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"Cleopatra Before Caesar" (1866) by Jean-Léon Gérôme

In Book X of the Pharsalia Lucan describes the feast given by Cleopatra to Julius Caesar. The background to this lavish celebration is, in the manner of the later Lucan, sombre, republican, and decidedly anti-imperial. The book begins with Caesar landing in Egypt where Pompey, his adversary in Rome's civil wars, has recently been murdered — in the Pharsalia Egypt is, from the first, presented as a place fatal to republican virtue.  

Almost the first thing Caesar does once he has landed is to visit the tomb of Alexander the Great, and this provides Lucan with a chance to inveigh against "Macedonia's madman":

Illic Pellaei proles vaesana Philippi,
Felix praedo, iacet terrarum vindice fato
Raptus: . . .

There lies the mad son of Macedonian Philip, that lucky brigand, carried off by a death that avenged the world: . . .

For Lucan, Alexander was the fountain-head of empire, the man born to teach the world the harmful lesson that "terras tot posse sub uno | Esse viro" (so many lands may be ruled by one man).  

Yet in one respect Alexander surpassed the Romans who followed him, in that he was able to subdue the East. Lucan admits that this task has proved too much for his countrymen, and recalls the disastrous eastern expedition of the triumvir Marcus Crassus, defeated by a smaller force of Parthians at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC:

            Non felix Parthia Crassis
Exiguae secura fuit provincia Pellae.

Parthia, fatal to the Crassi, was a peaceful province of little Pella (i.e. Macedonia).

These two keynotes — that the East is the poisonous source of imperial notions, and that Rome has proved impotent in its efforts to subdue the Orient — set the scene for the seduction of Caesar by Cleopatra which follows. Overcome by Cleopatra's blandishments, Caesar agrees to restore Cleopatra to the throne of Egypt, and the event is celebrated with a great feast. Lucan expatiates over the magnificence of the banqueting hall, its sumptuous and rare decoration, and the number and exoticness of the attendants. He admits that even the legendary heroes of the Roman republic in its heyday — Fabricius, Curius, and Cincinnatus — could not have withstood the temptations lavished on Caesar:

Pone duces priscos et nomina pauperis aevi,
Fabricios Curiosque graves, hic ille recumbat
Sordidus Etruscis abductus consul aratris: Optabit patriae talem duxisse triumphum.

Place here the ancient leaders and the names of an age of poverty — a Fabricius and stern Curius; or let the consul, summoned unwashed from his plough in Etruria, take his place at this table — he will pray to enjoy so great a triumph for his homeland.

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