Cleopatra - Jacob Abbott

The Alexandrine War

The war which ensued as the result of the intrigues and maneuvers described in the last chapter is known in the history of Rome and Julius Cęsar as the Alexandrine war. The events which occurred during the progress of it, and its termination at last in the triumph of Cęsar and Cleopatra, will form the subject of this chapter.

Achillas had greatly the advantage over Cęsar at the outset of the contest, in respect to the strength of the forces under his command. Cęsar, in fact, had with him only a detachment of three or four thousand men, a small body of troops which he had hastily put on board a little squadron of Rhodian galleys for pursuing Pompey across the Mediterranean. When he set sail from the European shores with this inconsiderable fleet, it is probable that he had no expectation even of landing in Egypt at all, and much less of being involved in great military undertakings there. Achillas, on the other hand, was at the head of a force of twenty thousand effective men. His troops were, it is true, of a somewhat miscellaneous character, but they were all veteran soldiers, inured to the climate of Egypt, and skilled in all the modes of warfare which were suited to the character of the country. Some of them were Roman soldiers, men who had come with the army of Mark Antony from Syria when Ptolemy Auletes, Cleopatra's father, was reinstated on the throne, and had been left in Egypt, in Ptolemy's service, when Antony returned to Rome. Some were native Egyptians. There was also in the army of Achillas a large number of fugitive slaves—refugees who had made their escape from various points along the shores of the Mediterranean, at different periods, and had been from time to time incorporated into the Egyptian army. These fugitives were all men of the most determined and desperate character.

Achillas had also in his command a force of two thousand horse. Such a body of cavalry made him, of course, perfect master of all the open country outside the city walls. At the head of these troops Achillas gradually advanced to the very gates of Alexandria, invested the city on every side, and shut Cęsar closely in.

The danger of the situation in which Cęsar was placed was extreme; but he had been so accustomed to succeed in extricating himself from the most imminent perils, that neither he himself nor his army seem to have experienced any concern in respect to the result. Cęsar personally felt a special pride and pleasure in encountering the difficulties and dangers which now beset him, because Cleopatra was with him to witness his demeanor, to admire his energy and courage, and to reward by her love the efforts and sacrifices which he was making in espousing her cause. She confided every thing to him, but she watched all the proceedings with the most eager interest, elated with hope in respect to the result, and proud of the champion who had thus volunteered to defend her. In a word, her heart was full of gratitude, admiration, and love.

The immediate effect, too, of the emotions which she felt so strongly was greatly to heighten her natural charms. The native force and energy of her character were softened and subdued. Her voice, which always possessed a certain inexpressible charm, was endued with new sweetness through the influence of affection. Her countenance beamed with fresh animation and beauty, and the sprightliness and vivacity of her character, which became at later periods of her life boldness and eccentricity, now being softened and restrained within proper limits by the respectful regard with which she looked upon Cęsar, made her an enchanting companion. Cęsar was, in fact, entirely intoxicated with the fascinations which she unconsciously displayed.

Under other circumstances than these, a personal attachment so strong, formed by a military commander while engaged in active service, might have been expected to interfere in some degree with the discharge of his duties; but in this case, since it was for Cleopatra's sake and in her behalf that the operations which Cęsar had undertaken were to be prosecuted, his love for her only stimulated the spirit and energy with which he engaged in them.

The first measure to be adopted was, as Cęsar plainly perceived, to concentrate and strengthen his position in the city, so that he might be able to defend himself there against Achillas until he should receive re-enforcements from abroad. For this purpose he selected a certain group of palaces and citadels which lay together near the head of the long pier or cause- way which led to the Pharos, and, withdrawing his troops from all other parts of the city, established them there. The quarter which he thus occupied contained the great city arsenals and public granaries. Cęsar brought together all the arms and munitions of war which he could find in other parts of the city, and also all the corn and other provisions which were contained either in the public depôts or in private warehouses, and stored the whole within his lines. He then inclosed the whole quarter with strong defenses. The avenues leading to it were barricaded with walls of stone. Houses in the vicinity which might have afforded shelter to an enemy were demolished, and the materials used in constructing walls wherever they were needed, or in strengthening the barricades. Prodigious military engines, made to throw heavy stones, and beams of wood, and other ponderous missiles, were set up within his lines, and openings were made in the walls and other defenses of the citadel, wherever necessary, to facilitate the action of these machines.



There was a strong fortress situated at the head of the pier or mole leading to the island of Pharos, which was without Cęsar's lines, and still in the hands of the Egyptian authorities. The Egyptians thus commanded the entrance to the mole. The island itself, also, with the fortress at the other end of the pier, was still in the possession of the Egyptian authorities, who seemed disposed to hold it for Achillas. The mole was very long, as the island was nearly a mile from the shore. There was quite a little town upon the island itself, besides the fortress or castle built there to defend the place. The garrison of this castle was strong, and the inhabitants of the town, too, constituted a somewhat formidable population, as they consisted of fishermen, sailors, wreckers, and such other desperate characters as usually congregate about such a spot. Cleopatra and Cęsar, from the windows of their palace within the city, looked out upon this island, with the tall light-house rising in the center of it and the castle at its base, and upon the long and narrow isthmus connecting it with the main land, and concluded that it was very essential that they should get possession of the post, commanding, as it did, the entrance to the harbor.

In the harbor, too, which, as will be seen from the engraving, was on the south side of the mole, and, consequently, on the side opposite to that from which Achillas was advancing toward the city, there were lying a large number of Egyptian vessels, some dismantled, and others manned and armed more or less effectively. These vessels had not yet come into Achillas's hands, but it would be certain that he would take possession of them as soon as he should gain admittance to those parts of the city which Cęsar had abandoned. This it was extremely important to prevent; for, if Achillas held this fleet, especially if he continued to command the island of Pharos, he would be perfect master of all the approaches to the city on the side of the sea. He could then not only receive re-enforcements and supplies himself from that quarter, but he could also effectually cut off the Roman army from all possibility of receiving any. It became, therefore, as Cęsar thought, imperiously necessary that he should protect himself from this danger. This he did by sending out an expedition to burn all the shipping in the harbor, and, at the same time, to take possession of a certain fort upon the island of Pharos which commanded the entrance to the port. This undertaking was abundantly successful. The troops burned the shipping, took the fort, expelled the Egyptian soldiers from it, and put a Roman garrison into it instead, and then returned in safety within Cęsar's lines. Cleopatra witnessed these exploits from her palace windows with feelings of the highest admiration for the energy and valor which her Roman protectors displayed.

The burning of the Egyptian ships in this action, however fortunate for Cleopatra and Cęsar, was attended with a catastrophe which has ever since been lamented by the whole civilized world. Some of the burning ships were driven by the wind to the shore where they set fire to the buildings which were contiguous to the water. The flames spread and produced an extensive conflagration, in the course of which the largest part of the great library was destroyed. This library was the only general collection of the ancient writings that ever had been made, and the loss of it was never repaired.

The destruction of the Egyptian fleet resulted also in the downfall and ruin of Achillas. From the time of Arsinoė's arrival in the camp there had been a constant rivalry and jealousy between himself and Ganymede, the eunuch who had accompanied Arsinoė in her flight. Two parties had been formed in the army, some declaring for Achillas and some for Ganymede. Arsinoė advocated Ganymede's interests, and when, at length, the fleet was burned, she charged Achillas with having been, by his neglect or incapacity, the cause of the loss. Achillas was tried, condemned, and beheaded. From that time Ganymede assumed the administration of Arsinoė's government as her minister of state and the commander-in-chief of her armies.

About the time that these occurrences took place, the Egyptian army advanced into those parts of the city from which Cęsar had withdrawn, producing those terrible scenes of panic and confusion which always attend a sudden and violent change of military possession within the precincts of a city. Ganymede brought up his troops on every side to the walls of Cęsar's citadels and intrenchments, and hemmed him closely in. He out off all avenues of approach to Cęsar's lines by land, and commenced vigorous preparations for an assault. He constructed engines for battering down the walls. He opened shops and established forges in every part of the city for the manufacture of darts, spears, pikes, and all kinds of military machinery. He built towers supported upon huge wheels, with the design of filling them with armed men when finally ready to make his assault upon Cęsar's lines, and moving them up to the walls of the citadels and palaces, so as to give to his soldiers the advantage of a lofty elevation in making their attacks. He levied contributions on the rich citizens for the necessary funds, and provided himself with men by pressing all the artisans, laborers, and men capable of bearing arms into his service. He sent messengers back into the interior of the country, in every direction, summoning the people to arms, and calling for contributions of money and military stores.

These messengers were instructed to urge upon the people that, unless Cęsar and his army were at once expelled from Alexandria, there was imminent danger that the national independence of Egypt would be forever destroyed. The Romans, they were to say, had extended their conquests over almost all the rest of the world. They had sent one army into Egypt before, under the command of Mark Antony, under the pretense of restoring Ptolemy Auletes to the throne. Now another commander, with another force, had come, offering some other pretexts for interfering in their affairs. These Roman encroachments, the messengers were to say, would end in the complete subjugation of Egypt to a foreign power, unless the people of the country aroused themselves to meet the danger manfully, and to expel the intruders.

As Cęsar had possession of the island of Pharos and of the harbor, Ganymede could not cut him off from receiving such re-enforcements of men and arms as he might make arrangements for obtaining beyond the sea; nor could he curtail his supply of food, as the granaries and magazines within Cęsar's quarter of the city contained almost inexhaustible stores of corn. There was one remaining point essential to the subsistence of an army besieged, and that was an abundant supply of water. The palaces and citadels which Cęsar occupied were supplied with water by means of numerous subterranean aqueducts, which conveyed the water from the Nile to vast cisterns built under ground, whence it was raised by buckets and hydraulic engines for use. In reflecting upon this circumstance, Ganymede conceived the design of secretly digging a canal, so as to turn the waters of the sea by means of it into these aqueducts. This plan he carried into effect. The consequence was, that the water in the cisterns was gradually changed. It became first brackish, then more and more salt and bitter, until, at length, it was wholly impossible to use it. For some time the army within could not understand these changes; and when, at length, they discovered the cause, the soldiers were panic-stricken at the thought that they were now apparently wholly at the mercy of their enemies, since, without supplies of water, they must all immediately perish. They considered it hopeless to attempt any longer to hold out, and urged Cęsar to evacuate the city, embark on board his galleys, and proceed to sea.

Instead of doing this, however, Cęsar, ordering all other operations to be suspended, employed the whole laboring force of his command, under the direction of the captains of the several companies, in digging wells in every part of his quarter of the city. Fresh water, he said, was almost invariably found, at a moderate depth, upon sea-coasts, even upon ground lying in very close proximity with the sea. The digging was successful. Fresh water, in great abundance, was found. Thus this danger was passed, and the men's fears effectually relieved.

A short time after these transactions occurred, there came into the harbor one day, from along the shore west of the city, a small sloop, bringing the intelligence that a squadron of transports had arrived upon the coast to the westward of Alexandria, and had anchored there, being unable to come up to the city on account of an easterly wind which prevailed at that season of the year. This squadron was one which had been sent across the Mediterranean with arms, ammunition, and military stores for Cęsar, in answer to requisitions which he had made immediately after he had landed. The transports being thus wind-bound on the coast, and having nearly exhausted their supplies of water, were in distress; and they accordingly sent forward the sloop, which was probably propelled by oars, to make known their situation to Cęsar, and to ask for succor. Cęsar immediately went, himself, on board of one of his galleys, and ordering the remainder of his little fleet to follow him, he set sail out of the harbor, and then turned to the westward, with a view of proceeding along the coast to the place where the transports were lying.

All this was done secretly. The land is so low in the vicinity of Alexandria that boats or galleys are out of sight from it at a very short distance from the shore. In fact, travelers say that, in coming upon the coast, the illusion produced by the spherical form of the surface of the water and the low and level character of the coast is such that one seems actually to descend from the sea to the land. Cęsar might therefore have easily kept his expedition a secret, had it not been that, in order to be provided with a supply of water for the transports immediately on reaching them, he stopped at a solitary part of the coast, at some distance from Alexandria, and sent a party a little way into the interior in search for water. This party were discovered by the country people, and were intercepted by a troop of horse and made prisoners. From these prisoners the Egyptians learned that Cęsar himself was on the coast with a small squadron of galleys. The tidings spread in all directions. The people flocked together from every quarter. They hastily collected all the boats and vessels which could be obtained at the villages in that region and from the various branches of the Nile. In the mean time, Cęsar had gone on to the anchorage ground of the squadron, and had taken the transports in tow to bring them to the city; for the galleys, being propelled by oars, were in a measure independent of the wind. On his return, he found quite a formidable naval armament assembled to dispute the passage.

A severe conflict ensued, but Cęsar was victorious. The navy which the Egyptians had so suddenly got together was as suddenly destroyed. Some of the vessels were burned, others sunk, and others captured; and Cęsar returned in triumph to the port with his transports and stores. He was welcomed with the acclamations of his soldiers, and, still more warmly, by the joy and gratitude of Cleopatra, who had been waiting during his absence in great anxiety and suspense to know the result of the expedition, aware as she was that her hero was exposing himself in it to the most imminent personal danger.

The arrival of these re-enforcements greatly improved Cęsar's condition, and the circumstance of their coming forced upon the mind of Ganymede a sense of the absolute necessity that he should gain possession of the harbor if he intended to keep Cęsar in check. He accordingly determined to take immediate measures for forming a naval force. He sent along the coast, and ordered every ship and galley that could be found in all the ports to be sent immediately to Alexandria. He employed as many men as possible in and around the city in building more. He unroofed some of the most magnificent edifices to procure timber as a material for making benches and oars. When all was ready, he made a grand attack upon Cęsar in the port, and a terrible contest ensued for the possession of the harbor, the mole, the island, and the citadels and fortresses commanding the entrances from the sea. Cęsar well knew this contest would be a decisive one in respect to the final result of the war, and he accordingly went forth himself to take an active and personal part in the conflict. He felt doubtless, too, a strong emotion of pride and pleasure in exhibiting his prowess in the sight of Cleopatra, who could watch the progress of the battle from the palace windows, full of excitement at the dangers which he incurred, and of admiration at the feats of strength and valor which he performed. During this battle the life of the great conqueror was several times in the most imminent danger. He wore a habit or mantle of the imperial purple, which made him a conspicuous mark for his enemies; and, of course, wherever he went, in that place was the hottest of the fight. Once, in the midst of a scene of most dreadful confusion and din, he leaped from an overloaded boat into the water and swam for his life, holding his cloak between his teeth and drawing it through the water after him, that it might not fall into the hands of his enemies. He carried, at the same time, as he swam, certain valuable papers which he wished to save, holding them above his head with one hand, while he propelled himself through the water with the other.

The result of this contest was another decisive victory for Cęsar. Not only were the ships which the Egyptians had collected defeated and destroyed, but the mole, with the fortresses at each extremity of it, and the island, with the light-house and the town of Pharos, all fell into Cęsar's hands.

The Egyptians now began to be discouraged. The army and the people, judging, as mankind always do, of the virtue of their military commanders solely by the criterion of success, began to be tired of the rule of Ganymede and Arsinoė. They sent secret messengers to Cęsar avowing their discontent, and saying that, if he would liberate Ptolemy—who, it will be recollected, had been all this time held as a sort of prisoner of state in Cęsar's palaces—they thought that the people generally would receive him as their sovereign, and that then an arrangement might easily be made for an amicable adjustment of the whole controversy. Cęsar was strongly inclined to accede to this proposal.

He accordingly called Ptolemy into his presence, and, taking him kindly by the hand, informed him of the wishes of the people of Egypt, and gave him permission to go. Ptolemy, however, begged not to be sent away. He professed the strongest attachment to Cęsar, and the utmost confidence in him, and he very much preferred, he said, to remain under his protection. Cęsar replied that, if those were his sentiments, the separation would not be a lasting one. "If we part as friends," he said, "we shall soon meet again." By these and similar assurances he endeavored to encourage the young prince, and then sent him away. Ptolemy was received by the Egyptians with great joy, and was immediately placed at the head of the government. Instead, however, of endeavoring to promote a settlement of the quarrel with Cęsar, he seemed to enter into it now himself, personally, with the utmost ardor, and began at once to make the most extensive preparations both by sea and land for a vigorous prosecution of the war. What the result of these operations would have been can now not be known, for the general aspect of affairs was, soon after these transactions, totally changed by the occurrence of a new and very important event which suddenly intervened, and which turned the attention of all parties, both Egyptians and Romans, to the eastern quarter of the kingdom. The tidings arrived that a large army under the command of a general named Mithradates, whom Cęsar had dispatched into Asia for this purpose, had suddenly appeared at Pelusium, had captured that city, and were now ready to march to Alexandria.

The Egyptian army immediately broke up its encampments in the neighborhood of Alexandria, and marched to the eastward to meet these new invaders, Cęsar followed them with all the forces that he could safely take away from the city. He left the city in the night and, unobserved, moved across the country with such celerity that he joined Mithradates before the forces of Ptolemy had arrived. After various marches and maneuvers, the armies met, and a great battle was fought. The Egyptians were defeated. Ptolemy's camp was taken. As the Roman army burst in upon one side of it, the guards and attendants of Ptolemy fled upon the other, clambering over the ramparts in the utmost terror and confusion. The foremost fell headlong into the ditch below, which was thus soon filled to the brim with the dead and the dying; while those who came behind pressed on over the bridge thus formed, trampling remorselessly, as they fled, on the bodies of their comrades, who lay writhing, struggling, and shrieking beneath their feet. Those who escaped reached the river. They crowded together into a boat which lay at the bank and pushed off from the shore. The boat was overloaded, and it sank as soon as it left the land. The Romans drew the bodies which floated to the shore upon the bank again, and they found among them one, which, by the royal cuirass which was upon it, the customary badge and armor of the Egyptian kings, they knew to be the body of Ptolemy.

The victory which Cęsar obtained in this battle and the death of Ptolemy ended the war. Nothing now remained but for him to place himself at the head of the combined forces and march back to Alexandria. The Egyptian forces which had been left there made no resistance, and he entered the city in triumph. He took Arsinoė prisoner. He decreed that Cleopatra should reign as queen, and that she should marry her youngest brother, the other Ptolemy,—a boy at this time about eleven years of age. A marriage with one so young was, of course, a mere form. Cleopatra remained, as before, the companion of Cęsar.

Cęsar had, in the mean time, incurred great censure at Rome, and throughout the whole Roman world, for having thus turned aside from his own proper duties as the Roman consul, and the commander-in-chief of the armies of the empire, to embroil himself in the quarrels of a remote and secluded kingdom with which the interests of the Roman commonwealth were so little connected. His friends and the authorities at Rome were continually urging him to return. They were especially indignant at his protracted neglect of his own proper duties, from knowing that he was held in Egypt by a guilty attachment to the queen,—thus not only violating his obligations to the state, but likewise inflicting upon his wife Calpurnia, and his family at Rome, an intolerable wrong. But Cęsar was so fascinated by Cleopatra's charms, and by the mysterious and unaccountable influence which she exercised over him, that he paid no heed to any of these remonstrances. Even after the war was ended he remained some months in Egypt to enjoy his favorite's society. He would spend whole nights in her company, in feasting and revelry. He made a splendid royal progress with her through Egypt after the war was over, attended by a numerous train of Roman guards. He formed a plan for taking her to Rome, and marrying her there; and he took measures for having the laws of the city altered so as to enable him to do so, though he was already married.

All these things produced great discontent and disaffection among Cęsar's friends and throughout the Roman army. The Egyptians, too, strongly censured the conduct of Cleopatra. A son was born to her about this time, whom the Alexandrians named, from his father, Cęsarion. Cleopatra was regarded in the new relation of mother, which she now sustained, not with interest and sympathy, but with feelings of reproach and condemnation.

Cleopatra was all this time growing more and more accomplished, and more and more beautiful; but her vivacity and spirit, which had been so charming while it was simple and childlike, now began to appear more forward and bold. It is the characteristic of pure and lawful love to soften and subdue the heart, and infuse a gentle and quiet spirit into all its action; while that which breaks over the barriers that God and nature have marked out for it, tends to make woman masculine and bold, to indurate all her sensibilities, and to destroy that gentleness and timidity of demeanor which have so great an influence in heightening her charms. Cleopatra was beginning to experience these effects. She was indifferent to the opinions of her subjects, and was only anxious to maintain as long as possible her guilty ascendency over Cęsar.

Cęsar, however, finally determined to set out on his return to the capital. Leaving Cleopatra, accordingly, a sufficient force to secure the continuance of her power, he embarked the remainder of his forces in his transports and galleys, and sailed away. He took the unhappy Arsinoė with him, intending to exhibit her as a trophy of his Egyptian victories on his arrival at Rome.