To get to the truth of this love story was a journey through two thousand years of male chauvinism and prejudice.
I’ve discovered that the story of Caesar and Cleopatra’s love has been distorted for centuries, belittled, and encrusted with calumnies of Cleopatra. Even Caesar’s twentieth century biographers seem to have had their judgement warped and their vision dulled by some unconscious hostility towards one of the great charmers of history – the last Queen of Egypt.
I think I could have fallen in love with Caesar. He was a strikingly good looking man with sensitive features and piercing eyes according to contemporary sources; a brilliant orator -second only to Cicero – who kept his legions loyal both with his oratory and his generosity to them, getting land for them to settle on, and doubling their pay. He was a prodigious horseman with enormous stamina and a reputation for travelling a hundred miles a day in a light carriage in those days on those roads, while writing letters and reports to Rome – sounds like Napoleon…
Caesar’s Gallic Wars may have been the torment of generations of school-children (‘ Gaul was divided into three parts,’ etc) but they are esteemed for their historic record, and admired for their taut elegant Latin prose style. He was intelligent, and tackled Rome’s chronic debt problems and began to find a solution for the huge under-class of unemployed people in Rome. And he was one of the greatest generals in history.
When he met Cleopatra, she’d been queen since she was fourteen, but had just been deposed by her younger brother and his power brokers. Young Ptolomy’s men had seized Pompey, Caesar’s enemy, when he had fled to Egypt, and according to some accounts, beheaded him then and there in front of his wife and children. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria two days later to deal with Pompey, Ptolomy presented him with his enemy’s head, thinking to gain his favour. But Caesar was disgusted and so antagonised the Egyptians.
Twenty-one year old Cleopatra had decided that she would get Caesar on her side to win back her crown. Barred from Alexandria by her brother, she sailed up to Caesar’s palace at dusk. A servant named Appollodorus, the Sicilian, carried her in a carpet past Ptolomy’s guards, and in this exotic way she met the great Roman general. What courage! What audacity!Who wouldn’t fall for such a high-spirited and ravishing young creature? Fifty-two year old Caesar was enchanted.
And Cleopatra? No contest! We all know why, thanks to Henry Kissinger’s helpful advice to his aide – “ you’d have no way of knowing, Pederson, but power is the greatest aphrodisiac,” – and so it was with Caesar. Cleopatra stayed there in the palace with him, and when a few months later, his legions arrived from Italy, he defeated the Egyptians at a battle on the Nile, where Ptolomy was drowned.
Caesar was a descendant of the mythical Aneas, who had fled the sack of Troy, popped in on Dido in Africa, and then left her, thereby bequeathing to us another of opera’s greatest songs, ‘Dido’s Lament’, and finally ended up in Italy. The fabulously rich and beautiful Cleopatra was a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, who was Satrap governing Egypt when Alexander died. He proclaimed himself Pharoah, and the Ptolomies reigned in Egypt for nearly three hundred years.
They had continued to speak Greek throughout this time, though clever Cleopatra had actually taken the trouble to learn Egyptian. So it would have been no problem to converse with Caesar, since Greek would have been their common language, spoken by all educated people in those days.
After Caesar had defeated her brother, he re-instated Cleopatra on the throne, and before rushing off to mop up the rest of Pompey’s supporters in Spain (he certainly got around) he spent several months cruising on the Nile with his beloved. They were accompanied by 400 craft, and the picture of them in my mind, reclining on cushioned couches under draped awnings, soft voices, perfumes, music and beauty all around them, makes me think of the words:
They live in such delight,
Such pleasure and such play,
As that to them a thousand years
Doth seem as yesterday.
Then, while Caesar went rushing about his empire putting down riots and rebellions from the fall-out of his quarrel with Pompey – he spared his enemies, which meant trouble for him later – Cleopatra gave birth to his only son, called Caesarion. For the next two years, their love must have been sustained by relays of couriers delivering papyruses. It’s very hard to work out the chronology of their love affair as different commentators and historians dropped facts or fudged them; and they prefered to write that ‘Caesar aligned himself with her’, as though it was just political policy, rather than admit that he loved her.
One of them says that when Caesar went back to Alexandria, he was putting down a remnant of Pompey’s force – really? A handful of leaderless dissidents, hanging out in Egypt for two years, while the legions he had left behind to protect Cleopatra ignored them? Of course he had gone to see Cleopatra. This time she followed him to Rome with their baby and her young brother, technically her co-monarch. Taking him with her, meant that other factions couldn’t cause trouble back home on his behalf.
Caesar installed his mistress in one of his villas. It caused a scandal of course. He was already married to Calpurnia, but clearly adored Cleopatra in spite of her detractors insinuating that she was not important to him. He had a gold statue of her made and placed in the temple of his ancestors. Cicero hated her, as did many others, who feared her influence over Caesar. But in spite of every historian’s attempts to write Cleopatra out of Caesar’s story, this one action shows the depths of his commitment to the fascinating Queen.
As proof of this lack of commitment to her they say that he failed to make their son his heir. But why would he nominate a three- year- old illegitimate half- foreigner to run Rome, when he’d already named his adult great- nephew Octavian, who became Emperor Augustus? Historians also say that she “claimed” that Caesarion was Caesar’s – how insulting – at one stroke this implies she was promiscuous, and the child’s father unknown.
A twentieth century biographer makes no mention of Cleopatra when he describes Caesar’s innovation of creating public libraries like the one attached to the Great Library of Alexandria. He also tells how Caesar used an Egyptian astronomer to re-organise the calendar, and institute the Julian Calendar, which was used throughout the western world for over fifteen hundred years. Gradually countries changed over to the slightly more accurate Gregorian calendar in the seventeenth century, but to do so caused riots in many countries. Russia didn’t change over until the Revolution in1918, and Berber Arabs and the monks of Mt Athos still use Caesar’s calendar.
Despite the Egyptian astronomer, historians pretend this too had nothing to do with Cleopatra. The one thing they’re happy to sheet back to her, was that Caesar grew more dictatorial, which they claimed was due to her Ptolomy influence – not to the circumstances in Rome and his increasing age? At the end of two years, Caesar was assassinated, by enemies claiming that he was aiming for too much power. He died on the steps of the Senate on the Ides of March, 44BC.
Cleopatra fled back to Egypt. None of these heartless male historians ever credit her with a broken heart, but how could she not have been broken-hearted? She and her lover had been together for four years. If Caesar had lived, where would the story have ended? Roman writers denigrated her and de-valued her place in Caesar’s heart, but admitted that her great beauty and her wit, charm and ‘sweetness in the tones of her voice,’ according to Plutarch, were legendary. “Brilliant to look upon and to listen to,” wrote another. Shakespeare had the famous last words: ‘Age shall not wither her, not custom stale her infinite variety’…
And when four years later, Mark Antony summoned her to meet him at Tarsus to answer for her loyalty to Caesar – at nearly thirty, and at the height of her radiant beauty – she famously pulled out all the stops for him; her life and her throne depended on it. Yet ten years on, the rather unreliable and vain-glorious Mark Anthony failed her, and she committed suicide rather than be dragged in chains through Rome as part of the Triumph of Mark Anthony’s enemy – Caesar’s great-nephew, Octavian. Honesta mors turpi vita potior – an honourable death is better than a dishonourable life – Roman historian Tacitus
P. S. Seventeen- year old Caesarion was killed by Octavian – ‘too many Caesar’s’ – thus proving, despite the sneers, that he was Caesar’s son. Cleopatra’s twins and a son by Mark Anthony, were brought up by Octavia, Mark Anthony’s divorced wife – an act of generosity and goodness in the circumstances.
PPS The poem comes from an old hymn called ‘Jerusalem, my happy home’. It was written circa 1580 by an anonymous Catholic priest and based on the writings of St Augustine in 400AD.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Shopping for vegetables this morning, I saw some fresh cos lettuce. I don’t really like salads in winter, but promised myself a nice Caesar salad. It was only when I reached home, I realised the hilarious workings of my unconscious!
Anyway, we had one – this is my down home version: a few rashers of organic bacon chopped and fried. Some crisp croutons fried to golden brown. I either poach the eggs or boil them very lightly. I don’t use anchovies, as my husband doesn’t like them and the original recipe used some drops of Worcestershire sauce, which is what gives the faint anchovy flavour. Toss it all together, except for the egg and sprinkle with a good vinaigrette dressing which has some crushed garlic in it. Then add grated parmesan, which amalgamates with the dressing, and then with the egg yolk when the egg is added and broken. Delicious – even in winter!
Food for Thought
Something going on here – after using the words below in a conversation with a friend the other day, I decided to put them on the end of this rather long blog – nice and short Food for Thought! When I Googled to check who had written these words, I was astonished to find that they date from the same times as Julius Caesar!
If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? …. And if not now, when?”
Rabbi Hillel – Great Jewish teacher who lived at the same time as Julius Caesar and later, King Herod, dying in 10 AD.
The modern version is “If not me –who? If not now – when? “
48 responses to “Their many-splendoured thing”
Wonderful story especially since it’s true.
Thank you Kate…
What I found fascinating was feeling for the truth behind the male propaganda
Wonderful post!! You are so right – History has not been kind to women!!! I remember reading about Cleopatra when I was a teenager – was fascinated by her intelligence, wit and strategic vision. A couple of years ago, I read Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: a Life. She agrees with your assessment and observations.
“Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history; that of women and power. Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous.”
― Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life
Oh Rebecca, I must get hold of that book, would love to read it.
And how validating that she had also reached the same conclusions as my rather cursory exploration had done for me…if that makes sense! Thank you…
This is your kind of book. I have attached a 7 minute interview with Stacy Schiff- please feel free to delete it if it too long, but I think that you will find it an interesting perspective.
Thank you Rebecca, I listened to it right the way through… you’re amazing the way you always have the right reference up your sleeve !!!!
I learned from the master – you!!! 🙂
I just read the recent book “Cleopatra.” But this post is full of fascinating info! Bravo~
Cindy, thank you… so pleased you enjoyed it… where are you now, still gallivanting around Europe and opera houses???
This is a post with a bonus. First of all your re-telling of the Cleopatra story, and then the wonderful interview (via Clanmother) with Stacy Schiff. Although the life of Cleopatra may have come to us through history with a strong male bias, at least the male perspective kept her memory alive. Would women have been kinder, more understanding? Perhaps Stacy Schiff mentions some sympathetic female historical sources in her book? I have a great worry that , given the chance, her own sex may have vilified her and found her unlaudable 😦 Women supporting women is still something we are working on, I feel.
INteresting…I think at that time and for many centuries women were not recording history… if they were, they aren’t the ones whose memories or opinions of Cleopatra have survived!
I can’t think of any women historians through the centuries, and even in our own times, CV Wedgewood the great historian, like the really great historical novelist FM Prescott, kept their female Christian names secret, so that they would be taken seriously by their peers… not sure if Cecil Woodham Smith Florence Nightingales biographer has a more feminine christian name..
Yes, I agree, women supporting women is a huge issue… I was up against it in journalism, and still hit it… but I won’t go.there….
Yes, I wonder how these women would have told Cleopatra’s story. I was going to confess that I hadn’t read any of their work but I was able to redeem myself when I noticed this gem; Once to Sinai: The further pilgrimage of Friar Felix Fabri (1957). Published by Eyre & Spottiswoode A small book but one of the best I have read; fascinating. I had no idea who Prescott was when I read the book; just thought Prescott was brilliant with an incredible knowledge of history. Which subject takes me very nicely back to Egypt and its present troubles. Can’t help thinking that the voice of a Cleopatra, or the voice of any one of the many talented Egyptian women would be invaluable at the moment.
I would have loved to have you for a history teacher: you would have made the subject such fun! As is ‘did’ modern rather than ancient history [which in my day was rather Napoleonic in content!] and shall take great pleasure in going thru’ your account and ‘relearning’ what I largely remember from Shakespeare! Meanwhile I have to smile at your title: were Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten who stood up on the hill whilst violins wept?
It’s one of my great sorrows that I’ve only read the book!!!..But I was thrilled when I first entered the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hongkpng, which Han Suyin talked about so romantically. Actally it wasn’t !!!.
But do you know where it came from.?.
Francs Thompson’s beautiful lines from his poem In no Strange Land. He wrote:
:The angels keep their ancient places –
Turn but a stone and start a wing.
Tis ye, tis your estranged faces
that miss the many-splendoured thing
I had never read these lines and have copied them out . . . thank you so much. As a very romantic teenager waiting to enter medical school after graduation I was totally in awe of Han Suyin and her writing. Saw the film first, then began the reading Which has somewhat taken us away from Cleopatra!!
I loved reading about Ceasar and Cleopatra. Thanks for this informative blog on a subject I was only vaguely familiar with.
Thank you Laura Maisey – this is the really lovely thing about writing a blog, you can write what interests you today !!! So I’;m glad you enjoyed reading it…
Far better than any history lesson at school.
We often have salad during the winter months, but I make it a warm salad by adding a mix of hot, out of the pan vegatables. Finely diced sweet potato is my favorite, but I have been known to roast a mix of regular potato, pumpkin, parsnip with the sweet potato and an onion. Toss it all together with a rich creamy egg mayonnaise topped with some finely grated tasty cheese and croutons. I generally cheat with my croutons and cube up 2 slices of rye bread toast. Yum. Now I’m hungry
Sounds lovely Sandie… I used to do something like that, and had forgotten all about it… must try…
Valerie, you have brought Cleopatra alive for me. Thank you; I really enjoyed reading this post.
Hello Juliet, so glad you’ve popped up… did you find my pathetic little message I tried to send in a roundabout way, as I couldn’t work out as usual how to connect…
I suggested our date any time onwards… however since then I’ve had to give in and am now back at the dentist having root canals for two perfectly good teeth before he fitted my bridge. I go this week and because I had such a bad reaction to the three injections he gave me ( which still didn’t work), I start taking strong painkillerss a few days before the dreaded date… so I won’t be on deck again until the 15th onwards… are you free any time after that???? Can you reply to my e-mail, and then I can make sure I keep yours… Valerie
I didn’t get any message from you, but have sent you an email. No reply as yet, however. Would love to catch up.
Wow! That’s a good one.
Wishing you some painless tooth time!
Thank you Bruce… must admit I’m dreading this week !!!
Your posts are perfect for my education! By siphoning out all the details that had me hating history and turning it into a love story, I can now appreciate it. I enjoyed every word, especially “Then, while Caesar went rushing about his empire putting down riots and rebellions from the fall-out of his quarrel with Pompey” and “And when four years later, Mark Antony summoned her to meet him at Tarsus to answer for her loyalty to Caesar – at nearly thirty, and at the height of her radiant beauty – she famously pulled out all the stops for him; ” – You do have a way with words that have me wanting more and smiling as I think so!
Oh Lesley, I love it that you loved bits like that ! So glad you enjoyed my bit of fun with history… I found it so fascinating the more I investigated!!!…
Lovely post and beautifully written, it was an engrossing read!
Thank you so much – so glad you enjoyed it, I found it such a fascinating story I just had to write it !
That’s why it was written so well as you had a keen interest. I look forward to reading more!
Thank you kindly !!!
This is another educational and inspiring post from you, Valerie! Beautifully written. I enjoy reading about women who have made a difference in history, I’d love to read more about Cleopatra.
Thank you Amy – I had a lot of fun discovering the story and writing about it – so glad you enjoyed it…
*standing ovation* This is an enthralling read. The reasons you cite for your version of Cleopatra and her relationship with Caesar are compelling. Historians seem rather good at ‘getting it wrong’, as I have noticed in many instances regarding recent history I have lived through and actually know better.
One feels rather sorry for Calpurnia. What competition!
Thank you so much, so glad you enjoyed it. Once I started reading and piecing things together, I got the bit between my teeth, and had such fun… Yes, Calpurnia didn’t stand a chance, did she… but I also wonder what sort of relationship they had… Caesar was away for so long and so often during their married life… re historians… there is no such thing as an objective point of view I decided when I was a journalist….
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I love that call to responsibility and action, “If not me–who? If not now–when?” A thought worth sharing, for sure.
Yes, it’s a wonderful nudge to stop coasting along, or putting up with things, isn’t it?
Two of my daughters and I were just having a similar conversation just about two days ago. How right you are…she is a much maligned Queen others hoping to cast her in a bad light, but strangely it doesn’t happen. The truth really does prevail…in this case centuries later.
What an eloquent post on Cleopatra and her life. You really brought her to life for me! Thank you Valerie. This is truly a brilliant post!!!
Thank you Tersia, I so enjoyed writing it !
Wonderfully done! I have always been fascinated by Cleopatra, such an amazing woman and queen. Men and their histories, one must wonder why they feel the need to malign the strong women who make history.
The other woman who always fascinated me was Aspasia (sp) of Greece.
You have sent me scurrying off to explore Aspasia !!! So glad you enjoyed Cleopatra….men and strong women are pathetic !!!!
Were you a teacher? I have to go watch Cleopatra now. Clearly casting Liz and Dick in the main roles was a stroke of genius.
No, never a teacher !!!
Anthony and Cleopatra don’t do it for me the way Caesar and C did…
I saw a clip of Liz in A and C recently, as she processed to meet Anthony at Tarsus, and as she got to him – she winked – the crass vulgarity of it made me realise I’d been right not to see it originally…
But you may feel differently !!!
I know I ‘m just a square oldie !!!
Oh, no I haven’t seen it. I will have a look at it. Clearly I have no idea what I’m talking about!
You would have been a really good teacher. Look I learned something today!
Fascinating. Such dramatic lives!
Just what the doctor orddree, thankity you!
At this time it looks like WordPress is the best blogging platform out there right now.
(from what I’ve read) Is that what you are
using on your blog?