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Like all of her Ptolemaic predecessors, Cleopatra was elevated to the throne in a Greek-style coronation at Alexandria, but other, far older rites were held at Memphis, the ancient capital just upriver from the delta. In those ceremonies, she was invested with the crook and flail that Egyptian pharaohs had carried for millennia, and on her head was placed the double pharaonic crown: the white, bulbous crown of Upper Egypt, called the Lady of Dread, and the small red crown of Lower Egypt, known as the Lady of Spells. There was also a crown with a vulture's head, and a gold circlet bearing the head of a cobra. The little cobra diadem, with its delicately wrought asp's head, was especially beautiful and rich in lore. The cobra had been a symbol of Egypt since time immemorial, and its lethal bite was said to transport an Egyptian ruler instantly and painlessly to immortal life in the care of the gods.
More than any of her ancestors, Cleopatra expressed an affinity with pharaonic Egypt, a land old beyond reckoning, ancient before Greece was even born. She seemed to take almost as much pride in its traditions as she did in her own Greek heritage. Otherwise, it seems unlikely that she alone among the Ptolemies would have bothered to learn Egyptian, or that she would have taken such pains to better understand her eight million or so native subjects, most of whom lived outside Alexandria. She appeared to know, as Alexander knew long before, that kingship was precarious when a cultural gulf separated the ruling class from the native populace. That chasm certainly existed at the time of her coronation.
In more than two and a half centuries of Ptolemaic rule, Egypt's two cultures-one indigenous, one Greek-remained widely disparate, and often at odds with each other.
Some amalgamation had occurred, of course. It was obvious in Egypt's art and architecture, and over the years there had been a certain amount of intermarriage, even though unions between Greeks and native Egyptians weren't recognized legally. Still, Hellenism was really no more than a thin veneer atop Egypt's ancient customs and beliefs. Religion, in particular, had proved deeply resistant to change. The complex and colorful tapestry of Egyptian gods-major gods and minor, local gods and national gods, gods grafted onto one another, gods revered in combination as well as separately, gods in human form and gods with the heads of falcons or jackals or cows or crocodiles, gods who governed every tiny facet of life-was all but impenetrable to foreigners. No matter what conquerors came and went, the gods kept Egypt's heart safe and sacrosanct, immune to all intruders.
Paradoxically, though, the very religion that separated Egypt's native masses from their Greek overlords was also the factor that most explained why Egyptians tolerated the Ptolemies: The religion needed monarchs. The pharaohs had been the links between earth and heaven-gods themselves and the intermediaries between gods and mortals. In the absence of the native pharaohs, the new kings and queens, Greek though they were, would have to do. So while the Egyptians generally disliked their foreign rulers, who kept them an economically depressed underclass, they also worshiped them. And the priests, the leaders of the native population, cooperated with the Ptolemy regimes.
The first Ptolemy had realized the importance of religion and, attempting to lay a popular foundation for his dynasty, had tried to woo Egypt by honoring the country's deities-merging some of them with Greek divinities, and decreeing that his successors should respect the Egyptian gods and maintain their temples. To one degree or another, all of them had done so, and the arrangement had worked well enough. Despite occasional uprisings and even a few efforts in Middle Egypt or Upper Egypt to install competing native dynasties, the Greeks had been able to maintain control of their far more numerous native subjects.
Auletes had been particularly diligent about the temples. Among his many works was the restoration of the temple of Amon-Re, king of the gods, at Karnak in Upper Egypt's ancient city of Thebes. Founded as a small shrine almost two thousand years earlier, Karnak had become for a time the largest and most splendid place of worship the world had ever known, and bringing it back to its former glory won him considerable affection among the Egyptians.
Queen Cleopatra, following her father's policy in religion as in many other things, set out shortly after her coronation to associate herself as closely as possible with the native gods. And fate provided her with an excellent opportunity.
The most famous deity in Upper Egypt at the time was the sacred bull Buchis, worshiped as the soul of Amon-Re and kept within the sacred precincts of Hermonthis, a few miles south of Thebes. Every time the holy bull died, it was replaced with a new one amid much solemn ceremony. Although the Ptolemies had traditionally sent emissaries to these rites, no ruler had ever gone in person. But when Buchis died in 51 b.c., Cleopatra traveled up the Nile to install his replacement. It was a popular move, and she was hailed by the locals not merely as Cleopatra VII Philopater, but as the Lady of the Two Lands, Cleopatra Thea Philopater-"the Goddess Who Loves Her Father."
For the young queen, the visit to Hermonthis was almost certainly more than a political gesture. Like her father and so many other Ptolemies, she was something of a paradoxical creature-a hard-headed pragmatist and at the same time a devout mystic. Leading the magnificent young bull among the ranks of the assembled priests, she must have felt the pride and the burden of knowing that for them she was Isis incarnate, a goddess on earth.
The queen probably savored the pilgrimage to Upper Egypt for yet another reason: It was a chance to get away from Alexandria, where she enjoyed neither love nor worship. She was, in fact, largely despised by her own people, the Alexandrian Greeks. The contempt that the Graeco-Egyptians had felt for her father and his pro-Roman policies had devolved upon her, and she had other troubles besides. One of the major ones had to do, once again, with Rome.
Two years before Cleopatra's accession, Crassus, the associate of Pompey and Caesar in the First Triumvirate, had set about trying to prove that he had the military talent to justify his exalted status in Rome. Instead, he managed to show what an inept general he really was. In a campaign against the Parthians, whose empire bordered the Roman province of Syria, Crassus was killed and his army routed. The Parthians then invaded Syria and occupied part of the country. Eventually, the Roman governor there, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, turned to Cleopatra for help.
Bibulus sent his two sons to appeal to the new queen of Egypt for the use of the Gabinian mercenaries, whose services she had inherited from Auletes. Cleopatra was willing, but the Gabinians themselves were not. They were thoroughly comfortable in Egypt, had no interest in leaving, and decided that killing Bibulus' sons was the most direct way to make their sentiments clear. Outraged, the queen had the murderers arrested and sent to Bibulus for punishment, thereby earning the enmity of her own army-and greatly increasing the risk that the soldiers would join with her dissatisfied Greek subjects to overthrow her.
Even nature seemed to conspire against her. The Nile, whose life-giving annual flood was so essential to the economy, stubbornly refused to rise. Crops were poor and famine threatened.
Perhaps if she'd been older and more experienced, Cleopatra would have coped better with the various troubles besetting her. As it was, however, she let her pride and ambition overcome her good sense. At a time when her people were in no mood for such a thing, she made it all too clear that she meant to rule Egypt alone.
Although tradition decreed that Ptolemaic kings and queens reigned jointly, the queen always took second place to her consort. If the king was much younger, as was the case with Cleopatra's brother Ptolemy XIII, a regency council represented him, sharing power with the queen until the boy came of age. Flouting both custom and her father's will, Cleopatra ignored the existence of her brother and his council. She excluded Ptolemy from public ceremonies, made decisions of state on her own, and even minted coins that bore her portrait only, with no reference to him.
It might have seemed to her that Egypt, her dynasty, and her own destiny demanded no less, for the spoiled and self-indulgent Ptolemy was clearly her inferior in intelligence and discipline; it seemed unlikely that he would ever acquire the virtues of a good monarch. As for the regency council, its leader was a person the queen loathed and distrusted: Ptolemy's tutor, the eunuch Pothinus. This tall, gawky ibis of a man, with his oiled ringlets, bejeweled robes, and exaggerated makeup that would have embarrassed an Egyptian whore, was a constant threat to her throne. He may have looked absurd, but he was shrewd and single-minded, and he had considerable support.
Pothinus was able to rally all the disaffected elements in Egypt-the army, the natives who were suffering because of the failure of their crops, and, most notably, the Alexandrian Greeks, who had hated the queen all along. To them he needed only point out that the young king was weak and easily manipulated, traits that could never be attributed to his willful and headstrong sister, who was likely to hand Egypt over to Rome at her first opportunity.
The queen lost ground steadily. After the affair of Bibulus' sons, she was forced to at least make a public show of including Ptolemy as her royal colleague. The alternative, she must have known, was to face a popular uprising of the sort that had dethroned her father.
Once again she was alone and surrounded by enemies, as she had been when she was a child. Every day brought new variants of intrigue and danger, and her power, never firmly established, seemed to evanesce into mist, a mocking ghost that eluded every attempt to grasp it.
As the power of the regency council steadily eclipsed hers, assassination became a palpable threat. Fearing for her life, Cleopatra fled Alexandria, accompanied only by a few of her most trusted servants. She had held her throne for scarcely three years.
While the struggle in Egypt unfolded, a far more portentous battle for political control was underway in Rome. The whole Mediterranean world would feel its reverberations, and the life of the beleaguered queen would be profoundly affected.
Romans had already learned that the republic couldn't function for long with two powerful men at its head. Only a generation before, the ambitious leaders Sulla and Marius had pitched the nation into civil war as they fought for supremacy. Now the drama was being repeated. This time the combatants were Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Most knowledgeable observers predicted that Pompey would emerge the winner.
Born into a distinguished patrician family, Pompey had known his first taste of civil strife during the war between Sulla and Marius, when he was only seventeen. He had fought for the victorious Sulla, eventually destroying all remnants of the Marian party in Africa, Sicily, and Spain. It was his exploits in Africa and Sicily that won him the sobriquet Magnus, "the Great."
In 71 b.c. he returned to Italy to quell the rebellion led by the Thracian slave Spartacus. The following year he served as consul, along with Crassus. After his three-year term in office ended, Pompey took his fame to new heights by clearing the Mediterranean of pirates and adding Pontus, Armenia, and Syria to Rome's eastern possessions. In light of these deeds, he was furious when the Senate refused his request to grant certain lands to his soldiers, and he abandoned the patrician party to align himself with Caesar and Crassus in the First Triumvirate. To help seal the pact, the aging hero had married Caesar's only daughter, Julia.
Julia's death in 54 b.c., and Crassus' the following year in his abortive campaign against the Parthians, spelled an end to stability. Corrosive jealousies arose between Pompey and Caesar, and a showdown appeared to be inevitable.
In Rome itself, Pompey was easily the more popular of the two contenders with both the Senate and the people. He had stayed in the city, taking care of his own political interests, during the nine years Caesar was off fighting in Gaul. But the younger general's phenomenal success in battle, and the huge fortune he was amassing from his conquests, made him a dangerous rival.
Pompey and most of the Senate feared Caesar's ambition and his growing power, so they ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome. Knowing that obeying could well mean his death, Caesar took a momentous gamble: Instead of disbanding his legions, he marched them across the Rubicon, the little river separating Gaul and Italy. For a general to enter Italy at the head of an army was a declaration of war; thus Rome once again found itself torn in two.
Rebounding from defeats in a few initial skirmishes, Caesar's forces drove Pompey and his supporters out of Italy. They fled to Greece to continue the fight from there. The odds were growing longer, however. In desperate need of military and financial aid, Pompey sent one of his sons to Egypt to ask for help. Cleopatra had vanished by then from Alexandria, but the regency council received young Pompey cordially-and generously: He was given supplies of grain, along with five hundred Gabinian soldiers and sixty ships. In gratitude, the part of the Senate that had followed Pompey to Greece issued a decree naming their leader guardian of Egypt's young king.
It was something of a hollow gesture, since Ptolemy's new protector was himself in great danger. From Italy, Caesar successfully invaded Spain, routed Pompey's partisans there, then pursued the enemy to Greece. The decisive battle was fought in August of 48 b.c. at Pharsalus in Thessaly. Caesar won overwhelmingly. He was now master of Rome, the most powerful man in the world.
Pompey had escaped with his life, however, and he sped to Egypt, hoping to raise new armies and resume the fight. In September, the last month of the Egyptian year, he sailed with a small contingent of ships toward the shore at Pelusium, near Egypt's eastern border.
As he approached, a small boat rowed out to meet him. In it were three men: Achillas, a Hellenized Egyptian who was a general in Ptolemy's army, and two Gabinian officers. One of these, Lucius Septimus, had served under Pompey in former days. Assuming they were there to welcome him, Pompey, accompanied by only four of his attendants, stepped aboard the little boat. By the time he reached the shore he was dead, stabbed by Septimus.
The reason for this treachery toward a friend of Egypt and the avowed guardian of its king was coldly practical: Pothinus, the ever-scheming leader of the regency council, had advised Ptolemy that the murder was the best way to ensure that Romans of any political stripe would leave Egypt alone. Caesar would surely pursue Pompey, the reasoning went, and if he found him dead, he'd have no reason to stay. Besides, Pothinus concluded, Caesar might even show himself grateful to Egypt for killing his enemy.
Pompey sailed to Pelusium rather than Alexandria because King Ptolemy and his army were nearby, encamped in the shadow of Mount Casius, preparing to do battle with Cleopatra. Like her father before her, Cleopatra had no intention of accepting exile as her final fate.
Some scholars believe that when she was forced out of Alexandria, the queen had originally sought refuge in Upper Egypt, where she had considerable support. Others hold that there could have been no safe haven for her anywhere in Egypt, and she left the country immediately. In any case, Cleopatra eventually made her way to the Philistine city-state of Ashkelon, which lay between Egypt and Palestine. Some years before, her grandfather had saved Ashkelon from being taken over by Judea. For that, the city revered him, and Auletes after him, and it welcomed Cleopatra now.
She had not fled Alexandria empty-handed by any means. Her money and jewels were ample to raise a mercenary army. From her base in Ashkelon, she enlisted soldiers from among the Arab tribesmen in the neighboring kingdom of Nabatea. They were, on the whole, a motley lot to pit against the seasoned Gabinians, who formed the core of Ptolemy's army, but they would have to do.
So it was that in 47 b.c., Cleopatra and her Arabs faced Ptolemy's forces about thirty miles east of Pelusium. For days, the two armies eyed each other from positions on either side of the border, but neither offered battle. It was as though each waited for the tide of larger world events to wash over Egypt's shores and decide the issue for them. Both were aware that Caesar was coming.
Inside her tent, Cleopatra must have given lengthy thought to what this might mean. Her few partisans back in Alexandria would have kept her informed on the progress of Rome's civil war. Now that there was a clear victor, he could dispose of Egypt as he liked. Caesar could finally make this richest of nations a Roman province; that would please the Senate, and he certainly had the military resources to do it. Or he could maintain Egypt's current status as a vassal state of Rome-but an independent one. If he chose the latter course, whom would he back as ruler?
He had no reason to prefer Ptolemy; after all, the regency council had backed Pompey in the war. On the other hand, Caesar was famous for forgiving his former enemies. This curious trait would surely have puzzled Cleopatra, since the Ptolemies had always considered vengeance a natural perquisite and pleasure of kingship. Still, she would have been aware of it, and much else besides: She had kept up with the affairs of Rome, since the superpower to the west was vital to her survival. She could hardly have failed to realize that its new ruler was a many-faceted man.
In his youth, Caesar had been regarded by other important figures in Rome as bright and amiable, but something of a fop-not serious enough to become a threat. Only a few saw at first the relentless ambition that lay at his core. As he rose militarily and politically, however, Caesar's true nature became clearer. He was deemed to be a gifted writer, and something of an intellectual. Cleopatra herself had not read any of his work (Latin was not among her several languages), but scholars at the Library had probably described to her his prose: incisive and unadorned, the work of a man who knew his own power and felt no need for embellishment.
Many times over, Caesar had proved himself in war. He was thought by many to be the greatest general since Alexander, a strategic genius who moved his legions at breakneck speed to surprise and overwhelm his enemies. And, like Alexander, he was worshiped by his men. During campaigns he lived as they did, sharing their hardships and dangers and enjoying no special privileges. It was said that his troops would follow him across the River Styx if he ordered an attack on Hades.
Even so, they made up bawdy songs about him-apparently as a sign of affection. A typical example was the tune that became popular after his conquests in Gaul:
Home we bring our bald whoremaster: Romans! Lock your wives away! All those bags of gold you sent him Went his Gallic tarts to pay.
Reportedly, Caesar wasn't offended by these ditties; on the contrary, he found them quite amusing-except, perhaps, the part about the baldness. The Julian clan, to which he belonged, claimed descent from the goddess Venus, and they were known for being a rather handsome people. Caesar was said to be sensitive about his thinning hair.
Evidently, however, the middle-aged, thrice-married general was not sensitive about his reputation as a prodigious philanderer, which was well deserved. He had slept with queens (kings too, some said), along with uncounted lesser mortals. By all reports, Caesar was as formidable in bed as in battle.
What exactly did Cleopatra make of his womanizing? Chronicles of the times do not say, but it is easy to envision her sitting in her sun-baked desert tent and pondering the matter, wondering if his susceptibility to feminine allure might work in her favor. But how to exploit it? Egyptian women were famous for their sexual artistry, and Cleopatra had probably brought the same curiosity to this subject as she had to arithmetic or astronomy. But whatever she knew, she probably knew only in theory. History provides no evidence whatever that at this point in her life, the queen was anything but a virgin.
What, then, if in her inexperience she failed to please this connoisseur of women? One can almost hear her thinking the problem through: If Caesar did try to seduce her, she would probably do well to feign great pleasure in the act of love. Well, she could certainly pretend-and doubtless she'd have to: She was only twenty-one, and he was more than thirty years older. The prospect of sleeping with him couldn't have been appetizing. Still, her fate, and Egypt's, depended on Caesar's whim. She would do what she had to.
The real question was how to get to him alive. Probably he was already in residence in the royal compound, but the palace was held by her brother's minions, who could be counted on to kill her on sight.
So how could she reach him? She would have spent long hours thinking about that. Finally, Cleopatra settled on a plan that combined comparative safety with maximum drama and wit. She was about to prove, and not for the last time, that she was a woman who knew how to make an entrance.
The exiled queen was right in assuming that Caesar was already in Alexandria. He had arrived with ten warships and a small fighting force of thirty-two hundred infantry and eight hundred cavalry. To the anger and dismay of the city's citizens, he strode to the palace accompanied by a twelve-man consular guard bearing official Roman insignia. This entrance looked altogether too military to the nationalist-minded Alexandrians, and they rioted for several days, killing several of his soldiers. The deaths were unfortunate, but the general probably wasn't overly perturbed. Discontent among the rabble was nothing new, and-consummate politician that he was-he knew how to deal with it.
He addressed the populace personally, reminding the people that in the past he had supported Egypt's independence, and assuring them that as a representative of Roman law, he was there to restore the peace and stability of the realm. Whether anyone believed him or not, his promises were sufficient for the moment. A wary quiet descended, and he was able to turn his attention to unsnarling the Oriental tangle of Egyptian politics.
At least he could review the problems in comfort. No doubt the palace was quite the most luxurious dwelling Caesar had ever seen-as a Roman would expect of the sybaritic Greeks. One can envision him lying back in one of its vast, porphyry baths, reflecting on how pleasant it was to be there after the long years in hostile Gaul and the rigors of the civil war. The Alexandrians were a contentious lot, but what a city this was, with its wealth, its sophisticated Hellenism, its echoes of Egyptian antiquity. It must have appealed to both his intellect and his senses.
No doubt it also called to his ambition. In this city was the tomb of the great Alexander. Caesar visited it, probably regarding the gilded corpse with both reverence and a degree of envy, since this long-dead Macedonian was the paradigm for all conquerors. But there were differences: Alexander had ruled unchallenged and absolutely; Caesar was merely the foremost man in a republic. Nominally, at least, he still relied on the goodwill of the Roman Senate. But, as his enemies in Rome suspected and feared, he hoped to eliminate that inconvenience.
It would take time, a precious commodity to the general. Alexander had been young-only thirty-three-when he died, having by then brought the whole known world under his sway. Caesar was fifty-two, and as yet he was far from rivaling Alexander, in extent of territory or control of it. There must have been many moments when the scarred and war-weary Roman felt the weight of his years, as he marked the distance still to cross before absolute power lay within his grasp.
Caesar's first few days in Alexandria would have stirred such shadowed moods, despite the attractions of the city. The civil war had given him victory over Pompey, but his enemy's ignominious death had robbed that triumph of much of its luster. And now, after the fairly straightforward business of battle, he faced the tedium of sorting out Egypt's problem: What to do with this latest generation of Macedonians, the current Ptolemies; how to bring these errant, squabbling children into line.
Not long after he settled himself in the palace, Caesar sent for both Cleopatra and Ptolemy. The young king returned promptly from his desert encampment along with his advisors, including the eunuch Pothinus. The Roman general dealt with them cordially, but there was loathing behind his smiles, for a minion of Ptolemy had recently presented him with the embalmed head of Pompey, holding the grisly thing up before him with simpering pride, as though he should be pleased. Losing his composure for once, Caesar had wept with rage. Pompey had been his enemy, but a worthy one, deserving an honorable death in battle, not murder at the hands of perfidious foreigners. Such a deed could not go unpunished.
Meanwhile, he awaited Cleopatra.
His informers in Egypt would have told him a great deal about the deposed young queen, prompting at the very least some idle curiosity. They would have remarked on how brilliant she was-willful and determined, but charming nonetheless, a poised and gifted conversationalist. Certainly they would have described her voice, low-pitched and musical. Every listener was struck by it, even more than by her appearance.
Knowing the danger she faced in attempting to reach the palace, he must have wondered how she would manage it, or if she would manage it at all.
Given the circumstances and the characters involved, the first meeting of Caesar and Cleopatra is surely one of history's most extraordinary encounters.
Caesar was alone in his quarters late at night when a visitor was announced, a merchant bearing a gift. The man was admitted, a tall, strapping fellow with a rug slung over his shoulder. When it was unrolled, Cleopatra tumbled out.
History leaves the rest of the evening largely to the imagination, but presumably it began with some polite, mutual assessment. No doubt Caesar was surprised by Cleopatra's entrance, and he probably also found it amusing and admirable: It showed spirit and wit. Doubtless, too, he found her attractive; men invariably did.
Cleopatra's beauty was unconventional. The high-bridged nose of the Ptolemies was a little too long in her case to fit the Roman ideal, and there were other flaws. In a time when fair complexions were admired, she was rather dark, perhaps reflecting a heritage from one of her grandmothers, a Seleucid princess with some Persian blood. But her hair was lovely-luxuriant, and coppery in color. And there was something indefinably compelling about her face; it shone with intelligence and strength of will.
As for her, she must have been attracted instantly by the one quality that she admired most and that Caesar had in such abundance: power. In his presence, she would have seen that it resided not just in his rank but in his person, explaining why his armies gladly followed him and his enemies feared him.
They surely found much to talk about, this unique and brilliant pair. Caesar probably told Cleopatra what he'd already told Ptolemy and Pothinus officially: He was in Egypt to keep Rome's promise to enforce the terms of Auletes' will. The late king had wished for her and Ptolemy to rule jointly, and that was the way it would be. Perhaps he pointed out that a shared throne was better than no throne at all-a point which, as an exile, Cleopatra would have found easy enough to grasp. For the moment, it might indeed be politic to share.
Whatever they discussed, there came a time when the talking stopped. In the course of that first night, they became lovers.
Her Roman critics would later say that Cleopatra's motives were wholly political. But the course that her life took after this first meeting suggests otherwise. She had met a man with the genius to teach her and with the power to protect her-the power, in fact, to realize her dreams for herself and Egypt. Caesar was the only equal she would ever know. She was in love with him, as she would never be again.
|Ch. I||Royal City, Royal Child||28|
|Ch. II||Princess & Queen||54|
|Ch. III||Woman & Lover||70|
|Ch. IV||Death of the Dream||94|
|Ch. V||The Last Pharaoh||122|
Posted December 22, 2008
No text was provided for this review.