Professional pounder of the patriarchy.

Posts tagged ‘historical fiction’

Is Ross Poldark A Hero?

If you’ve read the novels or seen the original series (I have done neither), then you probably saw the events of last week’s episode of Poldark coming. In Series 2, Episode 8, we saw the tension between Ross and his former lover Elizabeth come to a head… and it was less than romantic. Let’s be real: it was a rape scene. There is no getting around that, there was nothing consensual about it. No matter how the BBC or the fans dress it up, Ross was firmly in the wrong. He was aggressive (he had the air of a fairly dastardly Bond villain when he entered the room). He ignored her wishes (she asked him to leave her bedroom and he refused). Finally, damningly, she plainly and repeatedly said “no”. It was rape. But the handling of the scene seems to suggest that those involved think otherwise. The BBC haven’t bothered to try and contextualise it, the author’s son has praised their faithful attitude to his father’s text – written in 1953, I might add – and even Aidan Turner, Cap’n Poldark himself, has weighed in on the issue. He said of the scene in a statement made to the Sun newspaper: “It seems consensual, and it just seems right. He goes to talk. He doesn’t go to commit a crime. They talk and it seems like there is still this spark between them, this unfinished business emotionally. Certainly, that’s how Ross feels. He doesn’t force himself upon her. He is emotionally quite inarticulate. I don’t think he quite understands himself.” He elaborated: “It would be boring to play a character who’s just a do-gooder”, which I think is in somewhat poor taste. This isn’t the excusable behaviour of a rogueish ne’er-do-well. It was a calculated attempt by a male protagonist to intimidate and control a leading female character. In a popular TV series, to cast that man as a hero is unacceptable.

The response from the cast, the crew and the fans begs the question: why are we so willing to excuse the flaws of our heroes? Furthermore, is Ross Poldark a hero at all?

The answer lies both in how the narrative unique to Poldark treats its protagonist and in how fiction at large treats rape and sexual violence.

First and foremost, Ross is not a nice character. He is a terrible person dressed up by the narrative and the cinematography to seem like a lovely ray of sunshine. Oh wow, look at his Adonis-like bod… whoops, you missed him being an abusive, unfaithful shitbag. At this point, he is as bad as the series’ villain George Warleggan. George is violent, emotionally manipulative and arrogant, and we as viewers are encouraged to hate him for it. All those qualities could be said of Ross too. We are not, however, expected to hate Ross, because he doesn’t know he’s doing wrong, poor boy. I think this ties in with the comments Aidan made – that Ross didn’t intend to commit a crime. The implication there is that, because he didn’t really mean to violate both her body and her autonomy, it isn’t actually that bad. 

This is the same thing survivors of rape are told in real life. Rapists are constantly leaving court without a conviction. They didn’t mean to, you see, they didn’t know. They thought they had the victim’s consent, because “no” really means “yes” in the throes of passion, doesn’t it? That’s my real issue with this scene. I get why it happened. Ross Poldark, a desperate, angry man with a big, control-freak ego, feels betrayed and confused. Elizabeth is torn, caught between the man she really loves and the man she must marry to secure her son’s future. Something catastrophic and ugly needed to occur at this point in the plot – as a writer, I know that. I’m also aware that the BBC are adapting a book series from over 50 years ago which is set in the 1790s; of course there will be iffy ethics and dodgy morals. However, there are ways to present this scene without condoning what happens. They needed to pick a point on the spectrum, frankly – either she consented enthusiastically or Ross forced himself on her. Yes, there might have been a grey area; perhaps Elizabeth was simply overcome with her long held passion. But, unfortunately, there is a long history in cinema of what amounts to a rape fantasy, in which the victim will eventually enjoy an unwanted encounter if the perpetrator is pushy enough. Poldark, unwittingly or not, has signed its name on that list.

We’re at a point in the evolution of pop culture that, by now, we should have grasped that you can enjoy something and still be deeply critical of it. Poldark is not a bad TV series, nor am I crediting it with being some kind of moral touchstone for the masses. The cast are fantastic; the plot is (generally) well-crafted and engaging. The Cornish coast is the real star of the show, obviously.

However, my enjoyment of it doesn’t diminish the discomfort I feel. We excuse the faults of fictional men – and often those of real ones too – all the time. In a way, that “Oh, but he didn’t know” (which we’re all so fond of) is rather infantilising to men and it’s deeply violent towards women. Our media and our visual culture is saturated with this idea that all can be forgiven because he’s the hero. Ross, in my opinion, is very much a Homeric hero – an Achilles or an Odysseus. In ancient Greek culture, a “hero” achieved incredible feats, but always for personal gain. Our modern heroic qualities are normally more along the lines of selflessness and compassion. There’s a real clash of ethics there. We’ve blurred that line, I think, and now we don’t really know what we want or deserve from our fictional protagonists. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t portray bad people on screen. I’m also not saying that the main character of a film or book should always be a saint. Real people are flawed and they do terrible things.

We just need to be honest about that.

Still thought Demelza was justified, tho

Please like and share if you enjoyed! 


Writing – Artemisia

The third (very belated) part of my historical women series. You can read Cleopatra and Olympias first, if you like, but they’re not interconnected. This is not 100% historically accurate, but I wasn’t really aiming for that. Artemisia’s life has become part of mine, and I simply enjoyed taking the time to explore how I feel about her work. Trigger warning for non-explicit references to rape and sexual assault, as well as some moderate violence.

For Artemisia, and for the sister she never had.

Rome, 1612

Artemisia approaches the canvas. She hesitates briefly, as though asking permission from a lover, before placing a hand upon its textured surface. She touches every bump, every ridge, every pore, until she knows each one intimately. She feels a strange sort of camaraderie with it, like an old friend.

Her wounded hands are glaringly obvious against the white and her thumbs throb with remembered pain, caught in a tightening vice that has not touched her flesh for months. She remembers how she shrieked until her throat was dry and burning and she could shout no longer – even now, she swallows slowly, at a thankful, reverent pace – and she remembers the metal inside her. How cold, how clinical. They never drew blood, not there, but still she felt dissected, split asunder. For months, she could not quite believe that anything below her waist belonged to her. It had become public property. It had become evidence.

She had become evidence. She had been victim, witness, judge and jury.

Her body may have healed from that indignity, but her soul had not.


She wants her next work to be powerful. She wants to give her weeping heart manifest form. Looking up at the canvas, she knows the space would allow for it. Empty as it is, it already physically dominates, but she wants it to be emotionally overwhelming too.

She wants something epic, something towering and forceful.

“Something of Biblical proportions,” her father had said when she told him; she had agreed.

She wants rage and she wants revenge and she wants blood, yet she craves companionship and sisterhood and triumph.

Judith, she thinks, it can only be Judith. I must paint Judith, here and now, for when she slays her Holofernes, I will have slain mine too.

She gathers her materials. Slowly but firmly, she starts to sketch. For now, it is bare bones. One day, it will have a heartbeat of its very own.


Over the months following the trial, she gets to know Judith very well. She could have told the tale with ease prior to this, but she could not have attested to the slick darkness of Judith’s hair, like the Tiber on a stormy day. She could not have described the flex of the tendons in Judith’s forearm, nor the grip of her fist in Holofernes’ hair, nor the thrust and the drive of the blade in her hand. Judith is fluidity and Judith is motion, so Artemisia lets herself be taken with the ebb and flow of her tide.

She even acquaints herself with Holofernes. She had no desire to know him before she began. It was Judith who mattered most, and that remains gospel in her heart. That doesn’t stop her from feeling a surge of ragehatepity at the sight of his frightened eyes, his grasping hands, his gaping mouth. Perhaps this is because she is familiar with this expression. It is the same look she has seen in the eyes of dying fish, asphyxiating in fishermen’s nets, and it is the same look she saw on the face of Agostino Tassi that day in court.

She paints Holofernes differently, violently. Judith is born of tender recognition, but Holofernes is born of painful otherness. Holofernes is dissonance, he is an untuned string in the symphony of Artemisia’s… Judith’s life. Sometimes, she has to stop herself for fear that she will stab him, right through the heart and right through the canvas. She has to pause occasionally, for she is breathless, she is spent. She leaves a trail of blood in her wake. It spatters, adorning his throat and chest, a garland of roses, a chain of rubies. She is caught in their crossfire as Judith plunges downwards with her dagger and Holofernes fights upwards and, often, she wonders: when did she stop being an onlooker and become a participant? When did she join the brawl?

Artemisia is not the only one dragged in from the sidelines. Behind them both is Judith’s maidservant, pinning the general down while Judith beheads him. Despite Holofernes’ punishing grasp on the front of her gown, the maid stands firm, determined. She is more a sister than a servant. Artemisia wishes desperately that she had a sister, so she is gentle, coaxing the maid out from the shadows as she paints. Perhaps there is a secret part of her that is jealous, that craves what Judith has.

She remembers how she had screamed for Tuzia all those months ago. It was hard with his hand over her mouth, dragging stale stinging air into her lungs as she inhaled, but still she had screamed and screamed. She had begged. Tuzia never came.

In court, Tuzia had denied all knowledge. I heard nothing, she said, I saw nothing.  I’ve never followed Artemisia into her workshop. I heard nothing.

She kept saying it, over and over, I heard nothing. Artemisia is sure she burst into tears at one point and had to be consoled, for she would have made herself ill with the sobbing. You heard everything, she had wanted to bellow, I yelled and I begged and you heard but you never came, you traitor. But she hadn’t screamed. She only had to look Tuzia in the eye for a second and the woman knew it all. Remember me, she demanded with those precious moments of eye-contact, Don’t you ever forget me, don’t you dare.

Artemisia used to hope – and she hated herself for hoping – that whenever Tuzia broke bread, she’d think of her former friend’s broken body and whenever she sipped wine, she’d think of the dried blood on the bedsheets. She doesn’t wish for that now. She might not have forgiven Tuzia, but she wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. It is not in her nature.


Rome, 1613

When she steps away from the canvas, for what she knows is the very last time, Artemisia is not shocked by what she sees.

Not Judith, Holofernes and the maid.

Rather, Artemisia, Agostino, and Tuzia.

Her instinct is to rush to change it, to scrub away its significance. With a darker shadow here, a more pronounced cheekbone there, there would be no sign, no suspicion, that the three of them ever shared a canvas.

But she can’t do it. She won’t do it.


For weeks, people come to see the painting.  News travels fast on the streets of Rome, and they soon flock to her father’s exhibitions to see the works of both father and daughter. Some of them marvel. Some of them are aghast. One lady faints at the thought that a woman could paint such a thing as this. How improper to depict a Biblical widow engaging in wilful decapitation.

This is her testament. This is her monument.

It makes her laugh to think that – on a wall, rather than the gallows – Agostino Tassi will hang.


Florence, 1614

When Cosimo de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, asks her to recreate the work, she paints with such vigour that it scares her. It takes her six years to complete. The finished work, far more refined and yet far more animal than the original, certainly scares the Dowager Grand Duchess Cristina, but, unsurprisingly, Cosimo loves it. So she paints another, and another, and another.

The scandal dies down, the gossip withers, but she is still an oddity in the Florentine court. An artist’s daughter from Rome, a victim of rape, a sociological phenomenon.

This is fine by her. She is content to be an oddity, on her own terms.

Everything is on her own terms now.

5 Smashing Shakespearean Ladies

It’s Shakespeare Day here in the UK, the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616 (and arguably his birthday, although we don’t have a definitive date of birth). The works of William Shakespeare cover a whole range of themes and span the breadth of human emotion, from love to hatred, from grief to vengeance. The portrayal of women in his plays can tell us a lot about the attitudes of the time, as well as presenting challenges for directors and actors performing for a modern audience (looking at you, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and your weird “I’ll force thee yield to my desire”).

You might not think of Tudor England as a utopia with a progressive outlook on life, but Shakespeare was a man who wrote about racism 350 years before the Civil Rights Movement took off, a man who wrote about a mentally ill prince – I read Hamlet as clinically depressed, personally – before the complex field of psychiatry was even a concept.

He was also the creator of some of the most wonderful women in literature.

So, without further ado (about nothing)*, here are my five favourite Shakespearean ladies:

5. Ophelia, Hamlet

“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”

Ophelia might not strike you as a particularly feminist character. She is one of just two female speaking roles in the play (indicative of the fact that Hamlet is not a particularly feminist play, either). She is in love with Prince Hamlet, but when it seems that he loves her no longer, she kills herself in his absence. Not exactly what you’d call a role-model.

However, I still like her very much. It’s very easy to empathise with Ophelia – she’s caught between all the influential men in her life: her father, her brother, and the man she loves. There’s also an interesting gendered distinction drawn between the madness of Ophelia and the madness of Hamlet. You’re probably familiar with the “flower” scene, in which Ophelia sings and hands out flowers. Her madness is depicted on a starkly emotional level, but Hamlet’s status as an intellectual means we’re never sure if he truly has gone mad. It’s worth mentioning that, up until the 20th century, “hysteria” – an alleged (and fictitious) mental illness caused by the uterus – was a common diagnosis for women. The artist Emilie Autumn explored these themes in her song Opheliac, which gives you an idea of the enduring symbolism Ophelia possesses as a woman struggling to fulfill an ideal.


Sian Brooke as Ophelia, Barbican Theatre (2015)

4. Mistress Quickly, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2); Henry V; The Merry Wives of Windsor

“Pray ye, pacify yourself, Sir John: there comes no swaggerers here.”

Mistress Nell Quickly is totally dissimilar to all the other women on this list. She’s no noblewoman or queen; she’s the landlady of the Boar’s Head Tavern, the usual haunt for Falstaff and crew. True to her name, she’s a lively lass (she’s practically the medieval Peggy Mitchell). She’s closely linked with the criminal underworld, but, nonetheless, you’ll find no woman with a more *ahem* respectable reputation.

Honestly, she’s just great. I often find that the women in Shakespeare’s comedies are depicted far better than in his tragedies – none of that damsel in distress nonsense! They’re just ordinary, lower-class women, brawling and gambling and double-dealing with the men. And if that’s not equality, I’ll eat a leek.**


Sarah Parks as Mistress Quickly, RSC (2015)

3. Desdemona, Othello

“I am not merry; but I do beguile
The thing I am, by seeming otherwise.”

In Othello, Desdemona elopes with the eponymous general, much to her father’s dismay. They leave for Cyprus, where Othello takes command of the troops on the island. Throughout the course of the play, Othello’s close friend and comrade Iago persuades him that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio – a white soldier – and Othello, consumed by jealousy, eventually murders his wife. At the discovery of her innocence, he commits suicide.

Desdemona falls in love with Othello after listening to his life story. I think that’s beautiful – she falls in love with, not despite, his humble beginnings. But it’s her willingness to disobey her father that unsettles Othello; he fears she might just as easily betray him and this is ultimately her undoing. It’s a story reflected throughout history – take Anne Boleyn, for example. Her boldness is what attracted Henry VIII to her, but it was also the thing that led to her execution.


Irene Jacob as Desdemona (1995 film)

2. Titania, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.”

Titania is the queen of the faeries in the play. In a parallel plotline – the main plot concerns four Athenian lovers – her husband Oberon tricks her into falling in love with Bottom, an amateur actor with (courtesy of the mischievous Puck’s magic) a donkey’s head. She and her husband make amends by the end of the play, fortunately enough for everyone else! It’s their refusal to yield to one another that causes much of the chaos that ensues.

I really like Titania (although I like Hermia and especially Helena too, who are the play’s other female protagonists).  She’s stubborn and she doesn’t back down. And why should she? She’s the faerie queen, after all. It also amuses me that Benedict Cumberbatch played her when he was at school. 🙂


  1. Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing

“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”

Beatrice isn’t just my favourite lady on this list. She’s my favourite Shakespearean character of all time. She’s witty and she takes exactly zero shit from anybody. It’s definitely worth noting*** that Much Ado About Nothing is fantastic at turning gender roles on their head. Beatrice and her love interest Benedick make jokes at each other’s expense and their conversations are barbed. Beatrice gives as good as she gets, and it honestly feels more like a quirky modern rom-com than a 16th century play.

You could argue that the fact that Beatrice has to change herself and accept marriage, rather than continuing self-sufficiently, isn’t very progressive. It’s not perfect. But Benedick has to change too – it’s not a play about a woman realising that marriage should be her aspiration, it’s a play about two people learning to compromise, cultivating not just a relationship but a friendship too.


Meera Syal as Beatrice, RSC (2012)

Shakespeare is a defining figure in this country’s literary heritage. What we should take away from his work is that we are not so different from his contemporary Elizabethan audience. His work endures because of its innate humanity. We can perform his plays anywhere, anytime, to any audience. No matter if it’s a traditional production or one set in India or Afghanistan or the Second World War, the Bard’s words will always ring true.

As his friend and rival Ben Jonson once said, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Thank you for reading! As you can probably tell, I’m passionate about Shakespeare! I’d really appreciate it if you would share this on Facebook/Twitter/Google+!

Glossary of geeky jokes:

* From Much Ado about Nothing

**From a brilliant scene in Henry V, in which the Welshman Fluellen makes Pistol eat the leek on his cap

***Really nerdy joke. In Shakespeare’s day, “nothing” would have been pronounced “noting”, which adds a whole new level of pun to the play.

You can find out more from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

UPDATE: “The Song of Achilles”

“In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills out in a flood, like a hundred golden urns pouring out the sun.” – The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

Finished reading it today and oh my Zeus it was spectacular. So beautiful. I genuinely burst into tears reading the final chapter; it’s so… ughhh, I have no words.

Update on the women front: Briseis was introduced since I last posted, and she was portrayed so well. I really love Briseis, and she was far more active in this novel than she was in The Iliad (although I can forgive Homer for that, as it’s the oldest book in Europe and all). She’s a bit of a sass master, frankly, but her relationship with Patroclus is so cute. Love ’em. Also, Patroclus is a feminist; don’t you DARE tell me otherwise.

I also really like the depiction of Thetis, Achilles’ mother. She’s so harsh to Patroclus because of her bias against mortals, and you could mistake the portrayal as a negative one (the novel is from Patroclus’ perspective and I found that I empathised with him so much). But she definitely redeemed herself for me as a reader, and it’s actually very easy to empathise with her too. She’s not a nice character, I don’t think, but that’s pretty inkeeping with the depictions of the gods generally in the book.


Stab me in the heart with a spear, Ms Miller, it would be less painful.

So that’s it, I’m at the end of the novel. It’s been a rollercoaster of a read. Gorgeous prose, fantastic character development, beautiful imagery. Madeline Miller is a goddess in her own right.

“The Song of Achilles”

“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.” – Patroclus, about Achilles

I’ve started reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and it’s so good. It’s utterly beautiful and so heartbreaking. I’m honestly dying a little inside with every chapter I read.


Me when Patroclus says something overwhelmingly sad:

It tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, in the years before they leave for Troy. The Trojan War tests the relationship they have built since they were boys to its absolute limits. If you’ve read The Iliad, you’ll know exactly how their love story ends. Also, I can relate to Patroclus on pretty much every level (except for the murder thing). It’s totally believable, and Miller has managed to seamlessly blend the romance with historical context (she’s a lecturer in Latin and Greek). I particularly like the acknowledgement of the treatment of women in ancient cultures. The women in the novel aren’t unrealistically active (by ancient Greek standards), but they’re certainly not as passive as in The Iliad; personally, I think that’s an admirable feat.

So yeah, you should definitely read it. You will cry.


Surrounded by the revision I should be doing…




Writing – Olympias

Here it is – the second of my two pieces concerning historical women. I learned about Olympias during my Ancient History GCSE; she was a fascinating woman who had a lot of influence over the way in which Alexander perceived himself and others. She was part of the Cult of Dionysus and associated herself strongly with magic and religion.


Olympias sits alone tonight, with only the tame serpents entwined around her calves for company. The chariot of Apollo races beyond the horizon until she is bathed in the fading twilight. Torches flicker below, flaming brightly as Philip weds Cleopatra Eurydice.

She has not shared a bed with the king for weeks. It gives her a rebellious thrill to discover that she no longer wants to. Philip can rot in the Underworld, she thinks with vehemence, along with his new bride. Let them kiss and caress and copulate there. They do not matter, have never truly mattered. It is only Alexander who matters, the child conceived of a thunderbolt, born in the name of Zeus.

Oh, how she adores him! He is a beautiful boy – a man now, truly. Although he shares his father’s strong build and sandy hair, she sees enough of herself in his melting gaze and soft features that this is counterbalanced. He has the heart of a lion and the keen eyes of a hawk, but his temper is that of a man. He is like the oceans of Poseidon, deceptively calm on the surface, yet a violent churning vortex lies beneath. Perhaps this is how he draws so many men to him, soldiers and poets alike. He is magnetic, charismatic, and he makes her so proud. He is destined for greatness; barely a day goes by that she does not tell him so.

She remembers the expression on his face as it was after Chaeronea, the defeat of Thebes and Athens. She could see his triumph in his eyes and in the determined smile on his lips. His cocky confidence was marred only by a twinge of relief. His reputation had been validated. He was extraordinary.

Of course Philip ruined it, in his own special manner. She could have slayed him where he stood for belittling her precious, precious son. How dare he resent Alexander, how dare he presume himself to be her son’s equal. Philip loved glory in all its forms; Alexander earned only the highest, purest victories. Philip refused to accept that Alexander was learning, that he was adapting Philip’s strategies and tactics. He refused to accept it because he was afraid.

Nothing gives her more pleasure than making Philip frightened and uneasy. She surrounds herself with magic and partakes in the most powerful rites. He cannot touch her. At her command, serpents attack, women dominate beyond their status and, soon, a prince will become a king.

She settles back in her chair, eyes closed, finally at ease and deep in thought. She hears the echo of footsteps along the passage outside her room, like the rhythmic beat of war drums. If it is one of the drunken revellers from the wedding, she will set her snakes upon him. Disgruntled, she opens her eyes.

Alexander stands in the doorway. There is none of his usual bright demeanour. His fists are clenched, his jaw is set and a vein is throbbing at his temple.


“Your Majesty,” he says, head bowed and voice surprisingly even. She sits up straighter and offers her outstretched arms, and her son flees to her. Disregarding the serpents, he rests his head against her leg with a sigh of: “Mother.” She places her hand upon his head soothingly.

“What is it that troubles you?”

“He has… he has betrayed me, Mother.” She does not have to ask. She knows precisely who he means.

“He has betrayed us both, my child.”

“Attalus asked the gods that Philip and Cleopatra might bear a son to inherit the throne,” Alexander tells her bitterly, “He thinks me a b*****d and I accused him as such, and-”

“And?” To her chagrin, Alexander blushes.

“I threw a cup at him and called him a villain.”

“What did Philip say?”

“He took Attalus’ side over mine. The way he looked at me… Mother, he would have run me through.” Her hand, smoothing his ruffled locks, pauses. Her long, slender fingers curl, scratching over his scalp. Alexander continues with his tale, “He made to lunge for me, but he fell. I said it was a shame that the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia is overturned in passing from one seat to another.” Her grip on his hair tightens with every word.

“Mother, you are hurting me,” he mutters reproachfully. She releases him sharply, his head rocking forwards with the force of the action.

“We cannot stay here,” she murmurs, as though in a trance.

“What do you mean? Where would we go?”

“Alexander, it matters not. I long to see you become king. I long to see you rule over a mighty empire. None of this will happen if Cleopatra bears a son.” She sees how his eyes smoulder with ambition and desire. Her son has always preferred the conquering of lands over that of maidens.


“Hush, my child. I will see to it. Do not concern yourself. Now return to the festivities. Are your companions there?”


“Then behave as you naturally would. Drink with your future generals.” He smiles. He has the most prepossessing smile, she marvels. No wonder he is accompanied by so many of these companions.

“Thank you, Mother.” He gets to his feet, adjusting his robes, as immaculate as ever. Then he bends down to kiss her cheek.

“I love you, my child.”

Writing – Cleopatra

This has won a couple of contests over on Writers’ Cafe. I’m 6thhekatombaion over there, if you want to take a look! This is one of two pieces that I’ve written about a woman from history; the other concerns Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. Regardless of your views on Cleopatra, even the ancient Roman sources (and they really disliked her!) admit that she was clever, witty and persuasive. She’s a fine example of a powerful woman in politics. As you will probably see, I have zero sympathy for her brother Ptolemy. Nothing like his ancestor, Alexander’s general Ptolemy Lagides.


When her spies and messengers come to her, they tell Cleopatra of the effect her actions have on Ptolemy XIII and his court. It gives her great pleasure that they are beginning to fear. She has made certain that her pitiful brother-husband and his advisers, who are not fit to kiss her feet, know very well what she is capable of.

They might flatter him with preening titles, but soon the Mighty Lion will be squealing in her grasp like a little mouse. She is the glory of her father. She can speak in many tongues and the one that comes especially easily is the tongue of the Great Lady Isis. Ptolemy knows this. He knows that the goddess smiles upon her and speaks through her. He knows that her dark eyes hold dangerous secrets and her slender fingers channel magic.

Not only can she commune with the powers of the universe, she has correspondences with the powers of the mortal world. Ptolemy perhaps fears this more. Pergamum will raise ten legions in her name. Her heritage will secure her place in Greece – the blood of Ptolemy Lagides, he who was made king of Egypt by Alexander himself, runs through her veins as hot as a flame. The people of Alexandria, in the north of her beautiful home, are loyal to her, although the shadow of her mewling brother looms over them like a portentous black storm-cloud.

She might have armies ready to march on her orders. However, she still requires support from one man and his empire. Julius Caesar is in Alexandria. She has had reports from the city that her brother-husband has displeased him greatly. Ptolemy sought to worm his way into the consul’s affections. He slayed Pompey – Caesar’s companion in consulship and embittered rival – on the shores of Pelusium in the east of her lands (for they are, and have always been, hers). He had the head of Pompey severed and presented to Caesar, a grisly peace offering. Caesar has sworn to kill the man who committed the deed.

When the story was told to her, Cleopatra laughed aloud, tears of mirth in her eyes. Her brother is a fool. He is no lion of Aker; he is a lowly serpent like Apep, trying to slither his way into Caesar’s favour. He knows little of diplomacy; she would not have made so grave a mistake. No matter how fiercely Caesar and Pompey might have struggled for power, Pompey was still a consul of Rome and Ptolemy had dared to calculate his demise.

A miscalculation indeed.

Caesar will not forgive the insult easily. The gods dictate that her time is now. Ptolemy is playing into her hands. She must strike, an asp at the collective throat of the usurpers, and meet with Caesar. She will inform him of her sadness at Pompey’s murder, her disgust at Ptolemy’s actions. My brother is a fickle child, lord, and a puppet of wiser men. His advisers seek power. She must tell him of how she has been exiled from her own lands, of how Ptolemy seized her power. Then why have you not returned with an army and claimed the throne? I would not wish civil war upon my people, my lord. I want only peace and prosperity between Egypt and Rome. Perhaps he will nod in approval. Perhaps, if she lets a few carefully-placed tears fall, he might take her hand.

Julius Caesar is the most powerful man in the empire, possibly in the world, yet he is still merely a man. It will not hurt him to believe that she is merely a woman too.