Approaching Alexandria in the night, Caesar’s fleet would have been guided by the city’s famous lighthouse, the Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, whose light could be seen 50 miles out to sea. Sitting on an island just off the city, this massive 440-foot stone tower had been built for King Ptolemy II in about 280 B.C. by the architect Sostratus of Cnidus, and was a welcome sight for seafarers bound for the Egyptian capital.
In daylight on October 2, Caesar’s ships warily made their way past Cape Lochias and into Alexandria’s eastern harbor, the Great Harbor, with the troops on deck fully armed and ready for action. With oars rising and dipping at a slow, measured rate, one by one the cruisers entered the deep navigation channel on the western side of the harbor entrance and slid close by the Pharos, named for the low, rocky island on which it sat. From the decks of their ships the soldiers of the 6th would have craned their necks to eye with wonder the lighthouse rising hundreds of feet beside them at the harbor entrance.
Its white marble gleaming in the Mediterranean sun, the structure consisted of three stages: the bottom square, the middle octagonal, the top cylindrical, with a broad ramp spiraling around all three stages to the top, where a huge oil lamp glowed at night. Larger-than-life marble statues of Egypt’s past Ptolemaic rulers stood around the lighthouse’s base. Many centuries later the Pharos lighthouse would be toppled by an earthquake. Today, no trace of it remains; its site is occupied by a fort built by Arab occupiers in later times.
This massive navigational aid was indicative of the importance of the city for which it acted as a beacon. At this time Alexandria was the second city of the Western world after Rome, a prosperous center of trade, government, and education, with a population estimated at three hundred thousand people. Not only did Alexandria act as the point of export of goods coming down the Nile from the interior of Egypt and countries beyond, but also the lands flanking the Nile were among the most fertile in the world, making Egypt a major agricultural exporter.
In those days, lush farmland extended across parts of Egypt that today are sandy wastes. Over the centuries, poor agricultural management would turn farmland into desert. But in Caesar’s day Egypt produced vast quantities of grain and olive oil, much of which it sent to Rome. In fact, Rome depended on Egypt and the Roman province of Africa farther west along the Mediterranean coast for its grain supply, the source of Romans’ daily bread.
In terms of physical beauty, Alexandria was unrivaled by other classical metropolises. The 284-year-old city, sandwiched between salty Lake Mareotis and the sea, had been designed by Dinocrates, Alexander the Great’s personal architect. It was named after Alexander, who personally chose this as the ideal place for a naval base that could control both the eastern Mediterranean and the Nile River. On a site partly occupied by the 1,500-year-old village of Rakotis, architect Dinocrates had laid out the city in a grid pattern, with broad streets dissecting uniformly at right angles, the same precise design used by all Roman legionary camps. In most other cities of the classical world, including Rome, the streets followed natural contours and tended to wind and snake unpredictably. Alexandria’s planned straight, wide thoroughfares gave the city a grandeur that neither Rome nor Athens would ever possess.
Alexandria was, like all cities of the time, surrounded on its land sides by high stone walls equipped with guard towers. There was no gate in the western wall. Two gates in the southern wall gave entry from Lake Mareotis, while the city’s principal street, the Canopic Way, a grand one-hundred-foot-wide stone-paved avenue, ran roughly west to east, to the Canopic Gate, Alexandria’s main entry point, in the city’s eastern wall. A road ran from the Canopic Gate to the town of Canopus, twelve miles farther along the Egyptian coast to the east. Canopus, as it was known to the Romans—it was called Kanopos in Greek, while the Egyptians called it PeGewat—was a famous center for the production of Egyptian medicinal preparations and cosmetics much sought after by the elite of Rome, and had been Egypt’s principal Mediterranean port prior to the construction of Alexandria.
Intersecting the Canopic Way on the western side of the city was the Street of the Soma, toward the southern end of which Alexander the Great’s tomb had reputedly been located. Close to the intersection of the Canopic Way and Street of the Soma, and extending north toward the sea along the Street of the Soma, was the Mouseion, Alexandria’s renowned academy of arts and sciences.
The massive Alexandrian academy incorporated the Great Library of Alexandria, repository of seven hundred thousand volumes penned in Greek and the other principal languages of the ancient world by the greatest minds for centuries past—the mathematicians, the astrologers, the doctors, the philosophers on whose thoughts and theories classical learning was based. Attracted by the financial patronage of the Ptolemies, great men such as the mathematician Archimedes, the philosopher Plotinus, and Ptolemy the geographer had over hundreds of years come to Alexandria to think, to discuss, to write. Here, Eratosthenes had calculated the circumference of the Earth; the physician Herophilus had pioneered the study of anatomy; and Euclid, one of the ancient world’s greatest mathematicians, had postulated about geometry and written his groundbreaking Elements. To this academy now came students from all parts of the Western world, to read the great books and to learn from the greatest practitioners in their fields then alive.
At the eastern end of the city, north of the Canopic Way and extending toward the harbor district, a vast royal complex spread. It incorporated the palace of the Ptolemies; guesthouses; the royal treasury; and, on the southern side of the main thoroughfare, a large half-moon-shaped Greek theater where the wealthy were entertained with plays, music, and mime. Throughout the city, magnificent Greek-style buildings of graceful arches and finely hewn pillars rose up in crafted masonry—marketplaces, temples devoted to the Egyptian and Greek gods, gymnasia where people gathered for meetings, education, and court sittings.
In the back streets more humble structures housed private houses, apartment buildings, workshops, and street-front shops. There was little visible use of timber in any of Alexandria’s construction, and roof tiles, a common sight in Rome and throughout the Roman Empire, were here nowhere to be seen. Some Alexandrian roofs were clad in rough-cut stone, but many were flat and covered in flagstones, allowing the occupants of houses and apartment buildings to come out onto their rooftops at the humid height of summer and sit and enjoy a cooling breeze blowing in off the Mediterranean.
A hundred years later, a senior Jewish priest and leading resident of the city, Philo of Alexandria, was to say that Alexandria was divided into five precincts, each named after the first five letters of the Greek alphabet—Alpha, Beta, and so on. In Philo’s time, two of these Alexandrian precincts were also called the Jewish Quarters, because the majority of their inhabitants were Jews.
Egypt had a large Jewish population, as it had for many centuries past. Philo was to write that in his day the Jews who inhabited Alexandria and the rest of Egypt from Libya in the west to Palestine in the east to Ethiopia in the south numbered “not less than a million of men,” suggesting a total Jewish population in Egypt of more than four million men, women, and children. Philo says that there were two distinct and separate classes of inhabitants of Alexandria: Egyptians and Jews. He also quotes the geographer Strabo as saying that in neighboring Cyrenaica in the first century B.C. the Jews were the lowest of four classes of inhabitants.
Nonetheless, Jews were allowed to practice their religion at synagogues in the Jewish Quarters of Alexandria, and their justice was administered by their own chief magistrate, although they did observe Egyptian laws as well as Jewish law. They also worked industriously in the city as merchants and operating workshops that turned out all manner of manufactured goods.
This was the city in which Julius Caesar and his small force landed in October 48 B.C. As their warships docked and gangways were lowered, the men of the 6th and 28th Legions poured ashore to secure the dock area, scattering the locals working at the dockside, who made a hurried withdrawal.
Caesar himself then stepped ashore, dressed in shining armor and flowing red commander’s cloak, the paludamentum, and with a red sash tied around his middle and tied in a bow—his general’s insignia. He was immediately preceded by his official attendants, his lictors. As a current and former consul he was entitled to be attended by twelve lictors, each one carrying a fasces, a bundle containing rods and an ax bound with red tape, symbol of the Roman magistrate’s power to punish and execute. In Caesar’s case, too, laurel would have been wound around each fasces, signifying that during his military career his troops had hailed him as imperator. This was the greatest title that could be bestowed on a Roman general, and Caesar headed his correspondence with it—“CAESAR IMP,” his letters would begin.
Caesar had hardly set foot on Egyptian soil before he heard the clamor of approaching voices and saw men running toward the docks. Soldiers of the Egyptian city guard, apparently unarmed, or lightly armed, but in a very agitated state, surged around the legionaries who lined the dock perimeter with raised shields. The Egyptian soldiers shook their fists at Caesar and angrily called out to him in their native tongue. From this Caesar gleaned that the Egyptians were affronted by the sight of his fasces. Only their sovereigns had the power over life and death in Egypt, they said, and this display by the Roman general was a slight on King Ptolemy’s royal dignity.
Caesar seems to have been surprised by the audacity of this protest. After all, he had recently marched through Macedonia and Asia preceded by his lictors and been hailed wherever he went. But he was unmoved by the rude reception just the same. He continued on his way. With his legionaries pushing the mob back, Caesar and the tall German troopers of his bodyguard proceeded to the royal palace. Once Caesar had entered the palace the disturbance outside subsided, and the Egyptian troops went unhappily back to their quarters.
Striding into the palace, Caesar announced that he had come to see King Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra VII, only to be informed by haughty palace staff that his troops must disarm inside the palace and that brother and sister, their king and queen, were at war with each other. Ptolemy was with his army at Pelusium, Caesar learned, and Cleopatra and her lesser force were camped not far away from that city.
Caesar was now also informed that news had arrived from Pelusium that Pompey the Great had been killed on the beach there four days earlier, as he went to step from a boat and meet with Ptolemy. This news was both shocking and sobering to Caesar. Certainly he was surprised that Pompey, long his ally and lately his enemy, was so unexpectedly dead, but more than that, he was shocked by the meanness of his death and the Egyptian treachery that had brought it about. Some classical authors were to suggest that he even shed tears at the news. And he was sobered by the realization that a great name was no protection as far as the Egyptians were concerned, and that with so few troops around him he, too, might be considered vulnerable by these untrustworthy people.
At this point, Caesar and his men could simply have boarded their ships once again and sailed away. After all, the object of their pursuit no longer existed; Pompey was dead. But now that he was in Egypt, Caesar pursued another agenda. And, as usual, he didn’t share his intentions or motives with anyone. Later writers would speculate that Caesar lingered in Alexandria to dally with Cleopatra. But Caesar had never met the young woman, who, at that time, had no great reputation as a seductress. Plutarch was to write of Caesar’s dalliance in Egypt, “Some say it was both dangerous and dishonorable, and in no way necessary.”
In fact, as was to become apparent, Caesar’s motives for hunkering down in Alexandria were financial. Revolutions run only so far and for so long on ideology. In the end, revolutions require resources. And Caesar’s resources were as low as they had ever been. Cassius Dio quotes Caesar as saying, “There are two things that create, protect, and increase sovereignties—soldiers and money—and these two are dependent on each other.” According to Dio, Caesar had added, “In case either were lacking, the other would also be overthrown.”
Caesar’s need for money extended beyond the cost of equipping, feeding, and paying the salaries of his troops—and these expenses were substantial enough. At the outset of the civil war, Caesar had promised every one of his legionaries 20,000 sesterces each, and every citizen of Rome 300 sesterces, once he had gained power. At this time, assuming the troops who had mutinied after Pharsalus continued to march for him, which they must if he was to win the civil war, he had about 165,000 legionaries in 34 legions on his payroll, from Spain to Gaul to Illyricum to Italy to the East. And somehow he had to find the money to pay every one of them those 20,000 per head.
For, as they had already shown, even his best legions would not support him if he failed to keep his promises. He recognized, better than anyone, that it would be pointless to win the civil war only to be deposed by his own troops when he couldn’t come up with the money he had promised them.
Following the Battle of Pharsalus, Caesar had demanded money from the potentates of the East to allow him to continue the war, but so far little had been contributed. Here in Alexandria stood the treasury of the Ptolemies, containing what was said to be the single greatest fortune in the world, worth billions. Motivated by money, Caesar was determined to convert Egypt into a pliant and generous ally. That task would, to his mind, not be difficult, bearing in mind that he would be dealing with children, albeit children of royal blood.
Two of those royal children were then in residence at the palace: fifteen-year-old Arsinoe, youngest daughter of King Ptolemy XII, and eleven-year-old Ptolemy XIV, the late king’s youngest son. Caesar virtually ignored this pair, as he directed his attention to their elder siblings. Ordering his troops to occupy quarters in a small part of the palace complex adjacent to the royal theater, Caesar also instructed Commander Cassius to quickly reprovision one of his cruisers and then set off back to Asia with all speed. Cassius was to locate the 27th Legion and the legions made up of Pompey’s former troops recruited after Pharsalus, the units ordered to march to Asia with General Domitius. Commander Cassius’s instructions were explicit and urgent: General Domitius was to have these reinforcements brought to Caesar here at Alexandria without delay.
Cassius was told to say that Caesar could not leave the city because he was, in Caesar’s own words, “detained at Alexandria by the Etesian winds, which are most adverse for those sailing from there.” This ignored the fact that Cassius would do just that, sail against the northerly winds, using his rowers to follow the coast all the way up past Syria to Asia if need be, as Cassius was about to do. Cassius would also take correspondence from Caesar to Antony and others at Rome.
Cassius was able to up anchor and sail without hindrance from the Egyptians. Once Cassius had set off, Caesar, who had taken up residence in a guesthouse in the royal compound that had been allocated to him by the palace staff, a guesthouse also close to the royal theater, composed a note to young King Ptolemy. The quarrels of the Egyptian royal family, said his letter, concerned both the Roman people and himself as their consul, and he had all the more duty to act in this affair because it had been in his earlier consulship that an alliance had been forged between Ptolemy XII and the Senate and people of Rome, by a law and a decree of the Senate.
He had decided, he announced in the letter, that King Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra should dismiss their respective armies and settle their quarrels by submitting them to him for judgment rather than by force of arms, as the old treaty of friendship between Rome and Egypt provided. Messengers then hurried away down the coast to deliver Caesar’s message to the king at Pelusium.
As the days passed, with Caesar waiting for a reply from young Ptolemy, large crowds of Egyptians gathered throughout the city to protest the Roman presence. When Caesar sent troops to disperse the crowds, riots broke out. This went on for several days in succession, and the mobs were only finally broken up when Caesar’s legionaries resorted to using their weapons. Egyptians put up sporadic resistance, and in the process several of Caesar’s men were killed. Caesar’s troops had restored order in the city by the time messengers arrived back from their journey to Pelusium to say that King Ptolemy was on his way to Alexandria to meet with Caesar.
Leaving his army at Pelusium, with General Achillas in charge of the troops, Ptolemy returned to his capital within days, accompanied by an entourage that included his tutor and chief adviser Pothinus the eunuch and his rhetoric master Theodotus. No defining image of young Ptolemy survives, but his Ptolemaic predecessors tended to have curly hair, a hooked nose, small ears, and a jutting jaw, and perhaps he inherited those same characteristics. Caesar’s staff officer Colonel Hirtius was to say that Ptolemy was physically weak, indicating he was short and slight. At sixteen he was considered legally an adult by the Romans, but whether he had the intelligence and maturity of a full-grown man, or whether his thinking and decisions were dominated and manipulated by his advisers, Caesar had yet to determine.
Caesar received the king in his own royal palace, but graciously, respectfully. To begin with, he found the young monarch and his minions cool. The confidence of the Egyptians was high after the assassination of Pompey. That confidence had been boosted when, two days after Pompey’s murder, another Roman general had stepped ashore at Pelusium and fallen into Egyptian hands. This was General Lentulus, the 6th Legion’s divisional commander at the Battle of Pharsalus. Lentulus had gone to Rhodes seeking aid for Pompey, but the Rhodians had already decided to support Caesar and so sent Lentulus packing. The Egyptians had quickly grabbed General Lentulus and slapped him in irons. They were keeping Lentulus a prisoner for the time being, thinking they might be able to use him as a pawn in their negotiations with Caesar.
As the interview in the Alexandrian palace unfolded, Caesar was appalled when Theodotus produced a sack that he said contained the head of Pompey the Great. The head had been roughly severed by Colonel Septimius with several blows of his sword in the boat that had taken Pompey ashore at Pelusium on September 28. Caesar refused to look at the head, ordering that it be interred in a shrine he wished built for Pompey outside the city. Appian says this was subsequently done, with the structure erected being called the shrine of Nemesis; it was pulled down by the Jews of Alexandria 150 years later during an insurrection against the emperor Trajan.
Caesar did accept Pompey’s signet ring when Theodotus offered it. This ring bore Pompey’s seal of a lion with a sword in its paw. It was a seal Caesar knew well—many was the letter bearing that seal that Caesar had received from Pompey over the years, when they had been friends, and later, when correspondence had flowed between them in the early weeks of the civil war when Caesar still thought a settlement possible and envoys had shuttled between the pair.
Saddened by the gory reminders of Pompey’s cowardly murder, but focused on his goals, Caesar now made it clear that he was here in Alexandria to act as a judge who would settle the dispute between Ptolemy and Cleopatra. As proof of his right to act as the arbitrator of Egyptian affairs, Caesar produced a copy of the will of Ptolemy XII. One copy of this will had been held by Pompey the Great at Rome, while another had been kept at the palace at Alexandria. While Caesar had been waiting for the young king to arrive from Pelusium, he’d had his staff, no doubt led by his secretary Apollonius, unearth the Egyptian copy at the palace. In this will, which Caesar commanded be read aloud to the young man, Ptolemy XII called on the Roman people, by all the gods and in conformance with the treaties he had made at Rome, to ensure that his last wishes were carried out. This, said Caesar, was his authority to mediate in the affairs of the Egyptian royal house.
Young Ptolemy could not argue with this; he had acceded to the Egyptian throne on the terms of that same will. But Ptolemy and his advisers Pothinus and Theodotus were determined not to allow Cleopatra to regain her former place, and the king protracted his discussions with Caesar for day after day, at the same time refusing to dismiss his army. In the meantime, Caesar came to hear that Ptolemy’s adviser Pothinus was complaining indignantly to other members of the king’s council. Who did this commoner Caesar think he was? Pothinus was saying. How dare he summon their king, a Ptolemy, to plead his case!
At their next meeting, Caesar informed Pothinus that he was calling in the loan he had given to Ptolemy XII at Rome some years before. According to Plutarch, this loan amounted to 70 million sesterces. But, said Caesar, when a look of dismay no doubt came over Pothinus’s face, he had decided to will 30 million of that to his heirs. So, he said, he was only demanding 40 million at this time, to maintain his army.
Pothinus had no intention of parting with the money. “You had better go and attend to your other affairs of greater significance, Caesar,” Pothinus arrogantly retorted, so Plutarch records. “You will receive your money at another time, with our thanks.”
“I do not need Egyptians to be my counselors!” Caesar exploded before he dismissed Pothinus from his presence.
After this, Pothinus pleaded poor, ordering that all the king’s gold and silver plate be hidden. Pothinus was now served his meals on dishes of wood and earthenware. His gold and silver had to be sold, Pothinus claimed, because the royal treasury was in debt and in no position to repay Caesar’s loan. Keeping up the pretense of poverty, Pothinus instructed the Egyptian quartermaster to dole out musty grain from the royal granary to Caesar’s troops when Caesar asked that his men be provided with provisions. When the legionaries of the 6th Legion complained, Pothinus cynically told them they would have to make the most of what they were given, since they were being fed at the cost of another—the king of Egypt.
Seeing that he was making no headway with the king and his advisers, Caesar decided to bring a third player into this drama. Briefing an envoy to secretly make his way along the coast, he ordered him to locate Ptolemy’s sister Cleopatra and summon her to Alexandria for a reconciliation with her brother and a return to her previous position as coruler of the kingdom of Egypt. And the scene was set for a dramatic new twist in the tale.