Chapter 51 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
I met the Aegyptian queen after the triumphs were celebrated, but while the feasts and entertainments were still in full swing, just as Caesar’s wooing of the People reached its zenith. Each male citizen was given four hundred sestertii, what he would have earned in several months of daily labor, plus generous distributions of grain, wine and meat. Amidst the merrymaking, Cleopatra was all but trapped at Caesar’s estate on the wooded hill of the Janiculum, across the Tiber. He did not wish her to appear beside him in public, for the People might conclude that she was his consort, and that he aspired to kingship. She was invited to dine by a few select friends of Caesar, but Romans were proud of the fact that they bowed to no royalty, and many a citizen who boasted of his own aristocratic forebears was ostentatiously unimpressed by Cleopatra’s descent from Ptolemaeus Savior, the first Macedonian King of Aegyptus after Alexandros himself.
Despite his caution, Caesar hardly hid his admiration for Cleopatra. He had dallied with her in Aegyptus for months, cruising the Nilus river while Italia decayed under Antonius, his dissipated Master of the Horse. Everyone knew that the queen lived in his suburban villa, and he erected a golden statue of her inside his brilliant marble-clad temple of Venus the Originator. Both of them went about with sizable retinues, so neither could visit the other without drawing attention. As Caesar did not go to the queen more than once in a month, she must have been bored and increasingly demanding of his attention. When I received Caesar’s note asking me to call upon Cleopatra, I concluded that my role was to distract her.
Though dubious about my reception by such an exalted person, I made little effort to dress up. Anna wove my hair into two braids along my scalp and formed them into a knot on the back of my head. I donned my usual roughspun, undyed tunic, a matching cloak with wooden pin, and tied on a rather ragged pair of leather shoes.
The Janiculum hill was about an hour’s walk from the Aventine house, and I regretted the lack of a sun hat, but when I reached the hill, the trees offered shade in compensation for the steep climb. Caesar’s estate was bounded by a wall to keep out curiosity-seekers. At the gate stood a burly guard, who looked to be ex-legionary. He cast a sour look at me. “Be off with you, woman. Your kind don’t belong here.”
“You will announce, if you please, that Lucia presents herself at Gaius Julius Caesar’s invitation, to pay a call upon Cleopatra of Aegyptus, the Seventh of Her Name, She Who Reveres Her Father,” I stated firmly.
“No, I won’t announce nothing to Queen High and Mighty who can go fuck her father, for all I care,” he mimicked in a high voice.
I sighed, for I had been wary of just such a dismissal. “Is this how Caesar’s guards treat foreign guests in his house? And are they so scornful of his People? You may be certain that he will hear of these insults.”
I turned to go, but a second man, even larger than the first and clad in a brilliant red tunic, had emerged from the gatehouse. He addressed me in heavily accented Latin, awkward but fluent. “Mistress Lucia? Yes, your visit having been announced by the secretary of the Consul, we were informed. Apologies!” Here he glared at the guard. “Please to follow me.” My rescuer was muscular and completely bald. He moved lightly, for all his size. “You see what the Daughter of Ra, She of the Sedge and Bee, is to endure at the hands of these louts of Caesar’s soldiers. This is a barbaric land, Mistress, and to leave it we shall not be sorry, when the time comes.”
Our path meandered up a walkway lined by marble statues and fountains, and shaded by umbrella pines. The huge gatekeeper took me past the guards at the villa’s entrance, and left me in the atrium. There I waited, contemplating the fresco, which showed Caesar as Pontifex Maximus, conducting a bull sacrifice for Jupiter Best and Greatest. In the portrait, he had a full head of hair. At last a slender young woman dressed in a Greek-style gown of brilliant yellow silk came to fetch me. She had been informed in advance of my strange attire, or perhaps was too well-trained to betray surprise.
“My name is Charmian, Mistress,” she said in Greek. “The queen has been expecting you.” I followed her into the garden, where Cleopatra reclined on a magnificent inlaid ebony couch, reading aloud from an oration in Latin. Two female slaves held the scroll before her; one unrolled it, while the other rolled it up again as each column was read.
Charmian was about to announce me, but before she could do so, Cleopatra spoke from behind her book. “A welcome respite from these Latin lessons! I read to myself, you see, for this helps me to remember.” Immediately the two slaves put away the scroll with graceful movements, and she beckoned me to a couch opposite, continuing, “Tell me of yourself, Lucia. Gaius declares that you are a woman of learning, and I see that your dress is of the most humble. From this I conclude that you are a philosopher.”
The queen’s beauty has been much remarked upon by people who never saw her. She was not attractive in the common way, yet she was able to draw one’s attention, as a magnet draws an iron nail to itself. She had a beakish nose and a sharp chin, somewhat softened by dark curls, which were bound loosely, allowing wisps to escape here and there. Her eyes were intelligent and held a sardonic expression, so that one could not be quite certain when she was mocking. Her voice was her principal asset: musical, low, and seductive.
“A philosopher? That is not inaccurate, O queen,” I answered carefully in Greek, grateful for my childhood lessons from Andromeda. “I belong to… a school which teaches the renunciation of possessions.”
One delicately arched eyebrow rose. So far as I could tell, she was not wearing cosmetics, but she had the clear, firm skin of youth, for she was still only twenty-three. Her dress was exceedingly rich yet not gaudy: silk chiton of pale blue, a long necklace of small pearls, larger pearls scattered about her black hair, and sandals held to her feet by strings of sparkling tiny blue gemstones.
“A Cynic then? Like Hipparchia of Thracia, wife to the celebrated Crates?”
“Our philosophy is related to theirs, I suppose, but I am no one’s wife. We are a school of women, and we bind ourselves by a promise not to cohabit or marry, though we have relations with men when we wish.”
“Aha!” she laughed, “then you have beaten Hipparchia at her own game, for she bowed to the social convention of marriage, where you utterly reject it.”
“That is so,” I agreed, as the slaves brought refreshments of cucumber-water, the finest black olives, thin-sliced breads, and cheese drizzled with honey.
“And you are a friend of Gaius. You have slept with him, of course.”
The question was designed to shock me and elicit a reaction which would reveal the truth. Though I was surprised by her frankness, I did not blame her for raising the issue immediately. If we were to be friends, or as close to friends as persons of her station and mine could be, she needed to know.
I looked her in the eye. “I refused him, though I care for him and always have.”
She inclined her head, her brow creasing. “I am afraid that makes you my rival, for Caesar’s nature is such that he most avidly pursues whatever is withheld from him. I should have preferred it if he had already bedded you.”
“Yet you would not wish me to sleep with him now.”
“No,” she agreed, smiling. “Roma teems with his mistresses already. Lucia, you will not be offended if I say what a dismal place this is? From this hill, I look out over a city of wood and clay, I who have spent my life in Alexandria! To be sure, Roma is large, but so lacking in refinements—no amenities for the citizens, no real baths, no gymnasia, only one theatre, cramped little temples, and a muddy dromos for horse-racing, with rickety wooden stands. Oh, Caesar’s new forum will be attractive,” she continued, warming to her topic, “but the city itself ought to be torn down and planned according to Hippodamian principles, with a proper grid, and lovely wide avenues planted with trees.”
“That sounds beautiful,” I said, thinking of what the People would say (and do) if Caesar announced plans to tear down their homes in the Subura and Argiletum, or to clear the Aventine. “But what Roma needs most is a Library.”
“Quite right,” she cried enthusiastically. “Gaius plans to build both Greek and Latin libraries, and has asked Asinius Pollio to undertake the collection of books. I would gladly have contributed to this most noble effort, but for the damage my own Library sustained during the seige.”
“The Library at Alexandria… damaged?” I asked. I had not imagined that anything could happen to the Library, for in my mind it was immortal.
“A terrible loss,” said Cleopatra. “When my sister beseiged us, Caesar’s men were desperate to prevent her troops from seizing the ships in the harbor. They set fire to the ships, and a nearby warehouse was burned. It was the Library annex, containing many thousands of volumes. Oh, the greatest treasures were unharmed,” she went on as I stared at her in shock. “The Athenian copies of Homer and the tragedians, several of Aristotle’s works in his own hand, and all the poetic delights of Callimachus. But much has been lost, which I fear I cannot replace. I have sent to Pergamum, to find whether they can supply exemplars, but Pollio will doubtless be given priority.”
“Pardon me, O queen,” I said, for I felt as unsteady as if I had received a blow. “That the quarrels of men, who will die after a few years, should cause harm to the Library, which is for all time… this is a matter of lasting regret.”
“Precisely,” she agreed. “Not only for all time, but for all the world. I have taken care to add books in Syrian and Persian, and naturally in the Aegyptian tongue, all of which I have learned to speak and read. The Jewish tales of the hero Danel! The secrets of the Magi! The Philaean prayers to Isis! What Roman can say that he knows the languages of the people he governs? Even Gaius is limited to Latin and Greek.”
“He spoke true when he called you most learned,” I replied, dazzled at the prospect of such an education. She must have had a tutor for each language! “When I was younger, I made a particular study of the Roman gods, and I have a great curiosity about the gods of other nations. I should like to read all the books you describe.”
“Why, then you must come to Alexandria,” replied the queen. “You would be most welcome.” I asked more questions about the riches of the Library, and was consoled for the loss of so many books by the knowledge of all that had survived—more than I could read if I spent the rest of my life in the Museum.
“Now I should like to know more of this synod of women philosophers,” said Cleopatra. “What does your school consider the greatest good? To apprehend the Beautiful, as Plato would have it? Or to be in harmony with the cosmos, as the Stoics teach?”
“We count freedom the greatest good.”
This caught her attention. “Freedom? Yes, I was forgetting that you are a Roman. Above all else, you hate kings and queens!”
“In fact, O queen, I do not consider myself Roman, nor am I greatly concerned with the merits of a republic over a monarchy. The women of my synod seek freedom in a relative sense. We wish to enjoy the same right as men to direct the course of our own lives.”
Cleopatra nodded her understanding. “And what of Plato’s republic, in which men and women were to be regarded as equals, yet every aspect of their lives was regulated? Would you wish to live in his state? It is not unlike my realm, for there all life depends on the Nilus, and a farmer’s every action is prescribed in order to take full advantage of the annual flood. An inundation which measures even an inch higher or lower requires a different response, and therefore we cannot leave people to decide their own course of action. Yet when it comes to equality under the law, our native Aegyptian women enjoy much more freedom than the poor wretches here in Roma.”
“That is a difficult question, but think I should prefer equality under the law, even if ultimate freedoms were constrained.”
“As they always are,” she replied. “We are none of us free. Some are slaves to appetite; others are slaves to the ill-luck which limits their choices. Do you think I am free, Lucia? I was born to my role and cannot renounce it. Even if I attempted to abdicate, my successor would not rest until I was dead.”
“And yet, if you could exchange places today with one of your slaves, would you do so?”
She laughed. “What a delightful conversation! For a precious hour, you have caused me to forget the unpleasant truth that Caesar neglects me, and delays recognizing our son or making due legal provision for his future. I am certain that he sent you to me with just this purpose in mind. I shall chide him for his strategem the next time I see him, yet I should like you to visit me again.”
Such was my first meeting with the queen.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: Caesar was indeed responsible for burning a part of the great Library at Alexandria. He made plans to build a comparable library at Rome, but they were cut short by his assassination. Also, we think of Rome as a city of marble, but in Caesar’s time, it still lacked most of its great monuments.