Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome – Antony and Cleopatra

After the death of Julius Casar, the great Roman general and emperor, there was civil war in the Roman commonwealth. Augustus Caesar and Mark Antony were the chiefs of one party and Brutus and Cassius of the other. Brutus and Cassius were killed in a battle at Philippi and their army was broken up. Augustus Caesar then went back to Italy, but Antony went on to Asia. In Asia there were still some of the party of Brutus and Cassius, and the king of Parthia was promising to help them. There was danger, also, that Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, might be on that side.

While he was making preparation for the Parthian war, Antony sent his lieutenant, Dellius, to command Cleopatra to make her appearance in Cilicia, to answer an accusation that in the late wars she had given assistance to Cassius. Dellius had no sooner seen her face and remarked her adroitness and subtlety in speech, than he bade her go to Cilicia in her best attire and to fear nothing from Antony, the gentlest and kindest of soldiers. He well knew that Antony would not molest a woman like this.

Cleopatra had some faith in the words of Dellius, but more in her own attractions. She made great preparation for her journey, of money, gifts, and ornaments of value, such as so wealthy a kingdom might afford, but her surest hopes were in her own magic arts and charms.

She received several letters to summon her, but she took no account of these orders, and at last, as if in mockery of them, she came sailing up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes.

The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone, sitting upon the tribunal, while the word went through all the multitude that Venus was come for the common good of Asia.

On her arrival Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it more fitting that he should come to her; so, willing to show his good humor and courtesy, he complied and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights, for on a sudden there was let down all together so great a number of branches, with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equaled for beauty.

The next day Antony invited her to supper and was very desirous to outdo her in magnificence as well as in contrivance, but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit and his rustic awkwardness.

Her actual beauty, it was said, was not so remarkable, but her presence was irresistible. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another, so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter. To most of them she spoke herself, — to the Ethiopians, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learned ; this was all the more surprising because most of the kings, her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue.

Antony was so captivated by her that he suffered himself to be carried away to Alexandria, there to keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away in enjoyments that most costly of all valuables — time.

Adapted from Plutarch’s ” Parallel Lives ”

Antony (an’to ni): Caesar’s friend. — Cleopatra (kle o pa’tra). — Julius Caesar (jool’yus se’zar). — Augustus (au güs’tus): Julius Caesar’s nephew and successor. — Brutus (broo’tus) and Cassius (kash’i us): two of the conspirators against Caesar. — Philippi (fi lip’i): a town in Greece. — Parthia (par’thi a): an ancient country in the southwestern part of Asia. — Dellius (dell us). — Cilicia (si lish’i a) : an ancient Roman province in southwestern Asia. — Cydnus (sid’nus). —Alma-Tadema (al’ma-tad’ e ma). —Venus (ve’nus): goddess of love. — cupid (ku pid): the little god of love, son of Venus. — contrivance: clever arrangement. — Ethiopians (e thi o’pi anz): inhabitants of Ethiopia, in ancient geography considered to be part of the upper Nile valley. —Medes (medz). —Plutarch (ploo tark): a celebrated Greek writer living in the first century. — “Parallel Lives” : a book containing the biographies of forty-six Greeks and Romans.