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.