Rome, who had never condescended to fear any nation or people, did in her time fear two human beings. One was Hannibal, the other was a woman.
W. W. Tarn1
Descent into Civil War
By the mid-50s BCE the First Triumvirate was starting to unravel. When Julia, whom Pompey genuinely loved, died in childbirth in 54 BCE, he spurned another marriage alliance with Caesar in favour of one with the Optimate Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio. With Clodius controlling much of the ‘Urban Mob’, Rome descended into anarchy, and the violence reached a spectacular climax when Milo murdered Clodius on the Appian Way on 18 January, although Clodius might have smiled at the irony when the Senate House became his funeral pyre. To make matters considerably worse, in 53 BCE Crassus started a needless war with King Orodes II of Parthia, only to find himself defeated by Orodes’ general Surena at Carrhae in the Mesopotamian desert with the loss of 20 000 dead, 10 000 prisoners, and the Roman legionary standards. Ten thousand Romans escaped, but not Crassus.2
Civil war was looking increasingly likely. Caesar’s military successes were putting him on a par with Pompey, despite the fact that he had become occupied with a serious Gallic rebellion led by Vercingetorix that was only put down after an enormous siege at Alesia in 52 BCE. Yet Pompey had no desire needlessly to provoke Caesar, and Caesar still needed Pompey for his political survival. The Optimates also needed Pompey to uphold law and order, and amid an escalating crisis of violence and anarchy at Rome in 52 BCE, he was appointed sole Consul. He took the opportunity to extend his own command over Spain for another five years.
In the end, Caesar’s political survival became the deal breaker. In 50 BCE, proposals were made for Pompey and Caesar to relinquish their commands, to which the Senate eventually assented by a margin of 370 to 22. However, when the Consul C. Marcellus spread rumours that Caesar was marching on Rome, Pompey openly sided with the Optimates. Caesar offered simultaneous disarmament while threatening war, and although moderate opinion favoured the peace option, Lentulus (Consul, 49 BCE) was implacably opposed, as was Pompey’s father-in-law Metellus Scipio, who insisted that Caesar should demobilize his army or be outlawed. The pro-Caesar tribunes Mark Antony and C. Cassius Longinus vetoed this, and Cicero worked hard to achieve some sort of reconciliation, but the hardliners were intransigent: the SCU was passed; Caesar’s tribunes were ‘run out of town’ (although this might have been staged); Pompey took command of the Republican forces; and in January 49 Caesar crossed into Italy over the River Rubicon.
A post-civil-war inquiry would probably have reached the following conclusions: legally speaking, Caesar had started it, but he would have preferred not to fight; Pompey’s behaviour hadn’t helped, but he probably felt that the threat of force would have made Caesar climb down; the Senate’s voting record indicates that the majority wanted peace; the Optimate hawks wanted Caesar destroyed whatever the cost; and everyone saw war as preferable to compromise.
The ensuing civil war came to be etched on the Roman consciousness in a very painful way. In Virgil’s Aeneid the ghost of Anchises shows Aeneas the souls of Caesar and Pompey awaiting reincarnation:
What battles and what carnage will they create between them -
Caesar descending from Alpine strongholds, the fort of Monoecus,
His son-in-law Pompey lined up with an Eastern army against him.
Lads, do not harden yourselves to face such terrible wars!
Turn not your country’s hand against your country’s heart!
You, be the first to renounce it, my son of heavenly lineage,
You be the first to bury the hatchet!3
But the only place where Caesar would have buried a hatchet was in Pompey’s head. He overran Italy, then, moving via Spain and Massilia (modern Marseilles), he laid siege to Pompey’s forces at Dyrrhachium (in modern Albania), and crushed them at the battle of Pharsalus in central Greece on 9 August 48 BCE. Pompey fled to Alexandria in Egypt.
Caesar and Cleopatra
Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty that had carved its realm out of the remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire. In 48 BCE, the young King Ptolemy XIII was involved in a struggle for power with his sister–wife Cleopatra VII.4 They had ruled Egypt jointly since the death in 51 BCE of their feckless father Ptolemy XII Auletes (ironically Cleopatra means ‘of a noble father’), whose position had at one stage been secured thanks to a massive bribe to Julius Caesar. According to Dio Cassius, Cleopatra was
brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate every one, even Julius Caesar, a love-sated man already past his prime.5
Plutarch is somewhat circumspect about her physical attractiveness, but he still endorses her charisma:
Her own beauty [. . .] was not of that incomparable kind which instantly captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible, and there was an attraction in her person and her talk, together with a peculiar force of character which [. . .] laid all who associated with her under its spell.6
Even though Cleopatra was of Macedonian descent and had no Egyptian blood (despite some rather desperate, politically motivated, ‘popular archaeological’ attempts to prove otherwise), she was loved by her Egyptian subjects. She faced a number of challenges as queen: Egypt was in a bureaucratic mess, riddled with insurgency, its currency was weak, her sister Arsinoë coveted the throne, and her brother–husband Ptolemy XIII was being manipulated by three advisers antagonistic to her: a eunuch, Photinus; a soldier, Akhillas; and a rhetorician, Theodotus. Her siblings fomented a revolt against her, and early in 48 BCE she was forced to flee from Alexandria. She had just raised an army of mercenaries to fight back when Pompey, with whose son she had allegedly once had an affair, arrived. Ptolemy’s henchmen in Alexandria debated what to do: Theodotus felt that Caesar would be grateful if they killed Pompey, and that ‘dead men don’t bite’,7 and the mighty Roman was stabbed in the back as he stepped ashore on 28 September.
Caesar reached Alexandria a few days later and was presented with Pompey’s signet ring and severed head. He summoned Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII, at which point, in order to secure a private audience, Cleopatra pulled off one of history’s sexiest tricks:
She stretched herself out at full length inside a sleeping bag, and Apollodoros, after tying up the bag, carried it indoors to Caesar.8
This stunt captivated the Roman, and the ensuing relationship suited both parties: he was after money and she wanted power. Caesar ended up taking military action against Ptolemy XIII, who lost his life by drowning on 27 March 47 BCE, and the collateral damage included a fire that devastated the great library at Alexandria. Caesar and Cleopatra then enjoyed a fortnight’s amorous relaxation, and the poet Lucan described how Cleopatra – beautiful, brazen and very sexy – entertained Caesar: the price for Caesar’s support was a night of ‘unspeakable shame’, so unspeakably shameful that he didn’t describe it.9
Caesar had to go to deal with Pharnaces II, the son of Mithridates VI, whom he defeated at his famous veni, vidi, vici battle at Zela (modern Zile, Turkey). He left Cleopatra firmly installed as ruler of Egypt, and she now took her other brother, the eleven-year-old Ptolemy XIV, as her husband and co- Pharaoh. Some say she was also pregnant with a son whom she called Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, but who is better known as Caesarion (‘Little Caesar’). Whether Caesar was in fact the father is hard to tell, but since Caesarion was born on 23 June 47 BCE, it seems unlikely.
Shifting his focus back to Roman affairs, Caesar eradicated the Pompeian opposition in Africa by scoring a major victory at Thapsus (in modern Tunisia), and as soon as he returned to Rome in 46 BCE he celebrated a four-day triumph in which Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoë was paraded as a prisoner. Cleopatra and Caesarion followed him to Rome, and Caesar had a golden statue of her erected in the temple of Venus Genetrix, while she herself was installed in one of Caesar’s villas. But ‘the Egyptian woman’ was virulently unpopular – the Romans could hardly bring themselves to utter her name:
I hate the Queen [. . .] And another thing – I can’t recall the Queen’s insolence without intense indignation, at the time when she was in the pleasure-gardens across the Tiber.10
Even at this stage the Pompeian opposition refused to lie down, and it took yet another huge victory for Caesar, this time at Munda in Spain (45 BCE), to bring the Civil War to a conclusion.
Dictator for Life
Caesar had been amassing ever-increasing powers throughout the Civil War, and early in 44 BCE he became dictator perpetuo or dictator in perpetuum (= ‘dictator for life’), and his head appeared on Roman coins. Whether he ever wanted to be King of Rome is endlessly debated. Mark Antony certainly offered him the crown, but it is unclear whether this was a way of testing public opinion, or simply a PR stunt designed to show that Caesar really didn’t want it: non sum Rex, sed Caesar, he quipped.11 Still, he exercised unprecedented powers but without any overarching vision for Rome: citizenship was granted to Transpadane Gaul; overseas colonies were promoted, notably Corinth; the Senate’s membership was increased to 900; traffic problems in Rome were addressed; the courts were allocated to the Senate and in Equites in equal numbers; and the astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria was employed to sort out the calendar, which was in a total mess because of the mismatch of the solar and lunar years. With one important modification we use this calendar today, and July is still named after Caesar.
There was no doubting Caesar’s popularity with the plebs and the army, but Rome’s old-school Senators hated him: they felt emasculated by the perpetuity of his dictatorship; the fact that Caesar’s statue was placed in the temple of the deified Romulus rankled; they loathed the subtext behind the erection of a temple to Clementia Caesaris (‘Caesar’s Clemency’) because clementia was a kingly virtue – indeed Cato the Younger committed suicide rather than receive Caesar’s clementia; Caesar was planning a campaign to avenge Crassus’ defeat, and the Sibylline Books prophesied that the Parthian Empire could only be destroyed by a king; and if the idea of Caesar as King of Rome was alarming, the thought of Cleopatra as Queen was utterly disgusting. For his part, Caesar seems to have felt that Rome needed to face up to new political realities, but this was a catastrophic error of judgement. On 15 March 44 BCE (the ‘Ides of March’), he was assassinated.
The murder was perpetrated openly on the steps of Pompey’s theatre in Rome. The conspirators were led by M. Iunius Brutus (to whom, according to Suetonius, Caesar spoke the Greek words ‘kai su teknon?’ = ‘You too, my son?’12) and C. Cassius Longinus. The motives of the participants varied, yet they all badly misread the true state of the Roman system. Their idealism blinded them to the hard political realities; they ran into the streets shouting ‘Liberty!’, only to find that they had precipitated an even more ghastly series of civil wars.
More Civil Wars; the Second Triumvirate
The man who assumed the leadership of the Caesarean faction was Caesar’s roué and ruthless friend Mark Antony. Cicero later bewailed the fact that the assassins had ignored him in the misguided belief that they simply had to kill Caesar to restore the Republic:
I could wish that you had invited me to the banquet of the Ides of March: there would have been nothing left over! As it is, your leavings give me much trouble.13
But Antony was not the only man with his sights set on power. Out of left field appeared a rival in the shape of the eighteen-yearold C. Octavius. Caesar had clearly seen his potential: he had got him elected to the priestly college of the pontifices, let him participate in his African triumph for his victories in the Civil War, and enrolled him into the patrician aristocracy. Health issues had prevented Octavius from accompanying Caesar to Spain in 46 BCE, although he followed on later ‘along roads infested by the enemy, after a shipwreck, too, and in a state of semiconvalescence’.14 Soon after this, Caesar made Octavius his heir in his will (although he didn’t tell him), and having appointed the young man to his staff for the projected Parthian campaign, had sent him to Macedonia to finish his studies and get some military training. It was there, at Apollonia (now in Albania), that he heard that Caesar had died, adopted him as his heir, and made him the beneficiary to three-quarters of his estate. Conflict with Antony was inevitable.
Octavius’ adoption allowed him to change his name. Historians call him ‘Octavian’, but he was officially Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. ‘You, boy, owe everything to your name,’15 sneered Antony, but in a sense he was right. Moreover, the appearance at Julius Caesar’s funeral games of what was possibly the brightest daylight-visible comet in recorded history,16 the sidus Iulium (‘Julian Star’) or Caesaris astrum (‘Caesarean Star’), was widely taken to prove that Caesar had been deified:
Then Jupiter said to [Venus]
You must rescue [Caesar’s] soul from his cut-ridden body and make him a comet [. . .]
[Venus] caught the soul of her Caesar up as it passed from his body [and] carried it straight as it was to the stars in the heavens.
During her journey, she felt it glowing and catching fire, so she let it escape from out of her bosom and fly right upwards.
Higher far than the moon it soared, displaying a sweeping trail of flame in its wake, till it finally took the form of a gleaming star.17
A Temple of the Deified Julius, also known as the Temple of the Comet Star,18 was duly constructed by Octavian. It featured a huge image of Caesar that had a flaming comet attached to its forehead.
Octavian also raised an army of 3 000 veterans and secured a considerable amount of funding, but Antony refused to hand over Caesar’s legacy. Octavian responded by attaching himself to Cicero, who managed to get the Senate to declare Antony a public enemy and order the Consuls A. Hirtius19 and C. Vibius Pansa Caetronianus to expel him from Italy. When the rival forces engaged near Mutina (modern Modena), it worked out perfectly for Octavian: not only was Antony defeated, but both the Consuls were killed. Cicero’s scheme was to use Octavian against Antony to restore the Republic and then dispense with him – ‘He is a young man to be praised, honoured and removed’, he said20 – but the reality would be the other way round.
Octavian exploited Cicero’s eloquent attacks on Antony in the Philippic Orations, and got himself made a Senator in 43 BCE. Additionally, the deaths of Hirtius and Pansa had left him in sole command of the consular armies, which he used as leverage to secure the consulship itself, despite being just twenty years old. To confound the Republicans still further, Octavian promptly struck a deal with Antony, and they had Brutus and Cassius declared outlaws. Caesar’s assassins had to leave Italy.
Cool, calculating and opportunistic, Octavian met up with Antony and M. Aemilius Lepidus (another important friend of Caesar) near Mutina, where the three men formed a powersharing agreement called the Second Triumvirate (November 43 BCE). They sliced up the Roman world between them: Antony took Gaul; Lepidus Spain; Octavian Africa, Sicily and Sardinia. Then they published proscription lists in order to eliminate their enemies and replenish their funds:
Marcus Lepidus, Marcus Antonius, and Octavius Caesar, chosen by the people to set in order and regulate the Republic, declare as follows:
[ . . . ] Let no one harbour anyone of those whose names are appended to this edict, or conceal them, or send them away anywhere, or be corrupted by their money. [. . .] Let those who kill the proscribed bring us their heads and receive the following rewards: to a free man 25 000 Attic drachmas per head, to a slave his freedom and 10 000 Attic drachmas and his master’s right of citizenship. Informers shall receive the same rewards.21
There was no clementia this time. Some 300 Senators and 2 000 Equites fell victim to this, and on Antony’s insistence the man at the top of the list was Cicero. Plutarch tells us that his head and hands were cut off and fixed to the speaker’s platform in the Roman Forum:
It was a sight to make the Romans shudder. They seemed to see there, not so much the face of Cicero, but the soul of Antony.22
Antony’s wife Fulvia took macabre pleasure in stabbing the great orator’s lifeless tongue with a gold hairpin.
Octavian, who thanks to Julius Caesar’s deification was now the ‘son of a god’, set off for Greece with Antony to fight Brutus and Cassius. The decisive battle was contested at Philippi in north-east Greece in 42 BCE. Brutus routed Octavian’s forces and captured his camp, while Antony made an audacious onslaught and achieved the same result against Cassius. But in the confusion neither side was aware of what the other had done, and Cassius retired to Philippi under the mistaken assumption that Brutus has also been defeated. He ordered a slave to kill him (though some think that the slave didn’t wait to be asked). When Brutus heard the news he wept and called his comrade
The last of the Romans, meaning that his equal in virtue would never exist again.23
A three-week stand-off then ensued during which Octavian and Antony started to experience logistics difficulties. It was therefore in Brutus’ interests to delay as long as possible, but his troops grew restive and eventually he yielded to pressure from his officers and led his men out.
Both sides divined equally that this day and this battle would decide the fate of Rome completely; and so indeed it did.24
Antony and Octavian prevailed after a titanic tussle; Brutus’ retreat turned to flight; flight turned to slaughter; Brutus spent the night in the mountains quoting lines from Euripides’ Medea; and in the morning he called upon his friend Straton to kill him. It had unquestionably been one of the world’s most politically significant battles:
The Romans’ form of government was decided by that day’s work chiefly, and they have not gone back to democracy yet.25
There would no longer be any question of civil war in defence of the Republic – any future conflict could only be about who would rule Rome.
Octavian now undertook to put down Sextus Pompeius (the son of Pompey), whose piratical activities were menacing Rome’s grain supply, and accepted the controversial job of settling the demobilized soldiers. This entailed the summary dispossession of thousands of Italian farmers, but he felt it was worth it because he became the soldiers’ patron: soldiers were more powerful than farmers. In Virgil’s first Eclogue, the rustic Meliboeus articulates the trauma that this caused:
To think of some godless soldier owning my well-farmed fallow,
A foreigner reaping these crops! To such a pass has civil
Dissension brought us: for people like these we have sown our fields.26
Such grievances were exploited by Antony’s wife, Fulvia, and his brother, Lucius Antonius, who raised eight legions and occupied Rome. Octavian managed to dislodge them and drove them to Perusia (modern Perugia). Acorn-shaped lead slingshots (glandes) used in the fighting there carry some lurid sexual insults: ‘Hey, Octavian! You suck cock!’; ‘I’m aiming at Fulvia’s clitoris’; ‘bald Lucius Antonius and Fulvia, open up your arse’.27 It seems that the slingers missed those particular targets, since Fulvia and Lucius Antonius escaped, but Perusia itself fell in 41 BCE, and Octavian was merciless to the POWs: they were told simply, ‘You must die!’ and some sources say that 300 Equestrian and Senatorial prisoners were offered as human sacrifices on the Ides of March at the altar of the Divine Julius.
Although Fulvia was fighting on Antony’s behalf, she is not always portrayed as the dutiful wife. Octavian supposedly wrote an obscene epigram, quoted verbatim by the poet Martial, in which he claimed that Fulvia, wanting to punish Antony for his extra-marital liaison with the Cappadocian Queen Glaphyra, told Octavian ‘Either fuck me or let’s fight’ at Perusia.28 Plutarch dubbed Fulvia
a woman who [. . .] wanted to rule a ruler and command a commander – and consequently Cleopatra owed Fulvia the fee for teaching Antony to submit to a woman.29
Antony and Cleopatra
Antony resurrected Caesar’s plans to invade Parthia and summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus (modern Cumhuriyet Alani in Turkey). She was now in her late twenties, ‘the age when a woman’s beauty is at its most superb and her mind at its most mature’,30 and arrived fashionably late, sailing up the River Cydnus in an astonishingly opulent barge, reclining beneath a canopy of cloth of gold, attired as Venus, with her most beautiful waiting women dressed as Nereids and Graces, in a cloud of exotic perfume. This achieved the desired result: Antony postponed the Parthian expedition and went with her to Alexandria where they began to host incredibly extravagant banquets – a student doctor at Alexandria once saw eight wild boars being roasted to serve only about a dozen guests. The ‘Inimitable Livers’ wallowed in this kind of extravagant debauchery until Antony’s deteriorating relations with Octavian forced him to return to Italy in 40 BCE, leaving behind new-born twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene.
The triumvirs smoothed over their differences by signing the Treaty of Brundisium, which in effect gave the East to Antony, the West to Octavian and excluded Lepidus. The boundary line was fixed at Scodra (modern Shkoder in Albania), and the pact was sealed by a marriage alliance. Fulvia had recently died, and Antony married Octavian’s newly widowed, virtuous and serenely beautiful sister Octavia. Octavia was the perfect antidote to ‘bad women’ like Cleopatra and Fulvia, and within three years she had given birth to two daughters, Antonia Maior and Antonia Minor, whom she raised alongside her son and two daugh ters from her first marriage, as well as her two stepsons from Antony’s marriage to Fulvia. Antony went straight back to the East with his new bride in tow, and minted coins depicting the two of them – the first time a clearly identifiable living woman had appeared on official Roman coinage in her own right.
Octavian’s first wife was Fulvia’s daughter Claudia, but the marriage was short-lived and, so he said, unconsummated, although this gave rise to slurs against his manly prowess. His second was Scribonia, ten years his senior, who was the mother of his only daughter Julia (see Genealogy Table 1). ‘I could not bear the way she nagged me,’ he complained, although Antony accused him of being so lecherous that he had once dragged off a dinner host’s wife before returning her to the party dishevelled and pink-faced.31Antony would later taunt Octavian about the times when his friends would arrange ‘showcases’ of naked women and girls for his inspection, as though they were up for sale. However, the new arrangement saw Octavian divorce Scribonia and marry the beautiful, dignified, intelligent and possibly previously dishevelled and pink-faced Livia Drusilla, who in turn was forced to divorce her husband-and-cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero, by whom she was already the mother of the future Emperor Tiberius. She was also six months pregnant with Nero Claudius Drusus (father of the Emperor Claudius), and mischievous verses were soon doing the rounds:
How fortunate those parents are for whom
Their child is only three months in the womb!32
But Livia’s fertility was an asset, and her lineage combined two of Rome’s greatest families – the Claudii and the Livii. Although her marriage to Octavian would be childless, it would be strong.
In the spring of 37 BCE, Octavia helped to iron out some further differences between the triumvirs, which were settled by the Treaty of Tarentum, which renewed the triumvirate for five more years. She was hailed as ‘a marvel of womankind’,33 and appeared again on coins, this time with both her husband and her brother. Antony headed east in the autumn to continue the Parthian campaign, but this time he left Octavia at Rome.
With the help of the highly capable M. Vipsanius Agrippa, Octavian eliminated Sextus Pompeius in 36 BCE, discharged around 20 000 men from the forty or so legions that he now had at his disposal, and returned to Rome, where he squeezed the maximum psychological advantage out of Antony’s absence in the East. While Octavian campaigned in Illyricum, cleared the Adriatic of pirates and initiated major public projects in Rome, Antony renewed his liaison with Cleopatra (another child, Ptolemy Philadelphos, was born in 36 BCE) and saw his Parthian expedition end in a costly failure.
All this allowed Octavian to present Antony as debauched and emasculated, and the contemporary poet Horace brilliantly captured the Roman horror at what his relationship with Cleopatra implied:
Now Roman soldiers – lies, you’ll say in later times –
Made over to a woman, bear
Weapons and stakes for her, can bring themselves to do
Whatever wrinkled eunuchs bid.
While, reared among our battle-standards – shameful sight!
– The sun can see mosquito-nets.34
His point is that a Roman soldier should take his insect bites like a man: nothing could be more effete, more appalling or more un-Roman than this.
Cleopatra herself came to be portrayed as ‘the harlot queen of impious [or incestuous] Canopus’,35 the polar opposite of the virtuous, betrayed, matronly Octavia. Antony told Octavian that this was utterly hypocritical:
What’s changed you? Because I’m fucking the Queen like a beast? [. . .] So you’re only boning Drusilla, then? Good health to you, if when you read this letter, you haven’t shagged Tertullia, or Terentilla, or Rufilla, or Salvia Titsenia – or all of them. Does it make any difference where or in which woman you get a hard-on?36
But it was the event known as the ‘Donations of Alexandria’ (34 BCE) which provided the biggest propaganda gift to Octavian: Antony and Cleopatra held a ceremony where they sat on golden thrones, along with Caesarion and their own three children; Cleopatra was hailed as Queen of Kings, Caesarion as King of Kings; and Antony granted to Cleopatra and her children huge tracts of territory in the East that was not his to give. Cleopatra also supplanted Octavia on coinage that Antony issued after he finally scored some military success in Armen ia, but placing a foreign female monarch on official Roman coinage was utterly monstrous in Roman eyes.
Historians struggle for first-hand evidence concerning Cleopatra’s life, but there is one document that provides a wonderful exception. This is a royal ordinance on papyrus, granting dutyfree tax privileges to Antony’s right-hand man P. Canidius, dated to 23 February 33 BCE. Below the main text, written by a scribe, Cleopatra signs off the document, and if it is the only word she left to posterity, it is a wonderfully appropriate one: γινέσθοι (= ‘make it happen’).37
The Second Triumvirate officially lapsed at the end of 33 BCE, but Octavian deliberately didn’t renew it. This was another smart propaganda coup, since it left Antony holding the title of triumvir purely on his own authority. Even so, not everyone backed Octavian, and events moved swiftly: both Consuls and over 300 Senators left Rome to join Antony early in 32 BCE; Octavian nominated fresh Consuls; Antony divorced Octavia; completely illegally Octavian published Antony’s will, which allegedly showed that he wanted to relocate the centre of Roman government to Egypt; Antony crossed into Greece with Cleopatra; Octavian secured a declaration of war against Cleopatra (it was essential that it was not seen as a Civil War), and crossed to Greece for the final showdown.
The history of the ensuing events was almost entirely concocted by the winning side, who were masters of spin and distortion. Octavian’s propaganda tells us that
the whole of Italy of its own accord took an oath of allegiance to me and demanded that I should be its leader in the war [. . .] The same oath was taken by the provinces of Gaul and Spain, and by Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia.38
He had a slight superiority in forces (possibly 600 ships and 80 000 infantry v 500 ships and 70 000 infantry), and an excellent admiral in M. Agrippa, whereas Cleopatra’s presence among Antony’s troops was disruptive. Quite what happened at the crucial Battle of Actium, fought on 2 September 31 BCE, is hard to pinpoint in detail, but the end result was that Cleopatra’s squadron escaped, Antony followed in her wake, and the remainder of his forces surrendered. Virgil imagined that Aeneas had the battle prophetically emblazoned on his shield, and presents it as a conflict between virtuous Romans and obscene barbarians:
On one side Augustus Caesar, high up on the poop, is leading
The Italians into battle, the Senate and People with him . . .
On the other side, with barbaric wealth and motley equipment,
Is Antony [. . .]
Egypt, the powers of the Orient and uttermost Bactra
Sail with him; also – a shameful thing – his Egyptian wife.39
Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, and the final denouement came when Octavian took possession of Alexandria around a year later. The historical accounts tell us that Cleopatra barricaded herself into the mausoleum that she had constructed for herself, and then sent messengers telling Antony that she was dead. He made a botched suicide attempt, but when he discovered that Cleopatra was still alive he ordered his slaves to carry him to the mausoleum, from which Cleopatra let down ropes and pulled him up with the help of her two waiting women. Plutarch describes Antony, covered with blood, struggling in his death throes, and stretching out his hands towards Cleopatra as he swung helplessly in the air. When she had got him up, she laid him on a bed, tore her dress and spread it over him, beat and lacerated her breasts, and smeared her face with the blood from his wounds.
With Antony dead, Cleopatra still had to meet Octavian. Dio says that
She preferred to die bearing the title and majesty of a sovereign rather than live in a private station. At any rate she kept ready fire to destroy her treasure, and asps and other reptiles to end her life; she had experimented before on human beings to discover how these creatures caused death in each case.40
The asp is the Egyptian cobra. Plutarch adds that she had discovered that its bite caused a kind of drowsy lethargy and numbness, and that its sufferers resisted any attempt to revive them, like people do when they are in a deep natural sleep.
It has four fangs, their underside hollow, hooked, and long, rooted in its jaws, containing poison, and at their base a covering of membranes hides them. Thence it belches forth poison unassuageable on a body [. . .] No bite appears on the flesh, no deadly swelling with inflammation, but the man dies without pain, and a slumberous lethargy brings life’s end.41
The sources unanimously assert that Octavian wanted her alive. She used all her sexy tricks:
She dressed herself with studied negligence – indeed her appearance in mourning wonderfully enhanced her beauty – and seated herself on [a richly ornamented] couch. Beside her she arranged many different portraits and busts of Julius Caesar, and in her bosom she carried all the letters Caesar had sent her.42
Octavian remained impervious to her seduction attempts, but she did convince him that she wanted to live. He departed, smugly convinced that he would soon be parading her through the streets of Rome.
In Plutarch’s account of her death (17 August 30 BCE) she bathes and eats an exquisite meal, after which an Egyptian peasant arrives carrying a basket, and when the guards ask him what is in it, he strips away the leaves at the top to reveal a load of figs. Cleopatra then sends a sealed writing tablet to Octavian, dismisses all her attendants except for her two faithful waiting women, and closes the doors of the monument.
There is no certainty about how Cleopatra died. Our sources mention the asp (or asps) in the figs, or in a pitcher, perhaps covered beneath some flowers, or a comb filled with poison, or a pin smeared with it. They also say that the asp was never discovered, and that her body showed no symptoms of poisoning, although there were two tiny punctures on her arm.
The Roman propaganda machine did its best to demonize Cleopatra, but it never really succeeded. Horace wrote of the mood of celebration that followed Octavian’s victory over the Egyptian Queen and her ‘squalid pack of diseased half-men’:
Today is the day to drink and dance on. Dance, then, Merrily, friends, till the earth shakes.43
Yet Horace’s triumphalism is tempered by respect and admiration:
She did not, like a woman, shirk the dagger
Or seek by speed at sea
To change her Egypt for obscurer shores,
But [. . .]
With a calm smile, unflinchingly laid hands on The angry asps until
Her veins had drunk the deadly poison deep,
And, death-determined, fiercer then than ever,
Perished. Was she to grace a haughty triumph,
Dethroned, paraded by
The rude Liburnians? Not Cleopatra!44
Octavian spared her children by Antony, but had his eldest son by Fulvia put to death, and, of course, Caesarion. Egypt was annexed by Rome, ending 300 years of Ptolemaic rule, but because it was a major producer of grain, Octavian took it under his own personal administration, although he fudged the issue in his propaganda: ‘I added Egypt to the Empire of the Roman people.’45 The Roman Empire had just extinguished the last embers of Alexander the Great’s.
1 In Cook, S. A., Adcock F. E. and Charlesworth, M. P. (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume X, the Augustan Empire 44 BC–AD 70, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934, p. 111.
2 Plutarch, Crassus 16–33.
3 Virgil, Aeneid 6.828 ff., tr. Day Lewis, C., in The Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid of Virgil, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966. Monoecus is modern Monaco.
4 She was born in 69 BCE.
5 Dio, 42.34.4. tr. Cary, E., Dio Cassius Roman History with an English Translation by Earnest Cary on the Basis of the Version of Herbert Baldwin Foster, Cambridge, MA., and London: Harvard University Press, 1924.
6 Plutarch, Antony 27, tr. Scott-Kilvert, I., in Plutarch, Makers of Rome: Nine Lives by Plutarch, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.
7 Plutarch, Pompey 77.
8 Plutarch, Caesar 49, tr. Warner, R., The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives by Plutarch, rev. edn., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
9 Lucan, Pharsalia 10.5.
10 Cicero, Ad. Att. 15.15, 13 June 44 BCE, tr. Kershaw, S.
11 ‘I’m not King, but Caesar’: Rex was a Roman name, just like King is an English surname.
12 Suetonius, Caesar 82.2: he did not say, ‘Et tu, Brute?’
13 Cicero, Letters to His Friends 12.4 (written to C. Cassius Longinus in Syria, from Rome on 2 February 43 BCE), tr. Shuckburgh, E. S., in Cicero. The Letters of Cicero; the whole extant correspondence in chronological order, in four volumes, London: George Bell and Sons, 1908–1909.
14 Suetonius, Augustus 8. 1, tr. Graves, R., op. cit.
15 Antony, quoted by Cicero, Philippics 13.11.24.
16 See Ramsey, J. T. and Licht, A. L., The Comet of 44 BC and Caesar’s Funeral Games, Chicago: Scholars Press (Series: APA American Classical Studies, No. 39.), 1997.
17 Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.807 ff., tr. Raeburn, D. in Ovid Metamorphoses, London: Penguin Classics, 2004. Cf. Suetonius, Caesar 88. Coins minted around 19–18 BCE show the laureate head and carry the legend CAESAR AVGVSTVS on the obverse, and show a comet (star) of eight rays, tail upward, with the legend DIVVS IVLIV[S] on the reverse.
18 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 2.93–94. It was built in 42 and dedicated in 29 BCE.
19 ‘A.’ is the roman abbreviation for Aulus.
20 Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 11.20 (24 May 43 BCE).
21 Appian, Civil Wars 4.2.8 ff., tr. White, H., Appian’s Roman History with an English Translation by Horace White, M.A., LL.D, in Four Volumes, IV, London: William Heinemann, 1913.
22 Plutarch, Cicero 49, tr. Warner, R., op. cit.
23 Appian, Civil Wars 4.114, tr. White, H., op. cit.
24 Ibid. 4.127.
25 Ibid. 4.138.
26 Virgil, Eclogues 1.70 ff., tr. Day Lewis, C., op. cit.
27 CIL 11.6721.9; 11.6721.5; 11.6721.14, tr. Kershaw, S. See also Degrassi, A. (ed.), Incsriptiones Latinae Liberae Rei Rublicae, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1963. There is an extra double entendre in that the shape of a glans is quite phallic.
28 Martial, Epigrams 11.20.7.
29 Plutarch, Antony 10, tr. Scott-Kilvert, I., op. cit.
30 Ibid. 25.
31 Suetonius, Augustus 62; 69.
32 Quoted by Suetonius, Claudius 1, tr. Graves, R., op. cit.
33 Plutarch, Antony 31.
34 Horace, Epodes 9.11 ff., tr. Oakley, M., in Horace: the collected works translated by Lord Dunsany and M. Oakley, London: Dent, 1961.
35 Propertius, Elegies 3.11.39. He also speaks of Cleopatra spreading her ‘foul mosquito-nets’ over Roman landmarks.
36 Quoted by Suetonius, Augustus 69, tr. Kershaw, S.
37 P. Berolinensis 25.239. It comes from the Roman cemeteries at Abusir el-Melek, where it was reused as mummy cartonnage, and is now in the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin. See Van Minnen, P., ‘An Official Act of Cleopatra (with a Subscription in her Own Hand)’, Ancient Society (30), 2000, 29–34. Ginesthoi is a phonological variant of ginestho, that was used in the Greek of Cleopatra’s day. See Teodorsson, S., The Phonology of Ptolemaic Koine, Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia 36, Lund: Berlingska Boktryckeriet, 1977, 163 ff., 235.
38 Augustus, Res Gestae 25, tr. Lentin, A., in Chisholm, K. and Ferguson, J. (eds.), Rome: The Augustan Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
39 Virgil, Aeneid 8.678 ff., tr. Day Lewis, C., op. cit.
40 Dio 51.11, tr. Scott-Kilvert, I., in Cassius Dio, The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus, London: Penguin Books, 1987.
41 Nicander, Theriaka 182 ff., tr. Gow, A. S. F. and Scholfield, A. F., Nicander: The Poems and Poetical Fragments Edited with a Translation and Notes, New York: Arno, 1979. Nicander wrote somewhere between 241 and 133 BCE.
42 Dio, 51.12–13, tr. Scott-Kilvert, I., op. cit.
43 Horace, Odes 1.37.1 ff., tr. Michie, J., in The Odes of Horace, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.
44 Ibid. 1.37.22 ff.
45 Augustus, Res Gestae 27, tr. Kershaw, S.