Read Antony and Cleopatra Online

Authors: Colleen McCullough

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Historical Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Antonius; Marcus, #Egypt - History - 332-30 B.C, #Biographical, #Cleopatra, #Biographical Fiction, #Romans, #Egypt, #Rome - History - Civil War; 49-45 B.C, #Rome, #Romans - Egypt

Antony and Cleopatra (7 page)

“Thank you, Marcus Antonius,” she said. “If perhaps you have no plans for dinner, you might join me on my ship this evening? Shall we say, at twilight? It is more comfortable to dine after the heat has gone out of the air.”

He stared down at her, a spark of anger in his eyes; somehow she had put him in the wrong, he could see it in the faces of the crowd, fawning and bowing, keeping their distance from the royal personage. In Rome, she would have been mobbed, but here? Never, it seemed. Curse the woman!

“I have no plans for dinner,” he said curtly. “You may expect to see me at twilight.”

“I will send my litter for you, Imperator Antonius. Please feel free to bring Quintus Dellius, Lucius Poplicola, the brothers Saxa, Marcus Barbatius, and fifty-five more of your friends.”

Cleopatra hopped nimbly into her litter; the bearers picked up its poles and turned it around, for it was not a mere couch, it had a head and a foot to enable its occupant to be properly seen.

“Proceed, Melanthus,” said Antony to the litigant the Queen’s arrival had stopped in mid-sentence.

The rattled Melanthus turned helplessly to his highly paid advocate, arms spread wide in bewilderment. Whereupon the man showed his competence by taking up the case as if no interruption had occurred.

 

 

It took his servants a while to find a tunic clean enough for Antony to wear to dinner on a ship; togas were too bulky to dine in, and had to be shed. Nor were boots (his preferred footwear) convenient; too much lacing and unlacing. Oh, for a crown of valor to wear upon his head! Caesar had worn his oak leaves for all public occasions, but only extreme valor in combat as a young man had earned him the privilege. Like Pompey the Great, Antony had never won a crown, brave though he had always been.

The litter was waiting. Pretending all this was great fun, Antony climbed in and ordered the bevy of friends, laughing and joking, to walk around the litter. The conveyance was admired, but not as much as the bearers, a fascinating rarity; even in the busiest, most varied slave markets, black men did not come up for sale. In Italia they were so rare that sculptors seized upon them, but those were women and children, and rarely pure-blooded like Cleopatra’s bearers. The beauty of their skins, the handsomeness of their faces, the dignity of their carriage were marveled at. What a stir they would create in Rome! Though, thought Antony, no doubt she had them with her when she had lived in Rome. I just never saw them.

The gangplank, he noted, was gold save for its railings, of the rarest citrus wood, and the faience deck was strewn with rose petals oozing a faint perfume when trodden upon. Every pedestal that held a golden vase of peacock feathers or a priceless work of art was chryselephantine—delicately carved ivory inlaid with gold. Beautiful girls whose supple limbs showed through tissue-fine robes ushered them down the deck between the columns to a pair of great gold doors wrought in bas-relief by some master; inside was a huge room with shutters opened wide to let in every breeze, its walls of citrus wood and marquetry in gorgeous, complex designs, its floor a foot deep in rose petals.

She’s taunting me! thought Antony. Taunting
me
!

Cleopatra was waiting, dressed now in filmy layers of gauze that shaded from dark amber underneath to palest straw on top. The style was neither Greek nor Roman nor Asian, but something of her own, waisted, flared in the skirts, the bodice fitting her closely to show small breasts beneath; her thin little arms were softened by billowing sleeves that ended at the elbows to allow room for bracelets up her forearms. Around her neck she wore a gold chain from which dangled, enclosed in a cage of finest golden wire, a single pearl the size and color of a strawberry. Antony’s gaze was drawn to it immediately; he gasped, eyes going to her face in astonishment.

“I know that bauble,” he said.

“Yes, I suppose you do. Caesar gave it to Servilia many years ago to bribe her when he broke off Brutus’s engagement to his daughter. But Julia died, and then Brutus died, and Servilia lost all her money in the civil war. Old Faberius Margarita valued it at six million sesterces, but when she came to sell it, she asked ten million. Silly woman! I would have paid twenty million to get it. But the ten million wasn’t enough to get her out of debt, I heard. Brutus and Cassius lost the war, so that took care of one side of her fortune, and Vatia and Lepidus bled her dry, which took care of the other side.” Cleopatra spoke with amusement.

“It’s true that she’s Atticus’s pensioner these days.”

“And Caesar’s wife committed suicide, I hear.”

“Calpurnia? Well, her father, Piso, wanted to marry her to some mushroom willing to pay a fortune for the privilege of bedding Caesar’s widow, but she wouldn’t do it. Piso and his new wife made her life a misery, and she hated having to move out of the Domus Publica. She opened her veins.”

“Poor woman. I always liked her. I liked Servilia too, for that matter. The ones I loathed were the wives of the New Men.”

“Cicero’s Terentia, Pedius’s Valeria Messala, Hirtius’s Fabia. I can understand that,” said Antony with a grin.

While they talked the girls were leading to their respective couches the fascinated group Antony had brought with him; when this was done, Cleopatra herself took his arm and led him to the couch at the bottom of the U, and placed him in the
locus consularis
. “Do you mind if we have no third companion on our couch?” she asked.

“Not at all.”

No sooner was he settled than the first course came in, such an array of dainties that several noted gourmands among his party clapped their hands in delight. Tiny birds designed to be eaten bones and all, eggs stuffed with indescribable pastes, shrimps grilled, shrimps steamed, shrimps skewered and broiled with giant capers and mushrooms, oysters and scallops brought at the gallop from the coast, a hundred other equally delectable dishes meant to be eaten with the fingers. Then came the main course, whole lambs roasted on the spit, capons, pheasants, baby crocodile meat (it was superb, enthused the gourmands), stews and braises flavored in new ways, and whole roast peacocks arranged on golden dishes with all their feathers replaced in exact order and their tails fanned.

“Hortensius served the first roast peacock at a banquet in Rome,” Antony said, and laughed. “Caesar said it tasted like an old army boot, except that the boot was tenderer.”

Cleopatra chuckled. “He would! Give Caesar a mess of dried peas or chickpeas or lentils cooked with a knuckle of salted pork and he was happy.
Not
a food fancier!”

“Once he dipped his bread in rancid oil and never noticed.”

“But you, Marcus Antonius, appreciate good food.”

“Yes, sometimes.”

“The wine is Chian. You shouldn’t drink it watered.”

“I intend to stay sober, madam.”

“And why is that?”

“Because a man dealing with you needs his wits.”

“I take that as a compliment.”

“Age hasn’t improved your looks,” he said as the sweetmeats came in, apparently indifferent to how any woman might take this news about her appearance.

“My charms were never in my looks,” she said, unruffled. “To Caesar, what appealed were my voice, my intelligence, and my royal status. Especially he liked the fact that I picked up languages as easily as he did. He taught me Latin, I taught him demotic and classical Egyptian.”

“Your Latin is impeccable.”

“So was Caesar’s. That’s why mine is.”

“You didn’t bring his son.”

“Caesarion is Pharaoh. I left him behind to rule.”

“At
five
?”

“Nearly six, going on sixty. A wonderful boy. I trust that you intend to keep your promise and present him to the Senate as Caesar’s heir in Egypt? He must have undisputed tenure of his throne, which means that Octavianus must be made to see that he is no threat to Rome. Just a good client-king of half-Roman blood that can be of no benefit to him in Rome. Caesarion’s fate lies in Egypt, and Octavianus must be made to realize that.”

“I agree, but the time isn’t ripe to bring Caesarion to Rome for ratification of our treaties with Egypt. There’s trouble in Italia, and I can’t interfere with whatever Octavianus does to solve those troubles. He inherited Italia as part of our agreement at Philippi—all I want from the place are troops.”

“As a Roman, don’t you feel a certain responsibility for what is happening in Italia, Antonius?” she asked, brow pleated. “Is it prudent and politic to leave Italia suffering so much from famine and economic differences among the businessmen, the landowners, and the veteran soldiers? Ought not you, Octavianus,
and
Lepidus have remained in Italia and solved its problems first? Octavianus is a mere boy, he can’t possibly have the wisdom or the experience to succeed. Why not help him instead of hindering him?” She gave a gritty laugh and thumped her bolster. “None of this is to my advantage, but I keep thinking of the mess Caesar left behind in Alexandria, and of how I had to get all its citizens cooperating instead of warring class against class. I failed because I didn’t see that social wars are disastrous. Caesar left me the advice, but I wasn’t clever enough to use it. But if it were to happen again, I would know how to deal with it. And what I see happening in Italia is a variation upon my own struggle. Forget your differences with Octavianus and Lepidus, work together!”

“I would rather,” Antony said between his teeth, “be dead than give that posturing boy one iota of help!”

“The people are more important than one posturing boy.”

“No, they’re not! I’m
hoping
Italia will starve, and I’ll do whatever I can to speed the process up. That’s why I tolerate Sextus Pompeius and his admirals. They make it impossible for Octavianus to feed Italia, and the less taxes the businessmen pay, the less money Octavianus has to buy land to settle the veterans. With the landowners stirring the pot, Octavianus will cook.”

“Rome has built an empire on the people of Italia from north of the Padus River all the way to the tip of Bruttium. Hasn’t it occurred to you that in insisting that you be able to recruit troops in Italia, you’re actually saying that no other place can produce such excellent soldiers? But if the country starves, they too will starve.”

“No, they won’t,” Antony said instantly. “The famine only drives them to re-enlist. It’s a help.”

“Not to the women who bear the boys who will grow up into those excellent soldiers.”

“They get paid, they send money home. The ones who starve are useless—Greek freedmen and old women.”

Mentally exhausted, Cleopatra lay back and closed her eyes. Of the emotions that lead to murder she had intimate knowledge; her father had strangled his own eldest daughter to shore up his throne, and would have killed her had not Cha’em and Tach’a hidden her in Memphis as a growing child. But the very idea of deliberately drawing down famine and disease upon her people was utterly foreign to her. These feuding, passionate men possessed a ruthlessness that seemed to have no bounds—no wonder Caesar had died at their hands. Their own personal and familial prestige was more important than whole nations, and in that, they were closer to Mithridates the Great than they would have cared to hear. If it meant that an enemy of the family would perish, they would walk over a sea of dead. They still practiced the politics of a tiny city-state, having no concept, it seemed to her, that the tiny city-state had turned into the most powerful military and commercial machine in history. Alexander the Great had conquered more, but on his death it vanished as smoke does into a wide sky; the Romans conquered a bit here and a bit there, but gave what they had conquered to an idea named Rome, for the greater glory of that idea. And yet they could not see that Italia mattered more than personal feuds. Caesar used to say it to her all the time: that Italia and Rome were the same entity. But Marcus Antonius would not have agreed.

However, she was a little closer to understanding what kind of man Marcus Antonius was. Ah, but too tired to prolong this evening! There would have to be more dinners, and if her cooks went insane dreaming up new dishes, then so be it.

“Pray excuse me, Antonius. I am for bed. Stay as long as you like. Philo will look after you.”

Next moment, she was gone. Frowning, Antony debated whether to go or stay, and decided to go. Tomorrow evening he would give a banquet for her. Odd little thing! Like one of those girls who starved themselves just at the age when they should be eating. Though they were anemic, weakly creatures, and Cleopatra was very tough. I wonder, he thought in sudden amusement, how Octavianus is coping with Fulvia’s daughter by Clodius? Now there’s a starved girl! No more meat on her than a gnat.

 

 

Cleopatra’s invitation to a second dinner that evening came as Antony was setting out on the following day for the courts, where he knew the Queen would not present herself again. His friends were so full of the wonders of that banquet that he cut his breakfast of bread and honey short, arriving at the agora before any of the litigants had expected him. Part of him was still fulminating at the direction in which she had led the more serious conversation, and they had not broached the subject of whether she had sided with Cassius. That would keep a day or two, he supposed, but it did not augur well that clearly she was not intimidated.

When he returned to the governor’s palace to bathe and shave in preparation for the evening’s festivities aboard
Philopator
, he found Glaphyra lying in wait for him.

“Was I not asked last night?” she demanded in a thin voice.

“You were not asked.”

“And am I asked this evening?”

“No.”

“Ought I perhaps send the Queen a little note to inform her that I am of royal blood, and your guest here in Tarsus? If I did, she would surely extend her invitation to include me.”

“You could, Glaphyra,” said Antony, suddenly feeling jovial, “but it wouldn’t get you anywhere. Pack your things. I’m sending you back to Comana tomorrow at dawn.”

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