The scene at Herod’s palace must have been inimitable.
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
Plutarch expressly says that it was not in peerless beauty that her fascination lay, but in the combination of more than average beauty with many other personal attractions. The Egyptian portrait is likely to confirm in the spectator’s mind the impression derived from Shakespeare’s play, that Cleopatra was a swarthy Egyptian, in strong contrast to the fair Roman ladies, and suggesting a wide difference of race. She was no more an Egyptian than she was an Indian, but a pure Macedonian, of a race akin to, and perhaps fairer than, the Greeks.
No sooner had Antony reached Syria than the fell influence of the Egyptian Queen revived. In the words of Plutarch:
But the mischief that thus long had lain still, the passion for Cleopatra, which better thoughts had seemed to have lulled and charmed into oblivion, upon his approach to Syria, gathered strength again, and broke out into a flame. And in fine, like Plato’s restive and rebellious horse of the human soul, flinging off all good and wholesome counsel and breaking fairly loose, he sent Fonteius Capito to bring Cleopatra into Syria; to whom at her arrival he made no small or trifling present — Phoenicia, Coele-Syria, Cyprus, great part of Cilicia, that side of Judea which produces balm, that part of Arabia where the Nabathaeans extend to the outer sea — profuse gifts which much displeased the Romans. For although he had invested several private persons with great governments and kingdoms, and bereaved many kings of theirs, as Antigonus of Judea, whose head he caused to be struck off — the first example of that punishment being inflicted on a king — yet nothing stung the Romans like the shame of these honors paid to Cleopatra. Their dissatisfaction was augmented also by his acknowledging as his own the twin children he had by her, giving them the names of Alexander and Cleopatra, and adding, as their surnames, the titles of Sun and Moon.”
After much dallying the triumvir really started for the wild East, whither it is not our business to follow him. Cleopatra he sent home to Egypt, to await his victorious return, and it was on this occasion that she came in state to Jerusalem to visit Herod the Great — probably the most brilliant scene of the kind which had taken place since the queen of Sheba came to learn the wisdom of Solomon. But it was a very different wisdom that Herod professed, and in which he was verily a high authority, nor was the subtle daughter of the Ptolemies a docile pupil, but a practiced expert in the same arts of cruelty and cunning; wherewith both pursued their several courses of ambition and sought to wheedle from their Roman masters cities and provinces. The reunion of Antony and Cleopatra must have greatly alarmed Herod, whose plans were directly thwarted by the freaks of Antony, and he must have been preparing at the time to make his case with Octavian, and seek from his favor protection against the new caprices of the then lord of the East.
The scene at Herod’s palace must have been inimitable. The display of counter-fascinations between these two tigers; their voluptuous natures mutually attracted; their hatred giving to each that deep interest in the other which so often turns to mutual passion while it incites to conquest; the grace and finish of their manners, concealing a ruthless ferocity; the splendor of their appointments — what more dramatic picture can we imagine in history?
We hear that she actually attempted to seduce Herod, but failed, owing to his deep devotion to his wife Mariamne. The prosaic Josephus adds that Herod consulted his council whether he should not put her to death for this attempt upon his virtue. He was dissuaded by them on the ground that Antony would listen to no arguments, not even from the most persuasive of the world’s princes, and would take awful vengeance when he heard of her death. So she was escorted with great gifts and politenesses back to Egypt.”
Such, then, was the character of this notorious Queen. But her violation of temples, and even of ancient tombs, for the sake of treasure must have been a far more public and odious exhibition of that want of respect for the sentiment of others which is the essence of bad manners. *
[* The Greek World under Roman Sway.]
As is well known, the first campaign of Antony against Armenians and Parthians was a signal failure, and it was only with great difficulty that he escaped the fate of Crassus. But Cleopatra was ready to meet him in Syria with provisions and clothes for his distressed and ragged battalions, and he returned with her to spend the winter (B.C. 36-35) at Alexandria. She thus snatched him again from his noble wife, Octavia, who had come from Rome to Athens with succors even greater than Cleopatra had brought. This at least is the word of the historians who write in the interest of the Romans, and regard the queen of Egypt with horror and with fear.
The new campaign of Antony (B.C. 34) was apparently more prosperous, but it was only carried far enough to warrant his holding a Roman triumph at Alexandria — perhaps the only novelty in pomp which the triumvir could exhibit to the Alexandrian populace, while it gave the most poignant offence at Rome. It was apparently now that he made that formal distribution of provinces which Octavian used as his chief casus belli.
“Nor was the division he made among his sons at Alexandria less unpopular. It seemed a theatrical piece of insolence and contempt of his country, for, assembling the people in the exercise ground, and causing two golden thrones to be placed on a platform of silver, the one for him and the other for Cleopatra, and at their feet lower thrones for their children, he proclaimed Cleopatra queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya, and Coele-Syria, and with her conjointly Caesarion, the reputed son of the former Caesar.
To be continued.
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