Chapter 4: Cleopatra's Father
When the time was approaching in which Cleopatra appeared upon the stage, Rome was perhaps the only city that could be considered as the rival of Alexandria, in the estimation of mankind, in respect to interest and attractiveness as a capital. In one respect, Rome was vastly superior to the Egyptian metropolis, and that was in the magnitude and extent of the military power which it wielded among the nations of the earth. Alexandria ruled over Egypt, and over a few of the neighboring coasts and islands; but in the course of the three centuries during which she had been acquiring her greatness and fame, the Roman empire had extended itself over almost the whole civilized world. Egypt had been, thus far, too remote to be directly reached; but the affairs of Egypt itself became involved at length with the operations of the Roman power, about the time of Cleopatra's birth, in a very striking and peculiar manner; and as the consequences of the transaction were the means of turning the whole course of the queen's subsequent history, a narration of it is necessary to a proper understanding of the circumstances under which she commenced her career. In fact, it was the extension of the Roman empire to the limits of Egypt, and the connections which thence arose between the leading Roman generals and the Egyptian sovereign, which have made the story of this particular queen so much more conspicuous, as an object of interest and attention to mankind, than that of any other one of the ten Cleopatras who rose successively in the same royal line.
Ptolemy Auletes, Cleopatra's father, was perhaps, in personal character, the most dissipated, degraded, and corrupt of all the sovereigns in the dynasty. He spent his whole time in vice and debauchery. The only honest accomplishment that he seemed to possess was his skill in playing upon the flute; of this he was very vain. He instituted musical contests, in which the musical performers of Alexandria played for prizes and crowns; and he himself was accustomed to enter the lists with the rest as a competitor. The people of Alexandria, and the world in general, considered such pursuits as these wholly unworthy the attention of the representative of so illustrious a line of sovereigns, and the abhorrence which they felt for the monarch's vices and crimes was mingled with a feeling of contempt for the meanness of his ambition.
There was a doubt in respect to his title to the crown, for his birth, on the mother's side, was irregular and ignoble. Instead, however, of attempting to confirm and secure his possession of power by a vigorous and prosperous administration of the government, he wholly abandoned all concern in respect to the course of public affairs; and then, to guard against the danger of being deposed, he conceived the plan of getting himself recognized at Rome as one of the allies of the Roman people. If this were once done, he supposed that the Roman government would feel under an obligation to sustain him on his throne in the event of any threatened danger.
The Roman government was a sort of republic, and the two most powerful men in the state at this time were Pompey and Caesar. Caesar was in the ascendency at Rome at the time that Ptolemy made his application for an alliance. Pompey was absent in Asia Minor, being engaged in prosecuting a war with Mithradates, a very powerful monarch, who was at that time resisting the Roman power. Caesar was very deeply involved in debt, and was, moreover, very much in need of money, not only for relief from existing embarrassments, but as a means of subsequent expenditure, to enable him to accomplish certain great political schemes which he was entertaining. After many negotiations and delays, it was agreed that Caesar would exert his influence to secure an alliance between the Roman people and Ptolemy, on condition that Ptolemy paid him the sum of six thousand talents, equal to about six millions of dollars. A part of the money, Caesar said, was for Pompey.
The title of ally was conferred, and Ptolemy undertook to raise the money which he had promised by increasing the taxes of his kingdom. The measures, however, which he thus adopted for the purpose of making himself the more secure in his possession of the throne, proved to be the means of overthrowing him. The discontent and disaffection of his people, which had been strong and universal before, though suppressed and concealed, broke out now into open violence. That there should be laid upon them, in addition to all their other burdens, these new oppressions, heavier than those which they had endured before, and exacted for such a purpose too, was not to be endured. To be compelled to see their country sold on any terms to the Roman people was sufficiently hard to bear; but to be forced to raise, themselves, and pay the price of the transfer, was absolutely intolerable. Alexandria commenced a revolt. Ptolemy was not a man to act decidedly against such a demonstration, or, in fact, to evince either calmness or courage in any emergency whatever. His first thought was to escape from Alexandria to save his life. His second, to make the best of his way to Rome, to call upon the Roman people to come to the succor of their ally!
Ptolemy left five children behind him in his flight The eldest was the Princess Berenice, who had already reached maturity. The second was the great Cleopatra, the subject of this history. Cleopatra was, at this time, about eleven years old. There were also two sons, but they were very young. One of them was named Ptolemy.
The Alexandrians determined on raising Berenice to the throne in her father's place, as soon as his flight was known. They thought that the sons were too young to attempt to reign in such an emergency, as it was very probable that Auletes, the father, would attempt to recover his kingdom. Berenice very readily accepted the honor and power which were offered to her. She established herself in her father's palace, and began her reign in great magnificence and splendor. In process of time she thought that her position would be strengthened by a marriage with a royal prince from some neighboring realm. She first sent embassadors to make proposals to a prince of Syria named Antiochus. The embassadors came back, bringing word that Antiochus was dead, but that he had a brother named Seleucus, upon whom the succession fell. Berenice then sent them back to make the same offers to him. He accepted the proposals, came to Egypt, and he and Berenice were married. After trying him for a while, Berenice found that, for some reason or other, she did not like him as a husband, and, accordingly she caused him to be strangled.
At length, after various other intrigues and much secret management, Berenice succeeded in a second negotiation, and married a prince, or a pretended prince, from some country of Asia Minor, whose name was
Archelaus. She was better pleased with this second husband than she had been with the first, and she began, at last, to feel somewhat settled and established on her throne, and to be prepared, as she thought, to offer effectual resistance to her father in case he should ever attempt to return.
It was in the midst of the scenes, and surrounded by the influences which might be expected to prevail in the families of such a father and such a sister, that Cleopatra spent those years of life in which the character is formed. During all these revolutions, and exposed to all these exhibitions of licentious wickedness, and of unnatural cruelty and crime, she was growing up in the royal palaces a spirited and beautiful, but indulged and neglected child.
In the mean time, Auletes, the father, went on toward Rome. So far as his character and his story were known among the surrounding nations, he was the object of universal obloquy, both on account of his previous career of degrading vice, and now, still more, for this ignoble flight from the difficulties in which his vices and crimes had involved him.
He stopped, on the way, at the island of Rhodes. It happened that Cato, the great Roman philosopher and general, was at Rhodes at this time.
Cato was a man of stern, unbending virtue, and of great influence at that period in public affairs. Ptolemy sent a messenger to inform Cato of his arrival, supposing, of course, that the Roman general would hasten, on hearing of the fact, to pay his respects to so great a personage as he, a king of Egypt--a Ptolemy--though suffering under a temporary reverse of fortune. Cato directed the messenger to reply that, so far as he was aware, he had no particular business with Ptolemy.
"Say, however, to the king," he added, "that, if he has any business with me, he may call and see me, if he pleases."
Ptolemy was obliged to suppress his resentment and submit. He thought it very essential to the success of his plans that he should see Cato, and secure, if possible, his interest and co-operation; and he consequently made preparations for paying, instead of receiving, the visit, intending to go in the greatest royal state that he could command. He accordingly appeared at Cato's lodgings on the following day, magnificently dressed, and accompanied by many attendants. Cato, who was dressed in the plainest and most simple manner, and whose apartment was furnished in a style corresponding with the severity of his character, did not even rise when the king entered the room. He simply pointed with his hand, and bade the visitor take a seat.
Ptolemy began to make a statement of his case, with a view to obtaining Cato's influence with the Roman people to induce them to interpose in his behalf. Cato, however, far from evincing any disposition to espouse his visitor's cause, censured him, in the plainest terms, for having abandoned his proper position in his own kingdom, to go and make himself a victim and a prey for the insatiable avarice of the Roman leaders.
"You can do nothing at Rome," he said, "but by the influence of bribes; and all the resources of Egypt will not be enough to satisfy the Roman greediness for money." He concluded by recommending him to go back to Alexandria, and rely for his hopes of extrication from the difficulties which surrounded him on the exercise of his own energy and resolution there.
Ptolemy was greatly abashed at this rebuff, but, on consultation with his attendants and followers, it was decided to be too late now to return. The whole party accordingly re-embarked on board their galleys, and pursued their way to Rome.
Ptolemy found, on his arrival at the city, that Caesar was absent in Gaul, while Pompey, on the other hand, who had returned victorious from his campaigns against Mithradates, was now the great leader of influence and power at the Capitol. This change of circumstances was not, however, particularly unfavorable; for Ptolemy was on friendly terms with Pompey, as he had been with Caesar. He had assisted him in his wars with Mithradates by sending him a squadron of horse, in pursuance of his policy of cultivating friendly relations with the Roman people by every means in his power. Besides, Pompey had received a part of the money which Ptolemy had paid to Caesar as the price of the Roman alliance, and was to receive his share of the rest in case Ptolemy should ever be restored. Pompey was accordingly interested in favoring the royal fugitive's cause. He received him in his palace, entertained him in magnificent style, and took immediate measures for bringing his cause before the Roman Senate, urging upon that body the adoption of immediate and vigorous measures for effecting his restoration, as an ally whom they were bound to protect against his rebellious subjects. There was at first some opposition in the Roman Senate against espousing the cause of such a man, but it was soon put down, being overpowered in part by Pompey's authority, and in part silenced by Ptolemy's promises and bribes. The Senate determined to restore the king to his throne, and began to make arrangements for carrying the measure into effect.
The Roman provinces nearest to Egypt were Cilicia and Syria, countries situated on the eastern and northeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of Judea. The forces stationed in these provinces would be, of course, the most convenient for furnishing the necessary troops for the expedition. The province of Cilicia was under the command of the consul Lentulus. Lentulus was at this time at Rome; he had repaired to the capital for some temporary purpose, leaving his province and the troops stationed there under the command, for the time, of a sort of lieutenant general named Gabinius. It was concluded that this Lentulus, with his Syrian forces, should undertake the task of reinstating Ptolemy on his throne.
While these plans and arrangements were yet immature, a circumstance occurred which threatened, for a time, wholly to defeat them. It seems that when Cleopatra's father first left Egypt, he had caused a report to be circulated there that he had been killed in the revolt. The object of this stratagem was to cover and conceal his flight. The government of Berenice soon discovered the truth, and learned that the fugitive had gone in the direction of Rome. They immediately inferred that he was going to appeal to the Roman people for aid, and they determined that, if that were the case, the Roman people, before deciding in his favor, should have the opportunity to hear their side of the story as well as his. They accordingly made preparations at once for sending a very imposing embassage to Rome. The deputation consisted of more than a hundred persons. The object of Berenice's government in sending so large a number was not only to evince their respect for the Roman people, and their sense of the magnitude of the question at issue, but also to guard against any efforts that Ptolemy might make to intercept the embassage on the way, or to buy off the members of it by bribes. The number, however large as it was, proved insufficient to accomplish this purpose.
The whole Roman world was at this time in such a condition of disorder and violence, in the hands of the desperate and reckless military leaders who then bore sway, that there were everywhere abundant facilities for the commission of any conceivable crime. Ptolemy contrived, with the assistance of the fierce partisans who had espoused his cause, and who were deeply interested in his success on account of the rewards which were promised them, to waylay and destroy a large proportion of this company before they reached Rome. Some were assassinated; some were poisoned; some were tampered with and bought off by bribes. A small remnant reached Rome; but they were so intimidated by the dangers which surrounded them, that they did not dare to take any public action in respect to the business which had been committed to their charge. Ptolemy began to congratulate himself on having completely circumvented his daughter in her efforts to protect herself against his designs.
Instead of that, however, it soon proved that the effect of this atrocious treachery was exactly the contrary of what its perpetrators had expected. The knowledge of the facts became gradually extended among the people of Rome and it awakened a universal indignation. The party who had been originally opposed to Ptolemy's cause seized the opportunity to renew their opposition; and they gained so much strength from the general odium which Ptolemy's crimes had awakened, that Pompey found it almost impossible to sustain his cause.