This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Cleopatra Meets Julius Caesar.
In another series, we republished the story of the great Roman civil war between Octavian and Antony. Cleopatra was a peripheral person in that story. This time we republish the story from a different author that gives her perspective.
This selection is 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.
John P. Mahaffy (1839-1919) was President of the Royal Irish Academy who wrote numerous works, mostly on “The Silver Age of Greece”.
Time: 51-30 BC
Now at last Egypt, coming into close connection with the world’s masters, becomes the stage for some of the most striking scenes in ancient history. They seem to most readers something new and strange — the pageants and passions of the fratricide Cleopatra as something unparalleled — and yet she was one of a race in which almost every reigning princess for the last two hundred years had been swayed by like storms of passion, or had been guilty of like daring violations of common humanity. What Arsinoë, what Cleopatra, from the first to the last, had hesitated to murder a brother or a husband, to assume the throne, to raise and command armies, to discard or adopt a partner of her throne from caprice in policy, or policy in caprice? But hitherto this desperate gambling with life had been carried on in Egypt and Syria; the play had been with Hellenistic pawns — Egyptian or Syrian princes; the last Cleopatra came to play with Roman pieces, easier apparently to move than the others, but implying higher stakes, greater glory in the victory, greater disaster in the defeat. Therefore is it that this last Cleopatra, probably no more than an average specimen of the beauty, talent, daring, and cruelty of her ancestors, has taken an unique place among them in the imagination of the world, and holds her own even now and forever as a familiar name throughout the world.
Ptolemy Auletes, when dying, had taken great care not to bequeath his mortgaged kingdom to his Roman creditors. In his will he had named as his heirs the elder of his two sons, and his daughter, who was the eldest of the family. Nobody thought of claiming Egypt for a heritage of the Roman Republic, when the whole world was the prize proposed in the civil conflict, for though the war of Caesar and Pompey had not actually broken out, the political sky was lowering with blackness, and the coming tempest was muttering its thunder through the sultry air. So Cleopatra, now about sixteen or seventeen years of age, and her much younger brother (about ten) assumed the throne as was traditional, without any tumult or controversy,
The opening discords came from within the royal family. The tutors and advisers of the young King, among whom Pothinos, a eunuch brought up with him as his playmate, according to the custom of the court, was the ablest and most influential, persuaded him to assume sole direction of affairs and to depose his elder sister. Cleopatra was not able to maintain herself in Alexandria, but went to Syria as an exile, where she promptly collected an army, as was the wont of these Egyptian princesses, who seem to have resources always under their control, and returned — within a few months, says Caesar — by way of Pelusium, to reconquer her lawful share in the throne. This happened in the fourth year of their so-called joint reign, B.C. 48, at the very time that Pompey and Caesar were engaged in their conflict for a far greater kingdom.
Caesar expressed his opinion that the quarrel of the sovereigns in Egypt concerned the Roman people, and himself as consul, the more so as it was in his previous consulate that the recognition of and alliance with their father had taken place. So he signified his decision that Ptolemy and Cleopatra should dismiss their armies, and should discuss their claims before him by argument and not by arms. All our authorities, except Dio Cassius, state that he sent for Cleopatra that she might personally urge her claims; but Dio tells us, with far more detail and I think greater probability, “that at first the quarrel with her brother was argued for her by friends, till she, learning the amorous character of Caesar, sent him word that her case was being mismanaged by her advocates, and she desired to plead it herself, She was then in the flower of her age (about twenty) and celebrated for her beauty. Moreover, she had the sweetest of voices, and every charm of conversation, so that she was likely to ensnare even the most obdurate and elderly man. These gifts she regarded as her claims upon Caesar. She prayed therefore for an interview, and adorned herself in a garb most becoming, but likely to arouse his pity, and so came secretly by night to visit him.”
If she indeed arrived secretly and was carried into the palace by one faithful follower as a bale of carpet, it was from fear of assassination by the party of Pothinos. She knew that as soon as she had reached Caesar’s sentries she was safe; as the event proved, she was more than safe, for in the brief interval of peace, and perhaps even of apparent jollity, while the royal dispute was under discussion, she gained an influence over Caesar which she retained till his death. Caesar adjudicated the throne according to the will of Auletes; he even restored Cyprus to Egypt, and proposed to send the younger brother and his sister Arsinoë to govern it; but he also insisted on a repayment, in part at least, of the enormous outstanding debt of Auletes to him and his party.
To be continued.
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