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Caesar's Egyptian War


Bust of Caesar. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. In August 48 BCE, Julius Caesar defeated his rival Pompey and the last defenders of the Roman republic in the battle of Pharsalus in Greece. Many died, but Pompey managed to leave the battlefield and tried to obtain asylum in Egypt. However, the Egyptian authorities decided that it was better not to help Pompey, because the suspected that Caesar would declare war upon them. Therefore, Pompey was executed when he tried to come ashore. Not much later, Caesar arrived.

The country was divided by civil war: king Ptolemy XII Auletes had left two children who had equal rights to the throne, his son Ptolemy XIII and an elder daughter Cleopatra VII. When Caesar arrived, the boy was in command of the situation.

The following story can be found in the Life of Caesar (48-49) by the Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea. The translation was made by Rex Warner.

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Bust of Cleopatra, Altes Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Cleopatra (Altes Museum, Berlin)

Caesar arrived at Alexandria just after Pompey's death. When Theodotus came to him with Pompey's head, Caesar refused to look at him, but he took Pompey's signet ring and shed tears as he did so. He offered help and his own friendship to all who had been friends and companions of Pompey and who, without anywhere to go to, had been arrested by the king of Egypt [Ptolemy XIII]. And he wrote to his friends in Rome to say that, of all the results of his victory, what gave him the most pleasure was that he was so often able to save the lives of fellow citizens who had fought against him.

As for the war in Egypt, some say that 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. Others blame the king's party for it, and particularly the eunuch Pothinus, who was the most influential person at the court. He had recently killed Pompey, had driven out Cleopatra, and was now secretly plotting against Caesar. Because of this, they say, Caesar now began to sit up for whole nights on end at drinking parties, in order to be sure that he was properly guarded. Even openly Pothinus made himself intolerable, belittling and insulting Caesar both in his words and his actions.

 
The Esquiline Venus, probably Cleopatra. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
The Esquiline Venus: Cleopatra? (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

For instance, the soldiers were given rations of the oldest and worst possible grain, and Pothinus told them that they must put up with it and learn to like it, since they were eating food that did not belong to them; and at official dinners he gave orders that wooden and earthenware dishes should be used, on the pretext that Caesar had taken all the gold and silver in payment of a debt. The father of the present king did in fact owe Caesar 17 million drachmas, and, though Caesar had previously remitted part of this debt to the king's children, he now demanded 10 million for the support of his army. Pothinus suggested that for the time being he should go away and attend to more important matters, promising that later on they would be delighted to pay the money; but Caesar told him that Egyptians were the last people he would choose for his advisers, and secretly he sent for Cleopatra from the country.

Cleopatra, taking only one other friends with her (Apollodorus the Sicilian), embarked in a small boat and landed at the palace when it was already getting dark. Since there seemed to be no other way of getting in unobserved, she stretched herself out at full length inside a sleeping bag, and Apollodorus, 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, and, as he grew to know her better, he was overcome by her charm and arranged that she and her brother should be reconciled and should share the throne of Egypt together. 

Everyone was invited to a banquet to celebrate the reconciliation, and, while the banquet was in progress, a servant of Caesar who acted as his barber and who, because of his unexampled cowardice, was in the habit of looking into everything, listening to every scrap of gossip, and generally having something to do with everything that was going on, managed to find out that the general Achillas and the eunuch Pothinus were plotting together against Caesar. Once Caesar had discovered this, he set a guard round the banqueting hall and had Pothinus killed. Achillas, however, escaped to the camp and involved Caesar in a full-scale war and one that was very difficult to fight, since he had a great city and a large army against him and only a few troops with which to defend himself.

 
Portait of Caesarion (?). Palazzo Altemps, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Ptolemy XV Caesarion (Palazzo Altemps, Rome)

First of all the enemy dammed up the canals and he was in danger of being cut off from his water supply. Then they tried to intercept his communications by sea and he was forced to deal with this danger by setting fire to the ships in the docks. This was the fire which, starting from the dockyards, destroyed the great library. And thirdly, he was hard pressed during the fighting that took place on Pharos. He had sprung down from the mole into a small boat and was trying to go to the help of his men who were engaged in battle, but the Egyptians sailed up against him from all directions, and he was forced to throw himself into the sea and swim, only just managing to escape. This was the time when, according to the story, he was holding a number of papers in his hand and would not let them go, though he was being shot at from all sides and was often under water. Holding the papers above the surface with one hand, he swam with the other. (His small boat had been sunk immediately.)

Finally, however, after the king had gone over to the side of the enemy, Caesar marched against him and defeated him in battle. Many fell in this battle and the king himself was one of the missing. Caesar then set out for Syria. He left Cleopatra as queen of Egypt, and a little later she had a son by him, whom the Alexandrians called Caesarion.

 






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