Cruising with Caesar

Caesar: A Life in Western Culture

by Maria Wyke.
University of Chicago Press, 287 pp., $25.00

Julius Caesar

by Philip Freeman
Simon and Schuster, 405 pp., $30.00

Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History

by Denis Feeney
University of California Press, 372 pp., $29.95; $18.95 (paper)

In the spring of 47 BCE, Julius Caesar took a Nile cruise. The civil wars that would make him sole ruler of Rome were drawing to a close. His main rival and erstwhile ally, Pompey the Great, had been decapitated—and Caesar had even managed to produce some tears when the head was brought to him. The internecine fighting in Egypt, which was in effect another civil war between the young queen Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy, had been crushed. Caesar himself had safely escaped from the palace in Alexandria where he had been besieged by Ptolemy’s forces.

True, many of Pompey’s supporters were still under arms. The loss of the leader did not necessarily mean the loss of the cause. Indeed, Pompey’s son would not finally be defeated until 35 BCE, almost a decade after Caesar’s own assassination. What is more, a thousand miles away from the Nile delta in Rome itself, Caesar’s control was still provisional at best. But he needed a vacation—and was hopelessly in love. So rather than take the next steps in consolidating his power, he opted instead for a month-long Nile cruise, in the company of his mistress, Cleopatra, who was by then heavily pregnant with his child, Caesarion. While Rome was made to wait, Caesar indulged his carnal desires and enjoyed a relaxing, five-star holiday.

That, at least, is the story told in many popular accounts of Caesar’s life, both ancient and modern. And as Maria Wyke richly documents in Caesar: A Life in Western Culture, it has been replayed in fiction, film, art, and opera ever since. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more than fifty operas across Europe featured the passion of Caesar and Cleopatra, set against the gory backdrop of Roman civil war. Earlier, in Petrarch’s series of allegorical Trionfi, or “Triumphs”—poems that reflect on the power of love, chastity, death, and so forth—Julius Caesar features as one of the most prominent victims of the power of love: “Caesar, whom in Egypt/Cleopatra bound, amid the flowers and grass.” On this model, the famous cruise becomes a classic example of a statesman putting love before the demands of his office, for better or worse.

More hardheaded modern historians have been doubtful. It is difficult to deny that there was some sexual entanglement between Caesar and Cleopatra. The birth of Caesarion stands in the way of out-and-out skepticism. Even if HBO’s Rome floated the idea that the child was not Caesar’s at all, the emperor Augustus was so convinced that Caesarion was Caesar’s natural son (and, as such, a threat to his own position) that he had the boy killed. “Two Caesars is one too many,” he is supposed to have said. Nonetheless, there may well have been a good deal of embellishment of the details by ancient writers seeking to make Cleopatra’s affair with Caesar a harbinger of her later disastrous relationship with Mark Antony. Having …

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