Cleopatra versus the folly of ancient Roman kings
In the year 48 B.C., Ptolemy XIV of Egypt managed to depose and exile his sister and wife, Queen Cleopatra. He secured the country’s borders against her return and began to rule on his own. Later that year, Julius Caesar came to Alexandria to ensure that despite the local power struggles, Egypt would remain loyal to Rome. One night Caesar was meeting with his generals in the Egyptian palace, discussing strategy, when a guard entered to report that a Greek merchant was at the door bearing a large and valuable gift for the Roman leader. Caesar, in the mood for a little fun, gave the merchant permission to enter. The man came in, carrying on his shoulders a large rolled-up carpet. He undid the rope around the bundle and with a snap of his wrists unfurled it—revealing the young Cleopatra, who had been hidden inside, and who rose up half clothed before Caesar and his guests, like Venus emerging from the waves.
Everyone was dazzled at the sight of the beautiful young queen (only twenty-one at the time) appearing before them suddenly as if in a dream. They were astounded at her daring and theatricality—smuggled into the harbor at night with only one man to protect her, risking everything on a bold move. No one was more enchanted than Caesar. According to the Roman writer Dio Cassius, “Cleopatra was in the prime of life. She had a delightful voice which could not fail to cast a spell over all who heard it. Such was the charm of her person and her speech that they drew the coldest and most determined misogynist into her toils. Caesar was spellbound as soon as he set eyes on her and she opened her mouth to speak.” That same evening Cleopatra became Caesar s lover.
Caesar had had numerous mistresses before, to divert him from the rigors of his campaigns. But he had always disposed of them quickly to return to what really thrilled him—political intrigue, the challenges of warfare, the Roman theater. Caesar had seen women try anything to keep him under their spell. Yet nothing prepared him for Cleopatra. One night she would tell him how together they could revive the glory of Alexander the Great, and rule the world like gods. The next she would entertain him dressed as the goddess Isis, surrounded by the opulence of her court. Cleopatra initiated Caesar in the most decadent revelries, presenting herself as the incarnation of the Egyptian exotic. His life with her was a constant game, as challenging as warfare, for the moment he felt secure with her she would suddenly turn cold or angry and he would have to find a way to regain her favor.
The weeks went by. Caesar got rid of all Cleopatra’s rivals and found excuses to stay in Egypt. At one point she led him on a lavish historical expedition down the Nile. In a boat of unimaginable splendor—towering fifty-four feet out of the water, including several terraced levels and a pillared temple to the god Dionysus—Caesar became one of the few Romans to gaze on the pyramids. And while he stayed long in Egypt, away from his throne in Rome, all kinds of turmoil erupted throughout the Roman Empire.
When Caesar was murdered, in 44 B.C., he was succeeded by a triumvirate of rulers including Mark Antony, a brave soldier who loved pleasure and spectacle and fancied himself a kind of Roman Dionysus. Cleopatra seduced Mark Anthony in the same fashion, in the end making him her ‘obedient slave-in-love’. The reason I give such stories is because these and others are the men who acted as the founding stones for Western civilization. These are the men who commissioned the formation of the Christian religion. Therefore, gaining a penetrating insight in the weaknesses and follies – instead of worshipping them for the immense power they had – would be profoundly liberating to anyone.
The immediate attraction of a song, a voice, a writing, or scent – PRESENCE
The attraction of the panther with his perfumed scent . . . According to the ancients, the panther is the only animal that emits a perfumed odor. It uses this scent to draw and capture its victims. . . . But what is it that attracts in a scent? . . . What is it in the song of the attractive woman that seduces us, or in the beauty of a face, in the depths of an abyss . . . ?
Attraction lies in the annulment of signs and their meaning, in pure appearance. The eyes that seduce have no meaning; they end in the gaze, as the face with makeup ends in only pure appearance. . . . The scent of the panther is also a meaningless message—and behind the message the panther is invisible, as is the woman beneath her makeup. The stunningly attractive ones, too, remain unseen. The enchantment lies in what is hidden.