The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/Cleopatra's Conquest of Caesar and Antony


B.C. 51-30


(Several Egyptian princesses of the line of the Ptolemies bore the name of Cleopatra, but history, romance, and tragedy are all illumined with the story of one—Cleopatra the daughter of Ptolemy Auletes. Born at Alexandria, B.C. 69, she ruled jointly with her brother Ptolemy from 51 to 48. Being then expelled by her colleague, she entered upon the performance of her part in Roman history when her cause was espoused by Julius Cæsar, whom she had captivated by her charms. Her reinstatement by the help of Cæsar, as well as all that followed in her relations with Roman rulers, was due primarily to personal considerations, rather than political or military causes; and among women whose lives have vitally influenced the conduct of great historic leaders, and thereby affected the course of events, Cleopatra holds a place at once the most conspicuous and most unique.

Like Cæsar, Mark Antony, at his first interview with Cleopatra, succumbed to the fascinations of the "Rare Egyptian," and he never after ceased to be her slave. Not long after Cæsar's death Antony had married Fulvia, whom he deserted for the "enchanting queen." From this point to its culmination in overwhelming disaster and the tragic death of this celebrated pair of lovers, the romantic drama of Cleopatra's conquests becomes even more important in literature than in history. This extraordinary voluptuary, whose beauty and witcheries have interested mankind for almost twenty centuries, has been the subject of some thirty tragedies in various languages; and in Antony and Cleopatra—one of his greatest plays—Shakespeare, closely following the narratives of Plutarch and other classical writers, has invested her with a potency of charm unparalleled among literary creations.

She matches Antony in qualities of intellect, while she dazzles him with her coquettish arts. "A queen, a siren," says Thomas Campbell, "a Shakespeare's Cleopatra alone could have entangled Shakespeare's Antony." And Shakespeare alone, as declared by Mrs. Jameson, "has dared to exhibit the Egyptian Queen with all her greatness and all her littleness, all her paltry arts and dissolute passions, yet awakened our pity for fallen grandeur without once beguiling us into sympathy with guilt."

Yet the plain history of this "Sorceress of the Nile," with her "infinite variety," as told by Plutarch and the other ancients, and retold, with whatever advantages gained from critical research, by the modern masters, makes the same impression of moral contrast and inscrutability as that imparted by the greatest poet who has dramatized the character of Cleopatra.)

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 Cæsar 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 Cæsar—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 Cæsar were engaged in their conflict for a far greater kingdom.

Cæsar 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 Cæsar, 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 Cæsar. 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 Cæsar'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 Cæsar which she retained till his death. Cæsar 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.

A few months after Cæsar's departure from Egypt Cleopatra gave birth to a son, whom she alleged, without any immediate contradiction, to be the dictator's. The Alexandrians called him Cæsarion, and she never swerved from asserting for him royal privileges. We hear of no other lover, though it is impossible to imagine Cleopatra arriving at the age of twenty without providing herself with this luxury. She was, however, afraid to let Cæsar live far from her influence, and some time before his assassination—that is to say, some time between B.C. 48 and 44—she came with the young King her brother to Rome, where she was received in Cæsar's palace beyond the Tiber, causing by her residence there considerable scandal among the stricter Romans. Cicero confesses that he went to see her, but protests that his reasons for doing so were absolutely nonpolitical. Cicero found her haughty; he does not say she was beautiful and fascinating. We do not hear of any political activity on her part, though Cicero evidently suspects it; it is well-nigh impossible that she can have preferred her very doubtful position at Rome to her brilliant life in the East. She was suspected of urging Cæsar to move eastward the capital of his new empire, to desert Rome, and choose either Ilium, the imaginary cradle of his race, or Alexandria, as his residence. She is likely to have encouraged at all events his expedition against the Parthians, which would bring him to Syria, whence she hoped to gain new territory for her son. The whole situation is eloquently, perhaps too eloquently, described by Merivale, for he weaves in many conjectures of his own, as if they were ascertained facts.

The colors of this imitation of a hateful original [the oriental despot] were heightened by the demeanor of Cleopatra, who followed her lover to Rome at his invitation. She came with the younger Ptolemæus, who now shared her throne, and her ostensible object was to negotiate a treaty between her kingdom and the Commonwealth. While the Egyptian nation was formally admitted to the friendship and alliance of Rome, its sovereign was lodged in Cæsar's villa on the other side of the Tiber, and the statue of the most fascinating of women was erected in the temple of the Goddess of Love and Beauty. The connection which subsisted between her and the dictator was unblushingly avowed. Public opinion demanded no concessions to its delicacy; the feelings of the injured Calpurnia had been blunted by repeated outrage, and Cleopatra was encouraged to proclaim openly that her child Cæsarion was the son of her Roman admirer. A tribune, named Helvius Cinna, ventured, it is said, to assert among his friends that he was prepared to propose a law, with the dictator's sanction, to enable him to marry more wives than one, for the sake of progeny, and to disregard in his choice the legitimate qualification of Roman descent. The Romans, however, were spared this last insult to their prejudices. The queen of Egypt felt bitterly the scorn with which she was popularly regarded as the representative of an effeminate and licentious people. It is not improbable that she employed her fatal influence to withdraw her lover from the Roman capital, and urged him to schemes of oriental conquest to bring him more completely within her toils. In the mean while the haughtiness of her demeanor corresponded with the splendid anticipations in which she indulged. She held a court in the suburbs of the city, at which the adherents of the dictator's policy were not the only attendants. Even his opponents and concealed enemies were glad to bask in the sunshine of her smiles.

When Cæsar was assassinated, she was still at Rome, and had some wild hopes of having her son recognized by the Cæsareans. But failing in this she escaped secretly, and sailed to Egypt, not without causing satisfaction to cautious men like Cicero that she was gone. The passage in which he seems to allude to a rumor that she was about to have another child—another misfortune to the State—does not bear that interpretation. As he says not a word concerning the young king Ptolemy, we may assume that the youth was already dead, and that he died at Rome. The common belief was that Cleopatra poisoned him as soon as his increasing years made him troublesome to her. In her reign four years are assigned to a joint rule with her elder brother, four more to that with her younger, so that this latter must have died in the same year as Cæsar.

Cleopatra, watching from Egypt the great civil war which ensued, summoned and commanded by the various leaders to send aid in ships and money, threatened with plunder and confiscation by those who were now exhausting Asia Minor and the islands with monstrous exactions, had ample occupation for her talents in steering safely among these constant dangers. Appian says she pleaded famine and pestilence in her country in declining the demands of Cassius for subsidies. The latter was on the point of invading Egypt, at the moment denuded of defending forces and wasted with famine, when he was summoned to Philippi by Brutus.

It was not till B.C. 41, after the decisive battle of Philippi, that the victorious Antony, turning to subdue the East to the Cæsarean cause, held his joyeuse entrée into Ephesus, and then proceeded to drain all Asia Minor of money for the satisfaction of his greedy legionaries and his own still more greedy vices. Reaching Cilicia, he sent an order to the queen of Egypt to come before him and explain her conduct during the late war, for she was reported to have sent aid to Cassius. The sequel may be told in Plutarch's famous narrative:

"Dellius, who was sent on this message, had no sooner seen her face, and remarked her adroitness and subtlety in speech, than he felt convinced that Antony would not so much as think of giving any molestation to a woman like this. On the contrary, she would be the first in favor with him. So he set himself at once to pay his court to the Egyptian, and gave her his advice, 'to go,' in the Homeric style, to Cilicia, 'in her best attire,' and bade her fear nothing from Antony, the gentlest and kindest of soldiers. She had some faith in the words of Dellius, but more in her own attractions, which, having formerly recommended her to Cæsar and the young Cnaeus Pompey, she did not doubt might yet prove more successful with Antony. Their acquaintance was with her when a girl, young, and ignorant of the world, but she was to meet Antony in the time of life when women's beauty is most splendid and their intellects are in full maturity. She made great preparation for her journey, of money, gifts, and ornaments of value, such as so wealthy a kingdom might afford, but she brought with her her surest hopes in her own magic arts and charms.

"She received several letters, both from Antony and from his friends, to summon her, but she took no account of these orders; and at last, as if in mockery of them, she came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along, under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes.[1] The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market-place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal, while the word went through all the multitude that Venus was come to feast with Bacchus, for the common good of Asia.[2] On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good humor and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights, for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equalled for beauty."

"The next day Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit and his rustic awkwardness. She, perceiving that his raillery was broad and gross and savored more of the soldier than the courtier, rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve, for her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter. To most of them she spoke herself, as to the Ethiopians, troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learned;[3] which was all the more surprising, because most of the kings her predecessors scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue, and several of them quite abandoned the Macedonian."

"Antony was so captivated by her that, while Fulvia, his wife, maintained his quarrels in Rome against Cæsar by actual force of arms, and the Parthian troops, commanded by Labienus—the King's generals having made him commander-in-chief—were assembled in Mesopotamia, and ready to enter Syria, he could yet suffer himself to be carried away by her to Alexandria, there to keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away in enjoyments that most costly, as Antiphon says, of all valuables, time. They had a sort of company, to which they gave a particular name, calling it that of the 'Inimitable Livers.' The members entertained one another daily in turn, with an extravagance of expenditure beyond measure or belief. Philotas, a physician of Amphissa, who was at that time a student of medicine in Alexandria, used to tell my grandfather Lamprias that, having some acquaintance with one of the royal cooks, he was invited by him, being a young man, to come and see the sumptuous preparations for dinner. So he was taken into the kitchen, where he admired the prodigious variety of all things, but, particularly seeing eight wild boars roasting whole, says he, 'Surely you have a great number of guests.' The cook laughed at his simplicity, and told him there were not above twelve to dine, but that every dish was to be served up just roasted to a turn, and if anything was but one minute ill-timed it was spoiled. 'And,' said he, 'maybe Antony will dine just now, maybe not this hour, maybe he will call for wine, or begin to talk, and will put it off. So that,' he continued, 'it is not one, but many dinners, must be had in readiness, as it is impossible to guess at his hour.'"

Plato admits four sorts of flattery, but Cleopatra had a thousand. Were Antony serious or disposed to mirth she had any moment some new delight or charm to meet his wishes. At every turn she was upon him, and let him escape her neither by day nor by night. She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, and when he exercised in arms she was there to see. At night she would go rambling with him to joke with people at their doors and windows, dressed like a servant woman, for Antony also went in servant's disguise, and from these expeditions he always came home very scurvily answered, and sometimes even beaten severely, though most people guessed who it was. However, the Alexandrians in general liked it all well enough, and joined good-humoredly and kindly in his frolic and play, saying they were much obliged to Antony for acting his tragic parts at Rome and keeping his comedy for them. It would be trifling without end to be particular in relating his follies, but his fishing must not be forgotten. He went out one day to angle with Cleopatra, and being so unfortunate as to catch nothing in the presence of his mistress, he gave secret orders to the fishermen to dive under water and put fishes that had been already taken upon his hooks, and these he drew in so fast that the Egyptian perceived it. But feigning great admiration, she told everybody how dexterous Antony was, and invited them next day to come and see him again. So when a number of them had come on board the fishing boats, as soon as he had let down his hook, one of her servants was beforehand with his divers and fixed upon his hook a salted fish from Pontus. Antony, feeling his line taut, drew up the prey, and when, as may be imagined, great laughter ensued, "Leave," said Cleopatra, "the fishing rod, autocrat, to us poor sovereigns of Pharos and Canopus; your game is cities, kingdoms, and continents."

Plutarch does not mention the most tragic and the most characteristic proof of Cleopatra's complete conquest of Antony. Among his other crimes of obedience he sent by her orders and put to death the Princess Arsinoë, who, knowing well her danger, had taken refuge as a suppliant in the temple of Artemis Leucophryne at Miletus.

It is not our duty to follow the various complications of war and diplomacy, accompanied by the marriage with the serious and gentle Octavia, whereby the brilliant but dissolute Antony was weaned, as it were, from his follies, and persuaded to live a life of public activity. Whether the wily Octavian did not foresee the result, whether he did not even sacrifice his sister to accumulate odium against his dangerous rival, is not for us to determine. But when it was arranged (in B.C. 36) that Antony should lead an expedition against the Parthians, any man of ordinary sense must have known that he would come within the reach of the eastern siren, and was sure to be again attracted by her fatal voice. It is hard to account for her strange patience during these four years. She had borne twins to Antony, probably after the meeting in Cilicia. Though she still maintained the claims of her eldest son Cæsarion to be the divine Julius' only direct heir, we do not hear of her sending requests to Antony to support him, or that any agents were working in her interests at Rome. She was too subtle a woman to solicit his return to Alexandria. There are mistaken insinuations that she thought the chances of Sextus Pompey, with his naval supremacy, better than those of Antony, but these stories refer to his brother Cnaeus, who visited Egypt before Pharsalia.

It is probably to this pause in her life, as we know it, that we may refer her activity in repairing and enlarging the national temples. The splendid edifice at Dendera, at present among the most perfect of Egyptian temples, bears no older names than those of Cleopatra and her son Cæsarion, and their portraits represent the latter as a growing lad, his mother as an essentially Egyptian figure, conventionally drawn according to the rules which had determined the figures of gods and kings for fifteen hundred years. Under these circumstances it is idle to speak of this well-known relief picture as a portrait of the Queen. It is no more so than the granite statues in the Vatican are portraits of Philadelphus and Arsinoë. The artist had probably never seen the Queen, and if he had, it would not have produced the slightest alteration in his drawing.

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 practised 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.[4]

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 Cæsarion, the reputed son of the former Cæsar. His own sons by Cleopatra were to have the style of 'King of Kings'; to Alexander he gave Armenia and Media, with Parthia so soon as it should be overcome; to Ptolemy Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia. Alexander was brought out before the people in Median costume, the tiara and upright peak, and Ptolemy in boots and mantle and Macedonian cap done about with the diadem; for this was the habit of the successors of Alexander, as the other was of the Medes and Armenians. And, as soon as they had saluted their parents, the one was received by a guard of Macedonians, the other by one of Armenians. Cleopatra was then, as at other times when she appeared in public, dressed in the habit of the goddess Isis, and gave audience to the people under the name of the New Isis.

"This over, he gave Priene to his players for a habitation, and set sail for Athens, where fresh sports and play-acting employed him. Cleopatra, jealous of the honors Octavia had received at Athens—for Octavia was much beloved by the Athenians—courted the favor of the people with all sorts of attentions. The Athenians, in requital, having decreed her public honors, deputed several of the citizens to wait upon her at her house, among whom went Antony as one, he being an Athenian citizen, and he it was that made the speech.

"The speed and extent of Antony's preparations alarmed Cæsar, who feared he might be forced to fight the decisive battle that summer, for he wanted many necessaries, and the people grudged very much to pay the taxes; freemen being called upon to pay a fourth part of their incomes, and freed slaves an eighth of their property, so that there were loud outcries against him, and disturbances throughout all Italy. And this is looked upon as one of the greatest of Antony's oversights that he did not then press the war, for he allowed time at once for Cæsar to make his preparations, and for the commotions to pass over, for while people were having their money called for they were mutinous and violent; but, having paid it, they held their peace.

"Titius and Plancus, men of consular dignity and friends to Antony, having been ill-used by Cleopatra, whom they had most resisted in her design of being present in the war, came over to Cæsar, and gave information of the contents of Antony's will, with which they were acquainted. It was deposited in the hands of the vestal virgins, who refused to deliver it up, and sent Cæsar word, if he pleased, he should come and seize it himself, which he did. And, reading it over to himself, he noted those places that were most for his purpose, and, having summoned the senate, read them publicly. Many were scandalized at the proceeding, thinking it out of reason and equity to call a man to account for what was not to be until after his death. Cæsar specially pressed what Antony said in his will about his burial, for he had ordered that even if he died in the city of Rome, his body, after being carried in state through the Forum, should be sent to Cleopatra at Alexandria.

"Calvisius, a dependent of Cæsar's, urged other charges in connection with Cleopatra against Antony: that he had given her the library of Pergamus, containing two hundred thousand distinct volumes; that at a great banquet, in the presence of many guests, he had risen up and rubbed her feet, to fulfil some wager or promise; that he had suffered the Ephesians to salute her as their queen; that he had frequently at the public audience of kings and princes received amorous messages written in tablets made of onyx and crystal, and read them openly on the tribunal; that when Furnius, a man of great authority and eloquence among the Romans, was pleading, Cleopatra happening to pass by in her litter, Antony started up and left them in the middle of their cause, to follow at her side and attend her home."[5]

When war was declared, Antony sought to gain the support of the East in the conflict. He made alliance with a Median king who betrothed his daughter to Cleopatra's infant son Alexander; but he made the fatal mistake of allowing Cleopatra to accompany him to Samos, where he gathered his army, and even to Actium, where she led the way in flying from the fight, and so persuading the infatuated Antony to leave his army and join in her disgraceful escape.

Historians have regarded this act of Cleopatra as the mere cowardice of a woman who feared to look upon an armed conflict and join in the din of battle. But she was surely made of sterner stuff. She had probably computed with the utmost care the chances of the rivals, and had made up her mind that, in spite of Antony's gallantry, his cause was lost.[6] If she fought out the battle with her strong contingent of ships, she would probably fall into Octavian's hands as a prisoner, and would have no choice between suicide or death in the Roman prison, after being exhibited to the mob in Octavian's triumph. There was no chance whatever that she would have been spared, as was her sister Arsinoë after Julius Cæsar's triumph, nor would such clemency be less hateful than death. But there was still a chance, if Antony were killed or taken prisoner, that she might negotiate with the victor as queen of Egypt, with her fleet, army, and treasures intact, and who could tell what effect her charms, though now full ripe, might have upon the conqueror? Two great Romans had yielded to her, why not the third, who seemed a smaller man?

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 Cæsar 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 Cæsar a letter which she had written and sealed, and, putting everybody out of the monument but her two women, she shut the doors. Cæsar, 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.


  1. There was no Egyptian feature in this show, which was purely Hellenistic.
  2. How easily such a belief started up in the minds of a crowd in the Asia Minor of that day appears from Acts xiv. 11 seq., where the crowd at Iconium, on seeing a cripple cured, at once exclaim that the gods are come down to them in the likeness of men, and call Barnabas Jupiter, and Paul Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker, bringing sacrifices to offer to the apostles.
  3. We have here the usual lies of courtiers.
  4. The Greek World under Roman Sway.
  5. Plutarch: Antony.
  6. Dion says that Antony was of the same opinion, and went into the battle intending to fly; but this does not agree with his character or with the facts.