Tag Archives: Julius Caesar

Their many-splendoured thing

0001138To 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? “







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Storms of Delight

100_0377I awoke to the roaring of a savage sea hurling itself onto the rocks below. The window is always open so that I can hear the sea.

Looking out, it was a grey wolf sea, with a steel-grey haze obliterating the islands that hover on the horizon. White capped rollers raced in across cruel grey and glacier- green water, and when the waves hit the rocks spilled over in sheets of white foam blowing high in the air. Low tide is almost more spectacular than high tide, because the water hits the rocks instead of flowing over most of them.

 Later, I put on a hood and jacket and walked out into the storm. The wind was thrashing the trees and making much the same sound as the roaring sea. First I walked to the garden of some friends overlooking the little harbour. It’s usually like a shining green jewel set deep in high rock and forested walls. It was calm, the only sign of the storm being the muddy-looking water.

 These friends own the goats and are away overseas for some weeks, so I pocketed the lemons lying under the tree. It was only a little tree, but had been so nurtured and well fed, that where one lemon would normally hang, between five and ten weighted down each fragile branch. The scent of the blossom still growing swirled round the tree before flying in the wind.

 As I walked down their long drive, between two rows of palm trees, three little speckled red hens came running out of a nearby garden, and solemnly picked their way behind me in single file. I felt like turning round to stroke them, but they weren’t keen on this. The way they followed me reminded me of Konrad Lorenz’s imprinted geese, and I hoped these little hens weren’t busy imprinting themselves on me. They gave up in the end, and returned home to where their supper was awaiting them in the hands of a pretty girl in a cream poncho.

 Strolling back in the flying rain I walked down the cul de sac to say hello to the three goats, and give them a little leafy, twiggy treat. Robert, the grumpy old billy- goat, would keep dropping his mouthful in order to snatch the little darlings’ twigs from their mouths. So I had to do a dodgy dance to try to fend him off while the babies managed an uninterrupted munch for a few minutes.

 As I turned round to come home, I heard a piteous whine. It was Zeb, the black and white pointer who lives opposite the goats, and sometimes escapes to come and see me. She had her head to the fence, hoping I’d come and say hello to her too. Of course I did, and while I was doing so, Kate, her owner, came out and asked if I’d like some new-laid eggs. Would I? So when Zeb and I had finished our tete- a- tete, I returned home the delighted carrier of six fresh eggs.

 I laid them carefully with the glowing yellow lemons on the garden seat at the top of the steps, and continued my wander in the storm. We live on a tiny peninsula sticking out into the sea, our house facing one way, and on the other side of the little neck of land, the old village graveyard faces out to sea in the other direction. Beneath spreading trees, it holds the graves of the earliest settlers in this place, and the latest inhabitants.

 I walked on the wet grass between the graves, heading for the end of the cemetery where it ends in a deep crevasse where the sea throws itself against this neck of land. Here I look down on a flat rock fifty feet below. The seas crash over it in rough weather, or lap against the sides on calm days, revealing tempting still green depths and white rock below the waterline, where I’d love to swim if I could get down there. Today it was almost invisible beneath thick sheets of green water swirling over it and spumes of foam flying through the air.

As I stood looking down here, as I so often do, I realised that every time I come here, I think of Pincher Martin, and William Golding’s description of hell. Pincher Martin scrabbling desperately to escape the raging seas, and clinging onto the slippery rock and slipping back down again into the tormenting cauldron of murderous waves… over and over again … not a pleasant remembrance, and one I try to banish, but it always comes back … just as I never see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, in the flesh or in pictures, without thinking of Golding’s ‘The Spire’ and his painful story of spiritual disintegration. Thank goodness I’ve avoided reading ‘The Lord of the Flies’, as I know I would be tormented by that too.

Today, the wind crashing through the old pohutakawa trees – which were probably growing here when my hero, Captain James Cook sailed past in 1769 – was bringing down lots of small twigs and gnarly broken branches. When they’re dry they’re wonderful to start the fire with, and the peasant in me can’t resist gathering bundles. This was a successful foray and I returned home with a big armful of wet branches and twigs to dry out in the garage. Pohutakawa trees grow to the size of a good oak tree, and have dark green, hard, crunchy leaves all the year round. They’re sometimes called the New Zealand Christmas tree because at Christmas they’re smothered in flaming red blossom, and here, where the whole coast is ringed with them, they are a unique sight.

 And so back home to a blazing log fire, with the haunting and tender sounds of Handel’s opera Julius Caesar still ringing through my head. I went to see it for the second time in three days yesterday, five hours of it, and would see it again – and again, if it was available. Today I Googled Caesar and Cleopatra, since I only knew of Anthony and Cleopatra. And yes, Handel hadn’t messed around with history, Caesar and Cleopatra had had a love affair, she had borne his only son, and she stayed with him in Rome until his assassination.

 So well before her alliance with Mark Anthony, she had loved Caesar, and he her.Knowing this made the exquisite songs of their love affair in opera seem even more poignant.Cleopatra inveigled her way into Caesar’s presence rolled up in a carpet, and in the opera sang a song of enchantment for him. I read somewhere that Cleopatra’s glorious song to Caesar:  “v’adoro pupille” (I adore you, eyes,) is the most seductive love song ever written. I can believe it. In Natalie Dessay’s version she didn’t seduce, she poured out her heart. It was beautiful.

 And this life seems so beautiful too, with all its gifts and grace notes, allusive thoughts and memories, the stormy seas and wild winds, the hens and the goats, the centuries of music and aeons of love, the lemons, the eggs and the firewood!


Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 The pantry was bare. So I made a treat I haven’t made for years – cheese aigrettes. All I needed were things like eggs, flour, and grated Parmesan which I always have in the deep freeze. So into a saucepan went two oz butter and half a pint of water. When boiling I added 4 oz flour and stirred hard until the whole mixture was coming away from the sides of the saucepan, leaving it clean.

 Off the heat I mixed in 3oz Parmesan and two egg yolks, beating them in separately. Add salt and pepper, and then fold in the stiffly whisked egg whites.That’s the easy part. When the mixture is cold, drop small rough pieces, about a teasp size or bigger, into hot fat. Don’t fry too quickly or the outside will brown before it’s cooked inside. But if the fat is too cold, the aigrettes will become greasy. It takes about four minutes for  each batch to cook.

Fish them out with a slotted spoon onto some kitchen paper to drain, and serve with grated parmesan sprinkled over, and a dash of cayenne pepper. With salad, they’re crunchy, filling and delicious.

 Food for Thought

 Life, for all its agonies of despair and loss and guilt, is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing, full of liking, and of love, at times a poem and a high adventure, at times noble and at times very gay; and whatever (if anything) is to come after it, we shall not have this life again.

From Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay English novelist 1881 – 1958







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