- James Houser
48 BC - Caesar & Cleopatra
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
SEPTEMBER 28. 48 BC. The triumphant Julius Caesar has defeated his major foe – Pompey – on the plains of Pharsalus. Pursuing his beaten rival, Caesar and his small army arrive in Egypt. Here our favorite charismatic, ruthless, brilliant, future assassination victim will make new friends, new enemies, and a new girlfriend. Her name, of course, is Cleopatra. The Roman Civil War is about to take a daytime soap opera turn and I hope ya'll are ready for this.
This is the part where I tell everyone what point we’re at in the story. In case you’ve missed a few episodes (and I don’t blame you, if you’re actually reading all my posts I will be IMMENSELY surprised), this is the Roman Civil War that will bring down the Republic and result in the Empire. So I’m going to give you a timeline in the comments to show you where you are. But I’m not going to make things that hard for you, I’ll give you a brief rundown.
In 49 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar led his legions across the Rubicon River, invading Italy and sparking the Roman Civil War. Caesar led the popular faction, the Populares, in this war; his rival Pompey was a famed general and the chosen leader of the Optimates, or the faction of the Senate. (Things aren’t so cut-and-dried in real life, but this works for our purposes.) After some campaigns in Spain, Caesar led his troops over to Greece to confront Pompey’s gathering army. Even though Pompey gained some early successes, and even though Caesar’s troops were cut off, outnumbered, and starving, Julius Caesar smashed Pompey’s army at Pharsalus.
So today’s post picks up right after Caesar’s decisive victory at Pharsalus in central Greece. Most of Pompey’s army surrendered and joined Caesar’s ranks. Many of Pompey’s senatorial allies fled to Africa, or Asia, or Spain to raise up new armies and continue the struggle. Pompey himself, meanwhile, decided to flee. With only a bodyguard of thirty cavalry, he bordered a grain ship. Soon he learned that Caesar’s forces were in hot pursuit, and Pompey sailed along the coasts of Greece and Turkey looking for refuge. Finally, with his wife Cornelia and young son in tow, Pompey made the decision to sail for Egypt. He had been a friend and benefactor of Ptolemy XII, the Pharaoh, and this made the current ruler – the teenage Ptolemy XIII – indebted to him.
At this point in history, Egypt was ruled by the dynasty of the Ptolemies. After the death of Alexander the Great, one of his generals – Ptolemy – had successfully captured Egypt as his power base. While the rest of Alexander’s empire fell apart into scheming, infighting, and murder, Ptolemy held onto Egypt for dear life. He immersed himself in Egyptian traditions, including the adoption of their dress, religion, and culture.
The original Ptolemy learned that it had been a tradition of the ancient Egyptians to marry brothers and sisters in order to keep the bloodline pure. In the ultimate act of going native, Ptolemy (somehow) persuaded his own children to marry. (I can only imagine how that conversation went.) Then their children married, and so on. Right on down the line for the last 300 years, then, the Ptolemaic Dynasty had married within the family. Do I hear banjos?
As you can imagine, the subsequent quality of Egyptian leadership, um, declined. By 48 BC, Ptolemy XIII sat on the throne of Egypt, a pampered 13-year-old boy surrounded by scheming advisors and utterly without limits or inhibitions. Unfortunately for him, he had a rival – his older sister, Cleopatra. In contrast to the rest of her hopelessly inbred family, Cleopatra was intelligent, charismatic, decisive, and a powerful figure. Historians claim that while she was not a striking beauty, her force of personality and charm made her immensely attractive to everyone who met her.
Cleopatra is, of course, the iconic Egyptian queen – despite being descended from an extremely Greek dynasty of Pharaohs and having no relation to the famous New Kingdom dynasties of popular imagination. She has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and depicted in all manner of drama and literature including Shakespeare. To get into the craziness of the Cleopatra depictions would take all day, but suffice to say that if her magnetism is so huge two millennia after her death, imagine what it was like when she was alive.
Either way, at the time Pompey arrived in Egypt seeking refuge from Caesar, the young Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra were actually in the middle of a civil war for the throne. Cleopatra had refused to wed (or, ew, bed) her brother, and tried to assert power in her own right. Unbeknownst to either of them, the Romans were about to intervene decisively in this war, and purely by accident. Because Ptolemy’s advisors (led by his regent Pothinus the Eunuch) were about to make an enormous, mega-large mistake. When Pompey arrived on Egypt’s shores, they decided that they couldn’t turn him away – that would only alienate his faction. They couldn’t accept him – that would probably result in Pompey taking power in Egypt and also put them in Caesar’s crosshairs. Looks like the only thing to do is kill him! That way, we don’t have to worry about him in the future, and we’ll get on Caesar’s good side!
Late in September, Pompey’s ship floated off the coast of Egypt as some of Ptolemy’s men rowed out to join him. Among them was Achillas, the head of Pompey’s army, accompanied by a Roman mercenary named Lucius Septimus who had fought as a legionary under Pompey. Pompey’s subordinates were immediately suspicious by the odd greeting party, and Cornelia begged him not to go, but Pompey climbed on the boat as it began to row to shore, confident that the Ptolemies would not forget all they had done for him.
As the boat slowly approached the beach, the small craft was unusually quiet. Pompey tried to break the tension by addressing Septimus, who he had recognized, reminding him that he was an old comrade. Septimus nodded, but offered no other reply. Suddenly, Septimus drew his sword and plunged it into Pompey’s midsection, followed by the others. As Cornelia watched from the other boat, shrieking and crying, they severed Pompey’s head and tossed the body into the ocean. Pompey Magnus – once Rome’s greatest general, its chief politician, and the most powerful man in the world – was dead a day before his 58th birthday.
Caesar arrived only a few days later, having gotten wind of Pompey’s destination. The city of Alexandria at the time was one of the great cities of the ancient world, rivalled only by Rome itself, a magnificent harbor and multicultural center marking the bridge between east and west. It was a glorious blend of Egyptian, Greek, and Eastern culture. While any city would be proud to boast one of the great wonders of the ancient world, Alexandria boasted two: the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the tallest man-made structures in the world, and the Library of Alexandria, which housed some of the priceless works of literature and science of the ancient Greek scholars. For all their nastiness, the Ptolemies knew how to run a city.
Ptolemy XIII’s advisors – especially Pothinus the Eunuch and Achillas the general – believed firmly that they had gotten into Caesar’s good books by murdering Pompey. They were disastrously incorrect. When they presented Caesar with his rival’s head, Caesar was apocalyptically furious; he is even recorded to have wept. He had wanted to reconcile with Pompey, to bring him on his side, to make amends and join their factions! He didn’t want him *dead*! What was worse (in Caesar’s eyes), these dirty easterners had treacherously murdered his old friend and colleague in cold blood, while promising him sanctuary. (“Look how they massacred my boy!”) Pompey had once been Caesar’s friend and even his son-in-law. Above all, above everything, he had been one of Rome’s greatest generals, a Roman citizen, and the Ptolemies had no right to just…murder him like he was some tribal savage!
With the sudden realization that they had screwed up big time, Pothinus and Achillas withdrew to plan their next move, leaving Caesar and his small army of 4,000 stewing in their guest quarters. Caesar, now positively irate, demanded that Ptolemy repay all the debts he owed Rome – 17.5 million drachmas. Pothinus promised that he could pay Caesar if he left Alexandria, but Caesar rejected this out of hand. Soon Ptolemy’s army began approaching the city. It was clear that Caesar was no longer welcome, but he refused to leave. He was looking for some way to get one back over on the treacherous Egyptians. And then a solution almost literally fell into his lap.
Cleopatra had learned of Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria and the subsequent rift between him and her brother. She had been on the bad side of the dynastic civil war so far, and had been shuttling between Syria and Arabia trying to raise troops to retake her throne. Now it seemed like luck had come her way. Apparently learning that Caesar had a thing for powerful women (read: Caesar was an absolute man-whore for strong women), Cleopatra smuggled her way into Alexandria. According to one account, she had herself wrapped up in a rug to be snuck into the palace to meet Caesar. Imagine you’re Julius Caesar, and all you want is some new décor for the parlor, and there’s a teenage girl in your freaking rug.
Because Cleopatra was a teenage girl. She was either 18 or 19 years old, one of the smartest and boldest women of her age, clever and daring, meeting the 52-year-old Julius Caesar at the height of his power, charisma and fame. I’m going to be blunt: they had what each other wanted. Cleopatra saw Caesar as the force that could turn the tide in her own civil war and gain her the throne. Caesar saw Cleopatra as his new preferred ruler of Egypt, an excellent and skillful subject monarch and an easy way to sweep out Ptolemy XIII. And it should also be said that they were *obviously* attracted to each other. Everyone talks about Antony and Cleopatra (which happened later), but Caesar and Cleopatra apparently had chemistry on a nuclear scale. Best not to think too much about the age gap, things were different back then y’know.
Also, was Caesar married? Oh yes he was, but that had never stopped him before. Was Cleopatra married? No, and although the Egyptians would have been happy if she had married her brother, apparently Cleo found Old Man Caesar a significant step up from her 13-year-old, annoying, murderous brother. This is just nasty all around, guys, there’s no way of getting past it.
But enough about that. When Ptolemy XIII found out that his sister was Netflix and chilling with Caesar, he tried to rouse the populace of Alexandria into a riot against the Romans. Julius Caesar had had about enough of this pipsqueak, so he had Ptolemy arrested, used his charisma and oratorical skills to get the mob to stand down, then tried to get the siblings to play nice. The now-dead Pompey had at some point confiscated old Ptolemy XII’s will, which stated that the siblings were to rule together. (“Your dad said behave. Now behave!”)
But Ptolemy’s advisors once again screwed things up. Freeing their young king, they decided “You know what? Screw this guy, we can take him.” They had 20,000 troops outside Alexandria, compared to Caesar’s 4,000 Romans. The result was the Siege of Alexandria. Throughout the rest of 48 BC and well into 47 BC, the Egyptian forces did their best to overcome Caesar’s small Roman force. They overran most of the city and put the palace itself under siege, only to be held off both by intrigue within the Egyptian camp and by the determination of the legionaries. Caesar managed to capture and execute Pothinas, while Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe (previously her BFF) somehow took control of the army and waged war on her sister to free her brother. (No word on whether she planned to marry him. This just keeps being nasty.) Meanwhile Caesar and Cleopatra were holed up in the palace, probably having the time of their lives.
Incidentally, a major fire broke out during the fighting, which ended up destroying most of the famed Library of Alexandria. This is like one of the four fires that ended up eliminating the Library entirely throughout the centuries, and it was started by Caesar’s officers screwing up an order to burn some ships in the harbor that soon spread to the city. So I think we’re all agreed: shame on you, Caesar’s officers. SHAME.
It is important to remember that none of this happened in a vacuum. The rest of the Roman Civil War is still going on out there, guys. Pompey’s generals are raising troops in Turkey, Africa, and Spain, and Caesar’s generals are trying to fight them. Mark Antony is botching his job of ruling Rome in Caesar’s absence. The Persians are invading. And all this time, Caesar is bogged down in Alexandria, making time with a teenager and involved in someone ELSE’S civil war. Not exactly his most glorious hour, but I bet he was having fun.
Sometime in early 47 BC, though, Caesar’s reinforcements finally arrived. Julius Caesar finally woke up, realized “oh crap, I’m a general, aren’t I?” and decided it was time to get back on track. Ptolemy and Arsinoe withdrew their army to the Nile River, and Caesar followed. Their two forces were about the same size, but…it’s CAESAR. Come on. The Roman infantry battered away at the Egyptian line until they finally forced a gap, sending the Egyptian force scurrying across the river and trying to flee by boat. Ptolemy himself drowned when his ship capsized, and Arsinoe was captured – leaving Cleopatra last woman standing.
Egypt was now firmly within Caesar’s sphere of influence, with his girlfriend on the throne. Cleopatra was top dog in the East, since her boyfriend was the most powerful man in the world and obviously besotted with her. She even accompanied him back to Rome, causing a major scandal when Caesar put his Egyptian girlfriend up in lavish lodgings in the heart of the Republic, only yards away from his wife (who to be honest was probably used to this by now.) Cleopatra would rule Egypt for the next 18 years, her rule finally ending only after another series of romantic soap-opera adventures that left her at the cold, cruel mercy of Augustus Caesar. She and Julius Caesar had at least one child – Caesarion – who would not survive Augustus’ rise to power. No one said this ended happily.
But that was all later. Now, Caesar and Cleopatra finally had time to relax. They spent the entire month of April 47 BC on a long, leisurely cruise up the Nile – the ancient equivalent of a trip to Cancun. I imagine the guards got very tired of that trip very fast.
But it’s all good! Within months, Caesar would be back to knocking heads. He ran up to Syria, kicked around the armies of the East, and made his famous humblebrag “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) after his magnificent victory at Zela. Then he went around to Africa and Spain and kicked a bunch more ass. This is all like three more posts’ worth of material.
But would you rather have heard about Battle #3759, or about Caesar and Cleopatra? I think I know the answer, but let me know in the comments.