At heart, Cleopatra’s Children is very much the story of a mother and her daughter. By choosing to let Cleopatra’s biography occupy so much space of the narrative, Desmond allows her to develop into such a powerful character that only her daughter, Selene, can live up to her fascinating personality and hold a similar sway over the reader’s attention.
Part of this effect is conditioned by history. At the moment of Cleopatra’s death from the bite of an asp (which in this account, following one source over others, Selene brings to her), only two of her children are still alive. Because Octavian executed Caesarion when this intended heir to Caesar’s Rome was only seventeen years old, Cleopatra’s first son cannot become a major figure. For the reader, he is at most a tragic, epileptic boy whose life was snuffed out before he could show what he would have made of it. Even worse, Selene’s twin brother, Alexander Helios, is eliminated by his mother’s enemies at the age of only ten.
With half of her children dying so young, Cleopatra herself inevitably moves closer to the book’s dramatic center. Indeed, sensing this inevitability, Desmond does nothing to dull the force of Cleopatra’s character. When she enters the narrative (in 48 b.c.), Cleopatra is a young woman of twenty who must fight for her life—and does so with an army of her own. Full of admiration for the princess’ courage and with a fine eye for the dramatic details preserved in ancient sources, Desmond vividly relates Cleopatra’s first meeting with Caesar, for whom she was rolled out of her famous rug.
The result of Cleopatra’s passionate love affair—the baby boy Caesarion—provides Cleopatra’s Children with its decisive interpretive angle despite his early death. The boy is a crucial player in his mother’s story. According to Desmond, after Caesarion’s birth, all of Cleopatra’s notorious actions...
(The entire section is 805 words.)