Cleopatra: The Myth

Everett Collection
Warren William, as Julius Caesar, and Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, 1934

In 19 AD, almost fifty years after the death of Cleopatra, the Roman prince Germanicus paid a visit to Alexandria, the city that had once been the capital of her kingdom, and was now the administrative center of the Roman province of Egypt. According to the historian Tacitus, the ostensible purpose of this imperial visit was to relieve the famine then afflicting the country (which he did by simply opening up some granaries where grain was stored). But the real reason, Tacitus insists, was sight-seeing—for the monuments of the Egyptian pharaohs, already thousands of years old in 19 AD, were almost as much an attraction to Roman visitors as they are to modern tourists.

In fact, Germanicus took an antiquarian cruise up the Nile, visiting the “vast ruins of Thebes” and the Valley of the Kings, just as his great- grandfather Julius Caesar had done in the company of Cleopatra herself in 47 BC. Germanicus’ trip, however, did not go down well with his adoptive father, the reigning emperor Tiberius, since the young man had broken the rules by going to Egypt without the emperor’s express permission. This was the only province of the Roman Empire to which such travel restrictions applied. Vast, rich, fertile, and unstable, it offered a potential power base for rival claimants to the throne. Even without a turbulent queen, Egypt was always liable to be trouble.

A fragment of papyrus excavated from the rubbish dumps of the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus gives a precious glimpse of Germanicus’ visit. This contains a verbatim account of the speech he gave, in Greek, to the welcoming crowds on his arrival in Alexandria. In it, he complains about his long sea journey and the fact that he has been “torn from the embrace of my father and grandma and mother and brothers and sisters and children and intimate friends” (a rather cozier view of imperial family life than Tacitus offers—and especially striking when you recall that his “grandma” was the notoriously scheming empress Livia).

He goes on to compliment the Alexandrians on the spectacular beauty of their city, tactfully including a passing tribute to Alexander the Great, who had founded it (“the hero who is your founder,” as Germanicus put it). Cleopatra’s dynasty of the Ptolemies had taken over the city on the death of Alexander in 323 BC: the first King Ptolemy, a Macedonian Greek, had been one of “the hero’s” leading generals and had even managed to hijack his body for burial in Alexandria—an ancient publicity coup, intended to blazon forever the otherwise brief association of this new city with the ancient world’s greatest conqueror.

To judge from the papyrus, Germanicus was given a boisterous reception by the Alexandrians. The crowd kept interrupting him with cries of “Hurrah,” “Good Luck,” and “Bravo,” and—scarcely…

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