The woman who would become Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, but whom her posterity would be content to know simply as Cleopatra, was born in Alexandria in 69 BC. Her father was Ptolemy XII, the current king of Egypt; her mother may have been his queen, who was also quite probably his half-sister, or she may have been one of his many concubines.
Cleopatra’s native wit and interest in learning distinguished her at an early age. Indeed, one might consider her a throwback to the first century of the Ptolemy monarchy in this respect. According to legend, she was the first Ptolemy ever to bother to learn Egyptian, the language of the people her family had been ruling for the past 250 years. Just surviving into adulthood in the viper’s nest that was the bosom of her family was a notable accomplishment in itself. Of the five acknowledged children of Ptolemy XII — Cleopatra had one sister who was eight years older, another sister who was slightly younger, and brothers eight and ten years younger than herself — only three would still be alive and free by the time they reached age twenty, while only Cleopatra herself would be able to say the same at age 25.
Cleopatra would owe her eventual ascension to the throne of Egypt to this propensity the family had for eating its own. When she was ten years old, her father, who appears to have been an unusually incompetent ruler even by the standards of latter-day Ptolemies, suffered the indignity of being run out of the country and replaced by her big sister, the eighteen-year-old Berenice. He fled to Rome, by long tradition now the place all Ptolemies looked to for aid when they got themselves into trouble. Some accounts claim that he took Cleopatra with him to the seat of the Republic, where she polished her Latin and charmed much of the city’s ruling class, even as her father was begging the same men to send an army to reinstall him on his throne in Alexandria. This they finally agreed to do after three years — much to the disadvantage of Berenice, who was beheaded as soon as Ptolemy XII took charge again.
At age thirteen, Cleopatra now stood next in line for his throne. Somehow she avoided becoming the repository for any assassins’ blades during the next five years, until her father died and she herself became queen of Egypt in 51 BC. Officially, she was to rule jointly with her ten-year-old brother, who was now given the appellation Ptolemy XIII; the siblings were married in order to seal the arrangement. In truth, however, she was not given to sharing power with anyone. She moved quickly to establish herself alone as the true ruler of Egypt, excising all mention of her brother from government documents and public ceremonies.
Just who was this young woman who already manifested such a will to power? Ironically in light of her sheer ubiquity in later art, literature, and historiography, it’s difficult to say much at all that is indisputable about Cleopatra the person. There are many parallels to be drawn in this respect between her and Alexander the Great. Like him, she reaches us more as an icon than a human being, more as a canvas to be painted upon than a finished work. Historical traditionalists — especially those of a romantic, not to say prurient, predilection — relish the notion of Cleopatra the wily seductress, combining the realpolitik of Greece with the limpid seductions of the Egyptian harem. But revisionist historians rail against that interpretation for the way that it shoves her into the same box in which men have been placing powerful women throughout the course of history, for the way it demeans her by implying that she did all of her most important work on her back. Their eagerness to negate the latter implication can give their criticisms an oddly puritanical tone, as when they make the claim, neither provable nor disprovable, that she actually had just two lovers over the course of her lifetime. And yet their point is well-taken when they note that nowhere near as much ink has been spilled on the physical appearances and sex lives of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, the two male historical figures with which she will be eternally linked. Certainly the less positive epithets with which she still has to contend, like “whore” and “harlot,” would never have been applied to a man with the same reputation for sexual conquest. “A woman who is generous with her money is to be praised,” wrote the Roman rhetorician Quintilian by way of encapsulating millennia worth of double standards. “Not so if she is generous with her person.”
Needless to say, we won’t be able to resolve any of this here, any more than we were able to reconcile history’s conflicting visions of Alexander the Great. Failing this, Will Durant’s sketch of Cleopatra is cogent enough and as likely as any of the others, for all that it may be less than politically correct today in the way it hews to the more traditionalist line.
Cleopatra was more probably blonde than brunette. She was not particularly beautiful; but the grace of her carriage, the vivacity of her body and her mind, the variety of her accomplishments, the suavity of her manners, the very melody of her voice, combined with her royal position to make her a heady wine. She was acquainted with Greek history, literature, and philosophy; she spoke Greek, Egyptian, Syrian, and allegedly other languages, well; she added the intellectual fascination of an Aspasia to the seductive abandon of a completely uninhibited woman. Tradition credits her with a treatise on cosmetics and another on the alluring subject of Egyptian measures, weights, and coins. She was an able ruler and administrator, effectively promoted Egyptian commerce and industry, and was a competent financier even when making love. With these qualities went an Oriental sensuality, an impetuous brutality that dealt out suffering and death, and a political ambition that dreamed of empire and honored no code but success. If she had not borne the intemperate blood of the later Ptolemies in her veins she might have achieved her purpose of being the queen of a unified Mediterranean realm. She saw that Egypt could no longer be independent of Rome and knew no reason why she should not dominate their union.
After she became queen, the idea of Cleopatra as a throwback to her dynasty’s culture-straddling philosopher kings of yore must have seemed steadily more apropos. She took full advantage of her linguistic talents by speaking directly to her people for the first time in the history of her line, and threw herself into the role of Egyptian pharaoh with an abandon that hadn’t been seen in generations. Her royal barge sailed up and down the Nile, Cleopatra herself standing at the prow decked out in her full ceremonial regalia of gold and jewels, shining in the bright desert sun like a divinity come down to earth. But she could also put her pharaonic regalia away and be effortlessly, pragmatically Greek when the situation called for it. We may be doomed to argue forever about a thousand details of her nature, appearance, and deeds, but we can say for certain that she was a woman to be reckoned with. The physical and psychological inbreeding that had made such degenerates of the latter-day Ptolemies had somehow passed her by. Observing her, one could almost believe that she heralded a renaissance inside her benighted family’s Alexandrian palace, that Ptolemaic Egypt’s best days might yet be ahead of it rather than far behind it.
But the rest of her family looked less kindly upon the enthusiasm with which she claimed the mantle of pharaoh. Just two years into her reign, Egypt suffered one of its rare poor harvests. A trio of ambitious courtiers claimed her arrogance to have angered the gods, and cooked up a rebellion in Alexandria in the name of replacing her with the young Ptolemy XIII. Cleopatra was forced to flee for her life from a hungry mob that had been incited to blame her for their empty bellies. She made her way eastward with a select retinue of loyalists, and found a friendly reception in Ashkelon, a thriving city-state on the coast of Palestine. There she set about raising an army to seize back the power she craved.
Back in Alexandria, the handlers of Ptolemy XIII had been watching her movements carefully, and now prepared an army of their own to meet hers. In September of 48 BC, it marched east, under the ostensible personal command of the boy king, who rode in a chariot at its head in his splendid pharaonic armor. It drew up near the town of Pelusium, at the northeastern tip of the Nile Delta. For once, Cleopatra was utterly stymied; the opposing army was much superior to her own, such that joining battle with it would be tantamount to suicide. She dithered some distance to the east, uncertain what to do. And then a wildcard fell into her lap, in the persons of the world’s two most famous living Romans — which is to say the two most famous men of any nationality alive in the world at the time.
While the Ptolemies had been intriguing and murdering in their typical fashion, more momentous forms of conflict had been afoot in Rome. The Republic which had proved so much more durable than the direct democracies of Greece was proving in the end not to be eternally so; it was coming apart at the seams at long last.
The origins of this unraveling dated back many decades. Rome’s countless military victories had spawned a caste of generals whose exploits crowned them with a populist glory which no mere civilian senator or even consul could hope to equal. These generals commanded large legions that were personally loyal to them rather than to the abstract ideals of the Roman state. More and more, it was the generals who became consuls, thus dominating the workings of the supposedly civilian government. As the institutions of said government stretched themselves to accommodate these men who were accustomed to giving orders and seeing them obeyed, the traditional safeguards against individual power, such as the requirement that no consul could serve consecutive terms in office, began to fall by the wayside; already beginning in 104 BC, one general-turned-consul served five terms in a row. Although Rome’s enormous military might was still widely and justifiably feared by foreign states, its domestic institutions were rotting from within.
It was into this fraught milieu that Julius Caesar was born in 100 BC. The scion of a very aged and respectable but not overly wealthy or influential family, he grew up proclaiming Alexander the Great to be his role model, as seemingly every ambitious young man did in those days. He envisioned himself becoming both a writer and a soldier, an intellectual and a leader. But before achieving any of that, he proved himself to be a born survivor cut from the same cloth as Cleopatra; he fled Rome entirely at least once in his youth when the city’s erratic political winds momentarily blew against his family, and somewhat later survived a kidnapping by a fearsome band of pirates.
For all his ambition, Caesar came to true prominence quite late in life by the standards of his time, when he was already 40 years old. Prior to that point, he was known mostly as a political and military opportunist and a bit of a dilettante, and for his good looks and charm and the string of torrid love affairs he carried on — often simultaneously — with women and men alike. Wags on the streets of Rome called him “every woman’s man and every man’s woman.”
In 60 BC, this dandy-about-town journeyed to Spain to take command of a small army, and promptly revealed a latent tactical genius by defeating two troublesome local tribes in rather convincing fashion. The following year, he returned to Rome itching to capitalize on his newfound glory. He forged an alliance of convenience with two of the generals who all but ran Roman politics by this point. They were named Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus; the latter, who is now most commonly known simply as Pompey, was the greatest of all the generals of the time, with a fantastic record of military achievement and an ego to match. This so-called First Triumvirate assured that Caesar was elected to a term as consul. When the term was over, Pompey, being perhaps eager to get out of Rome an ostensible ally whose lust for personal power was more and more on display, arranged an appointment for him as governor of the sprawling continental province of Gaul, which encompassed the northernmost portion of modern-day Italy, most of Switzerland, and the southern half of France.
Knowing all too well that the swiftest route to sustained power in Rome was now foreign military success, Caesar claimed, rightly or wrongly, that he needed to secure much more territory in order to protect Rome itself from the Germanic tribes which roamed the continent. He conquered far and wide in the years that followed, even crossing over to the island of Britain for a while. Showing an instinct for self-promotion that would make any modern-day PR flack proud, he kept a journal of his exploits; this he eventually had sent back to Rome, where it was copied and widely disseminated among a citizenry whose appetite for such heroic tales of foreign adventure knew no bounds. All of this was much to the chagrin of Pompey, who was not accustomed to having rivals to his own glory. When Crassus, who had served as a moderating influence between the headstrong Caesar and Pompey, was killed in a foreign adventure of his own in 53 BC, a clash between the two surviving members of the First Triumvirate became inevitable. For, as the poet Lucan wrote about 100 years after these events, “Caesar would accept no superior, while Pompey would accept no equal.”
So, both men gathered armies for the war that would decide which was master of Rome and, by extension, the entire world; Pompey did so in Macedonia, the very homeland of Alexander the Great, while Caesar of course did so in Gaul. The Roman Senate was now almost evenly split between supporters of Pompey and supporters of Caesar. Among the former group were such luminaries as Cato the Younger, the leading orator of his age, and Cicero, the leading Republican political theorist, both of whom were motivated to cast their lots with Pompey not out of any personal love for the man but because they believed him to be less destabilizing to what was left of the Republic than his challenger would be. The supporters of Caesar were a less intellectually eminent, more opportunistic bunch, including such characters as Mark Antony, a rambunctious but brave, reliable, and capable general who had previously served under Caesar and who will come to play a large role in our story in due course.
Closely balanced though the factions were in the Senate, Pompey’s camp did have one unassailable advantage over Caesar’s: the two consuls who were serving at the time both belonged to it. On January 7, 49 BC, they forced through the Senate a resolution ordering Caesar to return to Rome alone to face charges of insubordination.
Instead he marched on Rome with his army. On January 11, he crossed the Rubicon River, the northern boundary of the province of Rome proper, thereby adding an immortal phrase to our lexicon. (The river today is little more than a stream, such that the body of water in question was not definitively identified as the ancient river until 1991.) And then he added one more timeless adage for good measure: “The die is cast.” Mark Antony joined the last stage of the march as Caesar’s second-in-command, a role he would continue to fill faithfully for the rest of his patron’s life. With Pompey far off to the east gathering his own army, the capital surrendered without a fight in the face of the obvious superiority of Caesar’s forces.
But the war between Caesar and Pompey was only beginning. It was to be a struggle to the death between these two imperious figures, with the hallowed institutions of the Republic utterly impotent in the face of their vainglory. “The clash of the two warlords was a very Roman civil war,” writes historian David M. Gwynn. “It was not a war fought over patriotism or rival visions of Rome’s future. It was a struggle for power, gloria, and dignitas, the selfish principles of the Roman elite, and marked the culmination of the self-destructive Roman competitive impulse.”
After another eighteen months of jockeying for position, the showdown between these two proud men and their armies came on August 9, 48 BC, near the town of Pharsalus (modern-day Farsala) in central Greece. Pompey had managed to raise an army twice the size of Caesar’s, with five or six times as many horsemen. And yet it was Caesar who won the day decisively, thanks to his superb generalship, the able assistance of Antony, and the unbreakable esprit de corps of his loyal legionnaires, most of whom had been fighting under him for years. While his army surrendered en masse, Pompey fled — fled, in fact, to Egypt.
As he was doing so, the armies of Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra were drawing up near the port city of Pelusium to prosecute their separate, infinitely less titanic struggle for power. So, Pompey made his way there instead of to the capital of Alexandria. On September 28, he showed up with his small, furtive flotilla of ships and asked to be taken to see Ptolemy XIII.
Why should he have looked for help from that quarter? He was, first of all, desperate, and had few to no other conceivable sources of protection and succor. But additionally, Pompey had been a good friend to Ptolemy XII, having supported the latter’s cause when he came to Rome seeking help to win back his own kingdom. Surely that monarch’s son would now reciprocate in Pompey’s hour of need. Alas, this mode of reasoning only served to prove how little Pompey really knew the Ptolemies.
When Pompey sailed into the harbor, only a single, rather shabby boat came out to meet him. Still, he could see the boy king himself apparently waiting for him, standing there on the quay in his purple robes of state, while the leader of the greeting party was one Achillas, a prominent courtier and military leader. Achillas greeted Pompey politely if somewhat coolly. Then Pompey’s wife and the rest of his retinue watched as their leader climbed into the Egyptian vessel. They were still watching when, halfway between Pompey’s ship and the king waiting ashore, his escorts pounced upon him and stabbed him to death. Not being much given to sentimentality, the Ptolemaic court could see little profit in going to war with Caesar because of some service Pompey had rendered them years ago. But they could, by contrast, see enormous value in proving their loyalty to the man who looked destined to dominate the life of Rome henceforward. What better way to do so than by dispatching his greatest rival for him?
Very shortly after the murder of Pompey, the courtiers who had planned and carried out that act received a piece of exciting news: Julius Caesar was coming to Alexandria on a visit of state. Egypt, a place whose economic importance to Rome was as immense as its internal politics were petty, was a logical port of call for the de-facto leader of the Republic on his voyage home. Additionally, the visit would provide an opportunity for him to inquire whether the Ptolemies knew anything of the whereabouts of his fugitive rival. As soon as they received the news, the courtiers in Pelusium sent an urgent message back to the capital along with a grisly proof of their loyalty. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria, for once without Mark Antony — in fact, he was accompanied only by a couple of battle-weary legions consisting of less than 2500 men — his hosts proudly raised the severed head of Pompey before him and waited to be praised and rewarded for their initiative.
But Caesar’s reaction was not the one they had expected. He wept bitterly at the sight of his honorable enemy thus desecrated. Then he asked pointedly why they had not simply taken Pompey prisoner, why they had not turned him over to the Roman authorities to be dealt with by Roman law. His friendly bearing toward his presumptuous hosts hardened into a scarcely veiled contempt. When the king and his court personally arrived back from Pelusium — their troubles with Cleopatra momentarily forgotten amidst this latest excitement — Caesar continued to display an icy, high-handed manner, treating them like wayward Roman minions rather than the government of an independent state. Even more ominously, he sent orders back to Greece to dispatch more legions to Alexandria. No one in the palace knew where they stood. Had Caesar finally elected to dispense with the polite fiction of a self-reliant Ptolemaic Egypt and take the country for himself? Did he envision crowning himself the next pharaoh of Egypt, as his hero Alexander the Great had once done? The court of Ptolemy XIII were mortally afraid of his intentions, but even more afraid to raise their hands against him, what with his influence in Rome and the additional legions that might already be on the way.
Word of these developments reached Cleopatra courtesy of the network of spies she had left behind in the capital. She decided to take advantage of the uncertainty with a daring gambit that must either get her killed or win Caesar over to her cause. She and Caesar may have already known each other, although probably not well; if Cleopatra did travel with her father to Rome when he sought aid there, her visit would have overlapped with Caesar’s year as consul. At any rate, she was now determined to bring every bit of her considerable personal charm to bear on him.
A group of her men smuggled her over the border of Egypt and on to Memphis, whence she was sailed down the Nile Delta to Alexandria in the bottom of a humble two-oared boat. She made the final leg of her journey inside a rude leather sack carried by a servant who announced that he had a delivery meant for Caesar alone. When the sack sat alone in a room with the great leader at last, she burst out of her confines like all the troubles of man issuing from Pandora’s Box.
This moment has since been imagined by millennia of poets, painters, novelists, and screenwriters. Consider, for example, the ancient poet Lucan:
There in her fatal beauty lay the queen,
Thick daubed with unguents, nor with throne content
Nor with her brother spouse; laden she lay
On neck and hair with all the Red Sea spoils,
And faint beneath the weight of gems and gold.
Her snowy breast shone through Sidonian lawn
Which woven close by shuttles of the east
The art of Nile had loosened.
Admittedly, it seems highly unlikely that, after her long, arduous journey that culminated in several hours stuffed inside a sack, she could truly have been the vision of opulent beauty at her first meeting with Caesar which Lucan and so many others have imagined.
In fact, it’s as likely as not that the whole story of her dramatic arrival in Alexandria has more to do with the romantic imagination than historical reality. We can say with certainty only that Cleopatra came to Alexandria by some means, met Caesar, and forged a bond with him that involved the bedchamber as well as the halls of state. Caesar was three decades Cleopatra’s senior and had left a wife behind in Rome, but such scruples had never quelled his lust before. And everything we know about Cleopatra tells us that she wouldn’t have hesitated to use any and every means at her disposal to claw her way back onto the throne of Egypt — even if, as many have suspected, she was a virgin prior to meeting Caesar. (She had presumably not yet consummated her marriage with her child husband.) Was it a case of two attractive people using one another, each for his or her own ends, or was there a spark of genuine passion — not to say love! — involved? That too, of course, we cannot hope to determine definitively, but what signs we have point to Caesar and Cleopatra’s bond being both genuine and very, very passionate.
In public, Caesar came out quickly and forcibly in favor of Cleopatra. He appeared before a shocked royal court with her standing at his side and informed them that he meant to restore the power structure as it has been before Cleopatra was forced to flee the capital: she and Ptolemy XIII would be co-monarchs once again, albeit with a bit more weight given to her proclamations in light of her more advanced age. Legend has it that the young king revealed himself to be very much a typical thirteen-year-old boy when he learned that Caesar expected him to share his kingdom: he promptly burst into petulant tears.
Yet the situation was long from resolved. Caesar still had no more than 4000 of his own soldiers in Alexandria, while an Egyptian army more than 20,000 soldiers strong remained in the field under the command of Achillas, the murderer of Pompey and by far the land of Egypt’s most talented military leader. Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s slightly younger sister and a Ptolemy to the core, smelled an opportunity for herself amidst the confusion and sneaked out of the palace to join this army. It soon arrived in Alexandria to begin something that was more than a negotiation but less than a full-on siege. Caesar’s soldiers had by now taken over the palace; it became their redoubt while the army of Achillas and Arsinoe occupied the rest of the city. Caesar and Cleopatra holed up inside in constant danger of assassination — at least one plot to poison them was narrowly averted thanks to a paid informant — while Arsinoe incited a mob outside with rabble-rousing speeches about foreign yokes that needed to be thrown off, and the rest of the royal family debated whether the preponderance of the political leaders back in Rome would be more angry or thankful if they made an end to the lovers.
Like Pompey before him, Caesar still had much to learn about the staggering duplicity of the Ptolemies. At one point, he decided to have a heart-to-heart with Ptolemy XIII, who was still trapped in the palace with him. A wonderful orator, Caesar pulled out all the stops now, urging the boy to accept the joint arrangement with Cleopatra in order to save his land from the chaos that now afflicted it. The youngster’s eyes welled up with tears, and, amidst much fulsome praise of the elder man’s wisdom and courage, he promised wholeheartedly to bring things to a peaceful accord if allowed to leave the palace. Caesar’s eyes were also moist as he agreed to do so, convinced that he had now made a loyal friend for life out of both Egyptian monarchs. The moment Ptolemy XIII actually left the palace, of course, he cast his lot more firmly than ever with Achillas and Arsinoe. “Freed like a racehorse let out of the starting gate, the king proceeded to wage war against Caesar so fiercely that one had to believe he had shed the tears in their conversation out of pure joy,” wrote one wry ancient commentator.
Had the reunited Ptolemies ever gotten their act together and mounted a proper assault on the palace, they would likely have made short work of its defenders. But luckily for Caesar and Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic heritage of corruption made such a coordinated action all but impossible. An ancient history of these events which may have been based upon Caesar’s own notes describes how Achillas and Arsinoe had already begun to feud even before the young king arrived to join them: “A dispute arose about who really was the leader. This development resulted in increased payouts to the soldiers, as both parties spent huge sums trying to buy their support.” Once Ptolemy XIII arrived on the scene, the feuding increased in equal measure. Indeed, some have speculated that Cleopatra, knowing her family all too well, allowed Caesar to believe that the boy was sincere precisely in order to sow further dissension among the enemy ranks. If so, her gambit succeeded magnificently: joining forces for the nonce, Arsinoe and the boy agreed to have the impertinent Achillas executed, thus eliminating their side’s one competent general.
But Caesar’s situation was in its way even more ludicrous than that of the feuding army that surrounded him. The most famed military leader of his age, now the undisputed political master of the world’s one superpower thanks to his most recent battle triumph, had managed to get himself trapped like a rat in a cage in the capital of a second-rate state. Outwardly unperturbed, he waited patiently to see how events would resolve themselves, supervising the palace’s defenses and working on his latest memoir when he wasn’t dallying with his high-born mistress.
In the fractious, eminently corruptible milieu of Alexandria, there was no shortage of men willing to act as emissaries between those trapped inside the palace and the world outside the city’s walls. This Caesar and Cleopatra took full advantage of to seek relief from their predicament. The most obvious source of same was the sea; Roman ships were soon landing amidst the coastal wetlands to either side of Alexandria, where they offloaded food and other supplies and possibly some human reinforcements as well, all of which were then smuggled into the palace by obliging locals. They could almost certainly have smuggled Caesar and Cleopatra out easily enough, but the couple were growing less and less inclined to run as they viewed the ineptitude of Arsinoe and Ptolemy XIII. Caesar dug wells to assure his water supply for the long haul, and was even able to expand his defensive perimeter somewhat. Alexandria became a true war zone — albeit one of a peculiarly technocratic personality, given that the city was such a locus of engineering know-how; although their royal leaders were inept, the citizens designing the actual machinery of war most definitely were not. From the history reputed to have been based upon Caesar’s own journal:
The Alexandrians had closed off all the streets and alleyways with a triple wall; it was actually built of stone blocks and 40 feet [12 meters] high at a minimum. Some parts of the city were on lower ground, and these they fortified with very high towers, all of them ten stories high. In addition, they had assembled movable towers of an equal number of stories; they put wheels under these towers, and by harnessing draft animals to them with ropes, they pulled them along the wide and straight streets to any part of the city where they were needed.
The city, being extremely productive and full of supplies, afforded resources for every kind of equipment. The ingenious and very smart inhabitants put into effect on their own side the same measures they saw our men taking, and they were so clever that it looked as if our men were imitating the enemies’ work. The Alexandrians also made many inventions of their own, and they managed at the same time to harry our fortifications and defend their own.
While small, fast ships could easily land supplies next to Alexandria, it was not possible for the clumsy galleons that were needed to transport a large invasion force to do the same. Instead the main body of Roman ships was forced to mount a direct assault on the city proper. In a series of pitched battles, the veteran Roman legions — most of them had fought at the Battle of Pharsalus on the side of either Caesar or Pompey; such were the swiftly shifting loyalties of ancient warfare — succeeded in capturing much of the island of Pharos. But a withering rain of arrows and stones from the Lighthouse of Alexandria, fulfilling its defensive purpose at last 200 years after its erection, made it impossible for the Roman ships to penetrate to the Great Harbor beyond, or for the soldiers on the island to advance up the narrow causeway which separated it from the mainland. By February of 47 BC, the battle for Alexandria had become a stalemate.
According to some ancient sources, the fighting did take one particularly terrible toll. Plutarch writes that at one point some of Caesar’s units were cut off near the docks of the city, and were forced to “ward off danger with fire, and this, spreading from the dockyards, destroyed the great library.” Another ancient historian named Dio Cassius says that “many places were set on fire, with the result that, along with other buildings, the dockyards and the storehouses of grain and books, said to be great in number and of the finest, were burned.” These are two very different claims, the one stating outright that the Library of Alexandria was destroyed, the other merely that books which had been stored in quayside warehouses — a storage adjunct to the library proper? — were burned. The modern historian of libraries Lionel Casson hews more to Dio, noting that much of the scholarship which took place in Alexandria well after Caesar’s chaotic sojourn there would seem to have been dependent on the library’s famously huge collection of books. I would add to his argument another piece of circumstantial evidence: the fact that Alexandria was not a city that burned easily by ancient standards, being constructed mostly of stone rather than wood. In light of this, it’s hard to imagine a fire accidentally spreading all the way from the docklands to the library and then reaching the books inside that building, which was presumably itself made of stone. (Some have claimed that Caesar deliberately set fire to the library, but this seems wildly out of character for him; he was, whatever else he might have been, a great lover of books and learning.)
The battle for Alexandria ended with unexpected abruptness. Months before, Caesar had sent a trusted friend named Mithridates overland to the western coast of Asia. This region had more or less belonged to Rome since the collapse of the Seleucid Empire, and its people were generally sympathetic to Cleopatra’s cause as well, as evidenced by the army she had so recently been able to raise there. Carrying with him as he did the imprimatur of Caesar, Mithridates now raised a far more imposing force there. It included in its ranks several thousand Jewish soldiers who were eager to relieve the largest enclave of their people outside of their ancestral homeland — an enclave which had largely chosen to take Cleopatra’s side as the more enlightened of the warring monarchs. Mithridates set off back to Egypt with these soldiers and many, many more.
When word reached Arsinoe and Ptolemy XIII that Mithridates’s army was approaching, they made the questionable decision to abandon Alexandria and march off to meet it in the field. As soon as they did so, Caesar gathered his own troops and hightailed it after them without even pausing to declare victory in the Battle of Alexandria.
The three armies all came together in late February or early March of 47 BC, in the Nile Delta some distance southeast of the city. Few ancient accounts of this Battle of the Nile have survived; we don’t even know its precise location. We can surmise, however, that the opposing sides were fairly equal in terms of numbers, with perhaps 20,000 men each. In terms of generalship, however, the boy king and his sister were hopelessly out of their depth; it was literally a case of boys and girls against men. Caesar and Mithridates attacked their foes when they least expected it and routed them with ease, as described in our most complete ancient chronicle of the battle, the one possibly drawn from Caesar’s journal:
The Alexandrians were terrified and confused. They began to run through the camp in all directions. The havoc thus created gave our [Caesar’s] men so much encouragement that they broke into the camp almost simultaneously on all sides — though it was actually at the highest point that they were first successful, and from there they swept down and killed a large number of enemies in the rest of the camp. Most of the Alexandrians ran from the danger and flung themselves down, one wave on top of another, from the rampart onto the area next to the river. The first wave of them, plunging straight down into the trench under the fortifications, could not survive the force of that long fall, but for the rest it was easier to escape. It is an established fact that the king himself fled from the camp and was taken onto a ship; but a large number of men were swimming to the ships that were closest, and his vessel was overloaded and sank, so that he perished.
Thus ended the life of the unlamented husband of Cleopatra; he would have done better to have kept his tearful promise to Caesar. Arsinoe, on the other hand, was captured, and borne in chains back to Alexandria by the victors.
Once there, Caesar accepted the city’s surrender: “The town’s entire population threw down their weapons, deserted the fortifications, and put on the type of clothing in which they were used to supplicate those in power with prayers for mercy.” Cleopatra was reinstated to her throne, with the newly crowned Ptolemy XIV, the eleven-year-old brother of the recently departed Ptolemy XIII, as her official co-monarch and husband — but now there was no doubt whatsoever who really wielded power. Caesar stayed with Cleopatra in what was now undeniably her kingdom for almost three months of feasting and frolicking, enjoying all the lavish luxuries for which the Ptolemies were almost as famous as they were for their murderous intrigues.
The whole story of Caesar in Alexandria constitutes the strangest, most atypical episode in the man’s life. It is, writes Cleopatra’s biographer Stacy Schiff, “an illogical adventure in the life of a supremely logical man. The best that can be said of the Alexandrian War is that Caesar acquitted himself brilliantly in a situation in which he stupidly found himself.” Most bizarre of all was the coda to the war just won, when Caesar dawdled in Egypt with Cleopatra instead of rushing back to Rome to secure the power he had grabbed with his final victory over Pompey. After a lifetime of sexual conquest, was he really as besotted with her as the romantics among us have been claiming for so many centuries? It’s difficult to find any more viable explanation for his behavior.
At any rate, Cleopatra and Caesar embarked on a weeks-long pleasure cruise up the Nile once the pomp and circumstance of her second coronation were behind them, gawking at the splendors of the land’s bygone ages much like honeymooning tourists of today. He “would have gone through Egypt with her in her royal barge almost to Ethiopia, had not his soldiers threatened mutiny,” writes the Roman historian Suetonius. Caesar defied his young mistress in only one respect: instead of executing Arsinoe, as she stridently begged him to do, he sent her back to Rome to be paraded in chains before the public. She was then exiled to the ascetic life of a priestess of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
On June 10, Caesar finally said goodbye to Cleopatra. But he did leave her with two things to remind her of him. One was an army of 12,000 Roman soldiers, who remained behind to ensure that her status as queen would not be threatened again. The other was a more personal gift: less than two weeks after Caesar’s departure, Cleopatra gave birth to a little boy. She called him, naturally, Caesarion.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)