthodoxy insisted upon by the emperors held that Christ had two natures; one divine and one human.  Refugees fled to Alexandria as the dissent continued.  Severus was the Patriarch of Antioch, and he took her under his wings.  He taught her and she became a Monophysite, leading a more spiritual life.  It was the first time in many years she didn't have to sleep with men for money.  In the book it says she had Hecebolus's child, a boy, and that Severus helped her to live while she recovered.  She traveled some time later to Antioch where she met a dancer named Macedonia.  She finally arrived back in Constantinople in 522.  She decided after her spiritual time to lead a better life for her children.  She spinned for work, and Antonina helped her with her children.  Her mother had passed away while she had been gone.

Her destiny was soon coming with the help of Macedonia; she met Justinian, nephew to the emperor Anastasius.  He fell in love with her quick wit and knowledge.  She hid that she had a son from him, for fear what he would think of a possible threat to his heirs or throne.  After the passing of Anastasius and a bill that would clear the way for a patrician to marry an actress, they were married.  She was his mistress first then he raised her to a patrician.  Her daughter came to live with them, and her son stayed with Antonina.  Theodora was crowned along with Justinian, he loved her very deeply and valued her.  She was a very capable empress, helping to stem the Nika riots.  She helped Justinian to rebuild and reform Constantinople.  They built aqueducts, bridges, and more than 25 churches, the best of which was the Hagia Sophia.   In spite of Justinian being Chalcedonian, Theodora founded a Miaphysite monastery and supported the religion all her life.  The plague hit and took almost 10,000 people a day, and Justinian barely survived.  The throne was not without its troubles or enemies. 

Belisarius was a general of Justinian's, and one Theodora disliked.  He made mistakes among many victories, and funneled a lot of treasure and money into his own accounts.  Justinian turned a blind eye to his faults because of his usefulness.  She had matched him up with Antonina when her husband died, so she could have wealth and close ties to Theodora as empress.  Antonina cheated on him with her godson and it was widely known.  At this time, Theodora found out that her friend Macedonia, who had helped her so much in her life to finding Justinian, had allied with her worst enemy John the Cappadocian.  He had found out she had a son and was blackmailing her in exchange for not telling Justinian.  He had also formed his own political party and had spread vicious rumors about Theodora, and he was also implicated in the murder of the Bishop of Cyzius.  She discovered that John wanted her out of the way and so she set a trap for him.  It worked and he was imprisoned until after her death, stripped of his titles and wealth, which were given to his daughter Euphemia.  Theodora was smart and knew she couldn't make such a blatant attempt on the life of her husband's favorite.

Macedonia had told Theodora that her son had died on a boat, but then she found a man his age with an amulet she had had sent to him.  He pretended to be her son, until she found out he wasn't by Antonina.  Macedonia and John's devious plot was uncovered, and Antonina and Theodora cut out Macedonia's tongue and beat her to death.  It was said she was cut to pieces and dumped in the ocean.  Theodora had been deeply betrayed by a close friend, and mourned the loss of her son.  She found out later that Justinian had known about her son all along.  The book flashes years ahead to when Theodora's daughter is married and has a son, and her niece, Comito's daughter, is being married.  They had founded a new dynasty through their siblings, because they never conceived a child together.  Theodora died at the age of 48 from cancer.  She was always faithful to Justinian and they had loved deeply.  Her influence on Justinian was so strong that after her death, he worked to bring harmony between the Miaphysites and the Chalcedonian Christians in the Empire, and he kept his promise to protect her little community of Miaphysite refugees in the Hormisdas Palace. 

My Thoughts:  There was so much to this book once Theodora became empress, that I couldn't include everything.  I skimmed over her enemies and the Nika revolts because I am trying to be concise....trying.  Theodora was certainly a capable empress and ruthless when it came to her enemies.  It is most sad to me that she kept it a secret she had a son, because it shadowed her entire life.  It is not known whether she actually had a son or not but in the book she did.  Justinian never remarried after her death, some say because of how much he loved her.  This was a good book, one historical lovers will enjoy.  There is violence, sickness and sexual promiscuity so be cautious when reading it.  I enjoyed the book because I always enjoy a love story and seeing a woman come from the street to power.  The main historical sources for her life are the works of the contemporary Procopius, scribe for General Belisarius.  One work portrays her as courageous and influential, another shrewish and whoreish.  The third flattered her beauty and piety, so his record has to be taken with a grain of salt.  I love how this author filled in the historical gaps as well as took her own take on Procopius' Empress Theodora.  Theodora did pass some laws that were helpful to actresses, women that were raped or seeking a divorce on the grounds of infidelity.  She was well known for her piety and beauty.