Cleopatra - Jacob Abbott

Cleopatra's Father

When the time was approaching in which Cleopatra appeared upon the stage, Rome was perhaps the only city that could be considered as the rival of Alexandria, in the estimation of mankind, in respect to interest and attractiveness as a capital. In one respect, Rome was vastly superior to the Egyptian metropolis, and that was in the magnitude and extent of the military power which it wielded among the nations of the earth. Alexandria ruled over Egypt, and over a few of the neighboring coasts and islands; but in the course of the three centuries during which she had been acquiring her greatness and fame, the Roman empire had extended itself over almost the whole civilized world. Egypt had been, thus far, too remote to be directly reached; but the affairs of Egypt itself became involved at length with the operations of the Roman power, about the time of Cleopatra's birth, in a very striking and peculiar manner; and as the consequences of the transaction were the means of turning the whole course of the queen's subsequent history, a narration of it is necessary to a proper understanding of the circumstances under which she commenced her career. In fact, it was the extension of the Roman empire to the limits of Egypt, and the connections which thence arose between the leading Roman generals and the Egyptian sovereign, which have made the story of this particular queen so much more conspicuous, as an object of interest and attention to mankind, than that of any other one of the ten Cleopatras who rose successively in the same royal line.

Ptolemy Auletes, Cleopatra's father, was perhaps, in personal character, the most dissipated, degraded, and corrupt of all the sovereigns in the dynasty. He spent his whole time in vice and debauchery. The only honest accomplishment that he seemed to possess was his skill in playing upon the flute; of this he was very vain. He instituted musical contests, in which the musical performers of Alexandria played for prizes and crowns; and he himself was accustomed to enter the lists with the rest as a competitor. The people of Alexandria, and the world in general, considered such pursuits as these wholly unworthy the attention of the representative of so illustrious a line of sovereigns and the abhorrence which they felt for the monarch's vices and crimes was mingled with a feeling of contempt for the meanness of his ambition.

There was a doubt in respect to his title to the crown, for his birth, on the mother's side, was irregular and ignoble. Instead, however, of attempting to confirm and secure his possession of power by a vigorous and prosperous administration of the government, he wholly abandoned all concern in respect to the course of public affairs; and then, to guard against the danger of being deposed, he conceived the plan of getting himself recognized at Rome as one of the allies of the Roman people. If this were once done, he supposed that the Roman government would feel under an obligation to sustain him on his throne in the event of any threatened danger.

The Roman government was a sort of republic, and the two most powerful men in the state at this time were Pompey and Csar. Csar was in the ascendency at Rome at the time that Ptolemy made his application for an alliance. Pompey was absent in Asia Minor, being engaged in prosecuting a war with Mithradates, a very powerful monarch, who was at that time resisting the Roman power. Csar was very deeply involved in debt, and was, moreover, very much in need of money, not only for relief from existing embarrassments, but as a means of subsequent expenditure, to enable him to accomplish certain great political schemes which he was entertaining. After many negotiations and delays, it was agreed that Csar would exert his influence to secure an alliance between the Roman people and Ptolemy, on condition that Ptolemy paid him the sum of six thousand talents, equal to about six millions of dollars. A part of the money, Csar said, was for Pompey.

The title of ally was conferred, and Ptolemy undertook to raise the money which he had promised by increasing the taxes of his kingdom. The measures, however, which he thus adopted for the purpose of making himself the more secure in his possession of the throne, proved to be the means of overthrowing him. The discontent and disaffection of his people, which had been strong and universal before, though suppressed and concealed, broke out now into open violence. That there should be laid upon them, in addition to all their other burdens, these new oppressions, heavier than those which they had endured before, and exacted for such a purpose too, was not to be endured. To be compelled to see their country sold on any terms to the Roman people was sufficiently hard to bear; but to be forced to raise, themselves, and pay the price of the transfer, was absolutely intolerable. Alexandria commenced a revolt. Ptolemy was not a man to act decidedly against such a demonstration, or, in fact, to evince either calmness or courage in any emergency whatever. His first thought was to escape from Alexandria to save his life. His second, to make the best of his way to Rome, to call upon the Roman people to come to the succor of their ally!

Ptolemy left five children behind him in his flight. The eldest was the Princess Berenice, who had already reached maturity. The second was the great Cleopatra, the subject of this history. Cleopatra was, at this time, about eleven years old. There were also two sons, but they were very young. One of them was named Ptolemy.

The Alexandrians determined on raising Berenice to the throne in her father's place, as soon as his flight was known. They thought that the sons were too young to attempt to reign in such an emergency, as it was very probable that Auletes, the father, would attempt to recover his kingdom. Berenice very readily accepted the honor and power which were offered to her. She established herself in her father's palace, and began her reign in great magnificence and splendor. In process of time she thought that her position would be strengthened by a marriage with a royal prince from some neighboring realm. She first sent embassadors to make proposals to a prince of Syria named Antiochus. The embassadors came back, bringing word that Antiochus was dead, but that he had a brother named Seleucus, upon whom the succession fell. Berenice then sent them back to make the same offers to him. He accepted the proposals, came to Egypt, and he and Berenice were married. After trying him for a while, Berenice found that, for some reason or other, she did not like him as a husband, and, accordingly, she caused him to be strangled.

At length, after various other intrigues and much secret management, Berenice succeeded in a second negotiation, and married a prince, or a pretended prince, from some country of Asia Minor, whose name was Archelaus. She was better pleased with this second husband than she had been with the first, and she began, at last, to feel somewhat settled and established on her throne, and to be prepared, as she thought, to offer effectual resistance to her father in case he should ever attempt to return.

It was in the midst of the scenes, and surrounded by the influences which might be expected to prevail in the families of such a father and such a sister, that Cleopatra spent those years of life in which the character is formed. During all these revolutions, and exposed to all these exhibitions of licentious wickedness, and of unnatural cruelty and crime, she was growing up in the royal palaces a spirited and beautiful, but indulged and neglected child.

In the mean time, Auletes, the father, went on toward Rome. So far as his character and his story were known among the surrounding nations, he was the object of universal obloquy, both on account of his previous career of degrading vice, and now, still more, for this ignoble flight from the difficulties in which his vices and crimes had involved him.

He stopped, on the way, at the island of Rhodes. It happened that Cato, the great Roman philosopher and general, was at Rhodes at this time. Cato was a man of stern, unbending virtue, and of great influence at that period in public affairs. Ptolemy sent a messenger to inform Cato of his arrival, supposing, of course, that the Roman general would hasten, on hearing of the fact, to pay his respects to so great a personage as he, a king of Egypt—a Ptolemy—though suffering under a temporary reverse of fortune. Cato directed the messenger to reply that, so far as he was aware, he had no particular business with Ptolemy. "Say, however, to the king," he added, "that if he has any business with me, he may call and see me, if he pleases."

Ptolemy was obliged to suppress his resentment and submit. He thought it very essential to the success of his plans that he should see Cato, and secure, if possible, his interest and co-operation; and he consequently made preparations for paying, instead of receiving, the visit, intending to go in the greatest royal state that he could command. He accordingly appeared at Cato's lodgings on the following day, magnificently dressed, and accompanied by many attendants. Cato, who was dressed in the plainest and most simple manner, and whose apartment was furnished in a style corresponding with the severity of his character, did not even rise when the king entered the room. He simply pointed with his hand, and bade the visitor take a seat.

Ptolemy began to make a statement of his case, with a view to obtaining Cato's influence with the Roman people to induce them to interpose in his behalf. Cato, however, far from evincing any disposition to espouse his visitor's cause, censured him, in the plainest terms, for having abandoned his proper position in his own kingdom, to go and make himself a victim and a prey for the insatiable avarice of the Roman leaders. "You can do nothing at Rome," he said, "but by the influence of bribes; and all the resources of Egypt will not be enough to satisfy the Roman greediness for money." He concluded by recommending him to go back to Alexandria, and rely for his hopes of extrication from the difficulties which surrounded him on the exercise of his own energy and resolution there.

Ptolemy was greatly abashed at this rebuff, but, on consultation with his attendants and followers, it was decided to be too late now to return. The whole party accordingly re-embarked on board their galleys, and pursued their way to Rome.

Ptolemy found, on his arrival at the city, that Csar was absent in Gaul, while Pompey, on the other hand, who had returned victorious from his campaigns against Mithradates, was now the great leader of influence and power at the Capitol. This change of circumstances was not, however, particularly unfavorable; for Ptolemy was on friendly terms with Pompey, as he had been with Csar. He had assisted him in his wars with Mithradates by sending him a squadron of horse, in pursuance of his policy of cultivating friendly relations with the Roman people by every means in his power. Besides, Pompey had received a part of the money which Ptolemy had paid to Csar as the price of the Roman alliance, and was to receive his share of the rest in case Ptolemy should ever be restored. Pompey was accordingly interested in favoring the royal fugitive's cause. He received him in his palace, entertained him in magnificent style, and took immediate measures for bringing his cause before the Roman senate, urging upon that body the adoption of immediate and vigorous measures for effecting his restoration, as an ally whom they were bound to protect against his rebellious subjects.

There was at first some opposition in the Roman senate against espousing the cause of such a man, but it was soon put down, being overpowered in part by Pompey's authority, and in part silenced by Ptolemy's promises and bribes. The senate determined to restore the king to his throne, and began to make arrangements for carrying the measure into effect.

The Roman provinces nearest to Egypt were Cilicia and Syria, countries situated on the eastern and northeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of Judea. The forces stationed in these provinces would be, of course, the most convenient for furnishing the necessary troops for the expedition. The province of Cilicia was under the command of the consul Lentulus. Lentulus was at this time at Rome; he had repaired to the capital for some temporary purpose, leaving his province and the troops stationed there under the command, for the time, of a sort of lieutenant general named Gabinius. It was concluded that this Lentulus, with his Syrian forces, should undertake the task of reinstating Ptolemy on his throne.

While these plans and arrangements were yet immature, a circumstance occurred which threatened, for a time, wholly to defeat them. It seems that when Cleopatra's father first left Egypt, he had caused a report to be circulated there that he had been killed in the revolt. The object of this stratagem was to cover and conceal his flight. The government of Berenice soon discovered the truth, and learned that the fugitive had gone in the direction of Rome. They immediately inferred that he was going to appeal to the Roman people for aid, and they determined that, if that were the case, the Roman people, before deciding in his favor, should have the opportunity to hear their side of the story as well as his. They accordingly made preparations at once for sending a very imposing embassage to Rome. The deputation consisted of more than a hundred persons. The object of Berenice's government in sending so large a number was not only to evince their respect for the Roman people, and their sense of the magnitude of the question at issue, but also to guard against any efforts that Ptolemy might make to intercept the embassage on the way, or to buy off the members of it by bribes. The number, however, large as it was, proved insufficient to accomplish this purpose. The whole Roman world was at this time in such a condition of disorder and violence, in the hands of the desperate and reckless military leaders who then bore sway, that there were every where abundant facilities for the commission of any conceivable crime. Ptolemy contrived, with the assistance of' the fierce partisans who had espoused his cause, and who were deeply interested in his success on account of the rewards which were promised them, to waylay and destroy a large proportion of this company before they reached Rome. Some were assassinated; some were poisoned; some were tampered with and bought off by bribes. A small remnant reached Rome; but they were so intimidated by the dangers which surrounded them, that they did not dare to take any public action in respect to the business which had been committed to their charge. Ptolemy began to congratulate himself on having completely circumvented his daughter in her efforts to protect herself against his designs.

Instead of that, however, it soon proved that the effect of this atrocious treachery was exactly the contrary of what its perpetrators had expected. The knowledge of the facts became gradually extended among the people of Rome, and it awakened a universal indignation. The party who had been originally opposed to Ptolemy's cause seized the opportunity to renew their opposition; and they gained so much strength from the general odium which Ptolemy's crimes had awakened, that Pompey found it almost impossible to sustain his cause.

At length the party opposed to Ptolemy found, or pretended to find, in certain sacred books, called the Sibylline Oracles, which were kept in the custody of the priests, and were supposed to contain prophetic intimations of the will of Heaven in respect to the conduct of public affairs, the following passage:

"If a king of Egypt should apply to you for aid, treat him in a friendly manner, but do not furnish him with troops; for if you do, you will incur great danger."

This made new difficulty for Ptolemy's friends. They attempted, at first, to evade this inspired injunction by denying the reality of it. There was no such passage to be found, they said. It was all an invention of their enemies. This point seems to have been overruled, and then they attempted to give the passage some other than the obvious interpretation. Finally they maintained that, although it prohibited their furnishing Ptolemy himself with troops, it did not forbid their sending an armed force into Egypt under leaders of their own. That  they could certainly do; and then, when the rebellion was suppressed, and Berenice's government overthrown, they could invite Ptolemy to return to his kingdom and resume his crown in a peaceful manner. This, they alleged, would not be "furnishing him with troops," and, of course, would not be disobeying the oracle.

These attempts to evade the direction of the oracle on the part of Ptolemy's friends, only made the debates and dissensions between them and his enemies more violent than ever. Pompey made every effort in his power to aid Ptolemy's cause; but Lentulus, after long hesitation and delay, decided that it would not be safe for him to embark in it. At length, however, Gabinius, the lieutenant who commanded in Syria, was induced to undertake the enterprise on certain promises which he received from Ptolemy, to be performed in case he succeeded, and with a certain encouragement, not very legal or regular, which Pompey gave him, in respect to the employment of the Roman troops under his command, he resolved to march to Egypt. His route, of course, would lay along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and through the desert, to Pelusium, which has already been mentioned as the frontier town on this side of Egypt. From Pelusium he was to march through the heart of the Delta to Alexandria, and, if successful in his invasion, overthrow the government of Berenice and Archelaus, and then, inviting Ptolemy to return, reinstate him on the throne.

In the prosecution of this dangerous enterprise, Gabinius relied strongly on the assistance of a very remarkable man, then his second in command, who afterward acted a very important part in the subsequent history of Cleopatra. His name was Mark Antony. Antony was born in Rome, of a very distinguished family, but his father died when he was very young, and being left subsequently much to himself, he became a very wild and dissolute young man. He wasted the property which his Father had left him in folly and vice; and then going on desperately in the same career, he soon incurred enormous debts, and involved himself, in consequence, in inextricable difficulties. His creditors continually harassed him with importunities for money, and with suits at law to compel payments which he had no means of making. He was likewise incessantly pursued by the hostility of the many enemies that he had made in the city by his violence and his crimes. At length he absconded, and went to Greece.

Here Gabinius, when on his way to Syria, met him, and invited him to join his army rather than to remain where he was in idleness and destitution. Antony, who was as proud and lofty in spirit as he was degraded in morals and condition, refused to do this unless Gabinius would give him a command. Gabinius saw in the daring and reckless energy which Antony manifested the indications of the class of qualities which in those days made a successful soldier, and acceded to his terms. He gave him the command of his cavalry. Antony distinguished himself in the Syrian campaigns that followed, and was now full of eagerness to engage in this Egyptian enterprise. In fact, it was mainly his zeal and enthusiasm to embark in the undertaking which was the means of deciding Gabinius to consent to Ptolemy's proposals.

The danger and difficulty which they considered as most to be apprehended in the whole expedition was the getting across the desert to Pelusium. In fact, the great protection of Egypt had always been her isolation. The trackless and desolate sands, being wholly destitute of water, and utterly void, could be traversed, even by a caravan of peaceful travelers, only with great difficulty and danger. For an army to attempt to cross them, exposed, as the troops would necessarily be, to the assaults of enemies who might advance to meet them on the way, and sure of encountering a terrible opposition from fresh and vigorous bands when they should arrive—wayworn and exhausted by the physical hardships of the way—at the borders of the inhabited country, was a desperate undertaking. Many instances occurred in ancient times in which vast bodies of troops, in attempting marches over the deserts by which Egypt was surrounded, were wholly destroyed by famine or thirst, or overwhelmed by storms of sand.

These difficulties and dangers, however, did not at all intimidate Mark Antony. The anticipation, in fact, of the glory of surmounting them was one of the main inducements which led him to embark in the enterprise. The perils of the desert constituted one of the charms which made the expedition so attractive. He placed himself, therefore, at the head of his troop of cavalry, and set off across the sands in advance of Gabinius, to take Pelusium, in order thus to open a way for the main body of the army into Egypt. Ptolemy accompanied Antony. Gabinius was to follow.

With all his faults, to call them by no severer name, Mark Antony possessed certain great excellences of character. He was ardent, but then he was cool, collected, and sagacious; and there was a certain frank and manly generosity continually evincing itself in his conduct and character which made him a great favorite among his men. He was at this time about twenty-eight years old, of a tall and manly form, and of an expressive and intellectual cast of countenance. His forehead was high, his nose aquiline, and his eyes full of vivacity and life. He was accustomed to dress in a very plain and careless manner, and he assumed an air of the utmost familiarity and freedom in his intercourse with his soldiers. He would join them in their sports, joke with them, and good-naturedly receive their jokes in return; and take his meals, standing with them around their rude tables, in the open field. Such habits of intercourse with his men in a commander of ordinary character would have been fatal to his ascendency over them; but in Mark Antony's case, these frank and familiar manners seemed only to make the military genius and the intellectual power which he possessed the more conspicuous and the more universally admired.

Mark Antony


Antony conducted his troop of horsemen across the desert in a very safe and speedy manner, and arrived before Pelusium. The city was not prepared to resist him. It surrendered at once, and the whole garrison fell into his hands as prisoners of war. Ptolemy demanded that they should all be immediately killed. They were rebels, he said, and, as such, ought to be put to death. Antony, however, as might have been expected from his character, absolutely refused to allow of any such barbarity. Ptolemy, since the power was not yet in his hands, was compelled to submit, and to postpone gratifying the spirit of vengeance which had so long been slumbering in his breast to a future day. He could the more patiently submit to this necessity, since it appeared that the day of his complete and final triumph over his daughter and all her adherents was now very nigh at hand.

In fact, Berenice and her government, when they heard of the arrival of Antony and Ptolemy at Pelusium, of the fall of that city, and of the approach of Gabinius with an overwhelming force of Roman soldiers, were struck with dismay. Archelaus, the husband of Berenice, had been, in former years, a personal friend of Antony's. Antony considered, in fact, that they were friends still, though required by what the historian calls their duty to fight each other for the possession of the kingdom. The government of Berenice raised an army. Archelaus took command of it, and advanced to meet the enemy. In the mean time, Gabinius arrived with the main body of the Roman troops, and commenced his march, in conjunction with Antony, toward the capital. As they were obliged to make a circuit to the southward, in order to avoid the inlets and lagoons which, on the northern coast of Egypt, penetrate for some distance into the land, their course led them through the heart of the Delta. Many battles were fought, the Romans every where gaining the victory. The Egyptian soldiers were, in fact, discontented and mutinous, perhaps, in part, because they considered the government on the side of which they were compelled to engage as, after all, a usurpation. At length a great final battle was fought, which settled the controversy. Archelaus was slain upon the field, and Berenice was taken prisoner; their government was wholly overthrown, and the way was opened for the march of the Roman armies to Alexandria.

Mark Antony, when judged by our standards, was certainly, as well as Ptolemy, a depraved and vicious man; but his depravity was of a very different type from that of Cleopatra's father. The difference in the men, in one respect, was very clearly evinced by the objects toward which their interest and attention were respectively turned after this great battle. While the contest had been going on, the king and queen of Egypt, Archelaus and Berenice, were, of course, in the view both of Antony and Ptolemy, the two most conspicuous personages in the army of their enemies; and while Antony would naturally watch with the greatest interest the fate of his friend, the king, Ptolemy, would as naturally follow with the highest concern the destiny of his daughter. Accordingly, when the battle was over, while the mind of Ptolemy might, as we should naturally expect, be chiefly occupied by the fact that his daughter  was made a captive, Antony's, we might suppose, would be engrossed by the tidings that his friend  had been slain.

The one rejoiced and the other mourned. Antony sought for the body of his friend on the field of battle, and when it was found, he gave himself wholly to the work of providing for it a most magnificent burial. He seemed, at the funeral, to lament the death of his ancient comrade with real and unaffected grief. Ptolemy, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with joy at finding his daughter his captive. The long-wished-for hour for the gratification of his revenge had come at last, and the first use which he made of his power when he was put in possession of it at Alexandria was to order his daughter to be beheaded.