For Rome, who had never condescended to fear any nation or people, did in her time fear two human beings; one was Hannibal, and the other was a woman.
Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant,
Women in Greece and Rome
Three things would bring down the Ptolemaic dynasty and bring to a close the three-millennia-old rule of the pharaohs. The first was the huge success of the early Ptolemies, whose radical re-invention of the Egyptian state made the nation once again a treasure worth fighting for. The second was the failure of their heirs to resist being seduced by the wealth and power they inherited. The third did not come from within Egypt but, in the summer of 48 BC, was already traveling across the sea toward Egypt and Alexandria. On the deck of that ship stood the leader of an aggressive Italian people who was writing himself into world history as the greatest general since Alexander. What and whom he found there would set the scene for perhaps the most famous series of romances in history, later immortalized by William Shakespeare. And their results would be no less deadly to all concerned than fate was to Shakespeare’s other star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.
Since Alexander’s death in 323 BC the eastern Mediterranean had been involved in an almost continuous struggle among the descendants of his heirs for control of an empire that had always been more myth than reality. But while Macedonians, Seleucids, and Ptolemies fought, another power had been growing in the west which would come to dominate them all—Rome.
The warning signs had been there since the First Punic War, when Rome decided to clip the wings of the rival trading empire of Carthage. Archimedes had actually seen it in the eyes of the Roman soldiers besieging his city of Syracuse and felt it in his last moments on the point of a Roman sword. Rome was not a state to countenance other empires when it had it in its power to bring them down. Carthage had come back for more, keen to stand up to the cold, unblinking expansionism of Rome, and had been defeated again. Finally, after the Third Punic War, Carthage was not only defeated but erased from the face of the earth. The Roman orator Cato had first found expression for what was clearly now Rome’s policy when he exhorted the senate with the words “Carthago delenda est”—Carthage must be destroyed. And it was. The city of Carthage itself was demolished, its inhabitants were massacred, and the fields around it were, according to legend, sown with salt so nothing and no one could live there. There could be no clearer statement of the Romans’ overall intent. They would never be content with being players in the game of ruling the Mediterranean world—they planned to be the victors.
That their attention would turn to Alexandria was inevitable. Between the death of Ptolemy IV and the accession of Ptolemy IX the Roman state had patiently watched 150 years of Egyptian economic decline. Rome had no need to humble Egypt as it had Carthage—Egypt was doing that on her own. When most of the work of conquest had been done, Rome finally chose to act, drawn to the Alexandrian flame by Egypt’s two remaining treasures: her potential to grow grain, and the greatest library and museum in the world.
If it was grain that actually brought the Romans to Alexandria, that was not its only attraction for her generals. Despite their republican protestations it was clear that some of the military leaders of the late republic—men like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony—craved a place in history alongside that greatest conqueror of them all: Alexander. To them the journey to Alexandria was as much pilgrimage as diplomatic mission, even if the tomb of Alexander himself was now closed, supposedly to protect the bodies of the Ptolemaic pharaohs who now rested alongside him. In truth, as the Romans probably well knew, it was to disguise the fact that the bankrupt Ptolemy IV had pawned Alexander’s golden coffin.
But Alexandria held one other attraction for the men of this new world power. By the Great Harbor, in a palace flanked with ancient obelisks, a new pharaoh ruled. She would be Egypt’s last and perhaps the most famous: Cleopatra.
The reign of Cleopatra will always be remembered for drawing the curtain on the Ptolemaic world, but in truth, by the time she ascended to the throne in 51 BC, Egypt was already lost. As far back as 80 BC her father, Ptolemy XII, had been little more than a puppet of the Roman dictator Sulla, having formally allied himself with Rome. Egypt’s ancient name had then been inscribed on the Roman “list of allies and friends,” the amici et socii populi Romani which proved to be the death warrant of so many independent states. Roman friendships were very one-way affairs, and despite Egypt’s paying a sizable tribute for the “privilege” of friendship, this formal alliance had not prevented Rome from seizing those Egyptian possessions it felt it needed, including the island of Cyprus, which had been ruled by Ptolemy’s brother. For his part, Ptolemy, already overawed by this new world power, sat quietly by and watched until the people of Alexandria, incensed at his inaction, forced him to flee to his friends in Rome. Eventually the Romans reinstalled him in Egypt, their “friendship” extending at least to him personally, but he would enjoy his kingdom for only another four years. In his will he left his country to his daughter Cleopatra and her brother (and husband), the ten-year-old Ptolemy XIII. Tellingly, he chose as his executor the people of Rome.
And so in the spring of 51 BC a succession of grossly corrupt and weak rulers whose lives were defined by little more than assassinations and revolts reached its end, and one last Ptolemy rose to the throne of Egypt. In Cleopatra, however, a free Egypt and a free Alexandria had one final flourish.
Cleopatra was the most remarkable Ptolemy for many generations. Crowned pharaoh while still a teenager, she was the antithesis of the gross caricature that later Romans would draw of her. For many of them, she was a convenient excuse for the bloody civil wars that led to the collapse of their beloved republic and the instigation of totalitarian imperial rule. She was cast as the lascivious temptress, an untrustworthy Eastern woman intent on polluting the moral virtue of Rome and its generals. It was a classic piece of Roman propaganda, and one so successful that it still dogs her memory to this day. The truth was very different.
Cleopatra had been born in Alexandria and, unlike so many of her predecessors, had clearly reveled in the intellectual life that still thrived in what were her dynasty’s greatest achievements, the library and museum. As a child she had shown an aptitude for languages, learning Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Ethiopic, and Hebrew—all the main languages of the library—as well as being the first and last Ptolemaic pharaoh ever to learn the native tongue of the country she ruled, Egyptian. She was not, if her coin portraits are to be more trusted than Roman propaganda, the great beauty that later romances and films have made her, but that is perhaps to pay her a compliment. She was no two-dimensional Helen, and her personal magnetism, which even Roman sources are forced to admit, came from a mind and personality molded in what was still the intellectual capital of the world. In fact, even the pro-Roman historian Plutarch concedes that she was much more than simply a beauty:
For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased.
Plutarch, Life of Antony, in Parallel Lives, 27
It was this that marked her out from so many previous Ptolemaic alsorans. Plutarch had no desire to eulogize Cleopatra, but even he could not help but record that her strength came not from her looks but from her mind. It would be another 1,550 years before the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon would coin the dictum “Knowledge is power” (Religious Meditations: Of Heresies ), but already in Caesar’s day, Cleopatra was proving it. Sadly, this alone would not be enough to stop Rome from interfering in her rule. Rome chose the stages on which it played out its story, and when it chose wealthy and desirable Egypt, Cleopatra and her people had little choice but to join in the drama.
The endgame of pharaonic Egypt was played out against the backdrop of the bloody struggles among Rome’s most powerful generals. In 49 BC, when Julius Caesar’s power-sharing arrangement with his ally Pompey collapsed, the seeds of Roman civil war were sown, and Egypt, feeling forced to back one side or the other, had provided ships, grain, and money for Pompey’s cause. It proved a mistake, and now, following his defeat at the battle of Pharsalus, the news came that Pompey was fleeing to Egypt. The timing could not have been worse, for there was no peace in Egypt either at that time; indeed, Cleopatra was at war with her brother. A more typical later Ptolemy by far, the young Ptolemy XIII was still under the thrall of three of his ministers: the eunuch Potheinos, Theodotus of Chois (his teacher of rhetoric), and the Egyptian Achillas. These three men had precipitated a split between the co-regents, and Cleopatra had been expelled from Alexandria. Ptolemy was now camped at Pelusium with his army, ready to bring his co-regency, and his sister’s life, to a bloody end, when news of Pompey’s arrival reached him.
It was an invidious situation for any monarch. With Pompey in Egypt, Julius Caesar could not be far behind. If the pharaoh protected the one, he would become the other’s enemy, and in either case he would be an enemy of Rome. And so, according to Plutarch, he, or rather his advisers, took a gamble. With Pompey’s trireme riding at anchor off the treacherous shore, Achillas was sent out in a rowboat to bring the Roman over the shoals to shore and into the presence of the king. Pompey himself was nervous, fearing a trap but powerless to resist. As Achillas rowed up he held out a hand to help Pompey into the little tender. The general turned to his wife and son and embraced them, quoting a line of Sophocles:
He that once enters at a tyrant’s door,
Becomes a slave, though he were free before.
Plutarch, Life of Pompey, in Parallel Lives, 78
He then climbed on board and was rowed silently toward the beach. It was a long row, and during the trip he took out the speech he had prepared for the king and read it through. Then, as the boat grounded and he was being helped to his feet, his assassins struck and he was repeatedly stabbed. To the accompaniment of his wife’s screams carrying from the far-off trireme, his head was hacked off and his body unceremoniously dumped in the sea.
It was a bloody murder but of a type in which both Egyptians and Romans occasionally indulged in the name of politics. His head was taken to Ptolemy, who, when Caesar’s fleet arrived off Alexandria just two days later, sent a messenger with the gruesome gift.
But if Ptolemy thought that assassinating Caesar’s enemy would make him Caesar’s friend, or that it would encourage the Romans to fight their civil wars elsewhere, he had seriously misunderstood Roman politics. In fact, he had provided Caesar with the perfect excuse. Had Caesar ordered Pompey killed he would have alienated at least a part of his own people. Now he could portray Pompey as a man whom he had disagreed with but a fellow Roman all the same. It had been the treacherous and untrustworthy Egyptians who had killed him—all the more reason to interfere in and perhaps annex their country. Plutarch describes without a hint of irony the moment when Caesar received Pompey’s head, and the crocodile tears began to flow: “From the man who brought him Pompey’s head he turned away with loathing, as from an assassin; and on receiving Pompey’s seal-ring, he burst into tears” (Plutarch, Life of Pompey, in Parallel Lives, 80).
Caesar could now play the avenging Roman angel while conveniently ignoring the fact that it had been he who had driven Pompey to his death. Instead of taking the war away from Egypt, as Ptolemy had hoped, Caesar ordered his troops to land and occupy Alexandria.
Caesar quickly sent for reinforcements and meanwhile set up his head-quarters in the royal palace and did his best to look like a peaceful visitor. According to Lucan (Pharsalia, book 10, line 21), he admired the sights of the city, including the tomb of Alexander, and according to Appian (The Civil Wars, book 2, chapter 89), he even joined the crowds listening to the public philosophy lectures given by the scholars of the museum. He also attempted to play the peacemaker between the claimants to the throne, Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra, whom he asked to appear before him. For Cleopatra it was a risk. Her forces were not in control of Alexandria or Egypt, and she did not have the support of the Alexandrians, or perhaps many Egyptians. Nor could she know what deal, if any, her treacherous brother had struck with the Roman. Her only hope was to use her skills to influence Caesar in private, so she got word to him asking for a secret audience. Smuggled back into the city under a coverlet (or rolled in a carpet, in some versions of the tale), she found herself in the presence of the most powerful man on earth. He was fifty-two years old, she was not yet twenty-two, but in a single night she persuaded him to make her queen again. Lucan in his Pharsalia, reveling in his own imaginings of that evening, describes how
There in her fatal beauty lay the Queen
Thick daubed with unguents, nor with throne content
Nor with her brother spouse; laden she lay
On neck and hair with all the Red Sea spoils,
And faint beneath the weight of gems and gold.
Her snowy breast shone through Sidonian lawn
Which woven close by shuttles of the east
The art of Nile had loosened.
Lucan, Pharsalia, book 10, lines 64-71
It was the beginning of the greatest love story in antiquity but the beginning of the end for a free Alexandria and a free Egypt.
Cleopatra had seen which way the wind was blowing, and during that night she successfully distanced herself from both Pompey and her brother the co-regent, so that he would take the full blame for Egypt’s ill-considered interference in a Roman civil war. With the deadly calculation and lack of filial love that the Ptolemies were famed for, she now appealed to an unassailable Julius Caesar to reinstall her as pharaoh alongside her truculent brother.
The next day Ptolemy XIII arrived in the palace to find Cleopatra at Caesar’s side. In an act almost certainly orchestrated by his adviser Potheinos he then cried out that he was betrayed and ran from the palace, tearing the crown from his head. It was a brilliant move. The people of Alexandria immediately swarmed to the man who appeared to be holding out against Roman occupation, and threatened to storm the palace. Caesar managed on this occasion to calm the Alexandrians, reading Ptolemy XII’s will to them and giving his guarantee that it would be fulfilled (i. e. , that Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra would rule), but he decided to take the young Ptolemy XIII into “protective custody” just in case. The scene was now set for the Alexandrine War, a war which would witness the partial destruction of the thing the Ptolemies held most dear: their library.
Caesar had miscalculated. In purely military terms it made a lot more sense to support Ptolemy XIII and his advisers, who still had a sizable army and the support of many in Alexandria. But one night with Cleopatra had changed his mind. Her wit, charm, and political brilliance—the assets of an Alexandrian scholar—had put him in her thrall, and he would pay a high price for it. But while an enchanted Caesar promised the return of Cyprus to Egypt’s control and the rebuilding of Cleopatra’s power base, he had more immediate problems closer to home. Potheinos had summoned the royal army to besiege Caesar in Alexandria, knowing him to have come to Egypt with only a small force. Unable to field his inferior army in open battle, Caesar was forced to watch from the palace walls as most of Alexandria fell under Potheinos’s control and its people, including slaves, were formed into armed militias in protest against what looked to them like Roman military rule.
Caesar had called for reinforcements, but these would take time to arrive. In the meantime he was forced to look for a stronghold that might at least give him control of the Great Harbor. His sights fell on Pharos, and he left us with one of the few eyewitness descriptions of this wonder of the world:
The Pharos is a tower on an island, of prodigious height, built with amazing works, and takes its name from the island. This island lying over against Alexandria forms a harbour; but on the upper side it is connected with the town by a narrow way eight hundred paces in length, made by piles sunk in the sea, and by a bridge. In this island some of the Egyptians have houses, and a village as large as a town.
Julius Caesar, Commentary on the Gallic and Civil Wars,
book 3, chapter 112
Caesar’s interest in the island was purely practical. Even in his day, the island of Pharos was still famous for the pirates who would set upon any ship that accidentally ran aground there or failed to make the harbor entrance. This told him everything he needed to know. As he always did, Caesar reported himself in the third party:
Without the consent of those who are masters of the Pharos, no vessels can enter the harbour, on account of its narrowness. Caesar being greatly alarmed on this account, while the enemy were engaged in battle, landed his soldiers, seized the Pharos, and placed a garrison in it.
Julius Caesar, Commentary on the Gallic and Civil Wars,
book 3, chapter 112
Whatever Caesar now chose to do, Cleopatra could do little but support him. In a way the people of the city militias were right. It did look like a Roman occupation with her as puppet, and in truth, when reinforcements arrived Caesar might simply have seized Alexandria and made it his. Cleopatra had made her choice, but as Roman troops swarmed over Pharos, she was about to discover its true cost.
The ships remaining in the harbor were an obvious danger for Caesar, and he didn’t have to think twice about what to do. He tells us in his own words:
The enemy endeavored to seize with a strong party the ships of war. . . . They were all of either three or five banks of oars, well equipped and appointed with every necessity for a voyage. Besides these, there were twenty-two vessels with decks, which were usually kept at Alexandria, to guard the port. If they made themselves masters of these, Caesar being deprived of his fleet, they would have the command of the port and whole sea, and could prevent him from procuring provisions and auxiliaries. . . . But Caesar gained the day, and set fire to all those ships, and to others which were in the docks.
Julius Caesar, Commentary on the Gallic and Civil Wars,
book 3, chapter 111
It was summer and the famed Etesian wind was blowing from the north. Normally this brought cool relief to the people of Alexandria, but now, as the ships erupted in flames, burning canvas and rope spiraled into the sky and were blown across the city. First the warehouses on the wharves caught alight, then the dockyards themselves. At this point, Plutarch tells us in a single, bald sentence, “this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library” (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, in Parallel Lives, 49).
There is some confusion among the sources as to whether the great library in the royal quarter itself caught fire, or just the book warehouses on the waterfront, which housed volumes for export and those impounded from the ships. The lack of explicit references to the great library after this date might suggest that this fire was considerably more than a warehouse blaze—it was a disaster. By the time the fire was out, one source reports, some four hundred thousand papyrus scrolls had been lost. It was not the end of Alexandria’s library, but the great library itself would never recover its former importance, and the second, or “daughter,” library at the Serapeum would now begin to supplant it. The days of Eratosthenes and Archimedes, of Euclid and Callimachus, had passed, and as Cleopatra surveyed the burning city, the works that her ancestors had invested their lives in fluttered in burned ribbons about her.
This was the price of Caesar’s support; indeed, some claim the fire in the library was started deliberately on his orders. The library was the Ptolemaic jewel, the last great treasure Rome could not own without first conquering Egypt. Knowledge was Alexandria’s strength, and perhaps that made it dangerous in the eyes of the Roman state. But knowledge was as vulnerable and ephemeral as the papyrus on which it was written. What had taken a lifetime to learn, Caesar could destroy in a morning with little more than a torch. The navy could be rebuilt, the houses repaired, but the books in the library could not so easily be replaced.
No records survive to tell us what books were lost that day, but if the damage was extensive it was at least not total, and Alexandria remained a “library city.” Of those lost, some could be recopied from other sources and other copies could be bought; but in an age when a book might exist in only a handful of handwritten copies, some of the great works of antiquity may have died forever that day. It had been just a shot across the bow, but the sight of smoke rising over the library or even just the book warehouses marked a change in the life of the library and prefigured its final demise. The library, for all its learning, was vulnerable, and increasingly would now be seen not only as an asset, but as a liability. The pen was perhaps still mightier than the sword, but without soldiers to protect it, the single “barracks” where those words were stored was little more than a tinderbox awaiting a casual spark.
With the burning of the library one era was coming to an end, but on the streets a new one had yet to materialize. The library was certainly the most important casualty in the Alexandrine War, but that war was not yet over, and there was a danger that Caesar might also succumb. At one point he was reportedly set upon when his own ship was stormed by hostile Alexandrians and, despite his years, had to dive into the harbor and swim for the safety of ships moored farther out. Ptolemy’s men were now also pumping salt water into the palace’s elaborate water system in an attempt to contaminate the water supply—a very early form of chemical warfare. It was a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Would Caesar (and Cleopatra) succumb, or would Roman reinforcements arrive? In a last-ditch effort to stall for time Caesar finally released the hostage Ptolemy XIII, but much to his disappointment, this seems only to have intensified the fighting.
Fortunately for Caesar, Roman political and military might was about to force events. Mithradates of Pergamum, Caesar’s general, was now just outside Pelusium, with Cleopatra’s own troops and contingents from Judea and Nabatea. Caesar rushed to join them, and in the ensuing battle Ptolemy XIII lost his life, apparently drowned in the Nile. When Caesar returned to Alexandria he was the victor, and the unhappy but pragmatic Alexandrians could do nothing but bow to him and the ruler they had tried to shun, Cleopatra.
When Caesar left Egypt he ordered three legions to stay in the country for the protection of the queen, who was now carrying his son—Caesarion (“son of Caesar,” as the Alexandrians called him). Of course few in Alexandria can have doubted that this was not so much an army of protection as one of occupation. With her on the throne he had placed the child king Ptolemy XIV, her younger brother (and new “husband”), as a concession to the supporters of Ptolemy XIII. No one doubted, however, who was in control. Egypt was now, in essence, a Roman protectorate, but while the queen’s relationship with Caesar remained close, Egypt was safe, and flourished.
A year later Cleopatra was in Rome with her baby son and her co-ruler. The city was not yet perhaps the city of marble that the emperor Augustus so proudly boasted of (if we believe his own propaganda) but still the city of brick which he would inherit from Caesar. It was also a city of rumor. Cleopatra’s influence on Caesar was said to be growing, and was causing much distrust in Rome. For her visit she was staying in Caesar’s own house, a scandal in itself, for while what had happened in Egypt was, as the historian and Roman senator Cassius Dio points out, only hearsay, their behavior in Rome was clear for all to see. For many Romans this proved that the great Caesar’s head had been turned by a mere girl. They commented that the Alexandrine War, unlike his other victories, was an unnecessary diversion, and one he undertook not for the glory of Rome but out of his love for Cleopatra. There were also in the city those who feared her son would be the heir to Rome, as Caesar had had no children by his wife, Calpurnia, whom he had divorced in 53 BC.
And there were other signs that his time in Alexandria had influenced him. During Cleopatra’s visit Caesar introduced the new and more accurate Julian calendar to Rome, which had until that date calculated its years based on a lunar reckoning. This had led, as Cassius Dio puts it, to the days getting “somewhat out of order” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 43, chapter 26). This new, improved calendar had a 365-day year divided into twelve months, with one extra day added every fourth (leap) year. This exceptionally precise calendar—accurate to one day in 1,461 years—was not of course invented by Caesar, but a product of the mind of Eratosthenes, devised and refined in the museum of Alexandria.
Cleopatra was also having a more direct influence on her lover, playing the game of power politics just as well as he could. On her return to Alexandria her co-ruler was conveniently murdered, so she could now rule jointly with Caesarion. Caesar could content himself with the knowledge that his only son was already a pharaoh, while Cleopatra, sharing a throne with her baby, knew she could in effect rule alone. Despite her political intriguing, however, events were moving too fast even for Cleopatra.
Little did she know that when she left Rome, she would never see her lover again.
The mood in the Roman senate had been turning against Caesar for some time, and the appearance in Rome of his Eastern mistress had done little to improve his standing. Many feared that with Cleopatra’s financial aid he would soon dismantle the republic and install himself over them as tyrant. So on the Ides of March, 44 BC, a small group of senatorial conspirators ensured it would never come to pass. Julius Caesar was assassinated in Pompey’s theater in Rome, and Cleopatra was once again alone. That year the Nile floods failed and there was famine in Egypt.
The man to whom she now turned for support would prove to be her last ally, and one whose relationship with her has gone down in history as one of the greatest and most tragic romances of all time. Cleopatra was a practical Alexandrian and knew she needed to pick a winner from the civil war into which Rome was diving headlong. There was now a choice of three: Octavian, Julius Caesar’s personal heir and effective ruler of the west of the empire; Lepidus, in command in Africa; or Mark Antony in the east. All three “triumvirs” theoretically ruled together, but the time was coming when everyone would have to choose. But in choosing Mark Antony, Cleopatra made more than a simple political decision.
Mark Antony was a natural soldier, with a fine physique and an iron constitution that excesses and hardships alike failed to weaken. His courage, affability, and generosity made him hugely popular with his men, and when he invited Cleopatra to Tarsus in 41 BC even the queen of Egypt could hardly refuse the man who had hunted down and defeated Caesar’s murderers. He was clearly the logical as well as the emotional heir to Cleopatra’s affections, and in his presence she once again turned around her city’s and her country’s fortunes in a single night. She arrived in Tarsus displaying all the magnificence and sophistication of an Alexandrian monarch. She was Isis and Aphrodite, the perfect refinement of a Hellenistic ruler and a woman at the height of her powers. Plutarch in his Life of Antony describes her arrival
in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nereïds and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.
Plutarch, Life of Antony, in Parallel Lives, 26
After that arrival the meeting could be nothing other than a success. The first night she banqueted him; the second he tried to respond but was forced to admit his efforts were “rustic” compared with the magnificence of her meal. But regardless of the food, the bond between them was already fast. After this brief first meeting Antony returned the compliment by spending the whole of the following winter with her in Alexandria. For a moment it seemed that together they could do more than save Egypt. For a wonderful, willfully blind moment it seemed they could inherit Alexander’s dream. The Alexandrians loved Antony, saying he wore a tragic face for the Romans but a comic mask with them (Plutarch, Life of Antony, in Parallel Lives, 29). The two lovers spent days in gilded games, most famously a fishing trip which Plutarch also describes. Having gone fishing with Cleopatra, Antony was embarrassed at his lack of luck and quietly asked one of his fishermen to dive below the boat and attach to the line a fish they had caught earlier. The trick seemed to work and Cleopatra appeared impressed by the sudden haul which followed. She was no fool, however, and had noticed. The next day she gathered large numbers of courtiers together for another fishing trip so they might witness Antony’s prowess. When he dropped his line overboard she signaled to her fisherman, who dived down and attached a salted herring to his line. When he pulled it in there was great laughter, and the queen turned to her champion, saying, “Imperator, hand over thy fishing-rod to the fishermen of Pharos and Canopus; thy sport is the hunting of cities, realms, and continents” (Plutarch, Life of Antony, in Parallel Lives, 29).
Then there were the love tokens. He gave Egypt back its foreign territories in Asia Minor, and in return she directed the vast wealth of Egypt to his ambition. The following summer, as if to seal the deal, she bore him twins: Alexander Helios (the sun) and Cleopatra Selene (the moon). In return he gave her the one present every Ptolemy coveted.
The wealthy kingdom of Pergamum (in what is today Turkey) had recently been acquired by the Roman state, having, rather unusually, been left to Rome in the will of its last king. For the Romans it was a rich trading nation and a welcome source of revenue. But for any Alexandrian it held something worth more than gold—a library of some two hundred thousand volumes, the second largest collection of books on earth. This was Antony’s gift to Cleopatra, a suitable recompense for Caesar’s damage to the great library and an investment in its future. It was the greatest gift an Alexandrian could receive.
But the heirs of Julius Caesar had no desire to see another Alexander arise in Egypt, and what was more, their leader, Octavian, had personal reasons to distrust Mark Antony, who was still, at least in name, married to his sister. Now Antony was, in Octavian’s view, under the control of that evil Eastern temptress who had ruined Julius Caesar. She was everything Rome stood against—a foreigner, a competitor, a political player, and, perhaps worst of all, a woman in an era when Rome viewed women as simply their fathers’ or husbands’ possessions. Despite several reconciliations, it was clear that Octavian’s desire to rule Rome and Mark Antony’s dreams of an empire in the East were set to clash head-on. In the end, driven on by Cleopatra, Antony abandoned his wife—in the process snubbing Octavian—and returned to Alexandria to plan one final bid for glory. Together they fueled a propaganda campaign to have themselves associated with Dionysus and Aphrodite—or for their Egyptian subjects, Osiris and Isis. They were to be living gods destined to rule over a new Alexandrian empire. He would provide the military might, she the money, and together they would achieve Alexander’s dream and rule an Eastern empire from the city he had founded for that purpose. So enchanted with the prospect was Cleopatra that she instigated a new system for counting dates. This would now be the year 1.
In 36 BC, however, that dream began to crumble. An overconfident Antony suffered a crushing defeat on his expedition against Parthia, leading many of his senior military commanders to doubt both his judgment and his motives. These were Roman troops, after all, and though they had followed Antony across the Middle East, they had done so in the name of Rome, not Alexandria. Many were also aware that his rivalry with Octavian was now beyond reconciliation. Caesar’s adopted heir was no fool and clearly saw in Mark Antony’s expeditions a personal ambition that far outstripped the orders he received from Rome. He also saw behind him a son of Cleopatra’s, Caesarion, a true heir to Julius Caesar.
The excuse for a final war came when Antony made his plans public, in a lavish ceremony in the gymnasium at Alexandria. Here a silver dais was set up with two golden thrones upon it, one for himself and one for Cleopatra, and other seats for Cleopatra’s children. Then he declared his lover, who was dressed as Isis, queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya, and Coele-Syria, to share that throne with Caesarion, her son by Caesar. He then proclaimed his own son by Cleopatra “king of kings” and allotted to him further territories, including the vast expanses of Armenia, Parthia, Media, Syria, and Phoenicia. In short, he had claimed half the known world.
The resolution of the Roman senate against him and his Egyptian queen (who was now, thanks to Octavian’s brilliant propaganda, known in Rome as “the ruinous monster”) made war inevitable. The Alexandrian dream had seduced Rome’s greatest general, and now he would have to fight for it.
Octavian finally met these would-be Eastern emperors not on land but off the coast of Actium in Greece. The sea battle was brief and bloody, and within a few short hours Antony and Cleopatra were fleeing for the distant safety of Alexandria’s walls. Her ships entered the great harbor as tradition dictated, to the strains of victory songs and garlanded with flowers, but not even she could hide this defeat. She had come home for the last time, to the city that had made her, but not in triumph as she had hoped, and she would never leave its walls again. There was to be no sanctuary.
Many of the Roman generals who had supported Antony now began to defect—some no doubt just gauging the way the political wind was blowing, others now overtly opposed to this “un-Roman” dalliance with a woman they considered no more than an unreliable Eastern princess. In their eyes Cleopatra had brought Rome nothing but trouble—trouble for Pompey, trouble for Julius Caesar, trouble for Mark Antony, and now trouble for them.
In the spring of 30 BC Octavian’s armies began to march on Alexandria. Antony managed one final victory in the outskirts of the city by the hippodrome, but when he returned to the battlefield the following day, his fleet and cavalry went over to the enemy. On August 1, when Octavian walked into Alexandria, the Ptolemaic kingdom came to an end.
With Octavian on his way to the palace, Cleopatra retired to her mausoleum, sending a note to Antony to say she was already dead. Hearing this, he fell on his sword in despair. The blow was not immediately fatal, however, and he was still writhing in agony when word came that Cleopatra was not dead. In his last moments he asked to be carried into her presence so he might die in her arms. Tied to a cord and hauled up through a high window (for Cleopatra would not open the door for fear of betrayal), he finally gained admittance to the tomb, and that last wish was granted.
Cleopatra did not immediately follow him to the grave. She was flushed out of her mausoleum after Octavian managed to get one of his guards in through the same window as the dying Antony. She immediately tried to stab herself, but Octavian’s orders were that she be taken alive, and she was overpowered and brought to him only wounded. Perhaps Cleopatra at least thanked him for being granted the chance to bury Antony with royal honors, but she can have held out little hope that more kindness awaited her than being paraded through the streets of Rome in Octavian’s triumph to the jeers and scorn of a crowd he had taught to hate her.
Seeing death as the only noble way out, she then tried to starve herself but was persuaded against this after threats were made against her children. Finally, after a meeting with Octavian on August 10, she persuaded him that she now wished to live, and he dropped his guard. She had bent one last great Roman to her will. Two days later she was dead. Plutarch describes her last moments:
After her bath, she reclined at table and was making a sumptuous meal. And there came a man from the country carrying a basket; and when the guards asked him what he was bringing there, he opened the basket, took away the leaves, and showed them that the dish inside was full of figs. The guards were amazed at the great size and beauty of the figs, whereupon the man smiled and asked them to take some; so they felt no mistrust and bade him take them in. After her meal, however, Cleopatra took a tablet which was already written upon and sealed, and sent it to Caesar, and then, sending away all the rest of the company except her two faithful women, she closed the doors.
Plutarch, Life of Antony, in Parallel Lives, 85
As soon as Octavian opened the tablet he must have known that it was too late, for in it she begged the Roman to bury her alongside her beloved Antony. He quickly dispatched messengers to her, but they arrived to find her lying dead upon a couch, her body carefully arrayed in state by her two female servants Iras and Charmion. Iras was herself in the last moments of life as they burst in, while Charmion, also in the throes of death, was trying to arrange a diadem on her mistress’s head. One of the messengers turned on her: “ ‘A fine deed, this, Charmion!’ ‘It is indeed most fine,’ she said, ‘and befitting the descendant of so many kings.’ Not a word more did she speak, but fell there by the side of the couch” (Plutarch, Life of Antony, in Parallel Lives, 85).
No one can be sure if Cleopatra died from the bite of an Egyptian asp in that basket of figs, as was reported at the time, or from some other poison which, like many rulers of her day, she must have carried about with her. But the story of the asp provides an appropriate death for a queen of Egypt and the only Ptolemy ever to have learned Egyptian.
She had been perhaps the most Egyptian ruler of all her dynasty, using her inquisitive Greek mind to look deep into the past of her adoptive home for clues to a future free from Roman domination. She had even beguiled a Roman general into joining her on that journey—an Osiris to play alongside her tragic Isis. But the great days of Egypt she looked wistfully back to had been little more than a memory when Alexandria was founded, and the Egyptian temples she built along the Nile were more an homage to the stories of long-dead pharaohs she had read of in the library than the signs of a resurgent Egypt.
Now at thirty-nine years old she was dead and finally resting next to her beloved Antony. As for her children, Caesarion, in many ways the only true heir of Egypt and Rome, was hunted down by Octavian’s men and killed. He was about fourteen years old. Her children with Antony did survive, although they were forced to walk alongside her picture, in which she was portrayed with the asp still clinging to her arm, in Octavian’s triumph in Rome. Only Cleopatra Selene appears again in the history books after that, married to King Juba II of Mauritania, where she transformed his minor capital of Caesarea into a little Alexandria, complete with sculptures of her illustrious ancestors and even its own small library.
Back in the real Alexandria that library and the city that held it were now Roman possessions. The Ptolemaic dream was dead, but Alexandria’s story was still far from over.