Tuesday, 22 November 2011



Plutarch (c. 46-120 A.D.), biographer, historian and moral philosopher, was born in Boeotia in central Greece, studied at Athens, visited Egypt and Italy, and spent the last thirty years of his life in Boeotia and Delphi. His most famous work is his "Parallel Lives", in which the life of an eminent Greek is paired with that of a famous Roman with whom there were, in his view, points of resemblance. For example, the "Life of Antony" is given in parallel with that of Demetrius I Poliorcetes of Macedon (336-283 B.C.): both are presented as great generals but flawed men and the victims of great changes of fortune. The most famous translation of Plutarch's "Lives" is that by Sir Thomas North (1579), which was Shakespeare's major source for "Julius Caesar", "Coriolanus" and, of course, "Antony and Cleopatra".

The extract below is a translation of the text included in "A Greek Anthology", JACT, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Sections 84-86.2.

The Roman world was torn apart in the late 30s B.C. by its two most powerful figures, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus, but here referred to as Caesar), and Marcus Antonius (Antony), who was involved in a passionate love affair with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. After Octavian had defeated Antony and Cleopatra off Actium in NW Greece in 31 B.C., they fled to Egypt, where Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra was then cornered by Caesar in Alexandria. Although in the immediate aftermath of Actium, Cleopatra was generally portrayed by Octavian's propaganda as someone who had been a dangerous enemy of the Roman people, in time her beauty, the romance of her relationship with Antony, and the pathos of her death, well brought out in this extract, began to prevail in the popular imagination. 

Cornelius Dolabella was a conspicuous young man among the companions of Caesar. This man was not on unfriendly terms towards Cleopatra. And so now, doing a favour to her at her request (lit. having been asked), having sent (a message) secretly, he reported (to her) that Caesar himself was starting out by land through Syria, and had resolved to send her with her children to Rome within three days (lit. on the third day). Having heard this, in the first place she asked Caesar to allow her to bring libations to Antony; on his agreement, having been brought to the tomb, and having fallen upon the funerary urn, together with her attendant women, she said, "O dear Antony, I buried you recently with my hands still free, and now I am pouring a libation, being a prisoner, and guarded so that I can, neither by beatings nor by lamentations, despoil this body, (which is) that of a slave, and watched over for the purpose of triumphing over you. Do not expect any other honours or libations. These (are) the last from Cleopatra the captive for you. For nothing separated us from each other (while) living, but in death we are likely to exchange places, you, the Roman, lying here, while I, the hapless one, getting only so much of your country as my portion. For if (there is) any strength in the gods there (i.e. in the Underworld) (for the gods here have betrayed us), do not forsake your wife while she lives (lit. living), nor allow yourself to be triumphed over in my person, but hide and bury me with yourself here, as nothing among these countless evils that there are is so terrible (lit. great) and dreadful as the short time which I have lived apart from you."

Having lamented such things, and having garlanded and embraced the urn, she ordered a bath to be prepared for herself. Having bathed and having reclined, she had a splendid dinner. And someone came from the countryside carrying a certain basket; when the guards enquired (lit. the guards enquiring) what he was bringing, having opened (the basket) and having removed the leaves, he showed that the dish (inside was) full of figs. (The guards) marvelling at their beauty and their size, smiling, he invited (them) to take (some); trusting (him) they bade (him) to bring (them) in. After her dinner, Cleopatra, taking a writing-tablet already written upon and sealed, sent (it) to Caesar, and, sending away (all) the others except her faithful women, she closed the doors. And Caesar opening the tablet, when he found prayers and lamentations, (she) asking that she should be buried with Antony, he quickly understood what had been done. To begin with he set out himself to bring assistance, but then he sent men in order to investigate as quickly as possible. But swift suffering had occurred. For, coming at a run and finding that the guards had perceived nothing, opening the doors, they found her lying dead on a golden couch arrayed as a queen. Of her women, the one called Iras was dying at her feet and another, Charmion, already tottering and heavy-headed, was trying to adjust the diadem around her head. When someone said (lit. someone saying) to her in anger, "(This is) a fine thing, Charmion," she said, "It is indeed a very fine thing and befitting the descendant of so many kings." She said nothing more but fell there by the side of the couch. It is said that the asp was brought in with those figs and was hidden by the leaves above (them), for thus Cleopatra had given orders that the creature should fasten upon her body with herself not being aware (of it). But when, having removed some of the figs, she saw (it), she said, "So here it is", and she held out her arm bared for the bite.