Cæsar in Egypt
C AESAR surveyed the field of battle after the victory of Pharsalia, not with the feelings of exultation which might have been expected in a victorious general, but with compassion and sorrow for the fallen soldiers whose dead bodies covered the ground. After gazing upon the scene sadly and in silence for a time, he said, "They would have it so," and thus dismissed from his mind all sense of his own responsibility for the consequences which had ensued.
He treated the immense body of prisoners which had fallen into his hands with great clemency, partly from the natural impulses of his disposition, which were always generous and noble, and partly from policy, that he might conciliate them all, officers and soldiers, to acquiescence in his future rule. He then sent back a large portion of his force to Italy, and, taking a body of cavalry from the rest, in order that he might advance with the utmost possible rapidity, he set off through Thessaly and Macedon in pursuit of his fugitive foe.
He had no naval force at his command, and he accordingly kept upon the land. Besides, he wished, by moving through the country at the head of an armed force, to make a demonstration which should put down any attempt that might be made in any quarter to rally or concentrate a force in Pompey's favor. He crossed the Hellespont, and moved down the coast of Asia Minor. There was a great temple consecrated to Diana at Ephesus, which, for its wealth and magnificence, was then the wonder of the world. The authorities who had it in their charge, not aware of Cæsar's approach, had concluded to withdraw the treasures from the temple and loan them to Pompey, to be repaid when he should have regained his power. An assembly was accordingly convened to witness the delivery of the treasures, and take note of their value, which ceremony was to be performed with great formality and parade, when they learned that Cæsar had crossed the Hellespont and was drawing near. The whole proceeding was thus arrested, and the treasures were retained.
Cæsar passed rapidly on through Asia Minor, examining and comparing, as he advanced, the vague rumors which were continually coming in in respect to Pompey's movements. He learned at length that he had gone to Cyprus; he presumed that his destination was Egypt, and he immediately resolved to provide himself with a fleet, and follow him thither by sea. As time passed on, and the news of Pompey's defeat and flight, and of Cæsar's triumphant pursuit of him, became generally extended and confirmed, the various powers ruling in all that region of the world abandoned one after another the hopeless cause, and began to adhere to Cæsar. They offered him such resources and aid as he might desire. He did not, however, stop to organize a large fleet or to collect an army. He depended, like Napoleon, in all the great movements of his life, not on grandeur of preparation, but on celerity of action. He organized at Rhodes a small but very efficient fleet of ten galleys, and, embarking his best troops in them, he made sail for the coasts of Egypt. Pompey had landed at Pelusium, on the eastern frontier, having heard that the young king and his court were there to meet and resist Cleopatra's invasion. Cæsar, however, with the characteristic boldness and energy of his character, proceeded directly to Alexandria, the capital.
Egypt was, in those days, an ally of the Romans, as the phrase was; that is, the country, though it preserved its independent organization and its forms of royalty, was still united to the Roman people by an intimate league, so as to form an integral part of the great empire. Cæsar, consequently, in appearing there with an armed force, would naturally be received as a friend. He found only the garrison which Ptolemy's government had left in charge of the city. At first the officers of this garrison gave him an outwardly friendly reception, but they soon began to take offense at the air of authority and command which he assumed, and which seemed to them to indicate a spirit of encroachment on the sovereignty of their own king.
Feelings of deeply-seated alienation and animosity sometimes find their outward expression in contests about things intrinsically of very little importance. It was so in this case. The Roman consuls were accustomed to use a certain badge of authority called the fasces. It consisted of a bundle of rods, bound around the handle of an ax. Whenever a consul appeared in public, he was preceded by two officers called lictors, each of whom carried the fasces as a symbol of the power which was vested in the distinguished personage who followed them.
The Egyptian officers and the people of the city quarreled with Cæsar on account of his moving about among them in his imperial state, accompanied by a life guard, and preceded by the lictors. Contests occurred between his troops and those of the garrison, and many disturbances were created in the streets of the city. Although no serious collision took place, Cæsar thought it prudent to strengthen his force, and he sent back to Europe for additional legions to come to Egypt and join him.
The tidings of Pompey's death came to Cæsar at Alexandria, and with them the head of the murdered man, which was sent by the government of Ptolemy, they supposing that it would be an acceptable gift to Cæsar. Instead of being pleased with it, Cæsar turned from the shocking spectacle in horror. Pompey had been, for many years now gone by, Cæsar's colleague and friend. He had been his son-in-law, and thus had sustained to him a very near and endearing relation. In the contest which had at last unfortunately arisen, Pompey had done no wrong either to Cæsar or to the government at Rome. He was the injured party, so far as there was a right and a wrong to such a quarrel. And now, after being hunted through half the world by his triumphant enemy, he had been treacherously murdered by men pretending to receive him as a friend. The natural sense of justice, which formed originally so strong a trait in Cæsar's character, was not yet wholly extinguished. He could not but feel some remorse at the thoughts of the long course of violence and wrong which he had pursued against his old champion and friend, and which had led at last to so dreadful an end. Instead of being pleased with the horrid trophy which the Egyptians sent him, he mourned the death of his great rival with sincere and unaffected grief, and was filled with indignation against his murderers.
Pompey had a signet ring upon his finger at the time of his assassination, which was taken off by the Egyptian officers and carried away to Ptolemy, together with the other articles of value which had been found upon his person. Ptolemy sent this seal to Cæsar to complete the proof that its possessor was no more. Cæsar received this memorial with eager though mournful pleasure, and he preserved it with great care. And in many ways, during all the remainder of his life, he manifested every outward indication of cherishing the highest respect for Pompey's memory. There stands to the present day, among the ruins of Alexandria, a beautiful column, about one hundred feet high, which has been known in all modern times as Pompey's Pillar. It is formed of stone, and is in three parts. One stone forms the pedestal, another the shaft, and a third the capital. The beauty of this column, the perfection of its workmanship, which still continues in excellent preservation, and its antiquity, so great that all distinct record of its origin is lost, have combined to make it for many ages the wonder and admiration of mankind. Although no history of its origin has come down to us, a tradition has descended that Cæsar built it during his residence in Egypt, to commemorate the name of Pompey; but whether it was his own victory over Pompey, or Pompey's own character and military fame which the structure was intended to signalize to mankind, can not now be known. There is even some doubt whether it was erected by Cæsar at all.
While Cæsar was in Alexandria, many of Pompey's officers, now that their master was dead, and there was no longer any possibility of their rallying again under his guidance and command, came in and surrendered themselves to him. He received them with great kindness, and, instead of visiting them with any penalties for having fought against him, he honored the fidelity and bravery they had evinced in the service of their own former master. Cæsar had, in fact, shown the same generosity to the soldiers of Pompey's army that he had taken prisoners at the battle of Pharsalia. At the close of the battle, he issued orders that each one of his soldiers should have permission to save one of the enemy. Nothing could more strikingly exemplify both the generosity and the tact that marked the great conqueror's character than this incident. The hatred and revenge which had animated his victorious soldiery in the battle and in the pursuit, were changed immediately by the permission to compassion and good will. The ferocious soldiers turned at once from the pleasure of hunting their discomfited enemies to death, to that of protecting and defending them; and the way was prepared for their being received into his service, and incorporated with the rest of his army as friends and brothers.
Cæsar soon found himself in so strong a position at Alexandria, that he determined to exercise his authority as Roman consul to settle the dispute in respect to the succession of the Egyptian crown. There was no difficulty in finding pretexts for interfering in the affairs of Egypt. In the first place, there was, as he contended, great anarchy and confusion at Alexandria, people taking different sides in the controversy with such fierceness as to render it impossible that good government and public order should be restored until this great question was settled. He also claimed a debt due from the Egyptian government, which Photinus, Ptolemy's minister at Alexandria, was very dilatory in paying. This led to animosities and disputes; and, finally, Cæsar found, or pretended to find, evidence that Photinus was forming plots against his life. At length Cæsar determined on taking decided action. He sent orders both to Ptolemy and to Cleopatra to disband their forces, to repair to Alexandria, and lay their respective claims before him for his adjudication.
Cleopatra complied with this summons, and returned to Egypt with a view to submitting her case to Cæsar's arbitration. Ptolemy determined to resist. He advanced toward Egypt, but it was at the head of his army, and with a determination to drive Cæsar and all his Roman followers away.
When Cleopatra arrived, she found that the avenues of approach to Cæsar's quarters were all in possession of her enemies, so that, in attempting to join him, she incurred danger of falling into their hands as a prisoner. She resorted to a stratagem, as the story is, to gain a secret admission. They rolled her up in a sort of bale of bedding or carpeting, and she was carried in in this way on the back of a man, through the guards, who might otherwise have intercepted her. Cæsar was very much pleased with this device, and with the successful result of it. Cleopatra, too, was young and beautiful, and Cæsar immediately conceived a strong but guilty attachment to her, which she readily returned. Cæsar espoused her cause, and decided that she and Ptolemy should jointly occupy the throne.
Ptolemy and his partisans were determined not to submit to this award. The consequence was, a violent and protracted war. Ptolemy was not only incensed at being deprived of what he considered his just right to the realm, he was also half distracted at the thought of his sister's disgraceful connection with Cæsar. His excitement and distress, and the exertions and efforts to which they aroused him, awakened a strong sympathy in his cause among the people, and Cæsar found himself involved in a very serious contest, in which his own life was brought repeatedly into the most imminent danger, and which seriously threatened the total destruction of his power. He, however, braved all the difficulty and dangers, and recklessly persisted in the course he had taken, under the influence of the infatuation in which his attachment to Cleopatra held him, as by a spell.
The war in which Cæsar was thus involved by his efforts to give Cleopatra a seat with her brother on the Egyptian throne, is called in history the Alexandrine war. It was marked by many strange and romantic incidents. There was a light-house, called the Pharos, on a small island opposite the harbor of Alexandria, and it was so famed, both on account of the great magnificence of the edifice itself, and also on account of its position at the entrance to the greatest commercial port in the world, that it has given its name, as a generic appellation, to all other structures of the kind—any light-house being now called a Pharos, just as any serious difficulty is called a Gordian knot. The Pharos was a lofty tower—the accounts say that it was five hundred feet in height, which would be an enormous elevation for such a structure—and in a lantern at the top a brilliant light was kept constantly burning, which could be seen over the water for a hundred miles. The tower was built in several successive stories, each being ornamented with balustrades, galleries, and columns, so that the splendor of the architecture by day rivaled the brilliancy of the radiation which beamed from the summit by night. Far and wide over the stormy waters of the Mediterranean this meteor glowed, inviting and guiding the mariners in; and both its welcome and its guidance were doubly prized in those ancient days, when there was neither compass nor sextant on which they could rely. In the course of the contest with the Egyptians, Cæsar took possession of the Pharos, and of the island on which it stood; and as the Pharos was then regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world, the fame of the exploit, though it was probably nothing remarkable in a military point of view, spread rapidly throughout the world.
And yet, though the capture of a light-house was no very extraordinary conquest, in the course of the contests on the harbor which were connected with it Cæsar had a very narrow escape from death. In all such struggles he was accustomed always to take personally his full share of the exposure and the danger. This resulted in part from the natural impetuosity and ardor of his character, which were always aroused to double intensity of action by the excitement of battle, and partly from the ideas of the military duty of a commander which prevailed in those days. There was besides, in this case, an additional inducement to acquire the glory of extraordinary exploits, in Cæsar's desire to be the object of Cleopatra's admiration, who watched all his movements, and who was doubly pleased with his prowess and bravery, since she saw that they were exercised for her sake and in her cause.
The Pharos was built upon an island, which was connected by a pier or bridge with the main land. In the course of the attack upon this bridge, Cæsar, with a party of his followers, got driven back and hemmed in by a body of the enemy that surrounded them, in such a place that the only mode of escape seemed to be by a boat, which might take them to a neighboring galley. They began, therefore, all to crowd into the boat in confusion, and so overloaded it that it was obviously in imminent danger of being upset or of sinking. The upsetting or sinking of an overloaded boat brings almost certain destruction upon most of the passengers, whether swimmers or not, as they seize each other in their terror, and go down inextricably entangled together, each held by the others in the convulsive grasp with which drowning men always cling to whatever is within their reach. Cæsar, anticipating this danger, leaped over into the sea and swam to the ship. He had some papers in his hand at the time—plans, perhaps, of the works which he was assailing. These he held above the water with his left hand, while he swam with the right. And to save his purple cloak or mantle, the emblem of his imperial dignity, which he supposed the enemy would eagerly seek to obtain as a trophy, he seized it by a corner between his teeth, and drew it after him through the water as he swam toward the galley. The boat which he thus escaped from soon after went down, with all on board.
During the progress of this Alexandrine war one great disaster occurred, which has given to the contest a most melancholy celebrity in all subsequent ages: this disaster was the destruction of the Alexandrian library. The Egyptians were celebrated for their learning, and, under the munificent patronage of some of their kings, the learned men of Alexandria had made an enormous collection of writings, which were inscribed, as was the custom in those days, on parchment rolls. The number of the rolls or volumes was said to be seven hundred thousand; and when we consider that each one was written with great care, in beautiful characters, with a pen, and at a vast expense, it is not surprising that the collection was the admiration of the world. In fact, the whole body of ancient literature was there recorded. Cæsar set fire to some Egyptian galleys, which lay so near the shore that the wind blew the sparks and flames upon the buildings on the quay. The fire spread among the palaces and other magnificent edifices of that part of the city, and one of the great buildings in which the library was stored was reached and destroyed. There was no other such collection in the world; and the consequence of this calamity has been, that it is only detached and insulated fragments of ancient literature and science that have come down to our times. The world will never cease to mourn the irreparable loss.
Notwithstanding the various untoward incidents which attended the war in Alexandria during its progress, Cæsar, as usual, conquered in the end. The young king Ptolemy was defeated, and, in attempting to make his escape across a branch of the Nile, he was drowned. Cæsar then finally settled the kingdom upon Cleopatra and a younger brother, and, after remaining for some time longer in Egypt, he set out on his return to Rome.
The subsequent adventures of Cleopatra were as romantic as to have given her name a very wide celebrity. The lives of the virtuous pass smoothly and happily away, but the tale, when told to others, possesses but little interest or attraction; while those of the wicked, whose days are spent in wretchedness and despair, and are thus full of misery to the actors themselves, afford to the rest of mankind a high degree of pleasure, from the dramatic interest of the story.
Cleopatra led a life of splendid sin, and, of course, of splendid misery. She visited Cæsar in Rome after his return thither. Cæsar received her magnificently, and paid her all possible honors; but the people of Rome regarded her with strong reprobation. When her young brother, whom Cæsar had made her partner on the throne, was old enough to claim his share, she poisoned him. After Cæsar's death, she went from Alexandria to Syria to meet Antony, one of Cæsar's successors, in a galley or barge, which was so rich, so splendid, so magnificently furnished and adorned, that it was famed throughout the world as Cleopatra's barge. A great many beautiful vessels have since been called by the same name. Cleopatra connected herself with Antony, who became infatuated with her beauty and her various charms as Cæsar had been. After a great variety of romantic adventures, Antony was defeated in battle by his great rival Octavius, and, supposing that he had been betrayed by Cleopatra, he pursued her to Egypt, intending to kill her. She hid herself in a sepulcher, spreading a report that she had committed suicide, and then Antony stabbed himself in a fit of remorse and despair. Before he died, he learned that Cleopatra was alive, and he caused himself to be carried into her presence and died in her arms. Cleopatra then fell into the hands of Octavius, who intended to carry her to Rome to grace his triumph. To save herself from this humiliation, and weary with a life which, full of sin as it had been, was a constant series of sufferings, she determined to die. A servant brought in an asp for her, concealed in a vase of flowers, at a great banquet. She laid the poisonous reptile on her naked arm, and died immediately of the bite which it inflicted.