Cleopatra - Jacob Abbott

The Ptolemies

The founder of the dynasty of the Ptolemies—the ruler into whose hands the kingdom of Egypt fell, as has already been stated, at the death of Alexander the Great—was a Macedonian general in Alexander's army. The circumstances of his birth, and the events which led to his entering into the service of Alexander, were somewhat peculiar. His mother, whose name was ArsinoŰ, was a personal favorite and companion of Philip, king of Macedon, the father of Alexander. Philip at length gave ArsinoŰ marriage to a certain man of his court named Lagus. A very short time after the marriage, Ptolemy was born. Philip treated the child with the same consideration and favor that he had evinced toward the mother. The boy was called the son of Lagus, but his position in the royal court of Macedon was as high and honorable, and the attentions which he received were as great, as he could have expected to enjoy if he had been in reality a son of the king. As he grew up, he attained to official stations of considerable responsibility and power.

In the course of time, a certain transaction occurred, by means of which Ptolemy involved himself in serious difficulty with Philip, though by the same means he made Alexander very strongly his friend. There was a province of the Persian empire called Caria, situated in the southwestern part of Asia Minor. The governor of this province had offered his daughter to Philip as the wife of one of his sons named AridŠus, the half brother of Alexander. Alexander's mother, who was not the mother of AridŠus, was jealous of this proposed marriage. She thought that it was part of a scheme for bringing AridŠus forward into public notice, and finally making him the heir to Philip's throne; whereas she was very earnest that this splendid inheritance should be reserved for her own son. Accordingly, she proposed to Alexander that they should send a secret embassage to the Persian governor, and represent to him that it would be much better, both for him and for his daughter, that she should have Alexander instead of AridŠus for a husband, and induce him, if possible, to demand of Philip that he should make the change.

Alexander entered readily into this scheme, and various courtiers, Ptolemy among the rest, undertook to aid him in the accomplishment of it. The embassy was sent. The governor of Caria was very much pleased with the change which they proposed to him. In fact, the whole plan seemed to be going on very successfully toward its accomplishment, when, by some means or other, Philip discovered the intrigue. He went immediately into Alexander's apartment, highly excited with resentment and anger. He had never intended to make AridŠus, whose birth on the mother's side was obscure and ignoble, the heir to his throne, and he reproached Alexander in the bitterest terms for being of so debased and degenerate a spirit as to desire to marry the daughter of a Persian governor; a man who was, in fact, the mere slave, as he said, of a barbarian king.

Alexander's scheme was thus totally defeated; and so displeased was his father with the officers who had undertaken to aid him in the execution of it, that he banished them all from the kingdom. Ptolemy, in consequence of this decree wandered about an exile from his country for some years, until at length the death of Philip enabled Alexander to recall him. Alexander succeeded his father as King of Macedon and immediately made Ptolemy one of his principal generals. Ptolemy rose, in fact, to a very high command in the Macedonian army, and distinguished himself very greatly in all the celebrated conqueror's subsequent campaigns. In the Persian invasion, Ptolemy commanded one of the three grand divisions of the army, and he rendered repeatedly the most signal services to the cause of his master. He was employed on the most distant and dangerous enterprises, and was often intrusted with the management of affairs of the utmost importance. He was very successful in all his undertakings. He conquered armies, reduced fortresses, negotiated treaties, and evinced, in a word, the highest degree of military energy and skill. He once saved Alexander's life by discovering and revealing a dangerous conspiracy which had been formed against the king. Alexander had the opportunity to requite this favor, through a divine interposition vouchsafed to him, it was said, for the express purpose of enabling him to evince his gratitude. Ptolemy had been wounded by a poisoned arrow, and when all the remedies and antidotes of the physicians had failed, and the patient was apparently about to die, an effectual means of cure was revealed to Alexander in a dream, and Ptolemy, in his turn, was saved.

At the great rejoicings at Susa, when Alexander's conquests were completed, Ptolemy was honored with a golden crown, and he was married with great pomp and ceremony, to Artacama, the daughter of one of the most distinguished Persian generals.

At length Alexander died suddenly, after a night of drinking and carousal at Babylon. He had no son old enough to succeed him, and his immense empire was divided among his generals. Ptolemy obtained Egypt for his share. He repaired immediately to Alexandria, with a great army, and a great number of Greek attendants and followers, and there commenced a reign which continued, in great prosperity and splendor, for forty years. The native Egyptians were reduced, of course, to subjection and bondage. All the offices in the army, and all stations of trust and responsibility in civil life, were filled by Greeks. Alexandria was a Greek city, and it became at once one of the most important commercial centers in all those seas. Greek and Roman travelers found now a language spoken in Egypt which they could understand, and philosophers and scholars could gratify the curiosity which they had so long felt, in respect to the institutions, and monuments, and wonderful physical characteristics of the country, with safety and pleasure. In a word, the organization of a Greek government over the ancient kingdom, and the establishment of the great commercial relations of the city of Alexandria, conspired to bring Egypt out from its concealment and seclusion, and to open it in some measure to the intercourse, as well as to bring it more fully under the observation, of the rest of mankind.

Ptolemy, in fact, made it a special object of his policy to accomplish these ends. He invited Greek scholars, philosophers, poets, and artists, in great numbers, to come to Alexandria, and to make his capital their abode. He collected an immense library, which subsequently, under the name of the Alexandrian library, became one of the most celebrated collections of books and manuscripts that was ever made. We shall have occasion to refer more particularly to this library in the next chapter.

Besides prosecuting these splendid schemes for the aggrandizement of Egypt, King Ptolemy was engaged, during almost the whole period of his reign, in waging incessant wars with the surrounding nations. He engaged in these wars, in part, for the purpose of extending the boundaries of his empire, and in part for self defense against the aggressions and encroachments of other powers. He finally succeeded in establishing his kingdom on the most stable and permanent basis, and then, when he was drawing toward the close of his life, being in fact over eighty years of age, he abdicated his throne in favor of his youngest son, whose name was also Ptolemy. Ptolemy the father, the founder of the dynasty, is known commonly in history by the name of Ptolemy Soter. His son is called Ptolemy Philadelphus. This son, though the youngest, was preferred to his brothers as heir to the throne on account of his being the son of the most favored and beloved of the monarch's wives. The determination of Soter to abdicate the throne himself arose from his wish to put this favorite son in secure possession of it before his death, in order to prevent the older brothers from disputing the succession. The coronation of Philadelphus was made one of the most magnificent and imposing ceremonies that royal pomp and parade ever arranged. Two years afterward Ptolemy the father died, and was buried by his son with a magnificence almost equal to that of his own coronation. His body was deposited in a splendid mausoleum, which had been built for the remains of Alexander; and so high was the veneration which was felt by mankind for the greatness of his exploits and the splendor of his reign, that divine honors were paid to his memory. Such was the origin of the great dynasty of the Ptolemies.

Some of the early sovereigns of the line followed in some degree the honorable example set them by the distinguished founder of it; but this example was soon lost, and was succeeded by the most extreme degeneracy and debasement. The successive sovereigns began soon to live and to reign solely for the gratification of their own sensual propensities and passions. Sensuality begins sometimes with kindness, but it ends always in the most reckless and intolerable cruelty. The Ptolemies became, in the end, the most abominable and terrible tyrants that the principle of absolute and irresponsible power ever produced. There was one vice in particular, a vice which they seem to have adopted from the Asiatic nations of the Persian empire, that resulted in the must awful consequences. This vice was incest.

The law of God, proclaimed not only in the scriptures, but in the native instincts of the human soul, forbids intermarriages among those connected by close ties of consanguinity. The necessity for such a law rests on considerations which can not here be fully explained. They are considerations, however, which arise from causes inherent in the very nature of man as a social being, and which are of universal, perpetual, and insurmountable force. To guard his creatures against the deplorable consequences, both physical and moral, which result from the practice of such marriages, the great Author of Nature has implanted in every mind an instinctive sense of their criminality, powerful enough to give effectual warning of the danger, and so universal as to cause a distinct condemnation of them to be recorded in almost every code of written law that has ever been promulgated among mankind. The Persian sovereigns were, however, above all law, and every species of incestuous marriage was practiced by them without shame. The Ptolemies followed their example.

One of the most striking exhibitions of the nature of incestuous domestic life which is afforded by the whole dismal panorama of pagan vice and crime, is presented in the history of the great-grandfather of the Cleopatra who is the principal subject of this narrative. He was Ptolemy Physcon, the seventh in the line. It is necessary to give some particulars of his history and that of his family, in order to explain the circumstances under which Cleopatra herself came upon the stage. The name Physcon, which afterward became his historical designation, was originally given him in contempt and derision. He was very small of stature in respect to height, but his gluttony and sensuality had made him immensely corpulent in body, so that he looked more like a monster than a man. The term Physcon was a Greek word, which denoted opprobiously the ridiculous figure that he made.

The circumstances of Ptolemy Physcon's accession to the throne afford not only a striking illustration of his character, but a very faithful though terrible picture of the manners and morals of the times. He had been engaged in a long and cruel war with his brother, who was king before him, in which war he had perpetrated all imaginable atrocities, when at length his brother died, leaving as his survivors his wife, who was also his sister, and a son who was yet a child. This son was properly the heir to the crown. Physcon himself, being a brother, had no claim, as against a son. The name of the queen was Cleopatra. This was, in fact, a very common name among the princesses of the Ptolemaic line. Cleopatra, besides her son, had a daughter, who was at this time a young and beautiful girl. Her name was also Cleopatra. She was, of course, the niece, as her mother was the sister, of Physcon. The plan of Cleopatra the mother, after her husband's death, was to make her son the king of Egypt, and to govern herself, as regent, until he should become of age. The friends and adherents of Physcon, however, formed a strong party in his  favor. They sent for him to come to Alexandria to assert his claims to the throne. He came, and a new civil war was on the point of breaking out between the brother and sister, when at length the dispute was settled by a treaty, in which it was stipulated that Physcon should marry Cleopatra, and be king; but that he should make the son of Cleopatra by her former husband his heir. This treaty was carried into effect so far as the celebration of the marriage with the mother was concerned, and the establishment of Physcon upon the throne. But the perfidious monster, instead of keeping his faith in respect to the boy, determined to murder him; and so open and brutal were his habits of violence and cruelty, that he undertook to perpetrate the deed himself, in open day. The boy fled shrieking to the mother's arms for protection, and Physcon stabbed and killed him there, exhibiting the spectacle of a newly-married husband murdering the son of his wife in her very arms!

It is easy to conceive what sort of affection would exist between a husband and a wife after such transactions as these. In fact, there had been no love between them from the beginning. The marriage had been solely a political arrangement. Physcon hated his wife, and had murdered her son, and then, as if to complete the exhibition of the brutal lawlessness and capriciousness of his passions, he ended with falling in love with her daughter. The beautiful girl looked upon this heartless monster, as ugly and deformed in body as he was in mind, with absolute horror. But she was wholly in his power. He compelled her, by violence, to submit to his will. He repudiated the mother, and forced the daughter to become his wife.

Physcon displayed the same qualities of brutal tyranny and cruelty in the treatment of his subjects that he manifested in his own domestic relations. The particulars we can not here give, but can only say that his atrocities became at length absolutely intolerable, and a revolt so formidable broke out, that he fled from the country. In fact, he barely escaped with his life, as the mob had surrounded the palace and were setting it on fire, intending to burn the tyrant himself and all the accomplices of his crimes together. Physcon, however, contrived to make his escape. He fled to the island of Cyprus, taking with him a certain beautiful boy, his son by the Cleopatra whom he had divorced; for they had been married long enough, before the divorce, to have a son. The name of this boy was Memphitis. His mother was very tenderly attached to him, and Physcon took him away on this very account, to keep him as a hostage for his mother's good behavior. He fancied that, when he was gone, she might possibly attempt to resume possession of the throne.

His expectations in this respect were realized. The people of Alexandria rallied around Cleopatra, and called upon her to take the crown. She did so, feeling, perhaps, some misgivings in respect to the danger which such a step might possibly bring upon her absent boy. She quieted herself, however, by the thought that he was in the hands of his own father, and that he could not possibly come to harm.

After some little time had elapsed, and Cleopatra was beginning to be well established in her possession of the supreme power at Alexandria, her birth-day approached, and arrangements were made for celebrating it in the most magnificent manner. When the day arrived, the whole city was given up to festivities and rejoicing. Grand entertainments were given in the palace, and games, spectacles, and plays in every variety, were exhibited and performed in all quarters of the city. Cleopatra herself was enjoying a magnificent entertainment, given to the lords and ladies of the court and the officers of her army, in one of the royal palaces.

birthday massacre


In the midst of this scene of festivity and pleasure, it was announced to the queen that a large box had arrived for her. The box was brought into the apartment. It had the appearance of containing some magnificent present, sent in at that time by some friend in honor of the occasion. The curiosity of the queen was excited to know what the mysterious coffer might contain. She ordered it to be opened; and the guests gathered around, each eager to obtain the first glimpse of the contents. The lid was removed, and a cloth beneath it was raised, when, to the unutterable horror of all who witnessed the spectacle, there was seen the head and hands of Cleopatra's beautiful boy, lying among masses of human flesh, which consisted of the rest of his body cut into pieces. The head had been left entire, that the wretched mother might recognize in the pale and lifeless features the countenance of her son. Physcon had sent the box to Alexandria, with orders that it should be retained until the evening of the birth-day, and then presented publicly to Cleopatra in the midst of the festivities of the scene. The shrieks and cries with which she filled the apartments of the palace at the first sight of the dreadful spectacle, and the agony of long-continued and inconsolable grief which followed, showed how well the cruel contrivance of the tyrant was fitted to accomplish its end.

It gives us no pleasure to write, and we are sure it can give our readers no pleasure to peruse, such shocking stories of bloody cruelty as these. It is necessary, however, to a just appreciation of the character of the great subject of this history, that we should understand the nature of the domestic influences that reigned in the family from which she sprung. In fact, it is due, as a matter of simple justice to her, that we should know what these influences were, and what were the examples set before her in her early life; since the privileges and advantages which the young enjoy in their early years, and, on the other hand, the evil influences under which they suffer, are to be taken very seriously into the account when we are passing judgment upon the follies and sins into which they subsequently fall.

The monster Physcon lived, it is true, two or three generations before the great Cleopatra; but the character of the intermediate generations, until the time of her birth, continued much the same. In fact, the cruelty, corruption, and vice which reigned in every branch of the royal family increased rather than diminished. The beautiful niece of Physcon, who, at the time of her compulsory marriage with him, evinced such an aversion to the monster, had become, at the period of her husband's death, as great a monster of ambition, selfishness, and cruelty as he. She had two sons, Lathyrus and Alexander. Physcon, when he died, left the kingdom of Egypt to her by will, authorizing her to associate with her in the government whichever of these two sons she might choose. The oldest was best entitled to this privilege, by his priority of birth; but she preferred the youngest, as she thought that her own power would be more absolute in reigning in conjunction with him, since he would be more completely under her control. The leading powers, however, in Alexandria, resisted this plan, and insisted on Cleopatra's associating her oldest son, Lathyrus, with her in the government of the realm. They compelled her to recall Lathyrus from the banishment into which she had sent him, and to put him nominally upon the throne. Cleopatra yielded to this necessity, but she forced her son to repudiate his wife, and to take, instead, another woman, whom she fancied she could make more subservient to her will. The mother and the son went on together for a time, Lathyrus being nominally king, though her determination that she would rule, and his struggles to resist her intolerable tyranny, made their wretched household the scene of terrible and perpetual quarrels. At last Cleopatra seized a number of Lathyrus's servants, the eunuchs who were employed in various offices about the palace, and after wounding and mutilating them in a horrible manner, she exhibited them to the populace, saying that it was Lathyrus that had inflicted the cruel injuries upon the sufferers, and calling upon them to arise and punish him for his crimes. In this and in other similar ways she awakened among the people of the court and of the city such an animosity against Lathyrus, that they expelled him from the country. There followed a long series of cruel and bloody wars between the mother and the son, in the course of which each party perpetrated against the other almost every imaginable deed of atrocity and crime. Alexander, the youngest son, was so afraid of his terrible mother, that he did not dare to remain in Alexandria with her, but went into a sort of banishment of his own accord. He, however, finally returned to Egypt. His mother immediately supposed that he was intending to disturb her possession of power, and resolved to destroy him. He became acquainted with her designs, and, grown desperate by the long-continued pressure of her intolerable tyranny, he resolved to bring the anxiety and terror in which he lived to an end by killing her. This he did, and then fled the country. Lathyrus, his brother, then returned, and reigned for the rest of his days in a tolerable degree of quietness and peace. At length Lathyrus died, and left the kingdom to his son, Ptolemy Auletes, who was the great Cleopatra's father.

We can not soften the picture which is exhibited to our view in the history of this celebrated family, by regarding the mother of Auletes, in the masculine and merciless traits and principles which she displayed so energetically throughout her terrible career, as an exception to the general character of the princesses who appeared from time to time in the line. In ambition, selfishness, unnatural and reckless cruelty, and utter disregard of every virtuous principle and of every domestic tie, she was but the type and representative of all the rest.

She had two daughters, for example, who were the consistent and worthy followers of such a mother. A passage in the lives of these sisters illustrates very forcibly the kind of sisterly affection which prevailed in the family of the Ptolemies. The case was this:

There were two princes of Syria, a country lying northeast of the Mediterranean Sea, and so not very far from Egypt, who, though they were brothers, were in a state of most deadly hostility to each other. One had attempted to poison the other, and afterward a war had broken out between them, and all Syria was suffering from the ravages of their armies. One of the sisters, of whom we have been speaking, married one of these princes. Her name was Tryphena. After some time, but yet while the unnatural war was still raging between the two brothers, Cleopatra, the other sister—the same Cleopatra, in fact, that had been divorced from Lathyrus at the instance of his mother—espoused the other brother. Tryphena was exceedingly incensed against Cleopatra for marrying her husband's mortal foe, and the implacable hostility and hate of the sisters was thenceforth added to that which the brothers had before exhibited, to complete the display of unnatural and parricidal passion which this shameful contest presented to the world.

In fact, Tryphena from this time seemed to feel a new and highly-excited interest in the contest, from her eager desire to revenge herself on her sister. She watched the progress of it, and took an active part in pressing forward the active prosecution of the war. The party of her husband, either from this or some other causes, seemed to be gaining the day. The husband of Cleopatra was driven from one part of the country to another, and at length, in order to provide for the security of his wife, he left her in Antioch, a large and strongly fortified city, where he supposed that she would be safe, while he himself was engaged in prosecuting the war in other quarters where his presence seemed to be required.

On learning that her sister was at Antioch, Tryphena urged her husband to attack the place. He accordingly advanced with a strong detachment of the army, and besieged and took the city. Cleopatra would, of course, have fallen into his hands as a captive; but, to escape this fate, she fled to a temple for refuge. A temple was considered, in those days, an inviolable sanctuary. The soldiers accordingly left her there. Tryphena, however, made a request that her husband would deliver the unhappy fugitive into her hands. She was determined, she said, to kill her. Her husband remonstrated with her against this atrocious proposal. "It would be a wholly useless act of cruelty," said he, "to destroy her life. She can do us no possible harm in the future progress of the war, while to murder her under these circumstances will only exasperate her husband and her friends, and nerve them with new strength for the remainder of the contest. And then, besides, she has taken refuge in a temple; and if we violate that sanctuary, we shall incur, by such an act of sacrilege, the implacable displeasure of heaven. Consider, too, that she is your sister, and for you to kill her would be to commit an unnatural and wholly inexcusable crime."

So saying, he commanded Tryphena to say no more upon the subject, for he would on no account consent that Cleopatra should suffer any injury whatever.

This refusal on the part of her husband to comply with her request only inflamed Tryphena's insane resentment and anger the more. In fact, the earnestness with which he espoused her sister's cause, and the interest which he seemed to feel in her fate, aroused Tryphena's jealousy. She believed, or pretended to believe, that her husband was influenced by a sentiment of love in so warmly defending her. The object of her hate, from being simply an enemy, became now, in her view, a rival, and she resolved that, at all hazards, she should be destroyed. She accordingly ordered a body of desperate soldiers to break into the temple and seize her. Cleopatra fled in terror to the altar and clung to it with such convulsive force that the soldiers cut her hands off before they could tear her away, and then, maddened by her resistance and the sight of blood, they stabbed her again and again upon the floor of the temple, where she fell. The appalling shrieks with which the wretched victim filled the air in the first moments of her flight and her terror, subsided, as her life ebbed away, into the most awful imprecations of the judgments of heaven upon the head of the unnatural sister whose implacable hate had destroyed her.

Notwithstanding the specimens that we have thus given of the character and action of this extraordinary family, the government of this dynasty, extending, as it did, through the reigns of thirteen sovereigns and over a period of nearly three hundred years, has always been considered one of the most liberal, enlightened, and prosperous of all the governments of ancient times. We shall have something to say in the next chapter in respect to the internal condition of the country while these violent men were upon the throne. In the mean time, we will here only add, that whoever is inclined, in observing the ambition, the selfishness, the party spirit, the unworthy intrigues, and the irregularities of moral conduct, which modern rulers and statesmen sometimes exhibit to mankind in their personal and political career, to believe in a retrogression and degeneracy of national character as the world advances in age, will be very effectually undeceived by reading attentively a full history of this celebrated dynasty, and reflecting, as he reads, that the narrative presents, on the whole, a fair and honest exhibition of the general character of the men by whom, in ancient times, the world was governed.