‘Caesar also had affairs with queens . . . most of all with Cleopatra, with whom he often feasted until first light, and he would have sailed through Egypt on her royal barge almost to Aethiopia, if his army had not refused to follow him.’ - Suetonius, late first/early second century AD.1

‘Cleopatra . . . was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one. Being brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with power to subjugate every one, even a love-sated man already past his prime, she thought that it would be in keeping with her role to meet Caesar, and she reposed in her beauty all her claims to the throne.’ - Dio, early third century AD.2

Caesar followed up his success at Pharsalus with his usual vigorous pursuit and arrived in Alexandria just three days after Pompey’s murder. It was important to complete the victory by preventing the enemy from regrouping. Pompey’s skill, reputation and huge array of clients made him still the most dangerous opponent even after his defeat, and Caesar had focused his main attention on hunting down his former father-in-law. He travelled quickly, taking with him only a small force. At one point he came across a far larger squadron of enemy warships, but such was his confidence that he simply demanded - and promptly received - their surrender. Caesar paused for a few days on the coast of Asia, settling the province and arranging for the communities, especially those that had strongly supported the Pompeians, to supply him with the money and food he needed to support his ever-growing armies. At this point news arrived that Pompey was on his way to Egypt and Caesar immediately resumed the hunt, taking with him some 4,000 troops and reaching Alexandria at the beginning of October. Almost immediately he learned of Pompey’s death, and soon afterwards the latter’s signet ring and head were presented to him by envoys of the young king. Caesar wept when he saw the first and would not look at the second. His disgust and sorrow may well have been genuine, for from the beginning he had taken great pride in his clemency and willingness to pardon his enemies. Whether Pompey would have accepted this is another matter, having earlier in the year declared that he had no intention of living on indebted to ‘Caesar’s generosity’. A cynical observer might say that it was very convenient for Caesar to be able to transfer to foreign assassins the guilt for killing one of the greatest heroes in the history of the Republic. Yet in the past there does seem to have been some genuine affection between the two men as well as political association. Even when they came to see each other as rivals, it is extremely unlikely that Caesar ever wanted to kill Pompey. His aim was to be acknowledged by everyone, including Pompey himself, as Pompey’s equal - and perhaps in time as his superior. A dead Pompey was far less satisfying.3

Nevertheless, the murder made it clear that the local authorities were keen to please the newcomers, and Caesar decided to land with his troops. With him were the Sixth Legion, reduced by constant campaigning to under 1,000 men, and one of Pompey’s old formations that had now been renumbered the Twenty-Seventh and mustered some 2,200 legionaries. Supporting these were some 800 auxiliary cavalry, at least some of whom were Gauls and others Germans. It is possible that this was the bodyguard unit that had accompanied Caesar in the recent campaigns. It was not an especially strong force, but Caesar did not expect to face serious opposition. He disembarked and marched to take up residence in one of the palaces in the royal quarter of the city As consul, he was preceded by twelve lictors carrying the fasces which symbolised his imperium as a Roman magistrate. The sight provoked a hostile reaction from the royal troops in the city and from many of the Alexandrians. The Romans were jeered and over the next few days a number of legionaries caught alone in the streets were attacked and killed by mobs. Caesar had stumbled into the middle of Egypt’s own civil war and would soon be besieged and fighting for his life, completely out of touch with events in the rest of the Mediterranean. Before describing what became known as the Alexandrian War, it is worth pausing to consider Egypt in the fading years of the Ptolemaic dynasty.4


Alexander the Great had taken Egypt from the Persians in 331 BC, founding Alexandria that same year - one of a number of cities bearing his name, although in time it outstripped all the others. When he died his massive empire was torn apart by his generals as they struggled to carve out kingdoms of their own. One of the most successful was Ptolemy, son of Lagus, who became Ptolemy I Soter, or ‘saviour’, and took Alexandria in Egypt as his capital, even managing to divert Alexander’s funeral cortege so that the body of the great conqueror was interred in the city. The dynasty Ptolemy founded would rule for almost three centuries, controlling an empire that at times included not just Egypt, but also Cyrenaica, Palestine, Cyprus, and parts of Asia Minor. Its extent varied, outlying territories being lost to rebellion or the renewed vigour of the other great successor kingdoms of Antigonid Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire. The balance of power between the three rivals fluctuated over the years, but by 48 BC both of the others had gone. Macedonia had become a Roman province in 146 BC, while Pompey had deposed the last Seleucid king in 64 BC and taken Syria under Roman rule. The Macedonians and Seleucids had chosen to fight Rome and had lost. In contrast the Ptolemies formed an alliance with the Roman Republic even before it began to extend its power into the region. The kingdom survived, but it gained few benefits from Roman expansion and during the second century BC this was a contributory factor in its steady decline. As important were the almost unending dynastic struggles within the royal family. Ptolemy II had married his sister, inaugurating a tradition of incestuous marriages - brother to sister, nephew to aunt and uncle to niece - which persisted to the end of the dynasty. Such unions, broken only by occasional marriages to foreign, usually Seleucid princesses, prevented the aristocratic families from gaining claims to the throne. The price was to make the pattern of succession very unclear. Factions grew up surrounding different members of the royal family, all eager to advance them to become king or queen and so gain influence as their advisor. Civil wars were frequent, and over time it became more and more common for Rome to act as arbiter, formal recognition by the Romans helping greatly to legitimise a monarch’s rule. The kingdom’s independence was gradually eroded.

Egypt remained very wealthy. In part this was through trade, Alexandria being one of the greatest ports in the ancient world, but more than anything else it rested on agriculture. Every year the Nile flooded - as it still did until the construction of the Aswan dam. When the water receded the farmers were able to sow their seeds in fields rendered very fertile by the moisture. The scale of the annual inundation varied and, as in the Book of Genesis, there could be years of famine as well as years of plenty, but in general the harvest produced a substantial surplus. Many centuries before the unrivalled fertility of the Nile valley had allowed the civilisation of ancient Egypt to flourish and create its awesome monuments. More recently it had made the region an attractive conquest for the Persians and after them the Macedonians. The power of the Ptolemies was always based firmly on Egypt. Through a sophisticated bureaucratic machine, much of it inherited from the earlier periods, they were able to exploit this productivity. An important component within the system was the temples - many of which preserved the worship and rites of the old Egyptian religion and were little influenced by imported Hellenic ideas. The temples were major landowners, but also centres for industry and craft, and had privileged status, exempting them from most taxation. Roman visitors to Egypt were amazed by the fertility and wealth of the country, as much as they claimed to have been shocked by the intrigue and opulence of the royal court. By the first century BC Egypt seemed to offer the prospect of massive wealth to a number of ambitious Romans.5

The career of Cleopatra’s father illustrates both the instability of Egyptian politics and its ever more blatant dependence on Rome. He was Ptolemy XII, illegitimate son of Ptolemy IX and (most probably) one of his concubines. His father had become king in 116 BC when his mother chose him as joint ruler and husband, but was later rejected in favour of another brother, the massively obese Ptolemy X. He eventually returned to oust them both by force and remained on the throne until his death at the end of 81 BC. Ptolemy IX was succeeded by his nephew Ptolemy XI, who was taken as husband and consort by his stepmother, promptly murdered her and was himself in turn assassinated soon afterwards. Ptolemy XII was then recognised as King of Egypt by Sulla. He styled himself the ‘New Dionysus’ (Neos Dionysus), but was often known less flatteringly as Auletes or the ‘flute player’ - some would argue that oboe player would probably be a better translation, but the other version is more commonly used. In 75 BC rival claimants to the throne had gone to Rome to lobby the Senate, but eventually left without achieving anything.

Yet the wealth of Egypt remained a great temptation to ambitious Romans. A decade later crassus hoped to use his censorship to annex Egypt as a province, probably on the basis that Ptolemy X had bequeathed it to Rome in his will, a copy of which had been sent to the city. As noted earlier, Caesar was credited with similar plans (see p.114-5). Neither man succeeded, but as consul in 59 BC Caesar did share with Pompey the staggering 6,000 talent bribe that Ptolemy XII promised as payment for having him formally acknowledged as ‘friend and ally’ of the Roman people. Collecting this sum proved difficult and probably contributed to the uprising that forced him to flee from Egypt in the following year. He went to Rome in the hope of winning the support that would restore him to power, and it is just possible that he took his eleven-year-old daughter Cleopatra with him. The issue became a fiercely contested one, since many craved the chance of a campaign in Egypt and the rewards likely from a grateful king. In 57 BC the consul Publius Lentulus Spinther - the same man who later surrendered to Caesar at Corfinium - was given the task of restoring Ptolemy to the throne, but political opponents managed to ‘discover’ an oracle that was interpreted as meaning that he would not be allowed an army for this task. Eventually, in 55 BC, Gabinius took it upon himself to do this, inspired by Auletes’ promise of 10,000 talents. In the event the bulk of the money could not be found, and Gabinius returned to trial and condemnation at Rome, before reviving his fortunes by joining Caesar in 49 BC.6


After his expulsion in 58 BC, Ptolemy’s daughter Berenice IV had been made ruler, at first with her sister the elder Cleopatra VI as co-ruler, but following the latter’s death she married a son of Mithridates of Pontus, a connection that only increased the pressure on Rome to act. On his return Auletes had Berenice killed, but his efforts to raise the money owed to Gabinius and other Roman creditors were generally unsuccessful. He remained deeply unpopular, but even greater hatred grew up for the Romans who had backed him and who now wished to exploit the country so shamelessly. Alexandria in particular witnessed frequent rioting and attacks on Romans. In 51 BC Auletes finally died, leaving the throne jointly to his third daughter, the seventeen-year-old Cleopatra VII, and his elder son, the ten- year-old Ptolemy XIII. He had already sent a copy of his will to be kept at Rome, a measure that made clear his acknowledgement of the Republic’s power. Brother and sister were promptly married in the usual way. In spite of her youth, Cleopatra was evidently already a forceful character, and decrees issued at the beginning of her reign make no mention of Ptolemy. The boy was not old enough to assert himself, but his ministers and advisors, led by the eunuch Pothinus and the army commander Achillas, soon began to oppose his older sister. Alexandria had been turbulent for some time. A series of poor harvests added to the discontent of the wider population - the Nile was at its lowest recorded level in 48 BC. In 49 BC Pompey sent his son Cnaeus to Egypt to secure support for the forces he was gathering in Macedonia. Cleopatra welcomed him - much later there were rumours of an affair, but this may well be no more than gossip or propaganda - and sent a contingent of the soldiers left behind by Gabinius along with fifty ships. This compliance with the Romans was sensible, given their power and the debt of her father to Pompey, but it may well have been unpopular. Controlling much of the army, and with a good deal of support from the Alexandrians, the regents were able to drive Cleopatra from the country. The queen took refuge in Arabia and Palestine, and was supported by the city of Ascalon - one of the former Philistine cities from the Old Testament period, which in recent centuries had usually been under Ptolemaic control. By the summer of 48 BC she had gathered an army and had returned to reclaim the throne. This force and those loyal to her brother were warily shadowing each other from opposite sides of the Nile Delta when Pompey, and then Caesar, arrived in Egypt.7

Cleopatra is one of a handful of figures from the ancient world whose name still commands instant recognition, but it must be emphasised that we know far less about her early life and her liaison with Caesar than might be supposed. More is known of her later life and subsequent affair with Mark Antony, although even then most of our sources were written long after her death and are tainted by the propaganda inspired by Augustus, against whom the couple had fought and lost. Yet the queen has fascinated generation after generation, and over the centuries she has been often portrayed in art, literature, drama and, more recently, cinema and television, all of which have freely embellished the ancient sources. It is difficult for anyone looking at the period to step back entirely from these popular images of Cleopatra, but it is useful to begin with what can more confidently be said. When Caesar arrived in Egypt Cleopatra was nearly twenty-one years old and had been queen for almost four years. She was highly intelligent and extremely well educated in the Greek tradition. Later, she would be credited with writing books on a very broad range of subjects, from cosmetics and hairdressing to scientific and philosophical subjects. Cleopatra was a noted linguist, who it was claimed rarely needed an interpreter when conversing with the leaders of the neighbouring countries. The Ptolemies were a Macedonian dynasty who had imposed themselves by force on Egypt, but they had found it expedient in the past to present themselves to their native subjects as true successors to the pharaohs. Cleopatra was not the first to support the traditional cults of the land, but she does seem to have taken an especially close interest in the details of ceremonies. Later in her life she would style herself as the New Isis, choosing an Egyptian goddess - though admittedly one whose cult had spread to much of the Mediterranean world - rather than a Greek deity after her father’s example. Plutarch tells us that she was the first of the Ptolemies who was able to speak the Egyptian language. All of this made sound political sense, for a monarch aware that challenges to her rule were likely needed as broad a base of support as possible, and the temples played a vital economic as well as spiritual role in the country’s life. Ptolemaic Egypt was internally divided and was faced with the overwhelming power of Rome. This could not be ignored, but might be placated. No ruler could ever be secure, and it is in this context that we must place Cleopatra’s undoubted ruthlessness. By this stage, it was unlikely that any of the Ptolemies could be anything else.8

Some of the most frequently asked questions about Cleopatra are what did she look like, and was she really beautiful? It is unlikely that we will ever be able to answer either of these with any real certainty. On coins her image is rather severe, probably because it was intended to project an image of power and authority, rather than a flattering portrait of her features. In some cases corrosion has rather emphasised the long, curved nose and pointed chin. Some coins minted at Ascalon show a more youthful and slightly softer featured woman. Over the centuries many portrait busts have been identified as Cleopatra, but few of these are now generally accepted as such. Depictions of her in the traditional Egyptian style, for instance in temple reliefs, followed a different set of conventions, but are equally unhelpful for showing us Cleopatra’s true appearance. The coins and busts invariably show her hair tied back in a bun - a style that academic convention rather unflatteringly describes as melon shaped - and wearing the diadem of a Hellenistic monarch. She does appear to have had high cheekbones, but her most powerful feature was her nose, high at the bridge, rather long and probably somewhat hooked - hawk-like would doubtless be the term used by a romantic novelist. Dio tells us that she was exceptionally beautiful. A passage from Plutarch is sometimes mistakenly understood to contradict this, for he says that it was not so much her beauty that first struck an onlooker but her charm, personality and the gently musical tones of her voice. Thus he did not deny her beauty, but rather said there were other reasons for the powerful impact she had on men. Beauty proverbially is in the eye of the beholder, and different generations have had very different ideals of its perfection. It is not difficult to think of famous film stars who have captivated audiences and clearly possessed huge sex appeal without being unusually pretty. A person’s liveliness and animation have always been very difficult for a sculptor to capture, while such things are extremely unlikely to be conveyed by a coin portrait.

On balance it seems reasonable to say that Cleopatra was an extremely attractive woman, and would probably have been seen as such had she lived in any generation. To her good looks she added intelligence, sophistication, wit, vivacity and enormous charm. Add in the glamour of being a queen, along with her real political importance, and it is not difficult to understand how she captivated two of the greatest Romans of the age. The colour of her hair and her complexion are unknown. There is a tradition popular in some circles that she was black, but there is not a shred of evidence to support this. The Ptolemies were Macedonians, although there was some Greek and, through marriages to Seleucids, also a little Persian blood in their recorded family line. We do not know the identity of Cleopatra’s grandmother. There is also a little doubt over her mother, although most accept that it was Auletes’s full sister, which would then increase the significance of the grandmother even further. The accepted conjecture is that the latter was a concubine, which makes it possible that she was not of Macedonian stock, but perhaps an Egyptian or from even further afield. Therefore it is not absolutely impossible that there was some more specifically African blood in Cleopatra, but there is no actual evidence to support this. Equally, it is not absolutely impossible that she was a blonde, since some Macedonians had fair hair (which is again a rather subjective term), but equally none of our sources claim this. This uncertainty will continue to allow different people to imagine very different Cleopatras.9

Alexandria was a young city compared with Rome. It was probably smaller - one estimate puts its population at something like half a million people - but still vastly bigger than any other city in the Greco-Roman world with the exception of Syrian Antioch. It was certainly more splendid than Rome, its deliberate foundation ensuring that it had been laid out neatly in the best traditions of Hellenistic architecture. The two main roads, which lay at right angles to each other, may well have been as much as 100 feet wide. The harbour was enormous, and on the island at its edge lay the massive Pharos lighthouse, one of the Wonders of the World. Facing the sea was the royal quarter, which consisted of numerous lavish palaces, since there was apparently a tradition of each new ruler building his or her own complex. This region of the city is now largely underwater, but in recent years archaeologists have begun a programme of investigation that has already revealed a good deal. One surprise was the number of ancient Egyptian monuments that had been moved and brought to decorate the city. Clearly many of the Ptolemies wished to emphasise the great antiquity of the country that they had come to rule. However, Alexandria was founded by a Macedonian king and most of its original colonists had been Macedonians or Greeks. Since then the population had become more mixed and the city contained the largest Jewish community outside Judaea itself. It was also a bustling port, and trade in spices, ivories and other luxuries from India seems to have increased during Cleopatra’s lifetime. However, for all this coming and going of peoples, in cultural terms Alexandria remained overtly Greek and had become one of the greatest centres of learning in the Hellenic world. Its Library was massive, filled not only with books, but also with curiosities and scientific wonders - a model able to move by steam power is mentioned in one source - and the Ptolemies had a long tradition of encouraging philosophers to come to the city to study and teach.10


There is no evidence that Caesar had ever visited either Alexandria or Egypt before he landed there in October 48 BC. He does seem to have been surprised by the hostility provoked by the sight of his lictors and the swagger with which he and his legionaries processed through the city. For the moment the weather prevented him from leaving and moving on, and he decided to keep himself busy A great part of the money promised to him by Auletes over a decade before had never been paid, and Caesar announced that he intended to collect 10 million denarii of this debt. The victory at Pharsalus had only increased his already massive financial commitments, for he now had to provide for the tens of thousands of Pompeian soldiers who had surrendered to him. Around the same time he also announced that as the man who had secured recognition for Ptolemy Auletes, he would now arbitrate in the succession dispute. Pothinus the eunuch, acting as regent for Ptolemy XIII (who was still no more than thirteen or fourteen) made no public protest, but secretly sent orders summoning Achillas and the army to the city The Commentaries claim that Achillas had 20,000 men, consisting mainly of a mix of Gabinius’ former soldiers, who had remained behind and taken local wives, and mercenaries, many of whom were runaway slaves from the Roman provinces. Caesar was seriously outnumbered and soon found himself blockaded in the walled palace compound and a number of other buildings that he had occupied in the royal quarter. At first there was an uneasy truce, but soon Achillas launched an all-out attack. In repulsing one assault Caesar’s legionaries set light to some buildings and the fire got out of hand, according to some sources spreading to the Library, although it is unlikely that this caused serious damage to its books and it remained a centre of learning for several centuries afterwards. Most of the population of the city supported the royal army or was neutral, and there was much talk of the need to stand up to the Romans if Egypt was not simply to be absorbed. Caesar sent messengers summoning aid and reinforcements, but it would be some time before any could arrive and it is clear that he was in serious danger of defeat and death.11

At the beginning both Ptolemy XIII and his sister Arsinoe were within Caesar’s lines along with many of their attendants, including Pothinus. The latter was deliberately insulting, feeding the Romans poor food in rough vessels and brusquely telling them that all the gold and silverware was going to pay Caesar the money he demanded. At this point Cleopatra made her startling appearance on the scene, smuggling herself into the palace at dusk. She came with only a single member of her household, Apollodorus of Rhodes, who rowed her across the harbour in a small skiff. He then carried her into Caesar’s presence, not rolled up in a carpet in the best Hollywood tradition, but inside a laundry bag. The bag was untied and the queen revealed, perhaps standing up as it dropped down - it is hard to resist the analogy of a dancer appearing from a cake. Dio claims that the queen had learnt of Caesar’s womanising reputation and had dressed herself carefully to excite both his pity for the loss of her throne and his passion as a well-known rake. The two became lovers, and around this time Caesar decreed that the terms of Auletes’ will were clear and that Cleopatra and her brother should rule jointly. The boy was unimpressed and probably already aware that his sister was closer to the Roman consul than he could ever be. He spoke to a crowd of Alexandrians, who responded by rioting. Tension within the palace compound grew and there were rumours of plots to assassinate Caesar. In the past he had never been a heavy drinker, but now he took to staying with his officers after dinner and drinking well into the night. It was claimed that he did this for protection. One of Caesar’s personal slaves overheard Pothinus plotting and a watch was set on the eunuch, who was soon proved to be in communication with the besiegers and was promptly executed. At some point Arsinoe escaped and joined the Egyptian army, who promptly proclaimed her queen. With her former tutor, the eunuch Ganymede, she arranged the murder of Achillas and took control of the troops. The two men most responsible for killing Pompey had both suffered a similar fate within a short space of time.12

The siege continued with renewed intensity. At one stage the besiegers contaminated the water supply to the area held by Caesar’s men, forcing the latter to order his legionaries to dig for wells. A third legion, the Thirty- Seventh, formed from surrendered Pompeians, managed to reach him by sea, bringing with it a convoy of supplies as well as artillery and other equipment. It was vital for Caesar to maintain his access to the harbour exits, since if he became cut off from the sea then it would be very difficult for any more aid to reach him. A series of small-scale naval battles were fought in and around the harbour between the small squadron of warships that had accompanied Caesar and an Egyptian navy hastily put together from the boats that policed the Nile and warships that had been discovered half-forgotten in the old royal shipyards. Beams were taken from the ceilings of great buildings to be turned into oars. In most of these encounters Caesar’s vessels gained the advantage and this encouraged him to launch an attack to secure all of Pharos island, named after the lighthouse that stood on it. This was connected to the mainland by a bridge almost a mile in length. Caesar already controlled a small section of the island, but he now launched an attack, landing ten cohorts by boats, while other warships made a diversionary attack on the far side of the island. On the next day a second attack was sent to secure the approach to the bridge. This began well, but ended in chaos when a party of sailors who had disembarked from their ships were panicked by an enemy counter-attack. The confusion spread and soon even the legionaries were fleeing for their lives, swarming aboard the closest boats in their desperation to escape. Caesar managed to keep some of the men fighting for a while, but soon realised that this small band would be overwhelmed and so joined the retreat. His own craft was swamped by panic-stricken soldiers so that it was impossible for the crew to push away from the shore. Seeing what was going to happen, the consul took off his cuirass and general’s cloak and dived into the sea. Then, holding his left hand above the water to preserve some important documents he was carrying, he calmly swam to safety. Suetonius maintains that he also managed to carry his famous cloak with him, but elsewhere it is claimed that the enemy captured and subsequently paraded this trophy. By this time the boat he had left had foundered, but he was able to send other vessels back to save a few of the trapped men. It was the most serious defeat of the whole campaign and cost him some 800 casualties, just under half of which were legionaries and the remainder sailors. However, his men’s morale remained high and they continued to repulse any attacks on their positions.13

Soon afterwards - it was probably by this time late January or early February 47 BC - a deputation came from the Alexandrians asking Caesar to release Ptolemy to them, claiming that they were weary of the despotism of Arsinoe and Ganymede. Caesar agreed, but first urged the boy to stop the attacks, which were not in the interest of his people, and remember his loyalty towards Caesar and Rome. The boy burst into tears and begged Caesar not to send him away, prompting the consul to say that if he truly felt that way then he should swiftly end the war and return. Once outside the Roman positions, Ptolemy cheerfully joined his sister and began inciting his soldiers to redouble their efforts to destroy the invaders. According to the author of the Alexandrian War, ‘a lot of Caesar’s legates, friends, centurions, and soldiers were delighted by this, because Caesar’s excessive kindness had been made absurd by the deceit of a boy’. Yet personally he doubted that Caesar had been naive, and in his account each of the parties felt that they were tricking the other in this episode. The renewed assaults against the Roman position made no headway, and things were beginning to turn in Caesar’s favour, for a relief army had come overland from Syria under the command of Mithridates of Pergamum. It was a force of allies rather than Romans, and included a contingent of 3,000 Jews contributed by the High Priest Hyrcanus II and led by Antipater, the father of Herod the Great, as well as various Syrians and Arabs. The involvement of Hyrcanus encouraged the Jewish population of Alexandria to become far more sympathetic to Caesar. Mithridates stormed the town of Pelusium, and news of this success prompted Ptolemy and the other leaders to shift the bulk of their forces eastwards to try and stop the enemy before they had completed crossing the waterways of the Delta. A messenger from Mithridates reached Caesar at about the same time. Taking some of his troops he sailed round the coast and was able to join up with the relief army before it came into contact with the Egyptians’ main force. In the ensuing battle Ptolemy’s army was utterly routed. He fled down the river, but was drowned when his boat was swamped by fugitives and capsized - an episode reminiscent of Caesar’s narrow escape some weeks earlier.14

The war was over and now it was a question of settling Egypt. Arsinoe was a prisoner and would march in Caesar’s triumph before being permitted to live on as an exile. She would later be killed on the orders of Mark Antony, almost certainly with the encouragement of her older sister. Cleopatra now took her remaining brother, Ptolemy XIV, as co-ruler, although it was obvious that real power lay with her. In the early negotiations Caesar had granted Arsinoe and this same younger brother joint rule of Cyprus, which was a major concession given that it had recently been turned into a Roman province. This may have been a reflection of his military weakness at that stage, or perhaps was an attack on Cato, who had overseen the process. However, Cyprus was again included in the realm granted to Cleopatra and her brother. It is not entirely clear whether Caesar was able to secure the money he had demanded on arrival in Alexandria, but probable that he did so. The Alexandrian War implies that he left Egypt soon after the victory, but it is clear that this is incorrect and that he remained there for some time - perhaps as much as three months. He and Cleopatra took a cruise along the Nile in her luxurious royal barge. Appian claims that 400 vessels and most of the army accompanied them, which suggests that it was not entirely a pleasure cruise. Part of the purpose may well have been to parade through the country the newly confirmed ruler and the Roman might that supported her. The political dimension was rarely far from the mind of Caesar, or indeed of Cleopatra, but in itself it does not quite explain the episode. The situation in Egypt no longer truly required Caesar’s personal attention and there were many other issues that ought to have concerned him more. He had now been away from Rome for well over a year, and for the months of the siege itself he had been virtually cut off from events in the world outside Alexandria. Suetonius claims that Caesar would happily have kept on going ever further south along the Nile, had the army - probably most of all the senior officers - not refused to follow him. There is an echo in this story of the mutiny that brought Alexander the Great’s conquests to an end, but this does not necessarily mean that it was an invention.15

None of the theories put forward to explain this trip have been entirely adequate, and in the end it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that Caesar simply wanted a rest. He had been almost constantly on campaign for over a decade, and since crossing the Rubicon had enjoyed no significant break from his labours. For all his restless energy, it is difficult to believe that he was not tired, and perhaps somewhat empty. In his view he had been forced to fight a civil war he had not wanted, and since Pharsalus and the death of Pompey his world had changed forever. His greatest rival, a man who had only been his enemy for a short time, had gone and there was no one now in the Roman world against whom he could compete. Fatigue and perhaps also depression, as much as fear of plots, might also explain the late-night drinking parties that had begun in the months at Alexandria. His fifty-third birthday was approaching in July 47 BC, while his hairline was rapidly receding, something that upset a man who had always been very conscious of his appearance. Looked at in this context, the attractions of a life of luxury and ease cruising along the Nile at a steady pace and not rushing on to the next task become more obvious. Added to these there was Cleopatra as companion and lover. She was young, which was surely especially attractive if Caesar was beginning to feel old age encroaching, and she was also clever, witty and well educated. As well as sexual pleasure, there was the joy of the affair, of conversation both frivolous and learned, and of simply being with a sophisticated woman. Many of these things he had enjoyed in the past with the aristocratic ladies of Rome, but Cleopatra added the glamour of royalty, the charm of Greek culture and probably some sense of Egypt’s exotic past. In many ways she was much like him, perhaps more his equal than many of his other mistresses. It was a heady mix, and from a personal perspective the Nile cruise was probably just what Caesar needed. Spending time with a Hellenistic monarch may even have revived memories of his first travels abroad. There is no reason to disbelieve sources that state that he was in love, although his past and future record make it clear that this never meant that he felt any obligation to be loyal to one particular lover. Cleopatra’s attitude can only be guessed. She owed her throne to Caesar, and had doubtless seen enough of Rome’s influence over the destiny of Egypt to know that it was wise to gain the favour of the most powerful Roman alive. Yet she may also have genuinely been in love. Caesar was much older, but he possessed the great attraction of wielding great power, added to the personal charm that had captivated so many women in the past. Some sources, and particularly the imagination of later generations, have tended to depict the court of the Ptolemies as rife with sexual intrigue and excess, and portray the queen as highly knowledgeable and experienced in all the sensual arts. Yet we really know so little about her early life that it is hard to confirm or deny any of this. It is equally possible, perhaps even rather more likely, that the affair with Caesar was her first romantic experience and that she was a virgin when she met him.16

In the end news of a crisis in Asia persuaded Caesar to leave Egypt. There was surely an element of political thinking in his association with the queen, but in the long run his prolonged stay in Egypt was to cause him considerable problems. Three legions remained behind to ensure that Cleopatra was secure and also to prevent any surviving Pompeians from trying to occupy the country and make use of its wealth and resources. By this time he had received enough information to force him to accept that the Civil War was not yet over and that more campaigns would be needed. Interestingly he chose an officer named Rufio, who was the son of one of his freedmen, to command the three legions. It would later be the policy of Rome’s emperors to have an equestrian as governor of Egypt, and to forbid any senator even to visit the country without express permission. Caesar’s choice of a man who was not a senatorial legate has often been seen as foreshadowing this, but alternatively he may have thought this more tactful to the sensibilities of the Alexandrians. A senatorial legate could well have been seen as effectively a governor rather than simply the commander of troops of an ally eager to support the monarch. The legions were probably not the only thing that Caesar left behind, for by the time that he set out for Asia the sources suggest that Cleopatra was pregnant.17


Caesar was now aware that the Civil War would go on, but the news that finally dragged him from Egypt concerned a foreign threat. King Pharnaces of Bosporus was a son of Mithridates of Pontus, but had managed to change sides and ally with Rome early enough not to share in his father’s defeat. In his Eastern Settlement, Pompey had left him monarch of just a small part of his father’s domains. Pharnaces saw the Civil War as a grand opportunity to reclaim the lost territories, and in a rapid offensive had soon overrun Cappadocia, Armenia, Eastern Pontus and Lesser Colchis. He was particularly cruel in his victory, ordering the castration of any captured Roman. The majority of these prisoners were probably civilians, since the whole region had been stripped of troops by the Pompeians, and there was little serious opposition until Caesar’s legate Cnaeus Domitius Calvinus moved against him in December 48 BC. His army was a motley collection of Roman and foreign legions, most of whom had originally been raised by the Pompeians and all lacking in experience. Some fought well, but two legions raised from his subjects by the Galatian king and organised and equipped in the Roman manner fled after very little fighting. Its line broken in the centre, Calvinus’ army was swiftly routed.18

Caesar does not seem to have left Egypt until the summer - the actual timing remains disputed. On his way to Asia he paused at Antioch in Syria and Tarsus in Cilicia. We know that Hyrcanus the high priest and Antipater were both rewarded for their part in the Egyptian campaign. Still hard pressed for the money to meet his ever-growing expenses, he also levied money from many communities in the region, and especially those who had supported Pompey There was bad news of political squabbles and misbehaviour amongst his subordinates in Italy, but even so Caesar pushed on into Cappadocia to confront Pharnaces. His prestige would have suffered badly if a foreign enemy had been allowed to go unpunished. He had brought the veteran, although badly depleted, Sixth Legion with him from Egypt. To this he added one legion of Galatians and two others that had also shared in Calvinus’ defeat. Pharnaces sent envoys to Caesar, seeking a peace that would allow him to keep his conquests, and reminding him that the king had refused to send aid to Pompey. They presented the Roman commander with a golden wreath as a mark of his victory Caesar offered no concessions, reminding the ambassadors of the mutilation and torture of captured Romans. He demanded that Pharnaces should immediately withdraw from Pontus, return the spoils taken from the Romans and release his prisoners. The Roman army continued to advance and came up against the enemy forces near the hilltop town of Zela. Expecting the usual gradual build-up to a battle, Caesar was surprised when Pharnaces launched an all-out attack as the Romans were entrenching their camp on high ground. Such an assault was against the military wisdom of the age, but at first the surprise caused some confusion. Yet Caesar and his men quickly recovered, put together a fighting line, and drove the enemy back down the hill. The veterans of the Sixth broke through on the right and soon the entire enemy army dissolved into rout. Pharnaces escaped, but was killed by a rival when he returned to his kingdom. The whole campaign was decided in just a few weeks, and Caesar imposed a settlement on the region. The speed of his success was summed up in a letter to one of his agents at Rome with a laconic tag later displayed on placards carried in his triumph: veni, vidi, vici -‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ At the time he also mocked Pompey, commenting on how lucky generals were who made their name fighting against such fragile foes.19

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