Author Emily Holleman Recreates Cleopatra's Family Affairs

Who's in Cleopatra's Shadow? Her Two Sisters!

Emily Holleman, author of Cleopatra's Shadows. Photo courtesy of Little, Brown/Hachette

Writing in the shadows of the giants of history is never easy, but Emily Holleman manages a truly mammoth task in her debut novel, Cleopatra’s Shadows (out October 6 from Little, Brown) with ease. This stellar work of historical fiction (read a review here) brings to life the two little-known sisters of Cleopatra VII, last queen of Egypt. These were Berenice IV, who reigned briefly as queen, and Arsinoe IV, who led a failed expedition against Cleopatra.

From court conspiracies to eunuch advisors, these two princesses led remarkable lives, yet have remained mostly lost to history…until now.

99 Problems … and Ancient Sources are One

Holleman first came stumbled across these Ptolemaic princesses while reading Stacy Schiff’s well-regarded biography, Cleopatra: A Life, around the time she was traveling to Egypt. “Although I knew the queen’s basic story fairly well, I’d never heard of either of her sisters,” she confesses. “In fact, I knew virtually nothing about her family life at all.” 

So what made her want to dust off the obscure siblings of one of antiquity’s most famous women? “To place Cleopatra in context,” Holleman states. “Rather than looking the famous queen from the perspective of her Roman lovers, I wanted to shift the focus onto the family and dynasty behind her rule.” It’s a task that few novelists before her have taken on: depicting Cleopatra through the eyes of those closest to her.

In the course of researching Berenice and Arsinoe, Holleman was startled by the sheer lack of primary source information about these two women. “While I didn’t expect to discover a plethora of information about either woman, I certainly thought there would be more than I found,” she admits. When important Roman figures like “Pompey, Caesar, Antony and ultimately Octavian [later called Augustus] show up in Alexandria, we get an enormous spike in ancient sources on Egypt.”

But when the Romans stayed out of Egyptian affairs, events – and the subsequent surviving historical record – get much hazier. Even Berenice, who did become queen at the expense of the siblings’ father, Ptolemy XII, gets little attention because her “reign occurred with very little Roman interference - until Aulus Gabinius comes in javelins [a]-blazing [to restore her father to his throne]—and as a result, contemporary and subsequent Roman sources have very little to say about her.”

That’s not to say there were no primary historical accounts written by Egyptians or others sympathetic to their cause during this time period. Unfortunately, “any Ptolemaic-centric histories that may have been existed have long since been lost,” Holleman laments. Indeed, in battles both literary and physical, to the victor go the spoils – and the right to dictate the subsequent narratives of history. In a way, Cleopatra’s Shadows serves as a fictional version of an account – albeit a deeply personal one – of the information that we’re lacking about the last Ptolemies.

Of the surviving sources, both primary and secondary, on Cleopatra and her circle, Holleman, long passionate about ancient history, consulted many.

She says she’d “swear by nearly anything that Adrian Goldsworthy has written about the era,” and used some older secondary sources. She also utilized reliable online databases, including William Thayer’s LacusCurtius, hosted by the University of Chicago, “which has digitalized the Loeb English translations of many ancient sources,” and “Stanford University’s ORBIS project, which provides an awesome sort of Google maps for the ancient world,” as well as Tyndale House’s in-depth study into Ptolemaic genealogy.

Princesses' POV

The novel is split between the perspectives of Arsinoe and Berenice, whose fortunes rise and fall intermittently. Berenice is a tragic heroine, the queen whose doomed fate is known to the audience, but who strives valiantly to restore the faded glory of her ancient house.

The story didn't start out as either sister's solo story, however. “I started out wanting to tell Arsinoe’s story - but Berenice completely captured my fascination the more I delved into her point of view,” the author recounts. “I’m not sure how to say this without sounding a bit ridiculous, but I cried when I was writing the final chapter of the book—even, or perhaps because, I’d known what was coming all along.” 

Perhaps most integral to the development of Berenice’s character is her tyrannical mother, Queen Tryphaena, whose bitterness and scorn haunt the entirety of her daughter’s life. “Tryphaena’s character was born from imagining that devastation for an ambitious woman who was unable to secure her own role in her dynasty, and the role of her children, because - for whatever reason - she never bore a viable son,” Holleman says. In contrast, Cleopatra and Berenice’s own mother doesn’t play an integral role in her children’s development on-screen. Indeed, this woman, whatever her name, “doesn’t appear in the historical record at all,” the author notes.

But where’s Cleopatra in all this, while her sisters struggle to survive at home in Egypt? Abroad with their deposed father. “I think Cleopatra had a couple of big advantages in terms of survival: by all accounts, she was extremely smart, well-educated and charming. She also had close relationship with her father, and - as a result - was explicitly named to the throne alongside her brother Ptolemy [XIII],” Holleman says.

Reconstructing a Real World - and What-Ifs

Her sisters reside in her shadow, both in their time and in ours, but one can’t help but wonder how Cleopatra would have felt at her two siblings’ eventual downfalls. “I would imagine that Cleopatra was at least conflicted over her sisters’ deaths,” Holleman speculates. “She probably didn’t know Berenice terribly well (as Arsinoe doesn’t, until after her father leaves for Rome), but watching your sister get beheaded when you’re fourteen years old would be deeply traumatizing for anyone.” Witnessing Berenice’s tragic fate may have helped Cleopatra avoid the same one, the author suggests. “I’m fairly certain she had good survival instincts, and she knew that the real power lay in Rome. Watching Berenice’s defeat and execution probably helped with that.”

Although Berenice and Arsinoe’s world lies far in the past, Holleman brings it to vivid life, both for herself and her readers. Each of the princesses has her own personal eunuch, who serves an advisor, mentor, tutor, and so much more. If the author herself had such a figure in her life, she jokes she’d use him for book publicity. Truthfully, though, she says she’d “really appreciate some good fashion tips, and also relationship advice. I feel like I’m at that age - 29 - where I really should have figured out how to dress myself properly to face the world, but I constantly feel like I’ve sort of failed.” No doubt a eunuch could provide her with proper royal attire! 

Holleman brings the princesses to live so well that one can’t help but speculate what would have happened if her heroines hadn’t suffered tragic fates.

For instance, what if Berenice had succeeded in opposing her father’s restoration to the throne, debated the Romans, and remained queen? “I would so love to say that Berenice, Archelaus [her second husband] and their offspring would have held out against Rome until the bitter end!” Holleman speculates. “Sadly, I’m too much of a realist for that.”

In reality, she says, “things had been going poorly for the Ptolemies for an extremely long time by this point.” In addition, Rome was devouring the other kingdoms of the area whole. “Rome had already defeated all the other Hellenistic dynasties, plus Carthage and Pontus, and Berenice would have eventually had to reckon with two of Rome’s greatest generals, Julius Caesar and Pompey, who rock up on the shores of Egypt just a few years after the action of Cleopatra’s Shadows closes.” So the independence of Cleopatra's homeland may have been doomed to begin with.

The Next Chapters

So what’s next up for Arsinoe and her siblings, as told by Holleman? Currently, the author says, she plans to tell Arsinoe’s story – and the saga of the last Ptolemies – with “each one alternating between Arsinoe’s perspective and that of one of her siblings (Berenice, Ptolemy XIII, Ptolemy XIV, and of course Cleopatra).”

After that, she may well venture into spinning tales of other ancient figures, like Theodora, or even the daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Whatever powerful women she does bring to life, however, will surely be done justice by her noble pen.