I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in November 2022.
Ever since I read a biography of Beregaria – the only English queen who never even visited England – I have been very keen on biographies of women who have just been overlooked. (It wasn’t Berengaria’s fault; she was married to Richard I while he was on his way to crusade, then he got kidnapped and then he was off fighting in France, so… she never got across the Channel.)
Did I know Cleopatra VII had a daughter? Yes. That she was taken as a prisoner by Octavian back to Rome? Yes, although it wasn’t as immediately accessible knowledge. Did I know that this daughter then went on to marry Juba. king of Mauretania, and that she ruled there with him for many years? NO I DID NOT. And I kind of feel a bit aggrieved that I got to be 42 without knowing this.
Draycott has written a quite splendid biography, especially considering the limitation of the source material available. One of the things I particularly like about her style is that she’s not pretending knowledge that she doesn’t have. The reality is that there’s very little information about Cleopatra Selene’s childhood, either in Alexandria or in Rome; so Draycott presents what is known for children and families in those places in those times, indicating that this is a good estimation. I like this approach a lot.
Having said that the material is limited, I was surprised at the sources that do exist – see above, not knowing anything about Cleopatra Selene’s adulthood. There are (probably) statues (identifying ancients in statue is notoriously hard); there are coins; and there are some written references, too. So it’s not all a guessing game ; and when Draycott does make some leaps (like Zenobia maybe being a descendent??), she’s pretty clear about the tenuous nature of the links.
It’s likely that both Cleopatra Selene’s twin, Alexander Helios (yes, yes, Mark Antony, you have a great sense of humour AND hubris), and their younger brother Ptolemy, both died as young boys – Draycott makes a compelling case that this was probably from natural causes, given that Rome was a malaria-ridden swamp and that there doesn’t seem to have been a reason to kill the boys and leave the girl alive. Cleopatra Selene marries Juba, also a sort-of captive in Rome, and then they’re sent off to rule Mauretania – possibly, Draycott argues, with Cleopatra Selene taking an active part as co-ruler, given the example she’d been set by her own mother. She seems to have lived there for around 20 years, although there’s no definite date of her death recorded anywhere.
Finally, I particularly liked Draycott’s handling of the question of Cleopatra Selene’s ‘ethnicity’. That modern understandings (or imaginings) of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are very different from what people of her time would have thought about themselves or others, that it can’t be resolved what colour her skin was given the lack of definite knowledge about Cleopatra VII’s ancestry, and so on. I think she deals sympathetically with the idea of Cleopatra being ‘Black’, within the context of both not knowing for sure and those ancient people having different notions of what it means; she does make the firm point that Juba himself was (what today would be called) a Black African, and therefore their children were ‘mixed race’ and ‘mixed ethnicity’ (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, African). I like that Draycott is aware of these issues and isn’t pretending that such discussions don’t exist, or that they are somehow irrelevant to the discourse she’s part of.
Well written, thoughtful, and giving a broad understanding of both Cleopatra Selene as a human (as much as can be from the limited sources) and her context in time and place. This is what I want from a biography.
They found her mummy! – well, they think so, and it’s not so much found it as identified it…
Hatshepsut is so cool. Her iconography is fascinating, false beard and all (although, despite how incredulous the narrator of that vid sounds, male pharaohs did the false beard thing too… and I have never actually heard someone say Thutmose. I’ve only heard Tutmosis…). I think actually one thing that makes her so interesting is the fact that her descendents tried so damned hard to erase her from history. Humans are contrary like that; tell me something I don’t want to know about and dammit, I do!
I also like that Zahi Hawass sometimes seems to be a bit of a rock star in Egypt. Not everyone likes the way he does his job, but darn he is a good front man for archaeology in Egypt.
â€œNew Science on Ancient Livesâ€
Dr Karin Sowada, assistant curator at the Nicholson Museum, Uni of Sydney. Spoke at the Melbourne Museum last year.
*Mummies currently held by the Nicholson; had never been studied before this.
*Two have coffins; one an inscription. Curators were trying to see what they could find out from textiles etc, not just the body.
*Why mummify at all?
–probably arose through seeing natural mummification in the desert sand.
–once you start building structures for holding bodies, you remove them from the sand and heat, so you need to do it artificially.
–to be recognisable to the soul coming back
–be identified with Osiris
NB: mumiya = bitumen (in Arabic); in the 19th century, it was thought that bitumen was used on the mummies, because of the colour.
*A very well-decorated coffin.
*Possibly priestly; has the title â€˜Beloved of the Godâ€™ – not really sure what this means.
*Name is Padiashaikhet, meaning â€œOne given by Ashaikhetâ€; a very unusual name, because Ashaikhet is a personal name, not a god. Could be some sort of debt the parents had??
*Wrapped in used linens, despite signs of his obvious wealth and status.
*Nothing left in the body, not even the heart; no broken bones.
*Possibly died of dental abscesses (ouch).
*Female, from c.1950BC. Her name was Meruah (sp??). Had priestly duties.
*Highly decorated coffin. People couldnâ€™t afford big funerary houses, so coffins get the pictures usually found on the walls.
*Torso filled with something. The mummy encased in a plaster carapace! Painted red over face, green over body (for Osiris).
*But: the DNA says the body is male! Red face of carapace is the colour used for males on coffins. Shows re-use of funerary stuff? Or, possibly, that it was done by a nineteenth-century dealerâ€¦.
**Huge issues over whether you can actually trust that the coffin and body match in other cases**
*A child, 7-9 years old. From early second century AD, so Roman.
*No coffin accompanying the mummy. Has a painted mask. The linen wrappings were once dyed red, blue and yellow. The colours have probably faded after arriving in Sydney – was stored in a large, airy room, with lots of indirect sunlight; no knowledge of this.
*All organs removed; linen plug at the incision site. Some sort of package inside; no idea what.
*No DNA sample taken because the wrappings are so thick.
My take: this was a great lecture; it was fascinating to hear about the processes undergone to examine the mummies, as well as the sort of stuff that could be learnt. And just bizarre to think that these mummies had never really been examined before.