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? “