Cleopatra goes to Rome

I am far behind where I wanted to be by now in my series of posts on Cleopatra. The first post was about context. The second post was about Alexandria and her childhood. In the third post, Julius Caesar shows up and then there’s an Egyptian Civil War. Today we’ll be covering Cleopatra’s relationship with Caesar.

Where were we? Oh yes, Caesar and Cleopatra were taking a vacation down the Nile. It was ostensibly to show off her power to Egypt, but she also reportedly wanted to show Caesar the Pyramids. Whatever the trip’s motive, she was pregnant by their return, and Caesar needed to get back to Rome in order to consolidate his power. (Also, Antony wasn’t doing a very good job ruling in Caesar’s place, and Caesar needed to do some clean-up work.) Caesar leaves 14,000 troops in Egypt to protect it and Cleopatra, and he took Arsinoe, one of Cleopatra’s traitorous sisters with him to parade in his eventual triumph.

Cleopatra ruled capably. She ran both the secular and religious bureaucracies, answering correspondence, being briefed by advisers, made decisions, received calls from people on various forms of business, supervised the distribution of grain and seed, and was generally in charge of almost everything in Egypt. She also was the judge over petty complaints between her citizens, and the head of the very complicated tax bureau.

Remember that Egypt was in a bad way, economically, when Auletes died. Cleopatra took the economy firmly into her control. She devalued the currency, and introduced coins worth different amounts (rather than only a single-value coin). She also was personally wealthy, and Alexandria’s arts scene flourished.

Caesar had been in Rome for about a year and in July 46BCE, Cleopatra travelled to Rome (at his request). She brought along many advisors, her son, and lots of gifts designed to show how wealthy Egypt was. Caesar installed her and their son in one of his country estates just outside the city proper. It was lavish by Roman standards, but probably only seemed acceptable to Egyptian ones – Rome was still made of wood, while Alexandria was a city of marble. Cicero didn’t like her very much, but others flocked to see her. It was very different than when her father was in Rome. She very generous to singers and musicians in Rome, trying to create a more cultured city.

Cleopatra also helped Caesar on a number of his projects: creating a library of Rome, improving the canals and draining the marshes around Rome, and advising him on updating the calendar.

She stayed in Rome for a couple of years. It was not a good place for her. Latin was not one of the nine languages she spoke fluently, and women in Rome had no legal standing. Not to mention that Caesar was married to someone else.

There’s an assumption that Cleopatra goes back to Alexandria in 45BCE for a visit. However, she’s back in Rome when Caesar is assassinated in 44BCE.

By early 44BCE, the Romans were looking askance at Caesar. He’d taken on some of the Egyptian practices that the Romans don’t like very much: in particular, in Egypt the pharaohs are part deity, but in Rome they’re just plain old men. So when Caesar puts up a statue of Cleopatra in the temple of Venus, it’s a scandal. Then he put up statues of himself in the temples. He also may have someone up to trying to crown him King (another thing the Romans really, really hated). Plus, they started to see her as a general bad influence from the East. (I’m glossing over a lot of complicated politics which only tangentially have to do with Cleopatra. If you want to learn more, may I suggest the Life of Caesar podcast?)

So a group of Senators decided to assassinate Caesar, and they succeeded on the ides of March in 44BCE. Cleopatra was still in the city; she was blamed for his Easternisation. Caesar made no move to recognize his son with Cleopatra in his will. She left Rome about a week after his death.

Next time: Cleopatra returns to Alexandria and continues to restore the city to its former glory. She’s going to get pulled back into Roman politics before too long, though.