Today’s installment concludes 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.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of seven thousand words. Congratulations!
Previously in Cleopatra, Caesar and Antony.
Time: 51-30 BC
This view implies that she was already false to Antony, and it may well be asked how such a charge is compatible with the affecting scenes which followed at Alexandria, where her policy seemed defeated by her passion, and she felt her old love too strong even for her heartless ambition? I will say in answer that there is no more frequent anomaly in the psychology of female love than a strong passion coexisting with selfish ambition, so that each takes the lead in turn; nay, even the consciousness of treachery may so intensify the passion as to make a woman embrace with keener transports the lover whom she has betrayed than one whom she has no thought of surrendering. There are, moreover, in these tragedies unexpected accidents, which so affect even the hardest nature that calculations are cast aside, and the old loyalty resumes a temporary sway. Nor must we fail to insist again upon the traditions wherein this last Cleopatra was born and bred. She came from a stock whose women played with love and with life as if they were mere counters. To hesitate whether such a scion of such a house would have delayed to discard Antony and to assume another passion is to show small appreciation of the effects of heredity and of example. Dion tells us that she arrived in Alexandria before the news of her defeat, pretended a victory, and took the occasion of committing many murders, in order to get rid of secret opponents, and also to gather wealth by confiscation of their goods, for both she and Antony, who came along the coast of Libya, seem still to have thought of defending the inaccessible Egypt, and making terms for themselves and their children with the conqueror. But Antony’s efforts completely failed; no one would rally to his standard. And meanwhile the false Queen had begun to send presents to Caesar and encourage him to treat with her. But when he bluntly proposed to her to murder Antony as the price of her reconciliation with himself, and when he even declared by proxy that he was in love with her, he clearly made a rash move in this game of diplomacy, though Dion says he persuaded her of his love, and that accordingly she betrayed to him the fortress of Pelusium, the key of the country. Dion also differs from Plutarch in repeatedly ascribing to Octavian great anxiety to secure the treasures which Cleopatra had with her, and which she was likely to destroy by fire if driven to despair.
The historian may well leave to the biographer, nay, to the poet, the affecting details of the closing scenes of Cleopatra’s life. In the fourth and fifth acts of Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare has reproduced every detail of Plutarch’s narrative, which was drawn from that of her physician Olympos. Her fascinations were not dead, for they swayed Dolabella to play false to his master so far as to warn her of his intentions, and leave her time for her dignified and royal end. But if these Hellenistic queens knew how to die, they knew not how to live. Even the penultimate scene of the tragedy, when she presents an inventory of her treasures to Octavian, and is charged by her steward with dishonesty, shows her in uncivilized violence striking the man in the face and bursting into indecent fury, such as an Athenian, still less a Roman, matron would have been ashamed to exhibit. Nor is there any reason to doubt the genuineness of this scene, though we must not be weary of cautioning ourselves against the hostile witnesses who have reported to us her life. They praise nothing in her but her bewitching presence and her majestic death.
“After her repast Cleopatra sent to Caesar a letter which she had written and sealed, and, putting everybody out of the monument but her two women, she shut the doors. Caesar, opening her letter, and finding pathetic prayers and entreaties that she might be buried in the same tomb with Antony, soon guessed what was doing. At first he was going himself in all haste; but, changing his mind, he sent others to see. The thing had been quickly done. The messengers came at full speed, and found the guards apprehensive of nothing; but on opening the doors they saw her stone dead, lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments. Iras, one of her women, lay dying at her feet, and Charmion, just ready to fall, scarce able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress’ diadem. And when one that came in said angrily, ‘Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?’ ‘Perfectly well,’ she answered, ‘and as became the daughter of so many kings’; and as she said this she fell down dead by the bedside.”
Even the hostile accounts cannot conceal from us that both in physique and in intellect she was a very remarkable figure, exceptional in her own, exceptional had she been born in any other, age. She is a speaking instance of the falsehood of a prevailing belief, that the intermarriage of near relations invariably produces a decadence in the human race. The whole dynasty of the Ptolemies contradicts this current theory, and exhibits in the last of the series the most signal exception. Cleopatra VI was descended from many generations of breeding-in, of which four exhibit marriages of full brother and sister. And yet she was deficient in no quality, physical or intellectual, which goes to make up a well-bred and well-developed human being. Her morals were indeed those of her ancestors, and as bad as could be, but I am not aware that it is degeneration in this direction which is assumed by the theory in question, except as a consequence of physical decay. Physically, however, Cleopatra was perfect. She was not only beautiful, but prolific, and retained her vigor, and apparently her beauty, to the time of her death, when she was nearly forty years old.
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This ends our series of passages on Cleopatra, Caesar and Antony by John P. Mahaffy from his book The Empire of the Ptolemies published in 1895. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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