Roman’s Rating: 5/5
I have read over twenty novels about Cleopatra to date, but I, Cleopatra by William Bostock was by far the most surprising. Being decades older than Margaret George or Colin Falconer’s novels (which I had read many times over), I expected an outdated and inaccurate portrayal of the ancient world. I began reading the book with a very skeptical eye, ready to pounce on any historical mistake or 60s and 70s-influenced portrayal of gender, sexuality, etc. I could not have been more wrong. William Bostock is not only a great writer, but a master historian. The level of detail and accuracy in this book are nearly unmatched.
The characters were spot on. Cleopatra was perfect in every way. Being an older book, I now understand where future authors must have gotten their inspiration for their respective portrayals of the Queen of the Nile. William Bostock’s Cleopatra feels like a real person with genuine emotions and believable actions. It seems like any book that followed needed to exaggerate a specific aspect of the Queen to make her more unique. These exaggerations took many forms: excessive blood-lust, sexual depravity, and even intense sea-sickness. You won’t find any of that in I, Cleopatra. She’s simply a woman who shares her story with you and it feels real in every way. Antony, Pothinos, and Arsinoe were also among my favorites. Not once did these characters become clouded in my mind by other portrayals I have seen in books or film. Like Cleopatra, their personalities and actions were so believable you almost forgot the book is fiction. The interactions between Cleopatra and Pothinos were particularly good. Their discourse was so subtly intense that I was often on the edge of my seat during their conversations.
The only character I had any difficulties with was Julius Caesar. I think his tendency to use flowery and romantic language toward Cleopatra was a bit overdone given his otherwise militant and stoic personality. But ironically, my biggest praise for the book comes from the dialogue. William wrote I, Cleopatra as an autobiography and the novel uses language that seems much more dated and accurate to the ancient world. It’s a bit awkward to the modern reader, but it feels like the kind of dialogue Cleopatra herself could have spoken. The excessive use of titles when addressing people, for example, was prevalent in the ancient Mediterranean and William incorporated it perfectly.
There were only a few inaccuracies which I found in the book. One was William’s description of (what I assume to be) faceted gemstones throughout the novel. To my knowledge, faceting precious stones would not be realized in the detail described in the book for another 16 centuries. Octavian’s use of the title “Augustus” appears four years earlier than is historically accepted. Cleopatra learns of Octavian’s use of the title shortly after the Battle of Actium. In reality, he would not adopt the title until three years after her death. Cleopatra’s date of death is also given as August 31 when it is historically believed to be August 12. The earlier date would have likewise meant that Cleopatra didn’t know about Caesarion’s death prior to committing suicide.
I already miss the book terribly. Typically, I can’t put a good book down until I am done. This book was such a pleasant surprise that I purposely paced myself during the last 10% just to make it last a little longer. I hope to track down the author’s email address one day and ask him all of the burning questions I have about his inspiration and research for the novel. This will definitely be a book that I re-read countless times in years to come. I can’t recommend it enough.
You can purchase the book on Amazon here.