Cleopatra, fleeing the battle while the outcome was undecided was a blunder other women leaders of history would not have made.
Continuing Cleopatra, Caesar and Antony,
our selection from The Empire of the Ptolemies by John P. Mahaffy published in 1895. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Cleopatra, Caesar and Antony
Time: 51-30 BC
His own sons by Cleopatra were to have the style of ‘King of Kings’; to Alexander he gave Armenia and Media, with Parthia so soon as it should be overcome; to Ptolemy Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia. Alexander was brought out before the people in Median costume, the tiara and upright peak, and Ptolemy in boots and mantle and Macedonian cap done about with the diadem; for this was the habit of the successors of Alexander, as the other was of the Medes and Armenians. And, as soon as they had saluted their parents, the one was received by a guard of Macedonians, the other by one of Armenians. Cleopatra was then, as at other times when she appeared in public, dressed in the habit of the goddess Isis, and gave audience to the people under the name of the New Isis.
This over, he gave Priene to his players for a habitation, and set sail for Athens, where fresh sports and play-acting employed him. Cleopatra, jealous of the honors Octavia had received at Athens — for Octavia was much beloved by the Athenians — courted the favor of the people with all sorts of attentions. The Athenians, in requital, having decreed her public honors, deputed several of the citizens to wait upon her at her house, among whom went Antony as one, he being an Athenian citizen, and he it was that made the speech.
The speed and extent of Antony’s preparations alarmed Caesar, who feared he might be forced to fight the decisive battle that summer, for he wanted many necessaries, and the people grudged very much to pay the taxes; freemen being called upon to pay a fourth part of their incomes, and freed slaves an eighth of their property, so that there were loud outcries against him, and disturbances throughout all Italy. And this is looked upon as one of the greatest of Antony’s oversights that he did not then press the war, for he allowed time at once for Caesar to make his preparations, and for the commotions to pass over, for while people were having their money called for they were mutinous and violent; but, having paid it, they held their peace.
Titius and Plancus, men of consular dignity and friends to Antony, having been ill-used by Cleopatra, whom they had most resisted in her design of being present in the war, came over to Caesar, and gave information of the contents of Antony’s will, with which they were acquainted. It was deposited in the hands of the vestal virgins, who refused to deliver it up, and sent Caesar word, if he pleased, he should come and seize it himself, which he did. And, reading it over to himself, he noted those places that were most for his purpose, and, having summoned the senate, read them publicly. Many were scandalized at the proceeding, thinking it out of reason and equity to call a man to account for what was not to be until after his death. Caesar specially pressed what Antony said in his will about his burial, for he had ordered that even if he died in the city of Rome, his body, after being carried in state through the Forum, should be sent to Cleopatra at Alexandria.
Calvisius, a dependent of Caesar’s, urged other charges in connection with Cleopatra against Antony: that he had given her the library of Pergamus, containing two hundred thousand distinct volumes; that at a great banquet, in the presence of many guests, he had risen up and rubbed her feet, to fulfil some wager or promise; that he had suffered the Ephesians to salute her as their queen; that he had frequently at the public audience of kings and princes received amorous messages written in tablets made of onyx and crystal, and read them openly on the tribunal; that when Furnius, a man of great authority and eloquence among the Romans, was pleading, Cleopatra happening to pass by in her litter, Antony started up and left them in the middle of their cause, to follow at her side and attend her home.”
[1: Plutarch: Antony.]
When war was declared, Antony sought to gain the support of the East in the conflict. He made alliance with a Median king who betrothed his daughter to Cleopatra’s infant son Alexander; but he made the fatal mistake of allowing Cleopatra to accompany him to Samos, where he gathered his army, and even to Actium, where she led the way in flying from the fight, and so persuading the infatuated Antony to leave his army and join in her disgraceful escape.
Historians have regarded this act of Cleopatra as the mere cowardice of a woman who feared to look upon an armed conflict and join in the din of battle. But she was surely made of sterner stuff. She had probably computed with the utmost care the chances of the rivals, and had made up her mind that, in spite of Antony’s gallantry, his cause was lost. If she fought out the battle with her strong contingent of ships, she would probably fall into Octavian’s hands as a prisoner, and would have no choice between suicide or death in the Roman prison, after being exhibited to the mob in Octavian’s triumph. There was no chance whatever that she would have been spared, as was her sister Arsinoë after Julius Caesar’s triumph, nor would such clemency be less hateful than death. But there was still a chance, if Antony were killed or taken prisoner, that she might negotiate with the victor as queen of Egypt, with her fleet, army, and treasures intact, and who could tell what effect her charms, though now full ripe, might have upon the conqueror? Two great Romans had yielded to her, why not the third, who seemed a smaller man?
[2: Dion says that Antony was of the same opinion, and went into the battle intending to fly; but this does not agree with his character or with the facts.]
To be continued.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history