Cleopatra was staking everything on winning Caesar’s favour. It was a desperate gamble, but her invasion had been blocked and this was her last resort. It was also a courageous move, for there was a real risk that she could fall into her brother’s hands and, even if she did not, there was no assurance that her pleas would be successful. Perhaps Dio was right and she had recognised Caesar’s ‘disposition, which was very susceptible, to such an extent that he had his intrigues with ever so many women – with all, doubtless, who came his way’ and so ‘trusted in her beauty for all her claims to the throne’. Both Plutarch and Dio see her as deliberately planning the encounter, doing everything to attract the Roman consul. In this context, suddenly revealing herself from an opened sack was dramatic and flirtatious. Dio claimed that she had carefully dressed and made herself up to appear at once attractive, regal and distressed. It was a performance, but just because it was calculated does not mean that it was not also exciting for both of them.
She was twenty-one, had already been driven from her realm and was now hoping to return. The affair with Cnaeus Pompey is unlikely to be more than gossip, and the marriage to her brother may not have happened and could certainly not have been consummated. While many of the Ptolemies took mistresses and other lovers, the same licence was not granted to their wives and daughters. It is more than likely that Cleopatra was a virgin when she met Caesar, and that he and Mark Antony were the only two lovers she ever took. It was no coincidence that each was the most powerful man in the world at the time. Inexperienced perhaps, Cleopatra was clever and self-confident in her own beauty and charm. It really does not matter which of these was the more powerful, they combined to make her extremely attractive. She hoped to win Caesar’s backing and probably felt that seducing him was the best way.
Caesar was fifty-two, more than a decade into his third marriage and with a long series of extramarital affairs behind him. He was a serial seducer of other senators’ wives – as we have seen, Pompey, Crassus and Gabinius were amongst the many he had cuckolded – and was supposed to have slept with plenty of chieftains’ daughters and wives during the years in Gaul. Behind his womanising was more than a simple desire to have sex with lots of attractive women. His longest affair was with Servilia, a woman as ambitious, intelligent, witty, well educated and attractive as he was himself. Caesar liked excitement, perhaps even an element of danger. Cleopatra was a lot like him in so many ways, and like Servilia was much more his equal. She was also a queen and there is an added appeal to the idea of royalty, especially in a member of a dynasty who could claim a connection to Alexander the Great.
In spite of the big age difference, Caesar was still considered a handsome man, even if his hairline was rapidly receding. He was a dandy, very fussy about his appearance and a man who set the fashions at Rome, and was lean and fit after long years spent on campaign. His charm was very difficult for anyone to resist. He was experienced, utterly self-confident and now controlled the most powerful state in the world. There was a lot to attract the young Cleopatra.
The tendency then and now is to see this encounter as the seduction of the Roman by the eastern queen. Sometimes this is painted in damning moral terms, with Cleopatra as little more than a whore. More recently, fashions have changed and, instead, historians emphasise an empowered woman taking control of her own life. Each of these views contains an element of truth, but neither is fair either to the queen herself or the situation. Cleopatra certainly used her charm and her body to get what she wanted. She really had nothing else left.
Yet for all that the twenty-one-year-old hoped to seduce, it was Caesar who was far more experienced and was used to taking what he wanted. Cleopatra was young, physically very attractive, lively and charming. He would have wanted to bed her even if she had not been so desperate to gain his support. Politically – and people like Caesar and Cleopatra would never entirely forget politics – she would be a useful asset, showing her brother and his advisers that he had other options than supporting their regime. Both Caesar and Cleopatra wanted something from the other, and were willing to seduce and manipulate to get this. He was no doubt fully aware of this and, given her intelligence, there is a fair chance that so was she. Physical attraction was no doubt there and very probably on both sides, for in spite of his age Caesar’s success with women shows that his charm was very real. Passion seems certain and genuine love most likely developed. The politics added extra spice and gave the whole affair an excitement that was probably exhilarating to both of them.
Cleopatra arrived in the evening and spent the night in Caesar’s bed. There is no record that she knew Latin and they presumably spoke Greek to each other, for Caesar was fluent in the language. The next morning Ptolemy XIII and his advisers discovered that his exiled sister had returned to Alexandria. It must quickly have sunk in that she was offering the Roman consul something that they could not match, still less surpass.
The boy king rushed out of the palace, tore off his royal diadem and shrieked of betrayal to the crowd that rapidly gathered. Caesar had him brought back inside, which only turned the crowd into an angry mob, but the people calmed for a while when the Roman made a speech to them. Soon afterwards he announced that Auletes’ will would be fully enforced. Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra would rule Egypt jointly. In addition, their younger brother Ptolemy XIV and their sister Arsinoe were to rule Cyprus. The latter was clearly in the palace by this time, although there is no evidence for when and how she arrived. Ptolemy XIV may also have been with the court, but none of our sources says anything about him at this time and he was still only eleven or ten years old.
This was a major concession, returning to the family territory annexed by Rome a decade earlier. It is possible that Caesar was readier to do this because the province had been set up by Cato, serving on the special commission created for him by Clodius. Alternatively, his concern may have been more practical. Cyprus had been an extra burden to the governor of Cilicia, was difficult for him to supervise and there had been cases of severe misbehaviour and extortion by Roman businessmen operating there. Throughout his career Caesar showed concern for protecting provincials from mistreatment, or he may simply have thought this was an effective way of keeping the island stable and secure.
THE ALEXANDRIAN WAR
At a stroke Ptolemy XIII was expected to accept as co-ruler the sister who had tried to exclude him from power altogether. Pothinus and the other inner circle of advisers stood to lose even more. To strengthen his own hand he sent messengers to Achillas and summoned the royal army to Alexandria. It was a provocative move, and Caesar arranged for two senior courtiers, who had in the past gone on Auletes’ behalf to Rome, to go to the army. Achillas was in no mood for talking and had the men attacked. One was killed and the other badly wounded, but carried away by his attendants.
Caesar did not have enough men to risk battle outside the city and could not respond to this provocation. When Achillas arrived in the city he launched an assault almost immediately. Caesar’s men were able to hold their own after heavy fighting, largely because the restricted space made it difficult for the enemy to take advantage of their numbers. In the harbour were some seventy Ptolemaic warships. These included the squadron of fifty that had been sent to support the Pompeians. For much of the time these had been led with great success by Cnaeus Pompey himself, but when news of the defeat at Pharsalus had arrived they had abandoned him to return home. Now, Achillas was eager to seize them and then use them to prevent Caesar from retreating or getting reinforcements by sea.
The Romans struck first. After heavy fighting, Caesar’s men were able to secure control of the warships long enough to burn them. In the confusion the fire spread to the buildings near the harbour. Several were destroyed, including a warehouse used for storing scrolls from the Library. Achillas quickly threw a cordon round the areas occupied by the Romans. He raised a militia from the Alexandrians and seems to have found plenty of willing volunteers. The buildings in this part of Alexandria were large and strongly built of stone. Both sides built stone ramparts across the streets to block enemy attacks and also fortified the houses themselves, knocking down interior walls with battering rams where necessary. Achillas left the bulk of the labouring and guard duty to the militia, keeping his own soldiers in reserve for major assaults and to meet any Roman counter-attack. For the moment Caesar’s men held their own, but the pressure steadily mounted.
Throughout the early stage of the fighting, Cleopatra, Ptolemy, Arsinoe, Pothinus, Theodotus and other courtiers all lived together with Caesar in the beleaguered palace. Caesar supervised the fighting by day and in the evenings returned to dine. At night he had the twenty-one-year-old queen as lively companion and lover. In spite of this prospect, for the first time in his life he took to staying up late, drinking and feasting with his friends and companions, although it was claimed that this was through fear of assassins. His barber overheard Pothinus plotting murder, and this and other reports were enough for Caesar to order the eunuch’s execution. That did not mean, however, that Caesar had no more enemies within the palace.16
Caesar and Cleopatra were lovers, but in spite of this he maintained his decision that she should rule jointly with her brother. Perhaps this was simply politic, but since he was already besieged and the royal army and most of the city were hostile there was no obvious reason for such caution. It is an indication that although he was fighting a war against supporters of Ptolemy, he was not so besotted with his new mistress that he was happy to give her everything. In any case, Cleopatra no doubt was confident that she could dominate her younger sibling. We do not know how she spent her days, whether she watched as her lover went out to fight. Many of the combats during these days would have been readily visible from the higher buildings.
Arsinoe had been offered joint rule of Cyprus, but clearly decided that there was an opportunity for far higher things. She slipped away from the palace accompanied by her tutor, the eunuch Ganymede, and perhaps other advisers, and joined Achillas. There was some friction as the general resented taking orders from a teenage girl and her teacher. This problem was solved in the traditional way for the Ptolemies when Achillas was murdered. Ganymede took his place and Arsinoe was proclaimed queen. No mention seems to have been made of a consort, but perhaps it was simply assumed that she would rule with her brother, Ptolemy XIII.
The eunuch tutor probably had no military experience, but in the event prosecuted the siege well. Seawater was diverted to run into the cisterns used by the Romans, rendering their water supply undrinkable. Caesar set his men to digging new wells, and fortunately they were able to find them. He had now been reinforced by the Thirty-Seventh Legion, another former Pompeian formation, which managed to sail into the harbour, bringing supplies of food, as well as military equipment including artillery.
Ganymede decided that he must cut Caesar off from the sea. Considerable ingenuity was exercised in assembling a fleet. Patrol boats from the Nile were brought to the city and old, half-forgotten warships resting in various royal dockyards were found and repaired. Beams were taken from the roofs of major buildings including gymnasia and reshaped into oars. Yet it was easier to gather ships than it was to train the crews that would operate them to the peak of efficiency. In a series of battles fought in and around the great harbour, Caesar’s outnumbered vessels – many of them manned by Rhodians and other Greek allies – more than held their own.
Caesar decided that controlling Pharos Island was the key to holding the harbour and keeping access open to further reinforcements. His men had seized a small foothold on the island early in the siege. Now he launched an attack, landing ten cohorts of legionaries and capturing a larger area. On the next day a follow-up attack to secure the long bridge began well. Then a group of sailors were panicked and the confusion and fear spread to the legionaries, who fled back to the boats from which they had landed. Caesar was already on board one vessel when a stream of fugitives swarmed over the side. He dived into the sea and swam to the safety of another boat. Some sources say that he left his reddish-purple general’s cloak behind and that this was carried off as a trophy by the enemy. Suetonius denies this, but most accounts agreed that the middle-aged commander showed remarkable nonchalance, swimming with his left hand above the water to protect some important documents.
Whether or not Cleopatra watched this encounter – and at such a distance she could anyway have seen little detail – she must have known fear over the fate of her lover. If Caesar died, then the Romans would be defeated and she was unlikely to survive. The siege continued into the first weeks of 47 BC. At this point a deputation of leading Alexandrians came to Caesar and begged him to send Ptolemy to them, since they were weary of the tyranny of Arsinoe and her tutor. Perhaps they were genuinely unpopular, although it is equally likely that the men involved were simply out of favour with the new queen and hoped for better from her brother. The struggle for power amongst the royal family and the elite who hoped to manipulate them never slackened for a moment during the fighting with the Romans. There was never any question of uniting against the foreign occupier.
Caesar let the boy go, even though the lad pleaded not to be sent from his presence. Once free, and his sister removed or at least made subordinate, Ptolemy readily urged his army on to fight against the Romans. Ganymede disappears from our sources and may have perished in the power struggle. Some of Caesar’s officers are supposed to have mocked his naivety in being fooled by a child. The author of the Alexandrian War instead believed that he had cynically let Ptolemy go to divide the enemy command.
Things were turning in Caesar’s favour, and soon he heard of the approach of a relief army, which had marched overland and stormed Pelusium. This force may not have included a single Roman and was led by Mithridates of Pergamum – the child of one of Mithridates of Pontus’ generals and, rumour said, the bastard son of the king himself. Once again, Antipater led a Jewish contingent on behalf of Hyrcanus II the High Priest. Ptolemy ‘led’ the bulk of his army away from Alexandria to meet them. Caesar followed. In the street fighting in the capital, the Gabinians and the rest of the royal soldiers had performed well. In such situations the burden of command falls mainly on junior leaders. In the more open country of the Delta, they were quickly outmanoeuvred and out-fought. The successive changes of high command were unlikely to have helped.
Caesar won a rapid victory. The royal army was destroyed and the young Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile as he fled. Arsinoe was taken prisoner; Pothinus and Achillas were already dead. Theodotus, the remaining man held most responsible for the murder of Pompey, somehow managed to escape to Syria.
Cleopatra had gambled and won. She had gone to Caesar, becoming his ally and his lover. Now he confirmed her as queen, but a marriage was arranged to Ptolemy XIV because it was against tradition for a woman to rule alone. He was young, and she would make sure that no faction of manipulative courtiers would coalesce around him. The king and queen were given Cyprus as well as Egypt, restoring something of the glory of the kingdom in past years.
Caesar spent longer than he needed in Egypt after the war was won. For a time, perhaps even for months, he and Cleopatra took a long cruise down the Nile. The Ptolemies were famous for their vast pleasure boats, but enough other vessels crammed with soldiers accompanied them to turn this into a grand procession. It was a statement of the power and legitimacy of the queen – and to a lesser extent her brother.
Yet Caesar did not have to go in person to make such a statement. He would leave behind three legions to ensure that his nominee remained in power and she did not become too independent. There was a political dimension to the cruise, but it would be a mistake to see that as its sole, even main purpose. Caesar had been almost constantly on campaign for more than a decade. Weary, facing a world in which he must single-handedly sort out the problems of the Republic, which no longer contained rivals worth competing against, the appeal of a pleasure cruise is obvious. In Alexandria he had seen the tomb and corpse of Alexander. Now he could view the antiquities of ancient Egypt, which intrigued Greeks and Romans alike. All the while he had the company of his clever, exciting and beautiful young lover, helping him to forget his age and his cares. In hindsight, the months Caesar spent in Egypt were a serious mistake, allowing the surviving Pompeians time to recover and renew the civil war. Yet in the circumstances it is hard to blame him.
Cleopatra was pregnant by the time her lover left, called away to deal with a new war in Asia Minor.