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Cleopatra, by Michelangelo. 16th century.
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885.
Antoine & Cleopatre, by Agostino Carracci.

 

 

When Cleopatra, a young girl of seventeen, succeeded to the throne of Egypt the population of Alexandria amounted to a million souls. Following the odd custom, she was betrothed to her own brother. He, however, was a mere child of less than twelve, and was under the control of evil counselors, who, in his name, gained control of the capital and drove Cleopatra into exile. Until then she had been a mere girl; but now the spirit of a woman who was wronged blazed up in her and called out all her latent powers. Hastening to Syria, she gathered about herself an army and led it against her foes. Meanwhile, Julius Caesar had arrived at Alexandria backed by an army of his veterans. According to the story, Caesar was unwilling to receive Cleopatra. There came into his presence, as he sat in the palace, a group of slaves bearing a long roll of matting, bound carefully and seeming to contain some precious work of art. The slaves made signs that they were bearing a gift to Caesar. The master of Egypt bade them unwrap the gift that he might see it. They did so, and out of the wrapping came Cleopatra—a radiant vision, appealing, irresistible. Next morning it became known everywhere that Cleopatra had remained in Caesar's quarters through the night and that her enemies were now his enemies.
 
  
Caesar had left Cleopatra firmly seated on the throne of Egypt. For six years she reigned with great intelligence, keeping order in her dominions. However, soon the convulsions of the Roman state once more caused her extreme anxiety. Caesar had been assassinated, and there ensued a period of civil war. Out of it emerged two figures: Octavian, the adopted son of Caesar, and Antony, a soldier by training, with all a soldier's bluntness, courage, and lawlessness. The Roman world was divided between these two men, Antony receiving the government of the East, Octavian that of the West. It was to this general that Cleopatra was to answer, and with a firm reliance on the charms which had subdued Caesar, she set out in person for Cilicia, sailing up the river Cydnus to the place where Antony was encamped with his army. Her barge was gilded, and was wafted on its way by swelling sails of Tyrian purple. The oars which smote the water were of shining silver. As she drew near the Roman general's camp the languorous music of flutes and harps breathed forth a strain of invitation. Cleopatra herself lay upon a divan set upon the deck of the barge beneath a canopy of woven gold. She was dressed to resemble Venus, while girls about her personated nymphs and Graces. As she drew near the shore, all the people for miles about gathered there, leaving Antony to sit alone in the tribunal where he was dispensing justice.
No such woman as this had ever cast her eyes on Antony before. Cleopatra, 27 at the time, came into the presence of one whose manly beauty and strong passions were matched by her own subtlety and appealing charm. She had never really loved before, since she had given herself to Caesar only to save her kingdom. Antony’s heart and soul were soon given up to her, the woman who could be a comrade in the camp and a fount of tenderness in their hours of dalliance, and who possessed the keen intellect of a man joined to the arts and fascinations of a woman. Cleopatra found in Antony an ardent lover, a man of vigorous masculinity, and a soldier whose armies might well sustain her on the throne of Egypt. The two remained together for ten years. Whether Antony were serious or mirthful, she had at the instant some new delight or some new charm to meet his wishes. At every turn, she was with him both day and night. With him, she threw dice; with him, she drank; with him, she hunted; and when he exercised himself in arms, she was there to admire and applaud. Even though historians to this day debate what tragic end befell them, it is certain that their love was unique and survives them still.