Caesar Besieged in Alexandria

“Battle of Alexandria Caesar left behind his purple cloak which was later captured by the Alexandrians as a battle trophy”

Shortly after Cleopatra’s October 48 BC arrival, Caesar moved from the villa on the royal grounds to the palace proper. Each generation of Ptolemies had added to that sprawling complex, as magnificent in its design as in its materials. “Pharaoh” means “the greatest household” in ancient Egyptian, and on this the Ptolemies had delivered. The palace included well over a hundred guest rooms. Caesar looked out at lush grounds dotted with fountains and statuary and guesthouses; a vaulted walkway led from the palace complex to its theater, which stood on higher terrain. No Hellenistic monarchs did opulence better than the Ptolemies, the preeminent importers of Persian carpets, of ivory and gold, tortoiseshell and panther skin. As a general rule any surface that could be ornamented was—with garnet and topaz, with encaustic, with brilliant mosaic, with gold. The coffered ceilings were studded with agate and lapis, the cedar doors with mother-of-pearl, the gates overlaid with gold and silver. Corinthian capitals shimmered with ivory and gold. Cleopatra’s palace boasted the greatest profusion of precious materials known at the time.

Insofar as it was possible to be comfortable while under siege, Cleopatra and Caesar were well accommodated. None of the extravagant tableware or plush furnishings of their redoubt detracted, however, from the fact that Cleopatra—virtually alone in the city—was eager for a Roman to involve himself in Egyptian affairs. The rumbles and jeers outside, the scuffling in the street, the whizzing stones, drove that point home. The most intense fighting took place in the harbor, which the Alexandrians attempted to blockade. Early on they managed to set fire to several Roman freighters. The fleet Cleopatra had lent Pompey had moreover returned. Both sides jockeyed for control of those fifty quadriremes and quinqueremes, large vessels requiring four and five banks of rowers. Caesar could not afford to allow the ships to fall into enemy hands if he expected to see either provisions or reinforcements, for which he had sent out calls in every direction. Nor could he hope to man them. He was seriously outnumbered and at a geographic disadvantage; in desperation, he set fire to the anchored warships. Cleopatra’s reaction as flames spread over the ropes and across the decks is difficult to imagine. She could not have escaped the penetrating clouds of smoke, sharp with the tang of resin, that wafted across her gardens; the palace was illuminated by the blaze, which burned well into the night. This was the dockyard fire that may have claimed some portion of the Alexandrian library. Nor could Cleopatra have missed the pitched battle that preceded the conflagration, for which the entire city turned out: “And there was not a soul in Alexandria, whether Roman or townsman, except for those whose attention was engrossed in fortification work or fighting, who did not make for the highest buildings and take their place to see the show from any vantage point, and with prayers and vows demand victory for their own side from the immortal gods.” Amid mingled shouts and much commotion, Caesar’s men scrambled on to Pharos to seize the great lighthouse. Caesar allowed them a bit of plunder, then stationed a garrison on the rocky island.

Also shortly after Cleopatra’s arrival, Caesar composed the final pages of the volume we know today as The Civil War. About those events he would have been writing in something close to real time. It has been suggested that he broke off where he did—with Arsinoe’s defection and Pothinus’s murder—for literary or political reasons. Caesar could not easily discourse on a Western republic in an Eastern palace. He was also at that juncture in his narrative briefly in possession of the upper hand. Just as likely Caesar found himself with less time to write, if not overwhelmed. He was indeed the man who famously dictated letters from his stadium seat, who turned out a text on Latin while traveling from Gaul, a long poem en route to Spain. The murder of the eunuch Pothinus had galvanized the opposition, however. Already it included the women and children of the city. They had no need of wicker screens or battering rams, happy as they were to express themselves with slingshots and stones. Sprays of homemade missiles pelted the palace walls. Battles flared night and day, as Alexandria filled with zealous reinforcements and with siege huts and catapults of various sizes. Triple-width, forty-foot stone barricades went up across the city, transformed into an armed camp.

From the palace Caesar observed what had put Alexandria on the map and what made it so difficult to rule: its people were endlessly, boundlessly resourceful. His men watched in amazement—and with resentment; ingenuity was meant to be a Roman specialty—as the Alexandrians constructed wheeled, ten-story assault towers. Draft animals led those mammoth contraptions down the straight, paved avenues of the city. Two things in particular astonished the Romans. Everything could be accomplished more quickly in Alexandria. And its people were clever copyists of the first rank. Repeatedly they went Caesar one better. As a Roman general recounted later, they “put into effect whatever they saw us do with such skill that it seemed our troops had imitated their work.” National pride was at stake on both sides. When Caesar bested the seafaring Alexandrians in a naval battle, they were shattered. Subsequently they threw themselves into the task of building a fleet. In the secret royal dockyard sat a number of old ships, no longer seaworthy. Down came colonnades and the roofs of gymnasiums, their rafters magically transformed into oars. In a matter of days, twenty-two quadriremes and five quinqueremes materialized, along with a number of smaller craft, manned and ready for combat. Nearly overnight, the Egyptians conjured up a navy twice as large as Caesar’s.*

Repeatedly the Romans sputtered about the twin Alexandrian capacities for deceit and treachery, which in the midst of an armed conflict surely counts as high praise. As if to prove the point, Ganymedes, Arsinoe’s ex-tutor and the new royal commander, set his men to work digging deep wells. They drained the city’s underground conduits, into which they pumped seawater. Quickly the palace water proved cloudy and undrinkable. (Ganymedes may or may not have known this to be an old trick of Caesar’s, who had similarly annoyed Pompey.) The Romans panicked. Did it not make more sense to retreat immediately? Caesar calmed his men: Fresh water could not be far off, as veins of it reliably occurred near oceans. One lay just beyond the palace walls. As for withdrawal, it was not an option. The legionnaires could not reach their ships without the Alexandrians slaughtering them. Caesar ordered an all-night dig, which proved him correct; his men quickly located fresh water. It remained true, however, that on their side the Alexandrians had great cleverness and plentiful resources, as well as that most potent of motivations: their autonomy was at stake. They had distinctly unfavorable memories of Gabinius, the general who had returned Auletes to the throne. To fail to drive Caesar out now was to become a province of Rome. Caesar could only remind his men they must fight with equal conviction.

He found himself entirely on the defensive, perhaps another reason the account of the Alexandrian War that bears his name was written by a senior officer, based on postwar conversations. Caesar indeed controlled the palace and the lighthouse in the east, but Achillas, Ptolemy’s commander, dominated the rest of the city, and with it nearly every advantageous position. His men persistently ambushed Roman supplies. Fortunately for Caesar, if there was one thing he could count on as much as Alexandrian ingenuity it was Alexandrian infighting. Arsinoe’s tutor argued with Achillas, whom he accused of treachery. Plot followed counterplot, much to the delight of the army, bribed generously and in turn more generously by each side. Ultimately Arsinoe convinced her tutor to murder the redoubtable Achillas. Cleopatra knew well what their sister Berenice had accomplished in their father’s absence; she had badly blundered in failing to prevent Arsinoe’s escape.

Arsinoe and Ganymedes turned out to be no favorites of the people, however. This the Alexandrians made clear as reinforcements approached and as Caesar—despite a forced swim in the harbor and a devastating loss of men—began to feel the war turning in his favor. To the palace came a delegation in mid-January, shortly after Cleopatra’s twenty-second birthday. They lobbied for young Ptolemy’s release. Already the people had tried unsuccessfully to liberate their king. Now they claimed they were finished with his sister. They yearned for peace. They needed Ptolemy “in order, as they claimed, that they might consult with him about the terms on which a truce could be effected.” He had clearly behaved well while under guard. Generally he left no impression of fortitude or leadership, though petulance came naturally to him. Caesar saw some advantages in his release. Were the Alexandrians to surrender, he would need somehow to dispense with this extraneous king; Ptolemy could clearly never again rule with his sister. In his absence Caesar would have better reason to deliver up the Alexandrians to Cleopatra. And were Ptolemy to continue to fight—it is unclear if the rationale here was Caesar’s, or attributed to him later—the Romans would be conducting a war that was all the more honorable for being waged “against a king rather than against a gang of refugees and runaway slaves.”

Caesar duly sat Cleopatra’s thirteen-year-old brother down for a talk. He urged him “to think of his ancestral kingdom, to take pity on his glorious homeland, which had been disfigured by the disgrace of fire and ruin; to begin by bringing his people back to their senses, and then save them; and to trust the Roman people and himself, Caesar, whose faith in him was firm enough to send him to join enemies who were under arms.” Caesar then dismissed the young man. Ptolemy made no move to leave; instead he again dissolved into tears. He begged Caesar not to send him away. Their friendship meant more to him even than his throne. His devotion moved Caesar who—eyes welling up in turn—assured him that they would be reunited soon enough. At which young Ptolemy set off to embrace the war with a new intensity, one that confirmed that “the tears he had shed when talking to Caesar were obviously tears of joy.” Only Caesar’s men seemed gratified by this turn of events, which they hoped might cure their commander of his absurdly forgiving ways. The comedy would not have surprised Cleopatra, well accomplished in the dramatic arts, and possibly even the mastermind behind this scene. It is conceivable that Caesar liberated Ptolemy to sow further dissension in the rebel ranks. If he did so (the interpretation is a generous one), Cleopatra presumably collaborated on the staging.

Fortunately for Caesar and Cleopatra, a large army of reinforcements hurried toward Alexandria. The best help came from a high-ranking Judaean official, who arrived with a contingent of three thousand well-armed Jews. Ptolemy set out to crush that force at nearly the same moment that Caesar set out to join it; he was for some time frustrated by the Egyptian cavalry. All converged in a fierce battle west of the Nile, at a location halfway between Alexandria and present-day Cairo. The casualties were great on both sides, but—by storming the high point of the Egyptian camp in a surprise early-morning maneuver—Caesar managed a swift victory. Terrified, a great number of the Egyptians hurled themselves from the ramparts of their fort into the surrounding trenches. Some survived. It seemed Ptolemy did not; he was probably little mourned by anyone, including his advisers. As his body never materialized, Caesar took special pains to display his golden armor, which did. The magical, rejuvenating powers of the Nile were well known; already it had delivered up queens in sacks and babies in baskets. Caesar did not want a resurrection on his hands, though even his meticulous efforts now would not prevent the appearance of a Ptolemy-pretender later.

With his cavalry Caesar hurried to Alexandria, to receive the kind of welcome he had doubtless expected months earlier: “The entire population of the town threw down their weapons, left their defenses, assumed the garb in which suppliants commonly crave pardon from their masters, and after bringing out all the sacred objects with whose religious awe they used to appeal to their displeased or angry monarchs, went to meet Caesar as he approached, and surrendered to him.” Graciously he accepted the surrender and consoled the populace. Cleopatra would have been ecstatic; Caesar’s defeat would have been hers as well. She presumably received advance word but would in any event have heard the raucous cheers as Caesar approached on horseback. His legions met him at the palace with loud applause. It was March 27; the relief must have been extreme. Caesar’s men had given him more than a decade of service, and on arrival in Alexandria believed the civil war to be over. They had by no means counted on this last, little understood exploit. Nor were they alone in their consternation. Rome had heard nothing from Caesar since December. What was keeping him in Egypt, when all was off-kilter at home? Whatever the reason for the delay, the silence was unsettling. It must have begun to seem that Egypt had claimed Caesar as it had Pompey and—as some would argue—in an entirely different way, it ultimately would.

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