Entertainment in the Court of Juba II & Cleopatra Selene

Cross-posted from: Unusual Historicals Blog

Entertainment in the ancient world relied upon trained performers. Such training didn’t come cheap, so royal patronage was highly sought after by would-be entertainers. The most prestigious patronage to secure in the Augustan Age was, of course, the imperial court in Rome, but if a budding young entertainer couldn’t find a place there, other opportunities beckoned.

Outside of Rome, the most prestigious royal court was probably that of King Juba II and Cleopatra Selene in Mauretania. Mauretania was the largest client kingdom in the empire and it was ruled by two remarkable individuals. King Juba II was a scholarly king who had been raised as a ward of Augustus and had a discerning eye for expensive things and fine talent. His queen was Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the more famous Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Selene had been raised in Alexandria, which gave her a glamour and sophistication–and when it came to entertainers, only the best would do.

The king and queen were enthusiasts of plays–and one of the first things they built in their new kingdom was an outdoor theater, carved into the hillside, in Greek fashion, with stepped seats for playgoers to gather on. There, actors would bring to life the plays of Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes. Some plays that may have been performed on that stage are still popular today, including Medea, Oedipus the King, and Antigone. But new works were undoubtedly commissioned and enacted as well, for we know that one tragedian, Leonteus of Argos, was a member of the Mauretanian court.

Having a court poet was a a sign of status in the ancient world. Certainly, Augustus made the most of his stable of poets to reshape his image. The poetry written during his reign has outlasted many of the histories. The poet as chronicler was a long-standing tradition. So, while Virgil, Horace and Ovid penned verse in Rome, Cleopatra Selene and Juba II certainly had a court poet of their own, and he was almost certainly Crinagoras of Mytilene. The venerable old poet was a man of some distinction, having apparently served as an ambassador. He rubbed elbows with the highest society–he seems to have been present when Caesar indulged in his scandalous affair with Cleopatra and undoubtedly met the Queen of the Nile when she was in Rome. Perhaps this is when the Greek Epigrammatist took an interest in Cleopatra and her children, for he is best known for the verse he wrote in honor of her daughter, Cleopatra Selene. His two most famous works were written on the occasion of Cleopatra Selene’s marriage to Juba and upon her death during a lunar eclipse.

More lighthearted entertainment was to be had in Mauretania too. We know that the King also employed mimes, for one of them, a young girl named Ecloga, apparently died in Rome. (The connection between Juba II, Cleopatra Selene and the imperial family in Rome was a close one and it’s quite likely that the king and queen maintained a home there in which they entertained in high style.)

Given King Juba’s lineage as a Numidian and his alleged horsemanship, it’s likely that chariot races were a common type of entertainment in Mauretania. However, instead of a circus, we find amongst the ruins of the Mauretanian capital city of Iol-Caesaria, an amphitheatre. Though gladiator games in which the fighters battled to the death were unknown in Cleopatra Selene’s native Egypt, Mauretania was filled with Roman veterans who expected such entertainment as their due. Consequently, the amphitheatre would have been a hot spot for the subjects of Cleopatra Selene and Juba II to gather for bloody entertainment.

One last form of entertainment in Mauretania is worth mentioning. In North Africa, then, as now, snake charmers mesmerized and entertained passersby with cobras who would lift up from their baskets to dance for their owners. Given that Cleopatra Selene’s mother was said to have committed suicide by surrendering to the bite of one of these vipers, one has to wonder how much Selene enjoyed such displays!

Stephanie Dray’s debut historical fiction novel, LILY OF THE NILE , was just release by Berkley Books. The sequel is expected to release at the end of 2011. Both novels are set in the Augustan Age and feature Cleopatra’s daughter.

Why Regency England Enthusiasts Should Love Augustan Age Rome

It may come as a surprise to most people, but the dominant historical setting in commercial fiction isn’t Tudor England. It’s Regency England–the godzilla of the romantic fiction world. I’d like to point out a surprising number of similarities between Regency England and Augustan Age Rome that make me think the latter should really make a comeback as a popular setting for fiction.

For one, there was the sexual repression. Though ancient Rome is known for wild orgies and sexual license, the Augustan Age was all about a return to “traditional family values.” Rome’s first emperor passed strict laws against adultery. Propriety in social situations was stressed. It would have been considered quite scandalous for a man to be alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife in the Augustan Age. The emperor once even chastised a young man for calling upon his daughter without his permission. If young men wanted to advance politically, they would have to marry, and if women wanted any degree of independence, they were required to produce children. Of course, the penalties for scandalous behavior in the Augustan Age were decidedly harsher than in the Regency period. For example, when the emperor’s own daughter was caught up in a scandal, she was banished for the remainder of her life.

As far as historical periods go, it was also very clean. The stress on daily bathing was a constant in ancient Rome and a form of flush toilet technology was not entirely unknown. The upper class would have been washed and perfumed, a perfect recipe for romance. Heck, the Romans even had recipes for toothpaste.

Fashion was as important in ancient Rome as it was in the Regency era. While most of the statuary of the period shows dowdy matrons blanketed in voluminous gowns and shawls, this is because of the above-mentioned sexual repression. Augustus wanted his family to be seen as icons of morality, so his wife was usually portrayed without jewelry. But this was a matter of official form. We know for a certainty that the emperor’s wife owned wildly expensive jewels.

Official form notwithstanding, young women wanted to be seen in society wearing the most fashion forward patterns and colors. Dyes were so expensive that the purchase of a royal purple cloak could bankroll the founding of a small city. Women of the time period adorned their clothing with golden clasps, silvered girdles and pearl embroidery. They wore dangling earrings made of precious gemstones. They plucked their eyebrows–indeed, well-bred girls in search of a suitor plucked everything but the hair on their heads.

Just as Regency England had a strict social hierarchy of nobility and trade families, so too did Augustan Age Rome. Though the emperor himself was born into one of Rome’s oldest noble families, the Julii, he was from a branch that had mixed with the lower equestrian class. Because of this, he needed to bolster his noble status, so he married Livia Drusilla of the Claudii whose noble pedigree was unimpeachable. (Of course, even Livia’s noble bloodline wouldn’t have impressed my heroine, Cleopatra Selene, who was herself the daughter of the Ptolemies, the most royal family of the time period. It must have been difficult for her not to remind the emperor that she was a princess descended from the kin of Alexander the Great whereas he was the descendant of a freedman–a ropemaker–on his father’s side.)

Like the Regency Era, the Augustan Age was a time of cultural resurgence. Some of the most famous Roman poets flourished in this time. Virgil. Horace. And Ovid–though the latter ended up in disgrace for his scandalous erotic themes. What’s more, the Augustan Age was rife with family drama. Marriages, divorces, and disastrous love affairs all swirled around the succession. Can you see how this would make a juicy time period for writers to sink their teeth into?

Teen Celebs in the Augustan Age

To steal a tagline from fellow author Vicky Alvear Shecter, Cleopatra was the original teen queen. The Queen of the Nile was a young woman of enormous wealth and power who was afforded the celebrity status of a goddess before she turned twenty years old. When we read about her fantastic costumes and her splashy entrances on pleasure barges, it’s hard not to imagine how she might have torn things up on a modern day red carpet.

But what about her daughter? In my debut novel, Lily of the Nile, I had the opportunity to showcase the life of Cleopatra Selene, who was, in many ways, her mother’s daughter. At the age of ten, when her parents committed suicide, she was taken prisoner and marched through Rome in chains. However, she was spared by Rome’s first emperor, taken into his sister’s household, and raised alongside the young members of the imperial family who would become the teen pop idols of their day.

Forget Justin Bieber’s dulcet songs; girls in the ancient world swooned at the naughty poetry of a handsome young Ovid. One of the young divas particularly impressed with Ovid’s poetry may have been the emperor’s own daughter, Julia Caesaris, a fashion-forward young woman with delicate, adorable features. However, having received a first-rate education, Julia wasn’t just a pretty face. She also had a rapier wit and was greatly beloved of the people. At fifteen, she was married to the emperor’s handsome young nephew, Marcellus and the two became the “it” couple of the ancient world. Marcellus was only eighteen, but had already been to war and if his statues are any indication, was the kind of guy girls liked to see with his shirt off. He was widely thought to be Augustus’ heir, next in line to rule the empire, so wherever this couple went, people flocked to see them.

But they weren’t alone; they traveled with their own entourage. Amongst their company would have been Cleopatra Selene, the last survivor of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a princess of Egypt, and a young woman who knew how to wear jewels. She caused a sensation by wearing her mother’s carved amethyst ring–or at least enough of a sensation for it to have been mentioned by a famous epigramist of the age. Selene’s romantic pairing was with Juba II, a young Prince of Numidia who was already a prodigy, having published a book before the age of twenty.

While it may have been glitz and glam for these teen celebrities in public, home life was decidedly more troubled and my novel is an exploration of Selene’s difficulties as both a hostage of the Romans and one of the most famous girls in the Roman empire.