A bit different from my other writing, this is more historically based. And subjective as hell! The last quotation is from Horace’s ‘Cleopatra Ode’. It is very draft like, but I always love to get the feedback of my wonderful followers.
I had never been to Rome.
Father promised me once. Alex and I – my twin – begged him to take us there. We saw so little of him, our godly father, that we wished to be with him always. He had been so sad then, and he looked at the two of us as if he could hardly believe we were there. He had looked at me, and said that he should take us with him some day, when the great city was his. The three of us are going without him now. I know that he is dead, but each time I close my eyes I fool myself into thinking he’ll be there. Father was just hiding – and he’ll pop up out of nowhere and we can all go home again. There’ll be no more wars. We can go away together, away where it’s safe and where no one can hurt us again.
The empire of Rome is like a cuckoo in the nest of the world. It sits there, gobbling up the territories and the kings around them until they fall under the shadow cast by the wings of this imperial cannibal. They called my mother a tyrant because she did not rule by their standards. How can Romans claim to be so wise and so clever, but judge everyone to be wrong because they are not Roman? They dislike kings, and so say all kings are wicked. They say Father paraded himself as a king, and so deserved to die. They say Mother was a tyrant, who seduced good Romans away from the noble principles of the republic. They say my brother was a thief, and so they killed him.
I can’t fool myself that Caesarion will pop back to life. We watched him die.
Caesarion had been to Rome, when he was a baby. He didn’t really remember much of it, aside from the triumphs. None of us understood what was so triumphant about the parading of enemies to be jeered at and killed in front of a crowd. It seemed… just cruel. And when Mother began to fight against Rome, she told us all that was the price we may have to pay. She swore it would never happen, that she would never allow it, but she told us.
Caesarion was meant to be pharaoh. He was supposed to rule. Mother made sure of that. He ran. He knew what was going to happen to him, and he tried to leave. He tried to use the route to India, the route Mother had pleaded Father to take us on, away from the menace from Rome. Octavian caught him. He dragged my brother back to Alexandria, back to the palace where we lived and he killed him. Caesarion was thrown down on the floor, and butchered like a pig. His head was struck from his body and I watched it strike the palace steps. His head, my brother’s head, struck the first step with a sickening crunch, before it bounced all the way down to the city street.
I couldn’t help but think of a ball. I watched my brother die and all I could think of was playing ball games. He was murdered and I had to watch. I was not allowed to cry. I was not allowed to mourn him. He was just another member of my family I was not allowed to weep for.
This is to avoid talk of my mother. How can I talk about my mother? I am not allowed to let her name pass my lips. She is forbidden entirely, as if her memory is infectious. I have to bite my tongue and live in silence. It is a torture. How can I not speak of the funny, witty, naughty mother who would play games with me? Or talk of her discussions of science and philosophy with the cleverest men in Alexandria – and how she, a woman, beat them? Or even to declare how I dearly wish that she had taken me with her into her tomb, and let me die by her side. I was her daughter. She may have adored Caesarion as her heir, or little Ptolemy as the baby of us all, but I was her only daughter. We had a bond that none of my brothers could understand and without her, I feel that half of my being has been siphoned off. I cannot function without her. I cannot think. Some days, I feel that I cannot breathe, such is my loss. I want to fade away, and simply not exist anymore.
The Romans say I must live. They cannot know they have won unless they can triumph over the children of the traitor and the whore. And so they force me, day by day, to stay alive.
They brought the three of us to Rome, so they could march us in triumph. First they stole the treasure of Egypt, and the goods in my mother’s tomb. She escaped from them, and she had to be punished – well, they couldn’t keep the punishment to her children, could they?
Ptolemy didn’t survive the first winter. He was only seven. His body couldn’t handle the cold, damp weather of Rome. The dirt and the disease rampant in this dreadful place took him from us. Our captors were displeased; they had one less child to mock. I had lost another relative to the relentless jaws of the squawking cuckoo.
They took away his body when Alex and I were asleep. They wouldn’t let us say goodbye. I don’t even know where he is buried.
Alex and I marched behind the chariot of Octavian in the new year, when the damp had subsided and the fogs retreated to the pitiful excuse for a coast they have here. We were paraded for the entertainment of the masses of Rome, to show them an example of the decadent east. We were weighted with chains made especially for us. The leader of the Roman people took a tiny speck of the vast fortune plundered from the tomb of my mother and had them make gold chains for us. Gold chains for the children of the wicked queen. Gold chains for the children, who are to suffer for the supposed crimes of their parents. Gold chains so that these children can suffer and we can all laugh.
Alex could barely move, such was the vast quantity of metal they forced upon him. I did a little better, out of memory to Mother. I would not shame her memory by slouching in my chains. I was a queen. I was a queen, the daughter of a queen and a triumvir of Rome. I had the blood of kings and queens in my veins, while Octavian had the mud of peasants and a famous uncle to cling onto. I held my chin up as high as I could, past the jeering crowds and under the effigy of my mother borne behind me, captured in the grimace of death.
After we had been shown defeated, no one knew what to do with the two of us. We were not Roman. We were not Egyptian. We were utterly undesirable. We were the spoils of victory and we had spoiled. We could not return home, for we would only serve to incite rebellion. There was no family to take us, and even if any relatives had remained alive, they could not be trusted. Octavian, in his desire to wipe his hands clean of my family’s blood, wished to appear as magnanimous as he could. He would spare the lives of my mother’s remaining children. He would make us into Romans.
Our care was given to the sister of the new Emperor. Emperor Augustus. He took the name from one of my mother’s titles, you know. He tore her down as the Romans find royalty distasteful and now, to their surprise, he takes her example. In his might and wisdom, he brought the children of Antony and Cleopatra to Octavia. It certainly wasn’t from kindness. He is supposed to love his sister. He promotes her as the best of Roman womanhood, the very finest of them all, above even his own wife. What did Octavia do to him, for her brother to curse her so? Octavia must nurture and watch over the children of her husband’s mistress.
I must bend the knee and call her mother now.
Alex and I were brought from our cell to the villa she and our father once shared. I was given a new gown, a dowdy Roman creation which is designed to make me feel ashamed for being female. Alex wore a toga with a purple stripe, as if it would drive the impurities of Egypt from him. Taken to Octavia’s villa, paid for by our father’s money, we were told this would now be our home. We were to learn to become dutiful citizens, to worship our emperor, and to abandon designs on our birth right.
Octavia was introduced to us, along with Father’s son Iullus. Small, with plain brown hair and a body plump from child rearing. She is submissive in that frustrating way that Roman matrons have, in that she is shy and retiring whilst being immensely proud of it. She wore plain gowns, her hair controlled, opposite to all that my mother was.
I will never call her mother.
She stared at us for a while, as if she had no idea what to do with us. I could have felt sorry for her, but she was the victor in all of this. She had won over my mother, my mama, and all the world knew it.
“I am Octavia Thurina. I am your father’s wife.” She said, finally, not daring to meet my eyes. She knew I loathed her. “I am your guardian and I shall be – “
“Do not dare to call yourself our mother.” Alex replied, with all the bravery of a grown man. He was the head of our house now. Behind our backs, we joined hands. We were twins. We had formed together. We had grown together. Now, we were all the other one had.
“And you were not Father’s wife. You were nothing to him. He left you. He married our mother.” I added, my voice louder than his. I was always bolder than him, as surely as the moon follows the sun. Octavia had frowned at this. Respectable Roman women do not talk.
“Do not worry, Octavia. They will learn the value of a true obedience to Rome.”
These were the first words I heard directly from the mouth of the Emperor Augustus. He was not imposing in person, the man who had killed everyone I loved. Whenever I saw him, I saw the mountain of bodies he walked upon wherever he went, not those ridiculous stacked shoes. Everything about him seemed cold. He looked as if he had lost all his colour in a too-hot wash and his eyes… oh! There is no way to describe how awful his eyes were. They were cold gimlets, which left everyone in the room – even his own sister – as absolutely worthless in comparison to this paragon of majesty.
The coldness was probably why he could not get his wife pregnant, and why he could not seem to father another child despite fucking half of Rome. How galling it must have been, for his greatest enemy to be blessed with so many healthy children and all he had was a useless girl. Perhaps that was why he had been so remorseless in culling Father’s children.
I turned around to him, the ruler of the known world, and stared openly at his face. I did not say a word. It was my right. I had been a queen of Libya and I was still a princess, no matter what Rome may say. What more can this man do to me? What more can he take? How many more slices can he carve from the body of this last Cleopatra to satisfy the disgusting appetite of arrogance of the people of Rome? The rapers of the Sabines have graduated to the rest of us; but he has destroyed all he can of me. I will not take any more of this. I will live – yes, I will thrive! – if only to show my utter defiance for this pathetic man who hunts for women and children. He calls my mother a wanton coward, but he is the cowardly one. He thinks that he can kill me. I will see him dead.
Alexander and I shall stand together. We will not let Rome devour us too.
‘Now is the time to drain the flowing bowl, now with unfettered foot to beat the ground with dancing, now with feasting to deck the couches of the gods, my comrades!’