Mundy Monday: Queen Cleopatra


The second of Talbot Mundy’s Roman novels, Queen Cleopatra was published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1929. Set in the years between the summer of 48 B.C. (the battle of Pharsalus) and the spring of 44 B.C. (the Ides of March), this story tells of the tumultuous end of the Roman Republic and the bloody beginning of what would become the Roman Empire from the viewpoint of one of the most famous and alluring women in all of history: Cleopatra.  It is available in a number of editions in book form or you can read it here at the invaluable library of Roy Glashan.

Tros of Samothrace, the protagonist of both of the other Roman novels, is here with his glorious Liafail, the faithful Conops and the rest of his crew; they are six years older, tougher and richer after having sailed around Africa to India and back.  The primary characters are Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemaic dynasty to rule Egypt, and Julius Caesar, greatest general of the age.  Most of the book is told from the perspective of Cleopatra who enlists Tros in her campaign to first ascend to the throne of Egypt and then to defend Egypt from Rome, the all-powerful and ever-hungry war machine that dominates the Mediterranean world. 

To do this, she will use every resource she can muster and all of her charms to beguile the one man who can master Rome and make it obey: Caesar himself.  Fluent in ten languages, possessed of the finest education in the known world, steeped in intrigue since childhood, Cleopatra has a voice that is said to enchant the listener - 

She used the tone that Apollodorus called the lion-tamer because its vibrance had a magic that seemed able to impose calm.

And a fearless dignity that is almost hypnotic –

‘It is Rome I dread, not Caesar.’

“’It is Egypt, not myself, that I will save from Rome,’ said Cleopatra, and Tros eyed her for a moment with a new approval.

But behind it all is an implacable intellect fully the equal of Rome’s Caesar –

He ignored the racing, now and then reading aloud to Cleopatra passages that he considered noteworthy and enjoying her brilliant comments; for she was as familiar as he was with the works of the philosophers and he had not yet found one subject on which she could not converse with him with original intelligence.

Queen Cleopatra is filled with intrigue and diplomacy, politics and treachery, assassinations and open war, but it is Cleopatra who is the heroine and the story of her successes, her failures and what they cost her are an underlying theme in the last two Roman novels.  The cast of characters in this second Tros book is especially rich; along with Tros and his men there are men and women who we will meet again in Purple Pirate: loyal servants such as Olympias and Charmian, rivals and enemies such as Herod and Arsinoe, Roman leaders such as Cassius and Antony.  Then there are the characters we see last in this book: Gaius Julius Caesar, last leader of the Roman Republic and Apollodorus, the greatest charioteer Alexandria will ever see.  And therein lies another tale.

There are chariot races in both “Messenger of Destiny” and in Queen Cleopatra.  Both are good, but the race in this book is better, in my opinion at least as good as the chariot race in Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

He contrived to check his stallions for a second; then he loosed them and sent them like a bolt out of a catapult into the gap that opened between Phidias and Cleisthenes.  There was not an inch to spare, and both men tried to crush him between them, losing enough speed by that to send Apollodorus shooting to the front.  By the time he had reached the home turn, he had gained a chariot’s length and had the inside berth.

”And now the stadium became the heart of thunder as the spectators realized that they were witnessing another such race as had made Apollodorus famous.  Men ceased to behave as human beings.

But why are they different?  Mundy began writing this novel before Tros of Samothrace but didn’t finish it until after his first Roman novel was serialized in the pages of Adventure in 1925 and February of 1926.  On December 30, 1925 Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, one of the most iconic films of the silent era, opened in theaters across the United States.  The chariot race in that movie was one of the most influential scenes in movie history and became infamous in its own right: more than a hundred horses were killed during the making of the chariot race and they used more than 200,000 feet of film recording it, although just less than a thousand feet were actually used in the final release. 


Although the film had multiple directors and went way over budget, the primary director was Fred Niblo, a friend of Talbot Mundy (it was Niblo who persuaded Mundy to begin writing for the screen in 1923).  I think that 1925 version of that film not only influenced Talbot Mundy, I think there is a chance that he was given a look at some of the footage that was left out of the final release.  The movie would have been released just after he would have finished “Messenger of Destiny” but well before this second Roman novel was published and I think that it would have fascinated him.

Queen Cleopatra spans the eastern Mediterranean at a time when Rome’s politics seemed to shake the world itself.  Although many of the events in this story are recounted by historians such as Plutarch, the author gives us a different perspective and casts a different light on history by writing from the viewpoints of Cleopatra and Tros.  This story ends right smack in the middle of a civil war, but sets the stage for the rousing conclusion of the saga of Tros of Samothrace. 

This ends Mundy’s Queen Cleopatra, a tale of love, intrigue and adventure in the years during the fall of the Roman Republic.  Next, we will conclude our look at the Roman novels of Talbot Mundy with the novel Purple Pirate.