CLEOPATRA AND THE EQUIRRIA
Twenty-five-year-old Cleopatra had brought her three-year-old son Caesarion with her to Rome. According to Suetonius, Mark Antony would confirm in the Senate that Caesarion was indeed Caesar’s progeny. Suetonius also wrote that Caesar’s close friends Gaius Oppius and Gaius Matius were similarly aware of the child’s paternity. Just the same, Oppius later published a book in which he set out to prove that the boy was not Caesar’s son.¹ But these claims and counterclaims came after Caesar’s death, at a time when Caesarion became a political pawn, with his paternity an issue used by Antony and his opponents to further their own causes.
No one disputed that Cleopatra had a lengthy affair with Caesar, and there were those who were convinced that Caesar planned to divorce his current wife, Calpurnia, and marry Cleopatra. Under prevailing Roman law, Caesar was prevented from making Cleopatra his wife. That law banned Romans from marrying foreigners. Caesar was preparing a remedy for that obstacle, for in the writings of the Tribune of the Plebeians Helvius Cinna would be found the claim that Caesar had commissioned him to draw up a special bill for presentation to the Roman “commons,” the Comitia, or assembly of the common people.
This Comitia served as a lower house to the Senate, rather like the lower house in a modern parliament. The tribunes of the plebeians were elected by the Comitia; some trials could be conducted in front of the Comitia; certain laws could be passed by the Comitia, and some decrees approved by it; this assembly even could declare war on Rome’s enemies. According to Suetonius, Cinna the tribune revealed that Caesar had commissioned him to prepare legislation he was to present to the Comitia once the Dictator had set off for the East, legislation “legitimizing his marriage with any woman, or women, he pleased, ‘ for the procreation of children.’”²
Cleopatra had grown up in Egypt seducing and manipulating men, initially to survive, later to achieve her own political ambitions. Her lover prior to Caesar, for example, had been Pompey’s eldest son, Gnaeus, when he was stationed in Alexandria. Now she would have had expectations that she would become Caesar’s wife, and that her son Caesarion would become his legitimate heir and successor.
Officially, Cleopatra had come to Rome with her brother and son at the invitation of the Senate. Cassius Dio was to write that they “settled” in Caesar’s villa on the far side of the Tiber, with Cleopatra and Ptolemy accepting the titles “Friends and Allies of the Roman People” from the Senate, honors given, of course, at Caesar’s bidding. Many a senator, led by the praetors, would have paid Cleopatra and her brother official visits at her trans-Tiber resort, while the Dictator himself had the excuse of visiting his own villa when he went there. With Cleopatra and her brother living across the Tiber in Caesar’s villa, month in, month out, “he derived an ill repute on account of both of them.” Yet, “he was not at all concerned about this.”³
Nor was he concerned by the persistent rumor currently swirling around Rome “that Caesar intended to move the seat of government to Troy or Alexandria” to be close to Cleopatra, “carrying off all the national resources, drafting every available man in Italy for military service, and letting his friends govern the city” of Rome.⁴ Such a prospect would have horrified most Romans.
Cleopatra was no great beauty. The few surviving classical images of her depict a young woman with a good figure but a long, unattractive nose. But there is more to seductive power than good looks. Plutarch was to say that while Plato had described four different ways of fl attery, Cleopatra possessed a thousand ways to flatter.⁵ The skill to fl atter men had been developed of necessity when she was growing up in a royal palace at Alexandria racked with plots, intrigues, and changing allegiances that had eventually seen her at war with her own siblings.
Cleopatra was also highly intelligent, well educated, and multitalented. The Egyptian royal family of this time was actually Macedonian, having descended from Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy, who, after Alexander’s death, made himself Egypt’s first king of the Macedonian line. These Egyptian royals spoke Greek as their native tongue, and as Plutarch was to note, few of them even bothered to learn Egyptian, the language spoken by their subjects. Cleopatra was the exception; not only did she learn to speak Egyptian like a native, she also was fluent in many of the languages of the East, Hebrew, Parthian, and Mede among them.⁶
Because Suetonius indicated, obscurely, that Cleopatra may have left Rome by this time to return to Alexandria, some modern authors have placed her back in Egypt by March 44 B.C. But having settled in Caesar’s villa just outside urban Rome, and having only recently convinced Caesar to have Roman law changed so she could become his wife, there was no earthly reason for the wily Cleopatra to have gone back to the East. Egypt was now a kingdom in name only. Four Roman legions now occupied the country.⁷
Those legions were commanded by one of Caesar’s favorites, a freedman’s son—another source of complaint by the Dictator’s critics.⁸ Those occupying legions, and that freedman, were the true rulers of Egypt now. Living in Caesar’s villa on the Janiculum, Cleopatra was close to Caesar, and close to the center of the government of the ancient world. From the Janiculum, she was able to use her talents to manipulate both, in her favor.
Inside the Janiculum villa on March 14, affairs would have been in a state of flux. Without doubt, Cleopatra, her brother the king, and their large entourage had plans to join Caesar’s column when it left Rome in five days’ time as he set off for his much-anticipated Getae and Parthian campaigns. Caesar would march overland to Macedonia, where half a dozen legions were at this moment awaiting the arrival of their commander in chief. Perhaps the Egyptian royals intended waiting in Macedonia, or maybe at Athens, while Caesar dealt with the Getae, or perhaps they planned to part company with him there and continue on to Alexandria.
As hundreds of servants busied themselves packing the king and queen’s belongings for the journey back to the East, those at the villa on the Janiculum would have been attracted to the eastern windows by the distant roar of tens of thousands of massed voices from the other side of the Tiber. March 14 was another religious holiday on the Roman calendar. Called the Equirria, it was said to have been established by Romulus himself. Dedicated to Mars, god of war, this was an equine festival celebrated by horse races of chariots drawn by teams of two horses, as opposed to the four-horse teams used in the most spectacular chariot-racing competitions.
For the Equirria Festival, the day’s horse racing was conducted not at the usual venue, the Circus Maximus, but on a temporary racetrack mapped out on the Field of Mars, north of the city walls. Wooden stands had been erected around the long U-shaped track in the days leading up to the Equirria, and now the thousands of spectators lucky enough to secure tickets were cheering on their chosen teams.
For Romans, chariot racing had become more than a religious festivity, more even than a sport. It was almost a religion in itself. Four teams contested each race, one supplied by each of Rome’s four racing corporations, the Greens, the Blues, the Reds, and the Whites. Many Romans were lifelong followers of one racing team or another, and it is from them that we have inherited the concept of and passion for sports teams. There was the added incentive that gambling on contests of physical skill such as chariot races was legal, and large amounts of money changed hands over every race.
With each chariot race, be it using two-horse teams or four, the object was to be first past the post after completing seven hectic circuits of the long, thin course, passing along the right side of the central spine that divided the track. That seven-lap circuit involved a total distance of about four miles. The stands were packed with excited spectators. The wealthy were armed with programs etched in ivory that listed the names of the drivers and horses for each race. To show which team they supported, spectators wore flowers, ribbons, and scarves in their team colors.
Among the spectators on this colorful day would have been the recently retired legionaries camped around the city, unarmed, but easily distinguishable by the berry-red military tunics still worn by many, which were a little shorter than the civilian tunic. In the official box, presiding over this festival to Mars, sat the most senior priest at Rome; today it would have been the pontifex maximus, Julius Caesar.
The roar of the crowd ebbed away. Another race had been run and won. The debris of an upturned chariot was quickly removed, an injured rider carried off, his bolting horses wrangled and led away. The spirits of the Roman people were high. Little did they know that before another day had passed their world would be turned upside down, like a crashing chariot, by the murder of their ruler.