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The middle sea a history.., p.7

  The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, p.7

The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean
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  Curio set off at once with the news to Caesar’s headquarters at Ravenna, then returned to Rome–completing the 140-mile journey in three days–with a letter in which Caesar detailed his immense services to the state and insisted that if he must indeed relinquish his command, Pompey must do the same. The Senate, however, could hardly be persuaded even to have it read; instead they supported a motion by Metellus Scipio (now Pompey’s father-in-law) that Caesar must resign unilaterally or be declared a public enemy. The die, as Caesar himself declared, was cast; and on the night of 10 January 49 BC he and the single legion he had taken with him crossed the little river Rubicon,22 which constituted the southeastern border of Cisalpine Gaul. In doing so he deliberately flouted the Roman law which forbade a governor to lead an army outside his province, thereby incurring a charge of treason. Henceforth it would be a trial of strength: a civil war.

  That war was to be fought on several fronts. In Italy Caesar encountered little opposition. Town after town opened its gates to him without a struggle; when he was called upon to fight, his battle-hardened troops were more than a match for any that might be ranged against them. Only two months after the Rubicon crossing the two consuls fled to Dalmatia, where they were shortly joined by Pompey himself. Caesar did not pursue them at once, since they remained in control of the Adriatic; instead he set off by land to Spain, the heartland of Pompey’s power in the west. On the way he stopped briefly at the free city of Massilia (Marseille) and, finding the population loyal to Pompey, placed it under siege, finally crossing the Pyrenees with an army of 40,000 men. Against him were not less than 70,000, commanded by three of Pompey’s leading generals, but he effortlessly outmanoeuvred them until, finding themselves encircled, they capitulated without further resistance. By the time he returned to Massilia that city too had surrendered. Now at last he was ready for the final round of the struggle.

  With his enemies satisfactorily scattered, Caesar had no difficulty in having himself elected consul once again in 48 BC. He then pursued Pompey, who had by this time gone on to Greece. An attempt to blockade Pompey’s key base and bridgehead at Dyrrachium (now Durrës in Albania) was a failure, but 200 miles away to the southwest, on 9 August 48 BC on the sweltering plain of Pharsalus in Thessaly, the two armies met at last. Caesar–aided by the young tribune Mark Antony, who commanded his left wing–once again won an easy victory. Pompey, we are told, was one of the first to retreat. He escaped to the coast and thence to Egypt, whose boy king Ptolemy XIII had been his staunch supporter, supplying him with ships and provisions; but Ptolemy was anxious to be on the winning side, and when Caesar, in hot pursuit of his enemy, arrived in turn at Alexandria it was to find that Pompey had been assassinated.

  Caesar’s journey, on the other hand, had not been in vain; Ptolemy had recently banished his twenty-one-year-old half-sister, wife and co-ruler, Cleopatra, and arbitration was urgently needed. In this case it took a somewhat unusual form: Cleopatra returned secretly to Egypt to plead her case, whereupon Caesar–now fifty-two–instantly seduced her and took her into his palace as his mistress. Ptolemy, furious, laid the palace under siege, but a Roman relief force soon came to the rescue and in March 47 BC defeated the Egyptians in battle. Ptolemy fled and was drowned, appropriately enough, in the Nile; Caesar established Cleopatra on the throne with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, as her co-ruler, Egypt becoming a client state of Rome. He himself had one further task before he returned to the capital: the proper chastisement of Pharnaces, son of that old troublemaker Mithridates of Pontus, who was showing every sign of taking after his father. With seven legions he marched quickly northwards through Syria and Anatolia. The expedition was very nearly a disaster. At Zela (the modern Zile) in central Anatolia, on 2 August, just as the Roman army was pitching its camp, Pharnaces attacked. The legions were taken by surprise; only their discipline and experience won the day. It was then, Plutarch tells us, that Caesar reported his victory back to Rome with the words which used to be known to every English schoolboy: veni, vidi, vici–‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’23

  Pompey was dead, but his two sons remained undefeated and there were two more campaigns to be fought–the first in North Africa, the second in Spain–before the civil war could be considered properly at an end. As always, Caesar now faced the problem of finding land on which to settle the legionaries who had served him so well. He established several colonies in Italy, and–since there was not enough territory available in the peninsula to accommodate all his men–well over forty others in provinces overseas, Corinth and Carthage among them. Nor were these colonies intended for war veterans alone; some 80,000 of the Roman unemployed were sent to join them. Thus were the seeds sown for the long-term Romanisation of the Mediterranean coastline, so much of which bears the Roman stamp to this day.

  Julius Caesar was now supreme. He had packed the Senate with 900 of his own creatures, many of whom were obliged to him for favours received and all of whom he could trust to give him their support. Through them he controlled the state; through the state, the civilised world. Meanwhile, a cult of personality–the first Rome had known–was growing up around him. Portrait busts were widely distributed, both in Italy and abroad; his image even appeared on coins, an unheard-of innovation. None of this, however, added to his popularity. With all the power gathered into his own hands, the way was blocked to ambitious young politicians, who grew more and more to resent his arrogance, his capriciousness and–not least–his immense wealth. They also resented his frequent long absences on campaign, which they considered unnecessary and irresponsible. He was after all fifty-six years old, and known to be epileptic; future wars should surely be left to his generals. The truth was that Caesar hated the capital, with its perpetual petty lobbyings and intrigues; he was only really happy when out on campaign with his legionaries, who worshipped him and gave him their unfaltering loyalty. It was probably for this reason more than any other that, at the beginning of 44 BC, he announced a new expedition to the east, to avenge the death of Crassus and to teach the Parthians a lesson. He would be commanding it in person, and would leave on 18 March.

  For the Roman patricians, to be ruled by a dictator was bad enough; the prospect of being ordered about by his secretaries for the next two years or more was intolerable. And so the great conspiracy took shape. It was instigated and led by Gaius Cassius Longinus, who had supported Pompey until Pharsalus but whom Caesar had subsequently pardoned. With Cassius was his brother-in-law Marcus Brutus. Brutus had been a special protégé of Caesar, who had made him governor of Cisalpine Gaul, but he could never forget his putative descent from the early hero Junius Brutus, who had driven the Etruscan king Tarquin from Rome–in revenge for the rape and subsequent suicide of Lucretia Collatina–and was thus considered the architect of republican liberty. When in February 44 BC Caesar was nominated dictator in perpetuo, Brutus seems to have felt that it was time for another blow to be struck in the same cause. Together, he and Cassius collected some sixty fellow conspirators, and on 15 March they were ready.

  On that day, just three days before Caesar was to leave for the east, he attended a meeting of the Senate in the large hall that adjoined the Theatre of Pompey. As he approached, a Greek who had formerly been a member of Brutus’s household slipped into his hand a note of warning, but Caesar, not troubling to read it, walked on. The conspirators had ensured that his principal lieutenant, Mark Antony–who was not only utterly loyal to his master but was also possessed of huge physical strength–should be detained in conversation by one of their number. They had also carefully stationed nearby a band of gladiators to be ready in the event of a free fight, but the precaution proved unnecessary. Publius Casca seems to have been the first to attack, his dagger striking the dictator in the throat; within moments Caesar was surrounded by the conspirators, all of them frenziedly stabbing, pushing their fellows aside the better to plunge their own blades into whatever part of his body they could reach. Their victim defended himself as best he could, but he had no chanc
e. Covering his bleeding head with his toga, he fell against the plinth of Pompey’s statue.

  Seeing him dead, those present were seized by a sudden panic; they fled from the building, leaving the body alone where it lay. It was some time before three slaves arrived with a litter and carried it back to his home–one of the arms, we are told, dragging along the ground. Later, when doctors examined it, they counted twenty-three wounds–only one of which, however, they believed to have been fatal.

  Just six months before his death, on 13 September 45 BC, Julius Caesar had formally adopted his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius, as his son. Although still only nineteen, Octavian (as he is generally known in his pre-imperial years) had long been groomed for stardom. Already at the age of sixteen he had been appointed Pontifex Maximus; since then he had fought with distinction with Caesar in Spain. Thus, despite his youth, on the death of his great-uncle he might have expected to assume power; but Mark Antony, Caesar’s chief lieutenant, moved fast and–not hesitating to falsify certain of his dead master’s papers–seized control of the state. Octavian fought back, and thanks largely to the championing of Cicero–one of the greatest orators in all history, who loathed autocrats in general and Antony in particular and made a series of dazzling speeches against him–gradually won a majority in the Senate.

  Rome was once again polarised and on the brink of civil war. There was even a small battle at Modena, which ended in a victory for Octavian. But by November 43 BC the two had effected an uneasy reconciliation and, with another of Caesar’s generals, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, formed an official five-year triumvirate entrusted with the task of setting the government back on its feet. Their first priority was to track down the two men chiefly responsible for Caesar’s murder. Brutus and Cassius had fled with their loyal soldiers across the Adriatic; leaving Lepidus in charge in Rome, Octavian and Antony pursued them to Philippi in Macedonia where, in two successive battles three weeks apart, the rebel army was defeated, its two leaders both falling on their swords. By mutual agreement, Lepidus was firmly relegated to a back seat. The victors now divided up the Roman world between them, Antony taking the eastern half, Octavian the west.

  The little town of Tarsus in Cilicia is perhaps best known today for having been the birthplace of St Paul; some forty years before his birth, however, it was the scene of another event which had a still greater effect on the world as we know it. It was at Tarsus, some time in the summer of 41 BC, that Mark Antony first set eyes on Queen Cleopatra VII. Six years before, Julius Caesar had established her on the throne of Egypt, together with the man who was both her brother and her brother-in-law, Ptolemy XIV. Before long, according to the curious tradition of the Ptolemys, he also became her husband; even this triple relationship, however, failed to endear him to her and in 44 BC she had him murdered. She now reigned alone, but she needed another Roman protector and she had come to Tarsus knowing that it was there that she would find him.

  Despite the testimony of Shakespeare–and Pascal’s famous remark that, if her nose had been a little shorter, the whole history of the world would have been changed–Cleopatra seems to have been attractive rather than classically beautiful. She nevertheless had little difficulty in ensnaring Mark Antony just as she had Caesar himself, even persuading him to arrange for the death of her sister Arsinoë, whom she had never forgiven for once having established a rival regime in Alexandria. (Arsinoë was the last of her five siblings to die a violent death, at least two of them having perished on Cleopatra’s personal initiative.) Antony was delighted to oblige, and as a reward was invited to Alexandria for the winter; the result was twins. After that the two did not see each other again for three years, but in 37 BC he invited her to join him in his eastern capital of Antioch and they formed a permanent liaison, another son being born the following year.

  Theirs was an idyll; but, regularly punctuated as it was by Antony’s military campaigns, it could not last. In Rome his fellow triumvir Octavian–whose sister Octavia Antony had recently married–was outraged by his brother-in-law’s behaviour and grew more and more resentful of Cleopatra’s obvious power over him; in 32 BC, after Antony had formally divorced Octavia, her brother declared war on Egypt. On 2 September 31 BC the rival fleets met off Actium, just off the northern tip of the island of Leucas. Octavian scored a decisive victory, pursuing the defeated couple back to Alexandria; it was almost another year, however, before the final scene of the drama was enacted. Not until 1 August 30 BC did Octavian enter the city, where he gave orders that Egypt should in future be a province of Rome, remaining under his direct personal control. Cleopatra barricaded herself in her private mausoleum and gave it out that she had committed suicide; hearing the news, Antony in his turn fell on his sword, but immediately afterwards learned that the report was false. He was carried into her presence, and according to Plutarch the two had a last conversation together; then he died.

  The manner of Cleopatra’s death is less certain. She certainly poisoned herself, but how? Plutarch tells the story of the asp much as Shakespeare wrote it, but adds that ‘the real truth nobody knows’. Nonetheless, the arguments for the snake-bite theory are strong. The Egyptian cobra–which represented Amon-Ra, the sun god–had been a royal symbol since the days of the earliest pharaohs, who wore its image as a diadem on their crowns; a more regal manner of death could scarcely have been imagined. More conclusive still, Suetonius tells us that Octavian later let it be known that the moment he heard of Cleopatra’s suicide he had summoned the snake-charmers and had ordered them to suck the poison from the wound. But if they came at all, they came too late.

  Dost thou not see the baby at my breast,

  That sucks the nurse asleep?


  Rome: The Early Empire

  The Battle of Actium had two tremendous results. First of all, it ensured that the political spotlight remained firmly focused on Italy and the west. The largely Greek-speaking lands of the eastern Mediterranean had been the territory of Mark Antony, according to the agreement that he had reached with Octavian after Philippi, and if Antony had been victorious he would have almost certainly continued to favour them in any way he could. Under Octavian Rome was still supreme, and would remain so for the next three centuries until Constantine the Great deserted it in 330 for his new capital of Constantinople. The second consequence of the battle was that it established Octavian, at the age of thirty-two, as the most powerful man who had ever lived, the undisputed master of the known world. The problem for him now was how best to consolidate his position. The Republic was effectively dead, so much was plain; but Julius Caesar’s open autocracy had proved fatal to him, and his great-nephew was determined not to make the same mistake. For some time yet, at least in appearance, the old republican forms had to be observed. Every year from 31 to 23 BC Octavian held the consulship, using this as the constitutional basis of his power; but his assumption, on 16 January 27 BC, of the new title of Augustus was a clear enough indication of the way things were going.

  It is thus impossible to put a definite date to the establishment of the Roman Empire. It was a gradual process–but perhaps it was better that way. In his youth Augustus was certainly hungry for power; once he had gained it, however, he mellowed and became a statesman. His other achievements are harder to quantify. He reorganised the administration and the army; he established permanent naval bases on the North African coast and even in the Black Sea. Rome was now the unchallenged mistress of the Mediterranean–in which, between 200 BC and 200 AD, there was a greater density of commercial traffic than at any time in the next thousand years.24 In 26–25 BC he personally pacified the rebellious tribes of northern Spain, establishing no less than twenty-two colonies, their inhabitants all Roman citizens; later he–or, more accurately, his generals–doubled the extent of the Roman dominions. More important than any of this, he moulded the old Republic into the new shape that its vast expansion had made necessary, and somehow reconciled to it all classes of Roman society, rallying them to the s
upport of his new regime. It was said of him that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble, but he did more: he found it a republic and left it an empire.

  That empire included the Roman province of Syria, acquired during the wars with King Mithridates early in the first century BC. It was not considered particularly important by its administrators, but it was there, during the reign of Augustus–perhaps in BC 5 or 625–that there was born into a humble but deeply pious Jewish family the man who was probably to reshape the world more radically than any other before or since. This is not the place to consider either the personal impact that Jesus Christ had on his contemporaries; even the long-term effects of the religion which he founded might have been very different had not Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judaea from 26 to 36 AD, reluctantly yielded to the clamourings of the populace and given his authority for the crucifixion. Yield, however, he did. Within thirty years St Paul, the first and arguably the greatest Christian missionary, had carried the new message throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Within three hundred years, as we shall shortly see, the faith that he preached was to be adopted by the Empire itself.

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