Cleopatra - Jacob Abbott

Accession to the Throne

At the time when the unnatural quarrel between Cleopatra's father and her sister was working its way toward its dreadful termination, as related in the last chapter, she herself was residing at the royal palace in Alexandria, a blooming and beautiful girl of about fifteen. Fortunately for her, she was too young to take any active part personally in the contention. Her two brothers were still younger than herself. They all three remained, therefore, in the royal palaces, quiet spectators of the revolution, without being either benefited or injured by it. It is singular that the name of both the boys was Ptolemy.

The excitement in the city of Alexandria was intense and universal when the Roman army entered it to reinstate Cleopatra's father upon his throne. A very large portion of the inhabitants were pleased with having the former king restored. In fact, it appears, by a retrospect of the history of kings, that when a legitimate hereditary sovereign or dynasty is deposed and expelled by a rebellious population, no matter how intolerable may have been the tyranny, or how atrocious the crimes by which the patience of the subject was exhausted, the lapse of a very few years is ordinarily sufficient to produce a very general readiness to acquiesce in a restoration; and in this particular instance there had been no such superiority in the government of Berenice, during the period while her power continued, over that of her father, which she had displaced, as to make this case an exception to the general rule. The mass of the people, therefore—all those, especially, who had taken no active part in Berenice's government—were ready to welcome Ptolemy back to his capital. Those who had taken such a part were all summarily executed by Ptolemy's orders.

There was, of course, a great excitement throughout the city on the arrival of the Roman army. All the foreign influence and power which had been exercised in Egypt thus far, and almost all the officers, whether civil or military, had been Greek. The coming of the Romans was the introduction of a new element of interest to add to the endless variety of excitements which animated the capital.

The restoration of Ptolemy was celebrated with games, spectacles, and festivities of every kind, and, of course, next to the king himself, the chief center of interest and attraction in all these public rejoicings would be the distinguished foreign generals by whose instrumentality the end had been gained.

Mark Antony was a special object of public regard and admiration at the time. His eccentric manners, his frank and honest air, his Roman simplicity of dress and demeanor, made him conspicuous; and his interposition to save the lives of the captured garrison of Pelusium, and the interest which he took in rendering such distinguished funeral honors to the enemy whom his army had slain in battle, impressed the people with the idea of a certain nobleness and magnanimity in his character, which, in spite of his faults, made him an object of general admiration and applause. The very faults of such a man assume often, in the eyes of the world, the guise and semblance of virtues. For example, it is related of Antony that, at one time in the course of his life, having a desire to make a present of some kind to a certain person, in requital for a favor which he had received from him, he ordered his treasurer to send a sum of money to his friend—and named for the sum to be sent an amount considerably greater than was really required under the circumstances of the case—acting thus, as he often did, under the influence of a blind and uncalculating generosity. The treasurer, more prudent than his master, wished to reduce the amount, but he did not dare directly to propose a reduction; so he counted out the money, and laid it in a pile in a place where Antony was to pass, thinking that when Antony saw the amount, he would perceive that it was too great. Antony, in passing by, asked what money that was. The treasurer said that it was the sum that he had ordered to be sent as a present to such a person, naming the individual intended. Antony was quick to perceive the object of the treasurer's maneuver. He immediately replied, "Ah! is that all? I thought the sum I named would make a better appearance than that; send him double the amount."

To determine, under such circumstances as these, to double an extravagance merely for the purpose of thwarting the honest attempt of a faithful servant to diminish it, made, too, in so cautious and delicate a way, is most certainly a fault. But it is one of those faults for which the world, in all ages, will persist in admiring and praising the perpetrator.

In a word, Antony became the object of general attention and favor during his continuance at Alexandria. Whether he particularly attracted Cleopatra's attention at this time or not does not appear. She, however, strongly attracted his. He admired her blooming beauty, her sprightliness and wit, and her various accomplishments. She was still, however, so young—being but fifteen years of age, while Antony was nearly thirty—that she probably made no very serious impression upon him. A short time after this, Antony went back to Rome, and did not see Cleopatra again for many years.

When the two Roman generals went away from Alexandria, they left a considerable portion of the army behind them, under Ptolemy's command, to aid him in keeping possession of his throne. Antony returned to Rome. He had acquired great renown by his march across the desert, and by the successful accomplishment of the invasion of Egypt and the restoration of Ptolemy. His funds, too, were replenished by the vast sums paid to him and to Gabinius by Ptolemy. The amount which Ptolemy is said to have agreed to pay as the price of his restoration was two thousand talents—equal to ten millions of dollars—a sum which shows on how great a scale the operations of this celebrated campaign were conducted. Ptolemy raised a large portion of the money required for his payments by confiscating the estates belonging to those friends of Berenice's government whom he ordered to be slain. It was said, in fact, that the numbers were very much increased of those that were condemned to die, by Ptolemy's standing in such urgent need of their property to meet his obligations.

Antony, through the results of this campaign, found himself suddenly raised from the position of a disgraced and homeless fugitive to that of one of the most wealthy and renowned, and, consequently, one of the most powerful personages in Rome. The great civil war broke out about this time between Csar and Pompey. Antony espoused the cause of Csar.

In the mean time, while the civil war between Csar and Pompey was raging, Ptolemy succeeded in maintaining his seat on the throne, by the aid of the Roman soldiers whom Antony and Gabinius had left him, for about three years. When he found himself drawing toward the close of life, the question arose to his mind to whom he should leave his kingdom. Cleopatra was the oldest child, and she was a princess of great promise, both in respect to mental endowments and personal charms. Her brothers were considerably younger than she. The claim of a son, though younger, seemed to be naturally stronger than that of a daughter; but the commanding talents and rising influence of Cleopatra appeared to make it doubtful whether it would be safe to pass her by. The father settled the question in the way in which such difficulties were usually surmounted in the Ptolemy family. He ordained that Cleopatra should marry the oldest of her brothers, and that they two should jointly occupy the throne. Adhering also, still, to the idea of the alliance of Egypt with Rome, which had been the leading principle of the whole policy of his reign, he solemnly committed the execution of his will and the guardianship of his children, by a provision of the instrument itself, to the Roman senate. The senate accepted the appointment, and appointed Pompey as the agent, on their part, to perform the duties of the trust. The attention of Pompey was, immediately after that time, too much engrossed by the civil war waged between himself and Csar, to take any active steps in respect to the duties of his appointment. It seemed, however, that none were necessary, for all parties in Alexandria appeared disposed, after the death of the king, to acquiesce in the arrangements which he had made, and to join in carrying them into effect. Cleopatra was married to her brother—yet, it is true, only a boy. He was about ten years old. She was herself about eighteen. They were both too young to govern; they could only reign. The affairs of the kingdom were, accordingly, conducted by two ministers whom their father had designated. These ministers were Pothinus, a eunuch, who was a sort of secretary of state, and Achillas, the commander-in-chief of the armies.

Thus, though Cleopatra, by these events, became nominally a queen, her real accession to the throne was not yet accomplished. There we still many difficulties and dangers to be passed through, before the period arrived when she became really a sovereign. She did not, herself, make any immediate attempt to hasten this period, but seems to have acquiesced, on the other hand, very quietly, for a time, in the arrangements which her father had made.

Pothinus was a eunuch. He had been, for a long time, an officer of government under Ptolemy, the father. He was a proud, ambitious, and domineering man, determined to rule, and very unscrupulous in respect to the means which he adopted to accomplish his ends. He had been accustomed to regard Cleopatra as a mere child. Now that she was queen, he was very unwilling that the real power should pass into her hands. The jealousy and ill will which he felt toward her increased rapidly as he found, in the course of the first two or three years after her father's death, that she was advancing rapidly in strength of character, and in the influence and ascendency which she was acquiring over all around her. Her beauty, her accomplishments, and a certain indescribable charm which pervaded all her demeanor, combined to give her great personal power. But, while these things awakened in other minds feelings of interest in Cleopatra and attachment to her, they only increased the jealousy and envy of Pothinus. Cleopatra was becoming his rival. He endeavored to thwart and circumvent her. He acted toward her in a haughty and overbearing manner, in order to keep her down to what he considered her proper place as his ward; for he was yet the guardian both of Cleopatra and her husband, and the regent of the realm.

Cleopatra had a great deal of what is sometimes called spirit, and her resentment was aroused by this treatment. Pothinus took pains to enlist her young husband, Ptolemy, on his side, as the quarrel advanced. Ptolemy was younger, and of a character much less marked and decided than Cleopatra, Pothinus saw that he could maintain control over him much more easily and for a much longer time than over Cleopatra. He contrived to awaken the young Ptolemy's jealousy of his wife's rising influence, and to induce him to join in efforts to thwart and counteract it. These attempts to turn her husband against her only aroused Cleopatra's resentment the more. Hers was not a spirit to be coerced. The palace was filled with the dissensions of the rivals. Pothinus and Ptolemy began to take measures for securing the army on their side. An open rupture finally ensued, and Cleopatra was expelled from the kingdom.

She went to Syria. Syria was the nearest place of refuge, and then, besides, it was the country from which the aid had been furnished by which her father had been restored to the throne when he had been expelled, in a similar manner, many years before. Her father, it is true, had gone first to Rome; but the succors which he had negotiated for had been sent from Syria. Cleopatra hoped to obtain the same assistance by going directly there.

Nor was she disappointed. She obtained an army, and commenced her march toward Egypt, following the same track which Antony and Gabinius had pursued in coming to reinstate her father. Pothinus raised an army and went forth to meet her. He took Achillas as the commander of the troops, and the young Ptolemy as the nominal sovereign; while he, as the young king's guardian and prime minister, exercised the real power. The troops of Pothinus advanced to Pelusium. Here they met the forces of Cleopatra coming from the east. The armies encamped not very far from each other, and both sides began to prepare for battle.

The battle, however, was not fought. It was prevented by the occurrence of certain great and unforeseen events which at this crisis suddenly burst upon the scene of Egyptian history, and turned the whole current of affairs into new and unexpected channels. The breaking out of the civil war between the great Roman generals Csar and Pompey, and their respective partisans, has already been mentioned as having occurred soon after the death of Cleopatra's father, and as having prevented Pompey from undertaking the office of executor of the will. This war had been raging ever since that time with terrible fury. Its distant thundering had been heard even in Egypt, but it was too remote to awaken there any special alarm. The immense armies of these two mighty conquerors had moved slowly—like two ferocious birds of prey, flying through the air, and fighting as they fly—across Italy into Greece, and from Greece, through Macedon, into Thessaly, contending in dreadful struggles with each other as they advanced, and trampling down and destroying every thing in their way. At length a great final battle had been fought at Pharsalia. Pompey had been totally defeated. He had fled to the sea-shore, and there, with a few ships and a small number of followers, he had pushed out upon the Mediterranean, not knowing whither to fly, and overwhelmed with wretchedness and despair. Csar followed him in eager pursuit. He had a small fleet of galleys with him, on board of which he had embarked two or three thousand men. This was a force suitable, perhaps, for the pursuit of a fugitive, but wholly insufficient for any other design.

Pompey thought of Ptolemy. He remembered the efforts which he himself had made for the cause of Ptolemy Auletes, at Rome, and the success of those efforts in securing that monarch's restoration—an event through which alone the young Ptolemy had been enabled to attain the crown. He came, therefore, to Pelusium, and, anchoring his little fleet off the shore, sent to the land to ask Ptolemy to receive and protect him. Pothinus, who was really the commander in Ptolemy's army, made answer to this application that Pompey should be received and protected, and that he would send out a boat to bring him to the shore. Pompey felt some misgivings in respect to this proffered hospitality, but he finally concluded to go to the shore in the boat which Pothinus sent for him. As soon as he landed, the Egyptians, by Pothinus's orders, stabbed and beheaded him on the sand. Pothinus and his council had decided that this would be the safest course. If they were to receive Pompey, they reasoned, Csar would be made their enemy; if they refused to receive him, Pompey himself would be offended, and they did not know which of the two it would be safe to displease; for they did not know in what way, if both the generals were to be allowed to live, the war would ultimately end. "But by killing Pompey," they said, "we shall be sure to please Csar, and Pompey himself will lie still."

In the mean time, Csar, not knowing to what part of Egypt Pompey had fled, pressed on directly to Alexandria. He exposed himself to great danger in so doing, for the forces under his command were not sufficient to protect him in case of his becoming involved in difficulties with the authorities there. Nor could he, when once arrived on the Egyptian coast, easily go away again; for, at the season of the year in which these events occurred, there was a periodical wind which blew steadily toward that part of the coast, and, while it made it very easy for a fleet of ships to go to Alexandria, rendered it almost impossible for them to return.

Csar was very little accustomed to shrink from danger in any of his enterprises and plans, though still he was usually prudent and circumspect. In this instance, however, his ardent interest in the pursuit of Pompey overruled all considerations of personal safety. He arrived at Alexandria, but he found that Pompey was not there. He anchored his vessels in the port, landed his troops, and established himself in the city. These two events, the assassination of one of the great Roman generals on the eastern extremity of the coast, and the arrival of the other, at the same moment, at Alexandria, on the western, burst suddenly upon Egypt together, like simultaneous claps of thunder. The tidings struck the whole country with astonishment, and immediately engrossed universal attention. At the camps both of Cleopatra and Ptolemy, at Pelusium, all was excitement and wonder. Instead of thinking of a battle, both parties were wholly occupied in speculating on the results which were likely to accrue, to one side or to the other, under the totally new and unexpected aspect which public affairs had assumed.

Of course the thoughts of all were turned toward Alexandria. Pothinus immediately proceeded to the city, taking with him the young king. Achillas, too, either accompanied them, or followed soon afterward. They carried with them the head of Pompey, which they had cut off on the shore where they had killed him, and also a seal which they took from his finger. When they arrived at Alexandria, they sent the head, wrapped up in a cloth, and also the seal, as presents to Csar. Accustomed as they were to the brutal deeds and heartless cruelties of the Ptolemies, they supposed that Csar would exult at the spectacle of the dissevered and ghastly head of his great rival and enemy. Instead of this, he was shocked and displeased, and ordered the head to be buried with the most solemn and imposing funeral ceremonies. He, however, accepted and kept the seal. The device engraved upon it was a lion holding a sword in his paw—a fit emblem of the characters of the men, who, though in many respects magnanimous and just, had filled the whole world with the terror of their quarrels.

The army of Ptolemy, while he himself and his immediate counselors went to Alexandria, was left at Pelusium, under the command of other officers, to watch Cleopatra. Cleopatra herself would have been pleased, also, to repair to Alexandria and appeal to Csar, if it had been in her power to do so; but she was beyond the confines of the country, with a powerful army of her enemies ready to intercept her on any attempt to enter or pass through it. She remained, therefore, at Pelusium, uncertain what to do.

In the mean time, Csar soon found himself in a somewhat embarrassing situation at Alexandria. He had been accustomed, for many years, to the possession and the exercise of the most absolute and despotic power, wherever he might be; and now that Pompey, his great rival, was dead, he considered himself the monarch and master of the world. He had not, however, at Alexandria, any means sufficient to maintain and enforce such pretensions, and yet he was not of a spirit to abate, on that account, in the slightest degree, the advancing of them. He established himself in the palaces of Alexandria as if he were himself the king. He moved, in state, through the streets of the city, at the head of his guards, and displaying the customary emblems of supreme authority used at Rome. He claimed the six thousand talents which Ptolemy Auletes had formerly promised him for procuring a treaty of alliance with Rome, and he called upon Pothinus to pay the balance due. He said, moreover, that by the will of Auletes the Roman people had been made the executor; and that it devolved upon him as the Roman consul, and, consequently, the representative of the Roman people, to assume that trust, and in the discharge of it to settle the dispute between Ptolemy and Cleopatra; and he called upon Ptolemy to prepare and lay before him a statement of his claims, and the grounds on which he maintained his right to the throne to the exclusion of Cleopatra.

On the other hand, Pothinus, who had been as little accustomed to acknowledge a superior as Csar, though his supremacy and domination had been exercised on a somewhat humbler scale, was obstinate and pertinacious in resisting all these demands, though the means and methods which he resorted to were of a character corresponding to his weak and ignoble mind. He fomented quarrels in the streets between the Alexandrian populace and Csar's soldiers. He thought that, as the number of troops under Csar's command in the city, and of vessels in the port, was small, he could tease and worry the Romans with impunity, though he had not the courage openly to attack them. He pretended to be a friend, or, at least, not an enemy, and yet he conducted toward them in an overbearing and insolent manner. He had agreed to make arrangements for supplying them with food, and he did this by procuring damaged provisions of a most wretched quality; and when the soldiers remonstrated, he said to them, that they who lived at other people's cost had no right to complain of their fare. He caused wooden and earthen vessels to be used in the palace, and said, in explanation, that he had been compelled to sell all the gold and silver plate of the royal household to meet the exactions of Csar. He busied himself, too, about the city, in endeavoring to excite odium against Csar's proposal to hear and decide the question at issue between Cleopatra and Ptolemy. Ptolemy was a sovereign, he said, and was not amenable to any foreign power whatever. Thus, without the courage or the energy to attempt any open, manly, and effectual system of hostility, he contented himself with making all the difficulty in his power, by urging an incessant pressure of petty, vexatious, and provoking, but useless annoyances. Csar's demands may have been unjust, but they were bold, manly, and undisguised. The eunuch may have been right in resisting them; but the mode was so mean and contemptible, that mankind have always taken part with Csar in the sentiments which they have formed as spectators of the contest.

With the very small force which Csar had at his command, and shut up as he was in the midst of a very great and powerful city, in which both the garrison and the population were growing more and more hostile to him every day, he soon found his situation was beginning to be attended with very serious danger. He could not retire from the scene. He probably would not have retired if he could have done so. He remained, therefore, in the city, conducting all the time with prudence and circumspection, but yet maintaining, as at first, the same air of confident self-possession and superiority which always characterized his demeanor. He, however, dispatched a messenger forthwith into Syria, the nearest country under the Roman sway, with orders that several legions which were posted there should be embarked and forwarded to Alexandria with the utmost possible celerity.