Caesar’s Lost Weekend with Cleopatra

Huckleberry Finn tries to understand Tom Sawyer. “If somebody offers you a cake and a puzzle,”  he says, “most boys will choose the cake. Tom always chose the puzzle. He was just made that way.”

So was Julius Caesar. That is why it is hard to believe that he lost his head over Cleopatra in Egypt. He was known for taking the cake too, of course, but he went after the problem first.

Cleopatra by Michelangelo (public domain photo)

If he fathered a child by her you may be sure he did so to marry Egypt and Rome and perhaps to start a Julian Dynasty of semi-gods.

Many of the details of his romance with the Egyptian queen come from that old gossip Plutarch.
“As for the war in Egypt, some say it need never have taken place, that it was brought on by Caesar’s passion for Cleopatra and that it did him little credit while involving him in great danger.”

Sure.  The tough, fifty-two-year-old general got to Egypt and was presented with a  problem and a cake and chose the cake.  The problem was the civil war going on there and Egypt’s defiance of Rome. The cake was  Cleopatra.

She came to him secretly. “Since there seemed to be no other way of getting in [to Caesar’s headquarters] unobserved, she stretched herself out at full length inside a sleeping bag, and Apollodorus [a friend of hers], after tying up the bag, carried it indoors to Caesar.  This little trick of Cleopatra’s, which showed her provocative impudence, is said to have been the first thing about her which captivated Caesar…” (Plutarch’s Life of Caesar)

Caesar and Cleopatra by Jean-Leon Gerome (public domain photo)

Why did he go to Egypt in the first place?
To catch his enemy Pompey, who was running just a few days ahead of him. Caesar would have liked nothing better than to catch up with him, pardon him, and go back to Rome together with him.  That would have been the best way to start healing the wounds of their civil war. But when he reached Alexandría they threw him Pompey’s head.

The last thing he wanted was to get tied up in Egypt. It was urgent for him to get back to Rome. But now that he was there he thought he had no choice but to solve Egypt’s problems and make it a friend of Rome. Caesar always considered that he must solve the problems that came up in front of him, not ignore them.  He didn’t need to have Harry Truman’s famous reminder on his desk: the buck stops here.  Caesar never passed the buck his whole life.

He was soon in a real jam. The whole Egyptian army came to wipe him out and he had to fight desperately while waiting for help to come from Syria. This is when Cleopatra came secretly to see him and he was “captivated by her charms”.

1945 film Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh (source)

That’s easy to believe. Old Gaius was a lady’s man when there was leisure. He may even really have fathered a child with the young princess.  But Cleopatra was also the solution to the puzzle: he would make her Queen of Egypt and Egypt a dominion of Rome.

But now the historian Suetonius puts in a stretcher. He says Caesar and Cleopatra made a long expedition in a barge up the Nile and that the great general was so fascinated with her that he would have liked to extend his fling by a few more days in Ethiopia but was prevented by the refusal of his army to follow him.

Antony and Cleopatra by  Lawrence Alma-Tadema (public domain photo)

No one who reads his Civil War can believe that the kind of man who wrote it would leave his soldiers in the lurch while he dallied with a girl, however seductive. His ghost writer Hirtius gives a detailed account of Caesar’s stay in Egypt and there wasn’t a minute to spare for any pleasure excursion down the Nile, even if one could believe that Caesar would dream one up.  Caesar, of all people.

See Caesar Swims for His Life


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11 Responses to Caesar’s Lost Weekend with Cleopatra

  1. 100swallows says:

    Brittany: Thanks. Remember that, though she was the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra was not Egyptian but Macedonian. She descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. I don’t know if Michelangelo knew that or was trying to show a north African beauty.

  2. Brittany says:

    I like the first picture of Cleopatra, actually looks like someone from north Africa and not europe. Beautiful

  3. hiit says:

    She is hot on the first photo:D

  4. James says:

    you state:
    “And as for Anthony, it was well known (the Philippics) that he chased almost anything with a skirt or kilt, so no extraordinary charms were required”
    the Cicero’s Philippics were obviously factious.. so well keen to denigrate Anthony..
    and they are the only existing source describing him like that

    not trustful

  5. 100swallows says:

    Madame Monet: Thanks. I realize she doesn’t look much like a queen (well, maybe a motorcycle queen) but I put her in because she was so far from the stereotype (Liz Taylor and jewels).

  6. Madame Monet says:

    I was especially captivated by the top photo of a Cleopatra that you found for this post!

    Madame Monet

  7. Ritesh Ranjan says:

    Thanks swallows…Now, this is a side of Antony I hadn’t
    read about. I follow your posts religiously. Gives me insight into historical events and caracters.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Silverseason: Thanks. You already had me interested in the Shaw play and I ordered it but it hasn’t yet arrived.

  9. 100swallows says:

    Ritesh: They say Cleopatra herself was interested in creating the legend. Froude, the nineteenth-century biographer of Caesar, puts it this way: “Cleopatra herself favoured the story [of her romance with Caesar] and afterwards produced a child, whom she named Caesarion. Oppius, Caesar’s most intimate friend, proved [in a book] that the child could not have been his… And the boy was afterwards put to death by Augustus as an imposter.” Caesar. A Sketch

    One of the few contemporary references to her comes from Cicero, who speaks with almost disgust of some proposal she makes him. “I hate the Queen,” he says. “I cannot recall without indignation her insolence when she was living in Caesar’s house in the gardens beyond the Tiber.” (To Atticus, June 13, 44 BC)
    Of course this only shows that Cicero, easily offended, thought she wasn’t respectful enough of him.

    The pictures of her on coins show a very unattractive woman.
    Caesar’s interest in her may well have been primarily political. She may not have understood how she was being used and figured his smiles were due to her charms. And as for Anthony, it was well known (the Philippics) that he chased almost anything with a skirt or kilt, so no extraordinary charms were required.

  10. Ritesh Ranjan says:

    I remember reading somewhere that the plethora of books and movies on Cleopatra has only served to add to the legend of Cleopatra, obscuring her historicity. Legend has it that she was extremely beautiful and seductive. The image most people have in mind when they read about Cleopatra is that of Elizabeth Taylor, who played the character on celluloid. Plutarch conjectures that she might not have been extraordinarily beautiful, but was definitely attractive and ‘provocatively charming’. Maybe…However, the fact that she had a relationship with two of the most powerful men of her time is testament to her seductive charm.

  11. silverseason says:

    If you come to more modern interpreters, I enjoyed Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, in which a middle-aged and wise Caesar is trying to educate a childish and self-involved Cleopatra. This also comes through in the movie with Claude Raines as Caesar and a very young Vivian Leigh as Cleopatra. Not historical perhaps, but lots of fun.

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