To criticise a woman such as Cleopatra is an easy matter, and Cleopatra has found many critics - hostile critics. But even they cannot deny the stupendous power of her fascination. Alike, all men and all ages have acknowledged her to be a woman to whom human records can afford no parallel.
With questions of ethics this article is not concerned. Cleopatra lived and died two thousand years ago, hence even to attempt to justify her would be superfluous, for, with the exception of that of the Royal house of Egypt, she acknowledged no code of social rules.
The personality of the great Queen of Egypt to-day still fascinates and attracts mankind because it was intensely human. All else time can change; human nature it cannot change, and upon the canvas of history Cleopatra still stands out as a lovely woman, possessed of that goodness and those thousand frailties which make woman adorable in the eyes of man. Moreover, she was a great woman. That she enslaved Mark Antony does not prove her greatness. This a lesser woman could have done, but only a great woman could have won the love and slavish admiration of Julius Caesar. That proud conqueror, that unrivalled administrator, she blinded to all else, save the loveliness of her person and the joy of possessing her.
Of her country, origin, and early years but little need be said. She was born at Alexandria some sixty-eight or sixty-nine years before Christ; she was the daughter of Ptolemy XII.; she was the heiress to his throne, and at an early age developed into a scholar and linguist of exceptional brilliance. "Her beauty," Plutarch declared, . . . . was not altogether beyond comparison, nor such that one could look at her without being struck by it. But familiarity with her had an irresistible charm, and the attraction of her person, combined with her persuasive manner of speech . was something bewitching."
Although it is not a glowing eulogy, Plutarch's estimate perhaps is just. Cleopatra was not one of the world's great beauties, nor was she a grande amoureuse. Among the women who have figured in this series of romances, she ranks perhaps most nearly to the Empress Josephine. Cleopatra was an enchanter of men.
She ascended the throne of Egypt in B.c. 51, She was then seventeen or eighteen years of age, but by the terms of her father's will was forced to share the throne with her brother, Ptolemy Dionysos, a boy eleven years of age. This child, in accordance with the custom of Egyptian monarchs, she duly married!
The system of dual authority, however, led immediately to civil war, for Cleopatra and her brother both desired absolute power. In this family feud the Roman people were directly interested, since the late king had nominated them as executors of his will. But in Rome, too, the clouds of civil strife were gathering. Caesar had returned, the
Love conqueror of Gaul and Britain, and found the government which Pompey had established in need of drastic reformation. An appeal to arms was made, and in B.c. 48 the verdict of the battle of Pharsalia awarded the supremacy to Caesar. Pompey, utterly defeated, fled to Egypt and appealed for help. Caesar followed. Ptolemy, however, already at war with Cleopatra, was much too cunning to espouse the cause of the vanquished Roman. Accordingly, he beguiled Pompey, and when Caesar landed was able to welcome him with the head of his defeated rival.
The Conquest of Caesar
Caesar, therefore, found himself free to undertake the pacification of Egypt, and, with this aim in view, proposed a friendly conference. The idea pleased Ptolemy less than Cleopatra, for the latter saw that if only she could cast the spell of her fascination over Caesar, the way would be clear to the realisation of her hopes.
Immediately, therefore, she set out for Alexandria. But to enter the town was no easy matter. It was still in the possession of her brother, and Caesar himself, to all intents and purposes, was a prisoner within its walls. Danger, however, served only to stimulate the resourceful daring of the queen. In the growing darkness of one evening, therefore, she entered a small boat secretly, and was rowed to a spot where the water of the harbour washed the very walls of the palace. From here, tied up in a sack such as the Egyptians then used for carrying bedclothes, she was carried by a faithful servant into Caesar's presence.
The day was won. Caesar had seen Cleopatra.
Henceforth the claims of Ptolemy Dionysos counted with him for nothing. Cleopatra was an aggrieved queen, to whom must be restored the privileges which were hers by right. This Caesar did, but in the doing of it he became entangled in the meshes of ,the greatest passion of his life. Tear himself away from Egypt he could not, and there for many precious months he lingered. Blinded by love, he was heedless to the call of duty. His self-respect, his thirst for power - both he forgot. Indeed, to Cleopatra he gave up everything, save the consciousness of Roman citizenship, and this was the last thing a Roman ever lost.
In the company of his inamorata, the great conqueror set out on a journey up the Nile. A journey! It was a gorgeous, pageant-like procession, and in it Caesar, the hardy warrior, presented an incongruous figure as he lay dreaming in the lap of luxury such as only the Orient and Cleopatra could provide.
The royal vessel, which was accompanied by 400 ships, was a huge floating palace 300 feet long, 45 feet wide, and double-decked. The banqueting saloons and bed-rooms were the perfection of Grecian grace and comfort, the colonnade a triumph of Egyptian art, the artificial cave of gold and stone, the chapel of Aphrodite, were visions of aestheticism which alone could have been conceived in the luxuriously extravagant mind of Caesar's hostess.
With placing him, however, amid surroundings which exceeded his most rapturous dreams Cleopatra was not content. Caesar was a man of action. Merely to gratify his senses, she knew, was not enough. She turned upon him, therefore, the full force of her fascination, played to his every mood, and, like a snake, she coiled herself round and round his heart. It was in her remark-able adaptability that lay the secret of Cleopatra's power. This Shakespeare realised when he wrote: