Women of History is proud to welcome author Stephanie Dray who will give us a taste of her amazing new novel: The Uncelebrated Life of Cleopatra Selene.
Cleopatra’s daughter was born at the cusp of a religious awakening and came of age in a dangerous political world. When her parents lost their war with Rome and committed suicide, Selene, her twin Alexander Helios and their younger brother Ptolemy Philadelphus were all that remained of the Ptolemaic dynasty, so they were taken prisoner by the Romans.
Though she was only ten years old, Selene was marched as a chained prisoner through the streets of Rome. Prisoners were normally strangled or killed after a triumphal march, but Selene was an exception. The little orphaned princess and her brothers were spared by the emperor, then taken into the home of his sister to be indoctrinated with Roman values.
Such a policy of hostage-taking was fairly common in ancient times, so we might have expected Selene to fully embrace the Roman way in order to survive. Indeed, like her more famous mother, she forged important alliances with the Romans and charmed her way into power. It may even be argued that she did so more successfully; she certainly did so with less bloodshed. Though Selene came to Rome as a chained prisoner, she so impressed Augustus that he married her to Juba II of Mauretania, making her the most powerful client queen in the empire.
But Selene’s importance may have to do more with her religious influence than with her statecraft. Today, we take for granted the concept of personal spirituality or a relationship with god. In much of the ancient world, however, religion was a covenant between the state and the divine realm. Insofar as personal or household gods existed for the Romans, worship was more orthopraxy than orthodoxy. That is to say, the emphasis was more on correct ritual than on faith or intimate prayer. For the Romans especially, religion was more a matter for men than women.
All of this started to change with the rise of henotheistic mystery cults, and as a forerunner of Christianity, the Isiac religion was one of the few in the ancient world to concern itself with social justice. In challenging temporal authority, the spread of Isis worship nurtured a nascent concept of personal spirituality without which our world might be very different today. And were it not for the influence of Cleopatra Selene—who fostered the Isiac faith in Mauretania while it was being suppressed in Rome—such a transition may never have taken hold.
Though she never returned to her mother’s Egypt, Selene would rule a mostly peaceful nation for at least twenty years, spreading the influence of Hellenism and Isis worship to Northwest Africa. She appears to have had complete autonomous powers of coinage, and often minted monies with depictions of her mother or her goddess.
The most remarkable thing we know about Selene, however, is the name of her son. At that time period, any child she had should have been named after its father’s line. But Selene clearly considered herself the true ruler of Mauretania and her own family line to be superior because she named her son Ptolemy and he would rule after her.
Indeed, some scholars have suggested that upon the ascension of Ptolemy to the throne, coins were issued to honor his mother, perhaps reminding the people of their popular queen and legitimizing his rule.
Stephanie Dray is the author of a forthcoming trilogy of historical fiction novels set in the Augustan Age, starting with Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra's Daughter. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.