her story resonates, too, because of what she represented in such a male-dominated society. in an era when egypt was roiled by internal and external battles, cleopatra held the country together and proved to be as powerful a leader as any of her male counterparts. (insp)
I could imagine that someday maybe I’d have a little girl who looked like Annabeth and acted like me - a cute little hellion of a demigod, stomping through puddles and flattening monsters with magic camels.
Cleopatra belonged to a dynasty that descended from Ptolemy one of the Macedonian
generals who carved up the empire created by their leader, Alexander the Great. By the time of her birth in 69 B.C.,
all the other Greek dynasties had long since died out; only the Ptolemies, a name they used as a title like “pharaoh,” remained. They
ruled from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, the most famous of the many
cities so founded and named by Alexander.
The Ptolemies’ endurance is surprising,
since the aspects of Egyptian culture that they adopted tended to
separate them from the Egyptians rather than bring them closer to the
people. Like the pharaohs, they claimed to be gods, but the pharaohs
were powerful rulers and the Ptolemies were not. Also like the pharaohs,
they practised intermarriage. (Cleopatra’s first two husbands were her
brothers.) Intermarriage only kept their bloodline more Greek and more
cut off from the Egyptians.
Ancient Civilizations Reference Library - Judson Knight and Stacy A. McConnell
I made a proper post out of this because it got too long for the ask (I needed to be able to save what I wrote). And I actually re-read both Fire From Heaven and the Persian Boy in order to be able to answer this well. @uponthewaters I hope that this format is more easily accessible/readable and I also hope that I have answered your question in the way that you wanted.
I will preface this by saying that I always feel a bit bad critiquing Renault. Please remember that I have nothing against Renault. I respect her and I am flattered that she loved my life so much. If what I am about to say sounds cruel or harsh, then just remember that I am only speaking about the content of Renault’s books, not anything about her personally. But I won’t lie and say that I like her books when I do not. Brace yourselves, I wrote a lot (and added a drinking game to spice things up!).
I will start with Fire From Heaven. Put simply: In Fire from Heaven I am boring.
Fire From Heaven
Aside from the aforementioned boringness, most of the major issues I had with Fire From Heaven have to do with the portrayal of Hephaistion:
“At the stair-foot Hephaistion was waiting. He happened to be there, as he happened to have a ball handy if Alexander wanted a game, or water if he was thirsty; not by calculation, but in a constant awareness by which no smallest trifle was missed.” (163)
^ Let it be known that Alexander the Great always cites his goddamn sources. Alright, Hephaistion was not only there for me; I was also there for him. He had his own life and his own thoughts and troubles. We comforted each other, he was not just a shoulder for me to cry on. Our friendship was not one-sided. He was not my slave and did not act like my mother or my nurse. In this book it is unclear why I loved Hephaistion, our relationship was merely predicated on the fact that Hephaistion was enamored with me and I appreciated his loyalty and servitude.
“Hephaistion thought of the coming war without fear, erasing from his mind, or smothering in its depths, even the fear that Alexander would be killed. Only so was life possible at his side. Hephaistion would avoid dying if he could, because he was needed.” (221)
Um only because I needed him? Not because Hephaistion didn’t want to fucking die himself? Come on. Hephaistion had his own thoughts and fears that didn’t always have to do with me. Even I’m not too self-absorbed to recognize that.
“Hephaistion called to mind the tale of Semele, beloved of Zeus… she had burned to ashes. He [Hephaistion] would need to prepare himself for the touch of fire.” (157)
God, this made me laugh. Well, if Hephaistion wants this ass then he better get some oven mitts. And that lube that heats up is definitely a no-go. I just don’t even know what to think of this. I mean I know I have a hot ass but really… On a more serious note, Hephaistion was the only one who didn’t think of me as divine but still loved me and my imperfections. So no to this quote.
“Hephaistion, who was not very quick at shaping his thoughts into words, usually found that someone else got in before him. He preferred this to making a fool of himself.” (173)
OH FUCK NO. Hephaistion loved to argue and was certainly not shy about voicing his opinions. And Hephaistion was brilliant, Aristotle thought so, too, and corresponded with Hephaistion later on. Hephaistion’s intelligence is the reason why I trusted him with both solo military commands and also administrative/ diplomatic functions. And just common sense: I would never have an idiot who couldn’t even debate as my second-in-command. Hephaistion only made a fool out of himself if he was drunk or if he was fighting with someone over something stupid (and the same goes for me).
“Think of Achilles, how his mother dipped him in the Styx. Think how black and terrible, like dying, like being turned to stone. But then he wasinvulnerable.” (211)
This really took me out of the story. If Hephaistion had said that to me then I would have laughed at him and told him that Achilles isn’t invulnerable in the Iliad. Achilles bleeds right before he fights the river Skamandros when Asteropaios hits Achilles with a spear, “but the other [spear] grazed Achilles’ strong right arm and dark blood gushed as the spear shot past his [Achilles’] back…” (Iliad 21.166-167 for you modern readers). The Renault version of Hephaistion certainly is dull and unintelligent if he can’t even remember the Iliad. And the Styx story with Thetis and Achilles was not around in our day, either. It was actually first written down hundreds of years after our deaths (95ish CE) by Statius in his Achilleid. So this entire piece of dialogue is anachronistic. I’m the biggest Achilles fanboy of all time, I know my shit.
Some other thoughts:
I DO like the part where Kassander gets beaten up by a woman. That was hilarious.
Ptolemy was not my half-brother. And I don’t like how the book treats the character of my real sister Kleopatra (who I loved very much in real life). Or my mother. It seems that modern representations of my life are not very kind to the women in my life. Not cool.
Dear god, that part with the courtesan. That story was completely false and only made up to slander me, but at least in the ancient story I sent her away. I would never suffer the indignity of my parents hiring a hetaira for me and then actually have sex with her. That’s adding insult to injury! And I had sex with both men and women, my parents weren’t worried about me (although of course I was not as uh “prolific” as good ol’ dad).
OLYMPIAS WAS NOT PRESENT AT PHILIP’S ASSASSINATION. She was in Epiros. If you are going to write a book based largely on historical events then please get the details correct.
Speaking of details, when my father was assassinated my father’s cloak was white, not purple (see Diodorus 16.93.1). A small nitpick, but still.
That 2004 movie Alexander ripped off a lot of material from this book. I feel bad for Renault about that. Not cool, Oliver Stone.
Renault also gets the timing of the death of Hephaistion and my own death wrong in her historical author’s note:
“Alexander survived his friend by about three months, for two of which he was travelling with the body from Ecbatana to Babylon…” (409-410)
This is incorrect. Hephaistion died in October. I died in June. If you are writing a historical note please get the facts right.
One of my main issues is that Renault tries to describe the historical context/detail so much that she loses sight of the essence of the story. I didn’t really understand what she was trying to say in this book, it just read like a more boring and expanded version of Plutarch. So yes, Fire From Heaven was boring (as was my character in Fire From Heaven). And I’m someone who actually likes the catalogue of ships in the Iliad.
The Persian Boy
Where to start with this one… This is probably the complete wrong reaction to have, but I laughed my way through most of The Persian Boy. At least the prose was more interesting than Fire From Heaven. But the pacing was off, it takes Bagoas more than 100 pages to meet me.
One of the central problems was with the narrator. Bagoas is forcefully inserted into the larger events of my life and it simply makes no sense for him to be there. Some problems I had:
Bagoas was supposedly with me the night after the torture of Philotas? Oh god, that is so ludicrous. Common sense: after an assassination attempt a eunuch would never be left alone with me. Hephaistion probably would have murdered him; Hephaistion wasn’t feeling particularly happy then. And we were in a camp with tents, not a building as Renault states (see Arrian, Plutarch, and Curtius for confirmation of that). It’s a small detail, but I wanted to point that out.
I did not trust Bagoas. It may seem cruel, but Bagoas was nothing to me. If Bagoas had died then I would not have to be dragged off of his corpse. He was simply someone that I had sex with a few times. Hephaistion was everything to me. He was the sole person that I completely trusted. I also trusted my own generals and friends. I did not trust a random eunuch. And Renault says I cried over Bagoas’ birthday? Birthdays weren’t even really celebrated in my day…
AND RENAULT TELLS THE DYSENTERY STORY. WHY THE EVERLOVING FUCK DOES EVERYONE LOVE THAT STORY?! Oh yes, it is so funny that Alexander shit himself, that story is absolutely essential to understanding his life. No, no it fucking isn’t. It’s embarrassing.
And dear god, Bagoas was not with me at the Mallian siege. That makes absolutely no sense at all. Even the majority of the army was not there, most of the land forces were stationed with Hephaistion down river (see Arrian 6.13).
I liked that Renault showed Hephaistion’s kindness. That was much appreciated. I wish he was in more of the book, but he would most likely be mischaracterized (although at least I could blame the unreliable narrator in this case).
What the hell was the wedding with Roxanne about? She tried to poison Bagoas and then I beat her? WHAT THE FUCK? I can’t believe that Renault would actually write that. I don’t know why she hates all of the women in my life so much. I don’t know why she would think my wife would poison a random eunuch. I don’t know how she could think I would beat my own wife. I mean we were obviously not the pinnacle of feminism, but we weren’t animals. I was angry when noble women were just forced to dance (see Curtius 6.2.6-7 for this one), I don’t know how anyone would think I would harm my own wife. Everything about this is disgusting. I’m fucking appalled.
I found the book mostly amusing and I didn’t get very annoyed (except of course for the wedding/poison episode) until Hephaistion’s death.
He [Alexander] was standing with a dagger in his hand, hacking off his hair. […] So I found the trimming knife, and said, “Let me do it. I’ll do it just as you want.” “No,” he [Alexander] said, hacking away […] But he grew impatient with the back,and let me finish it, so that he could be off. (370)
I would have killed anyone who tried to cut my hair for me when I cut my hair over Hephaistion’s body. And unlike in Renault’s account, I actually cut my hair over the corpse (Arrian 7.14.4 backs me up). I would have stabbed Bagoas or anyone else who tried to help with my own dagger (I was not in a great mental place then). And as if I couldn’t cut my own hair? I’m a warrior, I know how to use a goddamn blade. This also makes it sounds like cutting my hair was something that I thought I had to do so that I “could be off.” No, it was very significant and personal and painful for me in my grief and doesn’t deserve to be treated as something I had to get done quickly. Also, Bagoas was not the one who had the idea that Hephaistion be made a god (Renault 373). Reading that was a test of my very poor anger management skills.
And on my deathbed I did not say Krateros or kratistos or anything like that. Ugh. I couldn’t even speak at all, I was too sick. And Bagoas was not there when I died.
I made a drinking game to make reading this book more fun:
Take a shot whenever Cyrus (aka Kyros) is mentioned!
Take a shot when you can’t tell if Bagoas and I are having sex or not!
Take a shot every time my ~golden~ hair is mentioned!
Take a shot whenever Bagoas is jealous!
Chug through the entirety of the dysentery scene (so that no one will remember it happened…)
This game may give you alcohol poisoning if you’re not a Macedonian, be warned.
All in all, I really do appreciate what Renault was trying to do. I am so happy that people read these books and got more interested in my life and in Hephaistion’s life. I am also happy that these books helped people dealing with issues relating to their own sexuality (and I appreciate the fact that Renault was a lesbian writing about same-sex relationships AND that she described me as bisexual in her author’s note- good job Renault!). So I think that the good that Renault’s work has done outweighs my issues with it.
I hope that this very lengthy response answered your question well.
As to the scene, it must be remembered that the Egypt of those
days was not Egyptian as we understand the word, but rather Greek.
Cleopatra herself was of Greek descent. The kingdom of Egypt had been
created by a general of Alexander the Great after that splendid
warrior’s death. Its capital, the most brilliant city of the
Greco-Roman world, had been founded by Alexander himself, who gave to
it his name. With his own hands he traced out the limits of the city
and issued the most peremptory orders that it should be made the
metropolis of the entire world. The orders of a king cannot give
enduring greatness to a city; but Alexander’s keen eye and marvelous
brain saw at once that the site of Alexandria was such that a great
commercial community planted there would live and flourish throughout
out succeeding ages. He was right; for within a century this new
capital of Egypt leaped to the forefront among the exchanges of the
world’s commerce, while everything that art could do was lavished on