A Cleopatra Comeback



That summer she rallied a band of mercenaries, at a desert camp, under the glassy heat of the Syrian sun. She was twenty-one, an orphan and an exile. Already she had known both excessive good fortune and its flamboyant consort, calamity. Accustomed to the greatest luxury of the day, she held court two hundred miles from the ebony doors and onyx floors of home. Her tent amid the scrub of the desert was the closest she had come in a year. Over those months she had scrambled for her life, fleeing through Middle Egypt, Palestine, and southern Syria. She had spent a dusty summer raising an army.

The women in her family were good at this and so clearly was she, accomplished enough anyway for the enemy to have marched out to meet her. Dangerously close at hand, not far from the seaside fortress of Pelusium, on the eastern frontier of Egypt, were 20,000 veteran soldiers, an army about half the size of that with which Alexander the Great had crossed into Asia three centuries earlier. This one was a formidable assembly of pirates and bandits, outlaws, exiles, and fugitive slaves, under the titular command of her thirteen-year-old brother. With him she had inherited the throne of Egypt. She had shunted him aside; in return he had banished her from the kingdom over which they were meant to rule jointly, as husband and wife. Her brother’s army controlled Pelusium’s redbrick walls, its massive twenty-foot, semicircular towers. She camped farther east, along the desolate coast, in a smoldering sea of amber sand. A battle loomed. Her position was hopeless at best. For the last time in two thousand years Cleopatra VII stands offstage. In a matter of days she will launch herself into history, which is to say that faced with the inevitable, she will counter with the improbable. It is 48 BC.

Throughout the Mediterranean a “strange madness” hung in the air, ripe with omens and portents and extravagant rumors. The mood was one of nervous exasperation. It was possible to be anxious and elated, empowered and afraid, all in the course of a single afternoon. Some rumors even proved true. Early in July Cleopatra heard that the Roman civil war—a contest that pitted the invincible Julius Caesar against the indomitable Pompey the Great—was about to collide with her own. This was alarming news. For as long as Cleopatra could remember, the Romans had served as protectors of the Egyptian monarchs. They owed their throne to that disruptive power, which in a few generations had conquered most of the Mediterranean world. Also as long as she could remember, Pompey had been a particular friend of her father’s. A brilliant general, Pompey had for decades piled up victories, on land and sea, subduing nation after nation, in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Both Cleopatra and her estranged brother, Ptolemy XIII, were in his debt.

Days later Cleopatra discovered that the chances of being murdered by someone who owed you a favor were every bit as good as the chances of being murdered by a member of your immediate family. On September 28, Pompey appeared off the coast of Pelusium. He had been routed by Caesar. Desperate, he cast about for a refuge. He thought logically enough of the young king whose family he had supported and who was deeply beholden to him. No request he might make could in good faith be denied. The three regents who essentially ruled for young Ptolemy—Theodotus, his rhetoric master; Achillas, the bold commander of the royal guard; and Pothinus, the eunuch who had nimbly parlayed his role as childhood tutor into that of prime minister—disagreed. The unexpected arrival presented them with a difficult decision, which they hotly debated. Opinions differed. To cast off Pompey was to make an enemy of him. To receive him was to make an enemy of Caesar. Were they to eliminate Pompey, he could offer no assistance to Cleopatra, to whom he was well disposed. Nor could he install himself on the throne of Egypt. “Dead men don’t bite” was the irrefutable counsel of Theodotus, the rhetoric teacher, who—having proved by simple syllogism that they could afford neither to befriend nor offend Pompey—delivered the line with a smile. He dispatched a welcoming message and a “wretched little boat” for the Roman. Pompey had not yet set foot on shore when, in the shallow waters off Pelusium, in full view of Ptolemy’s army and of the miniature king in his purple robes, he was stabbed to death, his head severed from his body.

Caesar would try later to make sense of that savagery. Friends often turn into enemies in time of disaster, he conceded. He might equally well have noted that at times of disaster enemies reinvent themselves as friends. Ptolemy’s advisers beheaded Pompey most of all to curry favor with Caesar. What better way to endear themselves to the undisputed master of the Mediterranean world? By the same logic the three had simplified matters for Cleopatra. In the Roman civil war—a contest of such searing intensity that it seemed less an armed conflict than a plague, a flood, a fire—she now appeared to have backed the losing side.

Three days later Julius Caesar ventured ashore in the Egyptian capital, in pursuit of his rival. He arrived in advance of the bulk of his troops. A great metropolis, Alexandria was home to malicious wit, dubious morals, grand larceny. Its residents talked fast, in many languages and at once; theirs was an excitable city of short tempers and taut, vibrating minds. Already it was in ferment, unrest this second flash of imperial red exacerbated. Caesar had been careful to modulate his joy in his victory and continued to do so. When Theodotus presented him with Pompey’s three-day-old severed head, Caesar turned away in horror. He then burst into tears. A few may even have been genuine; at one time Pompey had been not only his ally but his son-in-law. If Ptolemy’s advisers felt the gruesome welcome would hold Caesar off, they were wrong. If Caesar thought that Pompey’s murder constituted a vote in his favor, he too was mistaken, at least so far as the Alexandrians were concerned. Riots greeted him onshore, where no one was less welcome than a Roman, especially one bearing the official trappings of power. At best Caesar would interfere with their affairs. At worst he had conquest in mind. Already Rome had restored an unpopular king who—to make matters worse—taxed his people to pay off the debt for that restoration. The Alexandrians did not care to pay the price for a king they had not wanted in the first place. Nor did they care to become Roman subjects.

Caesar installed himself securely in a pavilion on the grounds of the Ptolemies’ palace, adjoining the royal dockyards, in the eastern part of the city. The skirmishing continued—roars and scuffles echoed loudly down the colonnaded streets—but in the palace he was safe from all disturbance. He sent hastily for reinforcements. And having done so, he summoned the feuding siblings. Caesar felt it incumbent upon him to arbitrate their dispute, as a decade earlier he and Pompey had together lobbied for their father. A stable Egypt was in Rome’s best interest, the more so when there were substantial debts to be paid. As Caesar had himself recently suggested to his rival, it was time for the warring parties “to put an end to their obstinate behavior, abandon armed struggle, and not risk their luck any further.” Cleopatra and her brother should have mercy on themselves and on their country.

The summons left Cleopatra with some explaining to do, as well as some calculating. She had every reason to plead her case promptly, before her brother’s advisers could undermine her. His army effectively blocked her from Egypt. Although Caesar had requested he disband it, Ptolemy made no effort to do so. To move her own men west, through the golden sand, toward the border and the high towers at Pelusium, was to risk an engagement. By one account she made contact with Caesar through an intermediary, then, convinced she had been betrayed (she was unpopular with the palace courtiers), she determined to plead her case herself. Which left her to puzzle out how to slip past enemy lines, across a well-patrolled frontier, and into a blockaded palace, covertly and alive. Cleopatra’s reputation would come to rest on her gift for pageantry, but in her first and greatest political gamble the challenge was to make herself inconspicuous. By modern standards too hers was a curious predicament. To make her mark, for her story to begin, this woman had to smuggle herself back into the house.

Clearly there was some deliberation. Plutarch tells us that “she was at a loss how to get in undiscovered” until she—or someone in her entourage; she, too, had confidants—hit on a brilliant ruse. It would have required a dress rehearsal. And it called for several exceedingly skilled accomplices, one of whom was a loyal Sicilian retainer named Apollodorus. Between the Sinai peninsula, where Cleopatra was camped, and the palace of Alexandria, where she had grown up, lay a treacherous marshland, thick with mites and mosquitoes. That swampy flat protected Egypt from eastern invasions. It took its name from its ability to devour whole armies, which the heavy sands did with “malevolent cunning.” Ptolemy’s forces controlled the coast, where Pompey’s body rotted in a makeshift grave. The surest and simplest route west was then neither through the muddy pools of Pelusium nor along the Mediterranean, where Cleopatra would have been exposed to view and to a strong opposing current. It made more sense to detour south, up the Nile to Memphis, afterward to sail back to the coast, a trip of at least eight days. The river route was not without its dangers either; it was heavily trafficked and carefully surveyed by customs agents. Along the turbid Nile Cleopatra presumably sailed, with a strong wind and a host of mosquitoes, in mid-October. Ptolemy’s advisers meanwhile balked at Caesar’s request. How dare a Roman general summon a king? The lower-ranking party should call on the higher, as Caesar well knew.

So it was that Apollodorus silently maneuvered a tiny two-oared boat into Alexandria’s eastern harbor and under the palace wall just after dusk. Close to shore all was dark, while from a distance the city’s low-lying coast was illuminated by its magnificent, four-hundred-foot-tall lighthouse, a wonder of the ancient world. That blazing pillar stood a half mile from Cleopatra, at the end of a man-made causeway, on the island of Pharos. Even in its glow she was nowhere to be seen, however. At some point before Apollodorus docked his boat, she crawled into an oversize sack of hemp or leather, in which she arranged herself lengthwise. Apollodorus rolled up the bundle and secured it with a leather cord, slinging it over his shoulder, the only clue we have as to Cleopatra’s size. To the gentle lap of the waves he set out across the palace grounds, a complex of gardens and multicolored villas and colonnaded walkways that spread over nearly a mile, or a quarter of the city. It was an area that Apollodorus—who certainly had not rowed from the desert alone but may have masterminded his queen’s return—knew well. On his shoulder, Cleopatra rode through the palace gates and directly into Caesar’s quarters, rooms that properly belonged to her. It was one of the more unusual homecomings in history. Many queens have risen from obscurity, but Cleopatra is the only one to have emerged on the world stage from inside a sturdy sack, the kind of bag into which one customarily stuffed rolls of papyrus or transported a small fortune in gold. Ruses and disguises came readily to her. On a later occasion she would conspire with another woman in peril to make her escape in a coffin.

We do not know if the unveiling took place before Caesar. Either way it is unlikely that Cleopatra appeared “majestic” (as one source has it) or laden with gems and gold (as another purports) or even marginally well coiffed. In defiance of the male imagination, five centuries of art history, and two of the greatest plays in English literature, she would have been fully clothed, in a formfitting, sleeveless, long linen tunic. The only accessory she needed was one she alone among Egyptian women was entitled to wear: the diadem, or broad white ribbon, that denoted a Hellenistic ruler. It is unlikely she appeared before Julius Caesar without one tied around her forehead and knotted at the back. Of Cleopatra’s “knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone,” we have, on the other hand, abundant evidence. Generally it was known to be impossible to converse with her without being instantly captivated by her. For this audience, the boldness of the maneuver—the surprise appearance of the young queen in the sumptuously painted halls of her own home, which Caesar himself could barely penetrate—proved in itself an enchantment. Retrospectively, the shock appears to have been as much political as personal. The jolt was that generated when, in a singular, shuddering moment, two civilizations, passing in different directions, unexpectedly and momentously touch.

Celebrated as much for his speed as for his intuition, Julius Caesar was not an easy man to surprise. He was forever arriving before expected and in advance of the messengers sent to announce him. (He was that fall paying the price for having preceded his legions to Egypt.) If the greatest part of his success could be explained “by his rapidity and by the unexpectedness of his movements,” he was for the rest rarely disconcerted, armed for all contingencies, a precise and lucid strategist. His impatience survives him: What is Veni, vidi, vici—the claim was still a year in the future—if not a paean to efficiency? So firm was his grasp of human nature that he had at their decisive battle that summer instructed his men not to hurl their javelins but to thrust them into the faces of Pompey’s men. Their vanity, he promised, would prove greater than their courage. He was correct: the Pompeians had covered their faces and run. Over the previous decade Caesar had overcome the most improbable obstacles and performed the most astonishing feats. Never one to offend fortune, he felt all the same that it could stand to be nudged along; he was the kind of opportunist who makes a great show of marveling at his sheer good luck. At least in terms of ingenuity and bold decision-making, he had before him a kindred spirit.

In another realm the young Egyptian queen had little in common with the “love-sated man already past his prime.” (Caesar was fifty-two.) His amorous conquests were as legendary and as varied as his military feats. On the street the elegant, angular-faced man with the flashing black eyes and the prominent cheekbones was hailed—there was overstatement only on the second count—as “every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” Cleopatra had been married for three years to a brother who was by all accounts “a mere boy” and who—even if he had by thirteen attained puberty, which by ancient standards was unlikely—had been trying for most of that time to dispose of her. Later commentators would write off Cleopatra as “Ptolemy’s impure daughter,” a “matchless siren,” the “painted whore” whose “unchastity cost Rome dear.” What that “harlot queen” was unlikely to have had when she materialized before Caesar in October was any sexual experience whatever.

Insofar as the two can be pried apart, survival rather than seduction was first on her mind. As her brother’s advisers had amply demonstrated, the prize was Caesar’s favor. It was imperative that Cleopatra align herself with him instead of with the family benefactor, whose campaign she had supported and whose headless body lay decomposing on a Mediterranean beach. Under the circumstances, there was no reason to assume Caesar favorably disposed toward her. From his point of view, a young king with an army at his command and the confidence of the Alexandrians was the better bet. Ptolemy had the blood of Pompey on his hands, however; Caesar may have calculated that the price to pay in Rome for allying himself with his countryman’s murderers would be greater than the price to pay for assisting a deposed and helpless queen. He had long before grasped that “all men work more zealously against their enemies than they cooperate with their friends.” At least initially, Cleopatra may have owed her life more to Caesar’s censure of her brother and his distaste for Ptolemy’s advisers—they hardly seemed the kind of men with whom one settled frank financial matters—than to any charms of her own. She was also lucky. As one chronicler pointed out, a different man might have traded her life for Pompey’s. Caesar could equally well have lopped off her head.

Generally the Roman commander was of a mild disposition. He was perfectly capable of killing tens of thousands of men, equally famous for his displays of clemency, even toward bitter enemies, sometimes toward the same ones twice. “Nothing was dearer to his heart,” one of his generals asserts, “than pardoning suppliants.” A plucky, royal, well-spoken suppliant doubtless topped that list. Caesar had further reason to take to this one: As a young man, he too had been a fugitive. He too had made costly political mistakes. While the decision to welcome Cleopatra may have been logical at the time, it led to one of the closest calls of Caesar’s career. When he met Cleopatra she was struggling for her life. By late fall they both were. For the next months Caesar found himself under siege, pummeled by an ingenious enemy keen to offer him his first taste of guerrilla warfare, in a city with which he was unfamiliar and in which he was vastly outnumbered. Surely Ptolemy and the people of Alexandria deserve some credit for seeing to it that—closeted together for six nerve-wracking months behind hastily constructed barricades—the balding veteran general and the agile young queen emerged as close allies, so close that by early November, Cleopatra realized she was pregnant.

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