Biographies & Memoirs


“Theatrical, Overdone and Anti-Roman”

SINCE PARTING FROM ANTONY on the banks of the Euphrates, Cleopatra’s journey back to Alexandria had not been uneventful. After enjoying a stately progress through some of her recently acquired new territories, she had decided to visit Herod in Judaea. Though the niceties were doubtless preserved on the surface, he must have loathed the arrival of the woman who had stripped him of his profitable groves of balsam and date palms. He must also have suspected her motives. Josephus alleged that during her stay in the Antonia palace in Jerusalem, the Egyptian queen tried to seduce Herod, for reasons either sexual or political. Basing his accusations on Herod’s own memoirs, recorded by Nicolaus (a scholar from Damascus who, at the time of Cleopatra’s visit to Herod, was tutor to her children but who later became Herod’s adviser and supporter), Josephus described her visit:

When she was there, and was very often with Herod, she endeavored to have criminal conversation with the king: nor did she affect secrecy in the indulgence of each sort of pleasures; and perhaps she had in some measure a passion of love to him, or rather, what is most probable, she laid a treacherous snare for him, by aiming to obtain such adulterous conversation from him.

Josephus continued that Herod

had a great while borne no good will to Cleopatra, knowing that she was a woman irksome to all; and at that time he thought her particularly worthy of his hatred, if this attempt proceeded out of lust . . . and called a council of his friends to consult with them whether he should not kill her, now he had her in his power . . . and that this very thing would be much for the advantage of Antony himself since she would certainly not be faithful to him.

His friends, Josephus claims, dissuaded him from such a rash and bloody act on the grounds that Antony would never forgive him, though it would be for his own good. Instead, Herod “treated Cleopatra kindly, and made her presents, and conducted her on her way to Egypt.”

The claims of attempted seduction are puzzling, especially as Cleopatra was pregnant. She had everything to lose and nothing to gain by such a liaison, which could not have been kept secret from Antony. If true, the only credible explanation would be that suggested by Josephus—that she wanted to induce Herod to make an open pass at her, which she could repulse and use to discredit him with Antony. The whole story is probably without foundation. Herod’s account in his memoirs of what happened, written long after Cleopatra’s visit, was no doubt intended to curry favor with Octavian and to play to the lascivious, devious image of Cleopatra he had created. Cleopatra’s motive in traveling to Egypt was perhaps to visit her friend Alexandra, Herod’s mother-in-law. She may also have wanted to enjoy a gloat over the concessions she had wrung from Herod. Most likely of all, as a shrewd businesswoman, she wished to check that he was indeed paying her the agreed fees for renting back his plantations from her as well as collecting all the moneys owed her by the Nabataeans for leasing back their bitumen deposits. Cleopatra with an abacus seems far more likely than Cleopatra burning with deceitful ardor. The idea that Herod wanted her dead would have been little surprise to her. Equally certainly, she would have known he would not dare assassinate her.

And so Cleopatra returned safely to her capital, where she duly gave birth to her second son by Antony, whom she named Ptolemy Philadelphus, after the great Ptolemy II, who had become king of Egypt almost exactly 250 years earlier and done so much to secure the future of the dynasty. It was in Alexandria that the message from Antony in Armenia reached her. Though she must have been glad that he had turned to her, she did not respond especially quickly to his summons. She needed time to raise the money and supplies he had requested, and perhaps she also wanted time to think. Her lover’s campaign had obviously been a disaster and in her mind, just as in Antony’s, must have been the question of how best to retrieve the situation.

In early January 35 Cleopatra arrived at White Village for her rendezvous with the anxious Antony, bringing funds to pay his troops and warm winter clothing. According to Plutarch, rumors spread that she had not brought enough money and that, to save face, her besotted lover was distributing his own cash in her name, but this hardly seems likely. Cleopatra did not lack funds and would not have been so niggardly toward the man on whom her future hopes depended.

Perhaps another of Cleopatra’s contributions was to assist Antony first in composing himself and then in preparing dispatches to Rome claiming great success. The basis for his claim was that he had not actually been defeated in any engagement in which he had taken personal command. Octavian, who was not yet ready for an open breach and now had his own victories to boast of, colluded in the fiction. At his urging, the Senate hailed Antony’s incursion into Media as a victory and gave thanks to the gods. But Octavian had another motive too. If Antony had indeed been victorious in the east, then he could be expected to raise troops there. There would be no need for him to insist on his right to recruit in Italy. This gave Octavian an excellent justification for continuing to renege on his commitment at Tarentum to send Antony twenty thousand soldiers. Another good excuse was that Octavian himself was about to go to war against the troublesomely aggressive tribes that were attacking along the empire’s northeastern frontiers from their mountainous strongholds in Illyricum on the east of the Adriatic. He therefore needed troops himself.

Subtle as he was, Octavian even devised a way of turning Antony’s need for support to his own advantage. When he was still in Syria in the spring of 35, Antony heard that Octavia, who the previous year had given birth to their second daughter, had left Rome and was on her way to him with two thousand soldiers, seventy ships, supplies and clothing. It was obvious that, whatever Octavia’s personal intentions—and she may well have wanted to take help to her husband—Octavian was cynically using her. Her “mercy mission” not only allowed Octavian to maintain that he was dutifully assisting his fellow triumvir, although the scale of the help was derisory—a mere 10 percent of the men Antony was actually owed and ships that he had neither requested nor needed—but was also a trap. If Antony spurned Octavia, he would lose influence and respect in Rome, while if he received her, it would prejudice his relationship with the wealthy Cleopatra. The snare, though so obviously laid, was difficult for Antony to evade.

This was also a pivotal moment for Cleopatra. Plutarch claimed that she “realized that Octavia was coming to take her on at close quarters” and

therefore made a great pretence of passionate love for Antony. She allowed her body to waste away on a meagre diet, put on a look of rapture whenever he came near, and when he went away looked melancholy and forlorn. She contrived it so that he often saw her weeping, but then she would quickly wipe away the tears as if she did not want Antony to notice them . . . Flatterers also worked hard on her behalf. They reproached Antony for being so hard-hearted and insensitive that he was destroying the woman who was utterly devoted to him and him alone. They said that although Octavia enjoyed the name of his wife, it was a political marriage, arranged by her brother; Cleopatra, however, a queen with countless subjects, was called Antony’s mistress, and yet she did not reject the name or scorn it, as long as she could see him and live with him. But if she were driven away, they said, she would not survive the shock.

Such histrionics seem implausible, not because Cleopatra was not capable of them but because she did not need them. In a sense, Antony had already made his choice when he sent the pregnant Octavia back to Rome and summoned Cleopatra to Antioch. His dependence on Cleopatra and in particular on her practical support was stronger than ever. That was why he had rushed to get messages to her after his defeat in his Parthian campaign. Skilled student of human nature and survivor that she was, Cleopatra must have understood what lay behind Octavian’s maneuverings. He was making preparations to attack Antony through his love for her. Without as yet making any direct comment, he was encouraging the populace to see Octavia as the path of Roman virtue to which Antony should return, while she, Cleopatra, was to be seen as an unwholesome influence, seducing Antony from his duty.

But Cleopatra could afford to feel confident in Antony. Apart from his very evident attachment to her, Antony was not a man easily blackmailed. Furthermore, with the whole of the eastern empire under his command and his hopes of a victory over Parthia battered but still alive, he remained a powerful man. Why should he kowtow to his ambitious, mischief-making brother-in-law? Cleopatra’s confidence proved well founded when he wrote to Octavia ordering her to send on the troops, ships and supplies but to return to Rome herself. These blunt instructions reached her in Athens, and she obeyed her husband.

As Antony must have known he would, Octavian indeed tried to inflame public feeling against himself and Cleopatra, still not by any public pronouncement but by quietly suggesting to his sister that she leave Antony’s house. Octavia, however, refused. According to Plutarch, her behavior bordered on the saintly:

She even begged Octavian, if it was not too late and he had not already decided for other reasons to go to war with Antony, to make nothing of her situation. After all, she said, it would be terrible if the two greatest commanders in the world plunged Rome into civil war, one because he loved a woman and the other out of protectiveness. And her actions only showed how much she meant these words. She lived in Antony’s house as if he were there and cared not only for their children, but also his children by Fulvia.

Yet Plutarch believed, probably correctly, that by so doing she was inadvertently wounding her husband, making him “hated for wronging such a good woman.” Octavian further milked the propaganda advantage by declaring Octavia sacrosanctitas (inviolable)—the status enjoyed by the Vestal Virgins and the most exalted position a Roman woman could attain.

Cleopatra did not allow Roman politics and posturing to distract her from her personal political objectives. During the early months of 35, she tried to destabilize and further undermine Herod. Her excuse was the murder of Judaea’s young and handsome high priest Aristobolus, whom Herod had so reluctantly appointed barely a year earlier. He had drowned during a swimming party in Jericho. Herod claimed the young man’s death had been an accident and gave him a magnificent funeral. However, Aristobolus’ mother, Alexandra, was convinced that during all the splashing and merriment, strong hands had held her son beneath the water on Herod’s orders. She wrote to her friend Cleopatra demanding vengeance and found a willing advocate. Indeed, just a few months earlier Cleopatra had been urging Alexandra and her son to flee to Alexandria. They had tried to smuggle themselves aboard a ship concealed in coffins but at the last moment had been discovered. Their attempted escape had endeared neither son nor mother to Herod, although, fearing Cleopatra’s influence with Antony, he had not dared punish them openly.

At Cleopatra’s insistence, Antony now summoned Herod to Laodicea in Syria to account to him for the death of Aristobolus. According to Josephus, after hearing Herod’s account, Antony did not meet all of Cleopatra’s expectations. Instead of punishing Herod, he declared that “it was not good to require an account of a king of his government, for at this rate he could be no king at all; those who had given him authority ought to permit him to use it.” Antony did, however, force Herod to give Cleopatra as a “gift” the port of Gaza in Idumaea—a concession that left the Judaean king landlocked and even more resentful of the woman who continued to intrigue against him. Hopeful of obtaining the remainder of Idumaea, Cleopatra tried to prompt a rebellion there against Herod by inciting the governor, Costabarus, to rise. Herod discovered the plot in time but, again afraid of Cleopatra’s influence with Antony, did not punish Costabarus or the other rebel leaders.

By the late spring of 35, Antony had left his forces in their winter quarters in Syria and returned with Cleopatra to Alexandria to gather funds and provisions for a renewed assault on Parthia. But before he could concentrate on his Parthian campaign, he faced yet another distraction. After fleeing to Asia Minor the previous autumn following his defeat by Octavian, the ever wily, ambitious and resentful Sextus Pompey had seized a town, raised three legions and, after an unconvincing attempt to ally himself with Antony, begun colluding with the Parthians. Knowing it would be unwise to launch a renewed campaign against Parthia with Sextus on the loose in his rear, Antony dispatched one of his commanders, Titius, with a large force to deal with him. The errant Sextus was finally captured and sent to Titius, who executed him, possibly without Antony’s knowledge or consent.

While publicly commending his fellow triumvir for his firm action, Octa-vian still found a way to discomfit him. He encouraged the Senate not only to honor both him and Antony by erecting their statues in the Forum and the Temple of Concord but also, as Dio Cassius related, to allow them the privilege of being permitted to feast in the temple with their wives and children. This was a useful device for reminding the Roman populace that while Octavian was married to the patrician Livia, Antony had abandoned his Roman wife, preferring to cavort with an alien queen.

Though he had been absent for four years, Antony was still popular in Rome. Perhaps he considered returning between campaigns to remind his followers there, especially those in the Senate, of his qualities as a commander and of his need to be able to recruit and to settle his veterans in Italy. To avoid any awkwardness with Octavian, he could have timed his visit so that he arrived after his brother-in-law had departed across the Adriatic on his Illyricum campaign. Yet he could hardly have avoided Octavia and their two daughters—one of whom, of course, he had never even seen. Perhaps the potential for personal embarrassment outweighed other, bigger imperatives. Perhaps Antony wished for no further delay in planning his new Parthian campaign. Perhaps Cleopatra, mindful that once before in their relationship Rome had proved a powerful distraction, urged him forcefully not to go. Perhaps he did not wish to leave his lover’s side. Whatever the case, he would never see Rome or his fine house on the Palatine again.

The problem of Sextus had made any major campaigning in 35 impracticable. However, events appeared to have fallen neatly in Antony’s favor. Artavasdes of Media had quarreled with Phraates of Parthia over the loot seized from Antony’s baggage trains. So enraged was Artavasdes that he sent Antony’s client and ally King Polemo, whom he had captured during the Parthian campaign, as his envoy to Alexandria, offering Antony his heavy cavalry and mounted archers for a fresh invasion of Parthia. Antony was delighted since, as Plutarch related, he believed that the only thing that had hindered his defeat of the Parthians was that “he had gone there with too few cavalry and archers . . . and so it was in a very confident frame of mind that he began to prepare to return inland through Armenia, rendezvous with the Mede and then go to war.”

Antony also made overtures to the other Artavasdes, king of Armenia, by suggesting that the five-year-old Alexander Helios be betrothed to Artavasdes’ daughter and inviting the Armenian monarch to visit him in Alexandria. Suspecting a plot to take both himself and his daughter hostage, Artavasdes failed to reply. Antony would later allege that Octavian had secretly persuaded him to refuse his offer.

In the spring of 34, the snubbed Antony set out to conquer Armenia as a prelude to his renewed attack on Parthia. He advanced up to the gates of its capital, Artaxata, sitting below snowy Mount Ararat and not far from the modern-day Armenian capital of Yerevan. Little is known of the campaign except that Antony induced Artavasdes to come to his camp, where he demanded the king surrender his treasuries and his fortresses. Whatever Artavasdes may have wished, his army refused to agree and promptly put his son Artaxes on the throne in his place. The Roman legions quickly crushed the Armenian forces, causing Artaxes to seek sanctuary with the Parthians while Antony sent Ar-tavasdes, bound with chains of silver, with his wife, two younger sons and a large amount of Armenian treasure to Alexandria and annexed Armenia. Leaving the able Canidius Crassus behind to garrison and organize the administration of Armenia into a Roman province and handing some territory to the Median king, whose daughter, Iotape, his only child, it was now agreed would be betrothed to Alexander Helios, Antony set out for Egypt preparatory to renewing his Parthian campaign the following year. He was about to demonstrate dramatically and publicly the strength of his ties to Cleopatra and their children.

In the autumn of 34 Antony rode in triumph into Alexandria. The captive king of Armenia, Artavasdes, weighed down by his silver chains, staggered as best he could before Antony’s chariot. Antony himself, in saffron robes, garlanded with ivy beneath a golden crown, wearing long high-heeled boots and brandishing the thyrsos—the ivy-wreathed wand tipped with a pine cone that was a symbol of Dionysus—had chosen to present himself to the Egyptians as that deity made flesh rather than as a conquering soldier of Rome. The imagery was of the great god of the east about to meet his goddess. Long lines of marching legionaries followed Antony’s chariot along the city’s wide, colonnaded streets, together with swaying, wooden-wheeled wagons loaded with booty, including, it is said, at least one solid-gold statue that the Armenians had not been able to hide.*

Cleopatra, “seated in the midst of the populace upon a platform plated with silver and upon a gilded chair,” according to Dio Cassius, waited ready to receive Antony’s gifts, together with the miserable Artavasdes and his family. Despite “much coercion” and “much ill-treatment,” the Armenian refused to prostrate himself before her and, instead of acknowledging her titles and supremacy, addressed her simply by her name. In spite of this defiance, his life and the lives of his family were spared, and they were sent into confinement as prisoners of state.

A few days later, Antony gave the Alexandrians a yet more remarkable and significant spectacle. The setting was one of the city’s most splendid buildings, the great Gymnasium, which stood in the center of the city adjoining the agora, the city’s meeting place and market. Antony had ordered golden thrones for himself and Cleopatra to be placed upon a silver stage, with smaller thrones at a slightly lower level for their children. Before a packed, expectant crowd, Antony rose to his feet. First, he confirmed Cleopatra as queen of Egypt, Cyprus and her possessions in Syria and decreed that henceforward she would be known as the “Queen of Kings.” Next, Antony confirmed the thirteen-year-old Caesarion as joint ruler of Egypt with his mother and awarded him the title “King of Kings.” Yet more significantly, Dio Cassius related that Antony proclaimed Cleopatra to have been “in very truth the wife” and Caesarion “the son of the former Caesar”—in other words, Caesarion was Caesar’s legitimate son. All the measures he was taking, Antony asserted, were “for Caesar’s sake.”

Turning to his own children by Cleopatra, Antony announced that the six-year-old Alexander Helios was to be king of Armenia in place of Artavasdes and overlord of Media and all the lands east of the Euphrates “as far as India”—vast territories that, of course, included Parthia. His twin, Cleopatra Selene, received Cyrenaica, while the two-year-old toddler Ptolemy Philadelphus acquired Egyptian possessions in Syria and Cilicia and was appointed overlord of all lands westward from the Euphrates to the Hellespont.

Plutarch related that while making this announcement, Antony “brought his sons forward for all to see,” impressively attired in the garb of their new lands. Alexander was kitted out in Median clothes with, on his young head, the regal tiara—a turban-like cap topped with a waving peacock’s feather. Ptolemy was dressed like a tiny Macedonian king, in military boots, purple cavalryman’s cloak, a woolen or goat-hair Macedonian bonnet and a royal diadem. This was, as Plutarch noted, the style of dress “adopted by all the kings since Alexander the Great.” After the no doubt somewhat shy and puzzled small children had formally saluted their parents, as they left the stage Alexander was given a guard of honor in Armenian dress and Ptolemy one of soldiers in Macedonian costume.

Cleopatra clearly gave careful thought to her own appearance at this great moment in her life. Plutarch described how she appeared before her people as Isis incarnate. Of the many faces of the goddess, Cleopatra was probably on this occasion evoking the image of Isis the great mother, in recognition of the honors lavished on her children. She may also have been wearing the grand headdress, the triple uraeus, in which three hooded cobras reared from the headband above her forehead and which, as statues of the period reveal, she had adopted as her personal insignia. A double uraeus—two rearing cobras—had long signified the Egyptian monarch’s rule over Upper and Lower Egypt. Cleopatra’s bold adoption of a third serpent could have been used by her to signify various things at various stages of her reign—for example, to mark her acquisition of lands once ruled by the rival Seleucid dynasty. Now it could have taken on an additional significance, recognizing her rule over her three sons as “Queen of Kings.”

The glamour and glitz of the Donations of Alexandria—as the ceremony came to be known—were signs that the balance in the partnership between the couple had swung yet further Cleopatra’s way. Antony’s failure in Parthia had badly damaged his hopes of becoming the Roman Alexander. Despite his modest triumph in Armenia, events had left him increasingly dependent on Cleopatra and thus increasingly sympathetic to her Hellenic concept of monarchy. The ceremony of the Donations was to her benefit rather than Antony’s and can only have been at her prompting as a demonstration of their personal and political commitment.

In practice, the Donations were more form than substance, making little difference to how the various territories would be administered. Many of the lands so portentously conferred on her and her children by Antony already belonged to Cleopatra. Of the remainder, Alexander Helios’ hopes of actually governing Media depended on his future father-in-law, the current king of Media, while Armenia was, in fact, under the firm governance of Roman legions and Parthia had yet to be conquered. Of Alexander’s other acquisitions as overlord many, like those of his younger brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus, already had rulers, some of whom were Antony’s clients and could not be expected to be delighted at this turn of events.

The political importance of the Donations to Cleopatra was the potent underlying message conveyed to her people and those of the neighboring lands. Antony was establishing a new hierarchy of power in the east. Until then, client kings such as Amyntas, Polemo, Herod and others had given him their allegiance direct, not in his own right but as the representative of Rome. By making Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus their overlords he was implying that the client kings would owe their loyalty first to Cleopatra, the “Queen of Kings,” and only thence to distant Rome. Furthermore, by declaring Alexander Helios overlord of Parthia, Antony was indicating that, when the war of conquest in due course resumed, Parthia too would be subject first to Hellenized Egypt and then to Rome. Cleopatra could present herself and her kingdom as being exalted to a status only a little beneath that of Rome itself.

Another important subtext of the Donations of Alexandria concerned Cae-sarion. Antony’s confirmation of him as co-ruler of the Egyptian empire with his mother was, of course, no surprise. Cleopatra had marked him out from birth as heir to the Ptolemaic empire, ensuring that his image was prominently displayed to her Egyptian subjects.*

The truly satisfying part of Antony’s pronouncements about Caesarion for Cleopatra was therefore his public reaffirmation of the boy as Caesar’s legitimate son. This was a direct challenge to Octavian. Caesarion was, as everyone knew, not legitimate in any conventional sense—Caesar had been married to Calpurnia at the time of his birth and Roman law did not countenance bigamy. Even had Caesar not been married, Roman law did not recognize the marriage of any Roman citizen, even those as powerful as Caesar or Antony himself, to a foreigner. The children of all such unions were illegitimate and could not inherit. This was rather different from the situation in the Egyptian royal family, where there were several precedents for illegitimate offspring to inherit the throne, particularly in the absence of any legitimate heir. But, encouraged by Cleopatra, Antony was brushing this aside, perhaps on the basis that the union between Caesar and Cleopatra had been a union of gods and therefore above such banalities as marriage ceremonies. In the words of Dio Cassius, Antony wished to remind the world that Octavian “was only an adopted and not a real son” of Julius Caesar and that Caesarion had a better claim on the loyalties of Caesar’s Roman followers. Antony also may have wished to suggest a similar type of legitimacy for his own children by Cleopatra.

The silver coins issued by Antony to mark his Armenian victory and the Donations of Alexandria and depicting both himself and Cleopatra, one on each side, mark her ascendancy. Though she is somewhat unflatteringly portrayed, with thin lips, a long and beaky nose, a sharp chin and a slight frown, this was perhaps not the point. The stark image conveyed an uncompromising power and authority. The encircling description, “To Cleopatra, queen of kings and her sons who are kings,” proclaims her newly acquired status. It was an unprecedented honor. Until this time, only two other women had been represented on Roman coins—both Roman and both Antony’s wives, Fulvia and Octavia. While this shows Antony’s unusual and disarming propensity to admit and, indeed, celebrate his consorts’ important place in his political life, neither woman had been named. Conversely, the coin records no new honors or titles for Antony—the only member of the “family” whose status remained unchanged, formally at least, at the Donations of Alexandria. Though atop the new power structure he had created, he remained a triumvir of Rome. The simple inscription running around his forceful profile reads simply, “Antony, after the conquest of Armenia.”

To Octavian in Rome, however, the situation must have appeared menacing. He suspected Antony of intending to lay claim to the empire in the west through Caesarion and to a vast empire in the east through Cleopatra and their children, with himself as supreme overlord. But Octavian’s own position had meanwhile been strengthening. His campaigns in Illyricum had been successful—he had subdued the tribes that had been energetically raiding northern Italy and plundering along the eastern shores of the Adriatic, seized their strongholds and thus secured the northeast approaches to Italy. These victories allowed him to demonstrate that he as well as Antony was capable of defeating foreigners. He had also shown his personal willingness to fight. A stone missile that struck him on the knee and crippled him for several days made useful propaganda for him. In addition, the Illyricum campaigns had allowed him to train and battle-harden an army, ready for whatever new demands he might make of it.

And now his rival had played right into his hands. The news of Antony’s Armenian celebrations had caused considerable resentment in Rome. According to Plutarch, what Romans found “particularly offensive” was that, to please his mistress, “he gratified the Egyptians with the noble and solemn ceremonies proper to his homeland,” rather than dedicating the spoils of war to Jupiter in his temple on the Capitol in Rome. On a less lofty level, Antony had denied his fellow citizens the revels and feasting that were a traditional part of a Roman Triumph, giving the sweets of victory instead to the Alexandrians. Then, within days, Antony had compounded his sins by mounting what Plutarch called the “theatrical, overdone and anti-Roman” Donations of Alexandria, scattering Roman possessions among his mistress and children as if such decisions were matters of little consequence about which he need only follow the whims of Cleopatra and not consult the Senate and people of Rome. What better proof did Octavian need to maintain that Antony had “gone native”—a situation no decent Roman should tolerate?

*Armenian histories recount how the local population preserved one large golden statue coveted by Antony to present to Cleopatra by cutting it to pieces and hiding the sections separately.

*At the entrance to the great Temple of Horus at Edfu, one of a pair of large black granite falcons stands protectively over a young prince believed to be Caesarion between the ages of eight and eleven.

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