Excerpt from Song of the Nile
They were all waiting for me. At the edges of the vast peristyle garden, guests found their seats beneath the columned porticos. In the torchlight, the emperor’s family gathered—the Julii and all their numerous friends and clients. Sitting apart was the emperor’s wife and her family; as a Claudian, Livia descended from a nearly unbroken line of power-hungry maniacs and criminals, but in Rome, their pedigree made them untouchable. The smell of their old aristocracy wafted on the air, just over the scent of burning torches.
I watched from beneath an archway as senators fiddled impatiently with their purple-bordered togas and ladies delighted in the confections served by passing slaves. The emperor’s daughter arrived late, accompanied by her new husband. Julia’s recent wedding had been a hurried affair, as if to prevent Livia’s jealous interference. In fact, Julia’s wedding had been nothing like this one. Her father hadn’t even been present, but Augustus was here now, waiting for me.
My family was also waiting. The Ptolemies. Julius Caesar. My mother. My father. My butchered brothers and the only brother that still remained with me, my little Philadelphus, my mother’s youngest son. The only one missing was the one I needed most. My twin wasn’t here except insofar as he lingered in the prophesy of our shared birth. The Isis worshippers and others believed we’d bring about a Golden Age. All those hopes and dreams and expectations hovered in that courtyard. I had only to appear on the stage that the emperor had given me.
The moon that was my namesake hung in the sky like a pale ghost, its face only half-revealed, like mine. I stepped out and everyone turned to see. I stretched my hands to the sides, like the paintings of my winged goddess on Egyptian tombs. They’d all expected that I’d go meekly to this wedding, shy as a slave on the block. They expected a bride in white muslin and orange veil. Some of the guests may have even supposed I’d marry in a Greek chiton with a royal purple cloak over my shoulders. None of them expected me to cast aside the respectable garments of a Roman bride in favor of a scandalous gown, a painted face and hair flowing over my shoulders in dark ringlets.
The guests tittered. Some stood. Others sat down abruptly on couches. Two servants knelt in homage to me while a lute player missed his note. Then the musicians went quiet altogether. I knew the memories I conjured with my mother’s coiled serpent upon my bare arm, the malachite on my eyelids glittering like a Pharaoh’s mask, my ruby red lips and firm breasts swaying beneath the gathered green folds my thin gown. If my display wasn’t so deadly earnest, I might’ve laughed at the way women clutched at their modest garments, all scandalized by Cleopatra’s daughter. My groom was scandalized too. The newly-made King of Mauretania waited for me beneath the grape arbor, an angry expression upon his handsome face.
But my eyes were for Augustus who was bedecked for this occasion in the corona civica, his oak-leaf crown. He’d been sipping at wine and chatting with his advisor, Maecenas, but stopped mid-conversation when the crowd opened a path between us. The emperor saw me and his eyes narrowed. Then he stilled.
In all the years since my mother’s death, I’d been raised never to address a crowd of my own accord. Never to speak unless spoken to. Never to shout or lift my immodest eyes. To remember always that I was the daughter of the whore who’d plunged Rome into civil war, and that it was only by the grace of Augustus that I lived. But I knew the emperor loved a good show and I intended to give him one. With my arms still upraised, I proclaimed, “I am the eighth Cleopatra of the royal house of Ptolemy!”
The emperor handed his wine to Maecenas so abruptly that some of it sloshed out of the goblet. This brought an uncomfortable sputter from the wedding guests. Only Lady Octavia dared to speak. “Selene!” She thought I mocked her with this display. That I meant to spit upon all the modest virtues she’d taught me. She started towards me but the emperor lifted two fingers to stop her. This and the evening wind at my back emboldened me. “I am Cleopatra Selene, Queen of Cyrenaica,” I continued. It was a title without power, for Cyrenaica was governed by Romans, but at the sufferance of the emperor, it was the only royal title I retained as my own. “I am Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Isis and therefore, Thea Notera, the Younger Goddess, the Maiden Goddess.”
The emperor’s jaw tightened. He didn’t like that title, Thea Notera; he didn’t like my mention of Isis, his least favorite goddess. My mother’s goddess. His praetorians tensed as if readying for battle and the lictors who accompanied him on formal occasions, stiffened. Their axes were ceremonial, but I knew their blades could cut. Somehow, I found the courage to press on. “I am Cleopatra Selene, Thea Philadelphoi, the Goddess Who Loves Her Brothers.”
The emperor’s nose lifted as if to scent treachery in the air. I could see the way his mind was turning, trying to divine whether or not I would declare myself the rightful Queen of Egypt and my twin Egypt’s rightful King. Augustus could have me killed with a mere signal to his henchmen. With a simple flick of his wrist. Still, he let me come. I drew closer, my eyes never leaving his. “I am Cleopatra Selene, Thea Philopatris, the Goddess Who Loves Her People.”
It had been one of my mother’s appellations and a few of the guests jeered, which shook me. This same citizenry that had come to celebrate my wedding had bayed for my blood when I’d been dragged through the city as a child, so my fears raced alongside my heartbeat. Some faces in the crowd were awed. Others were hostile and whispered of my arrogance. I passed my brother Philadelphus, on my right. After my marriage, he would remain here in Rome to secure my good behavior. Already pale from a recent illness, he went paler at my bold display. The emperor’s daughter glanced up at me and twitched, like a frightened fawn ready to bolt for the woods. My Roman half-sisters, the Antonias, cloistered around her, both of them agape. And the emperor’s wife looked as if she saw in me an apparition.
At last, I found myself standing before Augustus. He knew not what I meant to do, but seemed mesmerized by the possibilities. I confess I enjoyed his discomfort. If I named myself the Queen of Egypt, everyone would know it for the truth, but it would also mean my end. I was so close to him, as close to him as I’d been the day of his triumph, when he held my chin between his thumb and forefinger and decided to spare my life. I lifted that same chin and said, “As I come to this marriage to the King of Mauretania, I remain a Friend and Ally of the Roman people, loving and loyal ward of Augustus, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, Divi Filius, Son of his Father, Julius Caesar, the God.”
Then I lowered my head, bowing as a suppliant before him. The crowd roared its approval. They cheered, stomped their feet, and whistled. They sounded like the mobs in the stadium instead of an assemblage of wedding guests. I’d done all this to stroke the emperor’s vanity, to honor my mother’s legacy, and to speak the name of my goddess even where it was forbidden. But in so doing, I gave the emperor a gift he could have received from no one but me. I’d taken unto myself all the prestige of my lineage and laid it at his feet, giving him more power than he possessed before, letting him glimpse the glory that only I could bestow upon him.