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This was a man

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I. 32 B.C., Alexandria

 

The Ides of March dawned on a clear day in Alexandria. Cool air came in from the eastern harbor and swept away burning perfumes and the smell of wine. Cleopatra noted that most of the smell was Antony, who had fallen asleep beside her fully dressed. The breeze woke him.

“The windows,” he muttered. “I’m freezing.”

“You’re not,” she replied.

“I am. I dreamt I was back in Italy. On campaign. Sleeping in a tent.”

“Did you really?”

“Yes, and then I woke up and it was even colder. No one tells you this about Alexandria.”

She leaned on her elbow and looked at him. “You have nothing to insult. Do you know what I thought when I first saw Rome?”

Antony took a guess: “You were overwhelmed by virtue, glory, and strength.”

“It’s too early for you to be this exercised. Rome, not Caesar.”

“I did not think to distinguish.”

“Try. When I first saw Rome, I thought that the ship had gotten lost and I’d arrived in a suburb. It seemed only pensioners and swineherds had come to greet us and I was greatly offended. But that was my mistake, for it was the senate and the army.”

Antony roused and turned an eye on her. “We were none too impressed with you, either. Silk and ochre. Real Romans hate decadence.”

“How quickly you forgot, then,” she said. He wore a white kilt and was very tastefully adorned with silver, when everyone knew Romans loved only red and gold and phalluses. There was galena on his eyes, but he’d rubbed it almost up to his eyebrow. Elegant as he was, even in the unkind morning, Antony managed to be amazingly crude.

“I’ve forgotten nothing. You said Caesar was virtuous, glorious, and strong.”

Cleopatra found his attitude when talking about Caesar very disconcerting, and couldn’t stand to look at him. “I was teasing you. I found him boring, rude, and fifty.”

“He was never.”

“What, fifty?”

Antony had fallen asleep.

She caressed his neck and shoulder, pinched him, and when that did not wake him she lost patience and got out of the bed. It was, if she was being honest, a bed she had assumed Caesar would one day return to. Instead he haunted it as an endless topic of conversation.

Dawn was coming fast, gliding up the spire of the lighthouse, and she called for someone to close the windows against the light more than the cold. After a few minutes of sitting in the dark she asked for some music to lull her back to sleep. Antony really had nothing to complain about. In Rome they slept to the noise of dogs fighting in the streets.

Caesar would not have complained. He was astonishingly self-important but never really rude. He had of course been every year of fifty. Not that Antony found this at all inconvenient. His love for Caesar was relentless, and it would have looked very honorable on both of them if Antony has loved only a little less. She heard he’d wailed when Caesar died, and clutched his bloody toga in the Forum. So much histrionics that everyone said it was very cunning of him.

It wasn’t, of course. Nothing said in Rome was ever true, and Antony had never had a shred of dignity.

 

II. 47 B.C., Alexandria

 

When Julius Caesar received news from home it was invariably bad. The soldiers who read him his mail had begun to adopt a peremptory flinching posture. Cleopatra never left the room, very entertained by Caesar’s intemperate reactions and the increasingly apparent mistake in his chosen custodian of Rome. In any case, it was her own room in which Caesar received his mail, and it was in spite of Roman rigidity that she had women putting on her pearls while Caesar tried to govern Italy.

The soldier read a letter from Tribune Publius Cornelius Dolabella, a man in debt from Greece to Alexandria. His letter, typical with Romans writers, was therefore very hypocritical:

“Master of Horse Mark Antony, himself a constant bankrupt, has spoken in villainous opposition to the will of the Tribune that our auspicious new age be marked by a cancellation of debts. I beseech you, invincible Caesar, to reach your long arm from Egypt and bring this beast you have set upon us to heel, or on the honor of my family and in the name of the people, it will go badly for him.”

Caesar sighed deeply, and pressed the top of his nose. “Impudence,” he assessed. “Antony says it looks ridiculous on me to allow Dolabella’s creditors to make law in Rome, and I agree. Are there any others?”

“From Antony,” said the soldier, taking another letter from his satchel and beginning to unroll it.

Caesar lifted a hand to stop him. “Leave it,” he said, “and I will read it later.”

The soldier put the open letter on Caesar’s desk, and Cleopatra marked how Caesar’s eyes followed it avidly. Through the paper, she could discern thick Roman writing. Caesar did not look away as the soldier left the room, but he did look when Cleopatra finally shook out the loose curls at the back of her neck.

He smiled at her. That she had seduced him was not really surprising. That he treated her with such fondness and respect was surprising, and made her proud. She was twenty-one, and he was the emperor of Rome, and still he asked her:

“What is your opinion, my darling, of the fiasco I have left behind me?”

She waved the women away. “It seems these men Dolabella and Antony have made a fiasco themselves, proving only that you are incomparable.”

“How I wish it were so. But you do not know the Roman people, they are a pack of wolves, and on the whole they have little interest in drawing the very logical conclusion you have presented me. Sometimes I think I hate them.”

“What have they interest in, then?” she asked, and put a gentle hand on the bare skin of his elbow. Her bracelet, fringed with hanging carnelians, made a quiet noise, and so did the friction of their skin.

“Violence,” he said.

“Unfortunate,” she replied, and hiked up the narrow skirt of her dress so she could spread her legs and stand astride his knees. He was tall enough that there was only a little space between the top of his thighs and the beginning of her body. “Anything else?”

Almost without turning his head, Caesar looked at the letter on his desk. “Nothing else.”

For a second, Cleopatra felt his affection flicker, like a candle in an open window. She bent to sit down on his thighs, and the iris of his brown eyes flexed wide open, his attention back and all well again. The strength of her feeling at that moment of coolness was surprising. She had always known that Caesar could not stay in Alexandria forever.

 

III.  46 B.C., Rome 

 

In Rome she found Caesar bitter. He had outgrown it. He longed to make it into a city he could live with, the equal of Alexandria, Babylon, or Ephesus.

But it was not ready for his work, and had not been made even presentable to welcome him. A stupid legislative quarrel between Dolabella and Antony had led to blood in the streets; inadequate public cleaning had left it there to be licked at by the dogs.

Caesar made quick work of the mess and it put him in an unbearable mood. One morning she was awakened by his angry shouting. It carried -- he was a general. She snuck through the peristyle and was able to see into the study where Caesar stood. A man knelt penitently before him, his head bowed so low that she could see the highest point of his spine and nothing of his face.

Caesar took a step forward. “This is how you repay my trust, with riots in the streets! But then how could I forget, you’ve never repaid anything in your life. Master of horse? You’re not fit to quarter in a stable!”

So then this was Antony, the magister equitum in whose inept care Italy had nearly gone to pieces. His shoulders began to tremble so much that the thick curls of his hair shook.

“Dominus,” he whispered.

“I could kill you,” Caesar bit out. He crouched down. “I should. I have every right in the world.”

Cleopatra stepped back, alarmed, missing the straightforward splendor of home.


IV. 46 B.C., Rome

 

At a dinner party later that week she saw Antony properly, very much alive and by Caesar’s side. The head was unbowed, the shoulders steady, the face – she had not seen his face before – excessively handsome. She’d arrived late and everyone was already drunk. Antony and Caesar, red and strained with laughter, were trying to share the narration of the same story.

“Of course, Decimus had a remarkably easy way with the Gauls –”

“Or did he have a hard one,” said Antony, and the room erupted in puerile hilarity. Caesar was laughing outright, almost spilling wine on his hand. He looked younger than he ever had, and certainly must have laughed like this as a boy, squinting and braying. He looked up and saw her standing there.

“My darling,” said Caesar, trying to collect himself.

“Don’t let me interrupt,” she said. It was an occasion; she could rise to it like any other. “It is such a pity when the story doesn’t make it to the climax. All that wasted effort!”

Antony grinned up at her, his approval unreasonably charming. “I know just what you’re describing. Shall we all drink to marriage, then?”

The room dissolved back into hysterics.

“But,” said Caesar, when they’d finished that lengthy toast and Cleopatra went to take her accustomed place on the couches, “you must all pay attention, I forgot to introduce Queen Cleopatra Philopater, the pharaoh of Egypt. My darling, forgive these uncouth soldiers, we reminisce too loudly.”

“Uncouth, he calls us?” said Antony. “You know what they chanted when this one road into town? ‘Hide your wives, the bald old—’”

“Dignity, Antony!” Caesar interrupted hastily.

Antony winked at Cleopatra. “I’ll tell you later,” he said.

“Cleopatra,” said Caesar, “may I introduce Marcus Antonius, the sector managing the sale of Pompey’s property, who was with me in Gaul long ago.”

“He had hair then, if you can believe it,” said Antony.

“Sector?” said Cleopatra. She’d finally been given a glass of the Caecuban wine and took a sip to make the room wait on her. “You do not praise him high enough. I had heard that Mark Antony is your master of horse and even ruled while you were with me in Alexandria.”

Antony went still. After a moment was Caesar who replied in the eminently reasonable tone of voice he used to mislead people: “No, Antony is a sector only. Hard work, but I can trust no one else. Pompey had a great deal of property. Antony, won’t you greet her? Or she’ll think Rome a land of myth, where the men have no manners.”

Antony recovered, but still appeared uneasy as he caught her eyes. “The scale of our rusticness is hardly mythical. He exaggerates to impress you, Isis, since you are come down among our little gathering. I am not Mark Antony, but only your most humble servant,” he looked down at the other couches. “And this is everyone else. ”

Cleopatra gave him a small smile. “Not Isis. There is some relation, though it must be distant; you’ll find Isis has wings.”

“You’re saying you don’t? Interesting. I need another drink,” said Antony, and the room laughed again.

 

V. 45 B.C., Rome

 

Taking a lover in Rome meant taking on his friends, so she saw Antony very often. She found him entirely to her taste; good company and amusing, even intelligent, which surprised her. He quickly became one of her foremost companions in Rome. Between the two of them they kept Caesar entertained and somewhat happy.

“Which do you think?” Caesar asked Antony. The three of them had gone to watch Antony’s gladiators fight, and Caesar was proving amazingly indecisive about his wager.

“Of my lazy bastards? You’re better off dead than betting on them, but maybe Martianus. That’s my usual choice. Mind you, I usually lose.”

“Not too promising. Cleopatra, I think we have need of your cooler mind. Any favorites?”

She looked at the arena. “No women are fighting today?”

“None.”

“Then there is no one I’d bet on. I’m sure Antony’s choice is adequate.”

Antony scoffed. “Adequate. Is adequate enough to win a fight in Egypt?”

Cleopatra smiled at him. “Enough to win a game.”

He laughed. “You’re thinking of luck.”

Caesar interrupted them when one of his attendants handed Antony a purse of money.

“Put half of that on Martianus’s victory,” he said. “The rest, you may do with what you wish.”

Cleopatra averted her eyes. Caesar’s generosity with Antony embarrassed her; she had come to Rome as Caesar’s mistress and was made to watch as he gave not her but his lieutenant thoughtful presents of money, bolts of cloth, and horses. Of course, she reasoned, Caesar knew her to be wealthier than any of them. It was a sign of his great respect for her, and his understanding that between them Rome was inferior, that he did not try to keep her. But then again, Antony had the money. He weighed the purse in one hand and put the other affectionately on Caesar’s knee.

“If you’re going to insist. A wise man would keep this,” he said, hand still on Caesar’s leg as he stood up. “But I feel that the right course today is gambling. Back in a moment. See that Cleopatra doesn’t pine for me.”

“He’ll disappoint you,” Caesar told her the second they were alone. “On the grandest scale you can imagine. He has a fantastic talent for it.”

“Do I even want to guess what you’re talking about?”

“Antony. He’s only after your money.”

She was bewildered by the sharp turns his mind often took. “You are seeing rivals where you have none; Antony is my friend, as he is yours.”

“Then take some counsel and good intentions from someone who has known his friendship much longer than you have. I grant you that he is not my rival, nor could he ever be. But he has ambitions; he will try to charm Egypt from you.”

Cleopatra was taken aback that Caesar did not seem to even consider that he had very recently given Antony Italy. “Then he will be disappointed,” she said.

“I trust you to see that he is.”

At this moment Antony came back. “The dice are thrown,” he said, winking at Caesar. “We are in Fortune’s hands now.”

“Then tell Fortune it is Gaius Julius Caesar who bets,” said Caesar, entirely serious.

Antony was looking contentedly at him. “Little need to tell. You’ve never left her sight.”

“If that is so, it shows in how lucky I am in my friends,” said Caesar.

Cleopatra felt the overwhelming need to interrupt. “But will you be as lucky in the arena?”

He was. In Rome, tediously, there was very little that did not go Caesar’s way.

 

VI. 44 B.C., Rome

 

Like Caesar, Antony was unhappy in Rome, but less capable of admitting it. Also like Caesar he found most Roman laws unnecessary and vexatious, and they collaborated to conceal that fact from the common people.

Since those laws did not admit Cleopatra inside Rome’s sacred pomerium, Caesar decided that Antony would take her disguised. She scrubbed her face, covered her head with her fringed cloak, and bought some unadorned shoes. Although there was no strict reason for it, Antony accompanied her in his own costume, believing that by wearing homespun and taking off his rings he was made unrecognizable.

“Less regal, if you please,” he told her. “You’re supposed to be an ordinary Roman, and Jupiter knows, we all slouch.”

“I look perfectly normal. Your average woman. You, however, I would not want to meet in a dark alley.”

Antony scoffed. “I’ve never had a single complaint. And I don’t think you could look average if you tried, which I note you’re not doing. I have been thinking on the subject. That someone so gifted, if you’ll permit me, with beauty, wealth, and wit, would settle for Caesar as a lover confounds me. That you would then cross oceans for him absolutely bankrupts the imagination.”

“Your imagination must be very small, then. It was just one ocean, and I enjoy traveling. Alexander crossed the world.”

“For conquest.”

“For his own interests.”

“Yes, fine,” said Antony, “but not for Caesar .”

She lifted her head. “I find Caesar extremely attractive, I’ve followed him and now I desire to take him back with me. He is my Helen of Troy—close your mouth.”

He sputtered. “Maybe once, if you ask the Bithynians. But now, well, you have strange tastes, if it is his pulchritude and not his power that puts you so much at his disposal.”

She shrugged. “I am his loyal client queen. But duty aside,” she said, having found Antony very fun to annoy, “I tell you, he is the descendant of Venus in all ways.”

“Don’t make me laugh!”

“And generous, and forgiving. Especially to you, he has never made you account for your rule of Italy and has even defended you. I would have had you killed.”

“If you think he has let me forget it, even for a minute, you do not know him half as well as you think you do.”

Before he could elaborate, a cohort of praetorians in civilian dress stopped to greet them. “Hail, Antony.”

“Who?” said Antony. “My name is Marcus. Vulgaris. And my....hmm. Wife, Cl—Calpurnia.”

The officer gave them both a flat stare. “Salve, then,” he said without inflection, “Marcus Vulgaris.”

Some of the men were laughing. Antony grinned at them. “And you, centurion. How goes it?”

“As it happens, citizen, I am bearing a message from Caesar for Mark Antony. I was told I might find him here.”

Antony’s grin faltered. “Oh, alright. Tell me.”

“He says to attend him at the gardens, soon as you can.”

“Anything else?”

“Not to deliver the message if we found you hard at work. But, well.”

“Not very likely, was it,” Antony agreed, not the least bit offended. “Well, Calpurnia, I regret only the brevity of our marriage, but Caesar calls, and I’d best get running.”

He would have left her there, too, had she not gently touched his arm. “Stay a moment,” she said. “You would not want people to think you are, what did you say? At his disposal.”

She’d meant to tease him, which normally he took with good humor. But on this point he reacted badly, drew his arm back like she was a dog who’d bitten him. “I don’t have the least interest in what people think. For the fact is I am Caesar’s to call upon, and so I’m going. Have the praetorians escort you up the hills.”

And off he went, leaving Cleopatra alone in her fringed cloak. All of Rome whispered that he and Caesar were still fucking one another, and the evidence for it was too much to ignore.

 

VII. 44 B.C., Rome

 

After only a little effort she caught them at it, a little worried about what the spectacle of their copulation would do to her already scanty veneration of Rome, and more disturbingly afraid of how it might cause her to feel. They had a secret language between them, and she had not known Caesar half as long.

Catching them in bed with each other was actually relieving, they were unimaginative and nothing to keep her up at night. Antony was on his hands and knees on what, she knew, had been their enemy Pompey Magnus’s bed. Caesar knelt, so she had a full view of his meager, flaccid buttocks.

She’d always thought they did it between the thighs, more appropriate to their estimation of each other’s dignity and Caesar’s sometimes fluctuant avidity, but in at least this instance she was wrong. Caesar, who could barely follow a simple tune on a lute, had achieved the immortal procreative rhythm, thrusting upwards and retreating a little only to thrust again. It was to her happiness that they did not unburden themselves of their mutual feelings during this intercourse, only sighed and mumbled and failed to notice that she was nearly standing in the doorway. Like almost everywhere in Rome, there was a faint smell of olive oil.

With a huff of frustrated affront, Caesar stopped moving his hips.

“Wha — oh,” said Antony, a little winded. “Oh well. Apparently there are times when Fortuna looks away. Other way around?”

Cleopatra stepped prudently away from the door, her back to the wall. She heard Caesar take a long breath, and just as long to let it out. “No, not tonight, I think, I must—”

Antony lost patience instantly. The bed creaked. “What, go to your wife, and the queen of Egypt, Servilia, and then perhaps her son?”

Brutus ?” said Caesar, surprised. “Is that what they’re saying?”

“A rhetorical device,” Antony snapped. From his breathing she intuited that he was finishing in his own hand. “Maybe I should have said Octavian. Among the legion of us perhaps we will at last devise a way to please you!”

“The chill,” said Caesar, pathetically.

“Was never too much for you in Gaul. Or Spain, or Sicily, or Sardinia. It is your time in Egypt that has made your blood so thin.”

“Let me,” said Caesar, and one or the other of them sighed very affectionately, an inappropriate interjection given the rest of the conversation.

“It is not the first time you tarried in the east, but at least the last time all of you came back to Rome,” said Antony, his temper ebbing away. He was distracted; he’d lost his thought a few times and had to repeat himself.

“As I have again. Or am I not here, in Rome, where I belong?”

“You’re right,” said Antony, “of course. Here you are.”

“Here I am,” Caesar repeated, “after many years longing to return.”

Antony mumbled something triumphant, and Cleopatra crept surreptitiously down the wall. Her momentary jealousy had turned into regret and embarrassment; she knew Caesar enough to hear him lying. Had there ever been a need to be jealous? She stole out of the villa like a guilty thief.