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The Snake or the Sword?
The boat rocked to and fro, causing the room to tilt like a child’s toy. The cold, unforgiving Mediterranean Sea smashed against the hull, making it sound as if we were under constant attack. While most of the crew roamed the top deck, I was lying in my chambers trying to keep my food where it belonged. Another wave crashed against the ship and I moaned in agony. I hated boats.
“Neptune,” I whispered to myself. “Please bless our journey into Egypt. And please, please let the waves stop.” My prayer would most likely go unanswered. Neptune was a wild god and nothing would amuse him more than to see one man of the mighty Triumvirate spill his innards on the floor.
Ah, yes, the Triumvirate. After the death of Julius Caesar, Rome fell into a period of civil war as usual. Caesar’s will was cross-examined and after much debating of the Senate, a Triumvirate was erected. It consisted of Mark Antony, Marcus Lepidus, and me, Octavian. But now, four years after the three of us became the joint rulers of Rome, the power was unbalanced. Lepidus was exiled early to the outer providences, deemed too weak-willed to govern any significant part of the empire. And Antony . . . he was ‘resting’ in Alexandria while his troops muscled their way through Parthia. Most of his Senate dealings were done through letters. It was if I were the sole leader of Rome.
The door suddenly banged open and I opened my eyes just enough to see Agrippa—one of my best generals and right-hand man—standing in the doorway. I couldn’t help to cringe as I saw the look of pain on his face. Knowing him, he was lamenting about how weak I was. I wasn’t strong physically, but my mind made up for it.
“Octavian, we are about to dock in Alexandria,” he announced. He paused as if he wanted to say something but didn’t act on it. It took me a moment to realize he was asking for permission to leave.
I nodded. “Very well. You may go.” I replaced my arm over my eyes and wished the sea would just calm down. Agrippa’s heavy stride soon faded into the distance and my mind started to relax somewhat. We were headed to the mighty city of Alexandria because Antony was currently taking up residence the palace and I needed desperately to talk to him. I was absolutely irate at his refusal to step up in the Senate and I demanded an explanation.
The boat shook one last time and then stilled. The ship had docked and my torture was finally over. I swung my legs over the bunk and stood shakily, one hand thrown out in case some of the nausea resurged. Gladly, my meal stayed put and after dusting my toga off, I headed up to the deck.
The Alexandrian sun beat down brightly on the wooden deck, magnifying the oppressing humidity in the air. I was going to be in misery if this were going to continue. I’d never liked the heat, and if Alexandria was anything like Rome in summer, it was going to be very uncomfortable.
I stared out at the Alexandrian horizon as the boat was unloaded. Rome paled in comparison to its simple elegance. Everything was furnished in the white limestone that was abundant in the south. The houses were simple and blocky, built more for practicality than grandeur. In Rome, columns were everywhere, but here in Alexandria the only columns were seen in temples and palaces. Bright paint contrasted with the milky white of the limestone, giving it an even more dazzling appearance.
“It’s much brighter than Rome,” a voice commented from my left. I glanced over my shoulder with squinted eyes and saw Juba eyeing the city as well. He was much taller than I was, with tawny skin, curly chestnut hair and blazing cerulean eyes. He was a prince, his father being the former king of Numidia. I had kept Juba alive mostly because he was an amazing swordsman. Currently, he served as my master assassin.
“Indeed,” I commented. “Do you have any suggestions if I meet Pharaoh?” Juba was also a detailed historian and wanted to write about the entire history of the world. How he would accomplish that, I couldn’t comprehend.
“Pharaoh Cleopatra is a shrewd politician. She won’t agree to anything unless she benefits. And no doubt she’ll try to seduce you.” I snorted. If she thought I was as spineless as Julius, she was very wrong. “Antony backs her as well. They have a strong alliance and have sealed it in the closest way possible.”
I frowned. “Did they marry?” This would throw a wrench in my plans.
He nodded, confirming the worst of my fears. “Yes. They sealed their alliance only a month ago.” It made sense. The last time Antony had been on the battlefield was at least two months ago. All the pieces fell into place and I couldn’t help but feel deeply betrayed.
My gaze swept over Alexandria one last time as I exited the boat, Juba and a few other soldiers following close behind. “This would be quite the addition to the empire, don’t you think?”
Behind me, Juba nodded uneasily. “It would, but Cleopatra won’t hand it over without a fight.”
“No ruler wants to lose their land. It’s understandable.” A litter was waiting for me on the docks and I gladly entered it, letting the silk curtain fall back. I didn’t want to see the commoners gawking at me. I heard many whispers in a myriad of languages; no doubt they were commenting about how weak of a leader I was.
I shut out their gossiping as I pulled out a scroll out of my toga, quickly opening it and skimming its contents. I liked everything I said to be scripted and this was no exception. I had written down what I would say to Pharaoh, everything from long soliloquies to the smallest of answers. Before I knew it, the litter stopped and we finally arrived at the palace of Cleopatra.
I looked over my notes one last time and exited. The palace in front of me seemed to extend to the heavens and I stared in awe at it. After another moment soaking in its unearthly splendor, the large gilded doors opened and in it stood Pharaoh Cleopatra VII.
She’s not as stunning as Julius had described, I thought. She was Greek, not Egyptian but she dressed in all the royal trappings of the Egyptian title. Her glossy ebony hair hung down her back in waves. A golden diadem sat on her head, the rising cobra looking oddly menacing. Its garnet eyes pierced my soul, leaving me with a churning feeling in my stomach. Cleopatra had a long, pointed nose, giving her a slightly haughty air. Her lips were full, dyed scarlet with ocher. Guarded green eyes met my gray ones with a mix of distrust and curiosity. In her hands were the crook and flail, the Pharaoh’s symbols of power. After a tense moment, she opened her mouth to speak.
“Welcome, Gaius Octavius,” she announced. Her voice was much deeper than I’d expected. It was brassy, comparable to a butcher’s wife. “It is an honor to have you here in my palace.”
“The pleasure’s all mine, Pharaoh,” I said, bowing down.
“Would you care to join us for a meal?” she asked, sweeping a hand towards the inside of the palace. This was more than just a polite invitation. It was a strategic movement and we both knew it.
“I’d be delighted.” My guards and I were quickly ushered in, the doors slamming shut behind us. As the last bits of sunlight were shut behind the doors, the palace took on a much darker ambiance. There were barely any windows, so torches illuminated the darkness, the shadows dancing on all the decorations on the walls. The style was Egyptian with Greek undertones; the figures all walked sideways and hieroglyphs dotted the walls but the scenes depicted scenes from Greek mythology—the forming the Olympians, Medusa the Gorgon, Hercules. The corridors twisted and arced, creating a labyrinth of hallways. I was just starting to get out of breath when another gilded door greeted us. With a groan, they opened and we entered the Great Hall as trumpets announced our entrance.
The entire hall was about as big as my villa in Rome. Huge pillars rose in parallel lines, creating a forest of stone and paint. Like the rest of the palace, torches burned bright enough to think that the sun was shining bright. Long tables crossed the hall between the pillars, their seats already occupied by the aristocrats of Egypt. In the middle of the room stood a dais with a table set for three people. One of the seats was already taken and its occupant rose as Cleopatra and I ascended it, the guards forced to wait at the base.
“Ah, hello, my beautiful Queen!” Mark Antony cried. He kissed her sloppily on the cheek and turned to me. “And Octavian! I haven’t seen you in ages. Come, sit.”
I stiffly sat in the chair next to him, my nose wrinkling at the oppressing smell of alcohol. Antony was a known drinker and he sounded as if he’d turned his blood into alcohol. The servants set out lavish plates of roast fowl, steaming bowls of stew, plates decked with dates and pomegranates, and enough wine to satisfy Bacchus.
I picked apart a piece of bread as Antony and Cleopatra prattled on about Egypt. The conversation didn’t include me until Mark brought up his army in Parthia. “We’re doing very well, I must admit. Those Parthians are quite brutal, but not like the Gauls, I assure you.” He turned his bloodshot eyes towards me. “Octavian? May I ask you something?”
I breathed deeply through my nose. He was starting to irritate me. “What do you ask?”
Antony bit his lip. “My troops may be winning, but we’re losing a lot of men. In truth, if it continues like this, we won’t last the year. I beg you—please lend me some of your army so that we can win successfully against the Parthians.” Lend him some of my army? Did he know who he was talking to? For a moment, I debated what to do. If I leant him some of my army, he would most likely assume the rift between us was gone and be oblivious to the seething malice underneath. But if I didn’t, it may send us into a bitter feud that Rome did not need. My decision was easily made.
“Very well, Antony. I’ll lend you some of my army.”
His face brightened. “Thank you, Octavian. I’ll forever be in your debt.” He bowed his head and even kissed my signet ring in gratitude. I managed a small smile.
Yes, Antony, I thought. You’ll be forever in my debt. I guarantee it.
“He did WHAT?!” Months had passed since I gave some of my army to Mark. His taking of Parthia had been riddled with defeats while still flourishing with major battles. He advanced, he retreated, he advanced, he retreated; the cycle would’ve continued if Cleopatra had not donated a ludicrous amount of money for Antony’s cause. After the winter in Armenia blew over, he attacked full-force and was victorious.
Agrippa nodded. “He held a mock Triumph and declared you and the entire Roman Empire enemies of Egypt. And he gave the lands of Armenia, Media, Parthia, Cyrenaica, Libya, Syria and Cilicia to his children.” Some of those lands, such as Media and Parthia, hadn’t even been completely subdued. So why was he giving them kingdoms that he didn’t even control? Was he losing his mind?
I frowned. “His children?”
“The twins, Selene and Alexander, and young Ptolemy.” This couldn’t get anything worse. “Plus,” Agrippa added, “he proclaimed that Caesarion—Julius Caesar’s son—would be coregent with his mother, who was given the title ‘Queen of Kings’ and ‘Queen of Egypt.’”
I sighed tiredly and fell against the chair. This was not good. The bonds between Mark Antony and I were long gone and bitter hate filled the gap. The Triumvirate was useless now, with Antony picking his lover over his nation and Lepidus rotting in the ground (I had him executed short after he made a very rash mistake when it came to his providence). It ended on the streets of Alexandria but its significance would echo throughout the entire empire.
I dismissed Agrippa and turned back towards the blank scroll on my desk. As I stared down at its white vastness, an idea simmered slowly in my mind. It would be suicide to meet him in battle. Antony had gotten to power only because of his decorated military career. Even though he was a brilliant strategist, when it came to politics and relating to the aristocrats of society, he tended to make a fool of himself. I couldn’t beat him in combat, but in a battle of wit, I had a very good shot of defeating Antony. He would pay dearly for turning his back on Rome.
I dipped a reed pen in a vial of ink and smoothed out the scroll. With a small, devious smile playing on my lips, the pen met paper and my letter scratched itself in dark, unforgiving scratches.
My dear Antony,
Congratulations on taking Parthia! It is a great addition to the Roman Empire. Or . . . would it be part of the Egyptian Empire? I’m not quite sure who actually gets the claim to its land. I’ve heard rumors that you declared your young son, Alexander Helios, the king of Parthia, along with Armenia and Media. But how can he be ‘king’ if those providences aren’t totally annexed?
All conflicts on land aside, I must ask you a question, dear Antony. Why would you denounce your allegiance to Rome while still being part of the Triumvirate? I will not take such blasphemous words. The Triumvirate will expire next year and both the Senate and I will be glad to get rid of a deserter like you.
On another note, your daughters Antonia and Tonia are wondering where their father is. What will their faces be like, I wonder, when they learn that their father abandoned them for an Egyptian Pharaoh? No doubt they’ll be disappointed.
You are a Roman, Mark Antony. You are not an Egyptian, nor are you Dionysus. I will not take such pigheadedness in our democracy. From this point on, I declare you an enemy of Rome. You will be treated as any leader of a foreign land if Egypt were to be captured.
Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus
With a final flourish, the reed pen dropped from my aching fingers. I hated Antony with all my heart but a part of me cringed. I was losing a good friend with the spiteful words in this letter. Is this what Brutus felt while he decided to either spare his good friend or put a knife in his back? The two sides clashed, threatening to tear my heart in half. Mark Antony had wronged me one too many times yet . . .
I looked up at the door in surprise. In its shadows stood my new wife, Livia. I had met her only a few months back but I was absolutely infatuated by her. It didn’t matter to me that I was already married to another wife—Scribonia—plus Livia was pregnant with her deceased husband’s child. I had overlooked that and after divorcing Scribonia and waiting for Livia to have the child, I married her. Currently, she held her young son in her arms. Drusus, along with his older brother Tiberius, were welcome additions to the usually stoic household.
“Livia,” I breathed. I quickly got up from my chair and went over to her. As I approached, Drusus’s eyes lightened and he smiled brightly at me. It gave me a thrill that he thought that I was his father and yet, I shared no blood with him.
“What are you doing so late at night?” she asked, her violet eyes looking very troubled. That’s the thing that had caught my attention when I first met her. Livia’s eyes were a pale shade of violet, a color I’d never seen before in someone’s eyes. Her raven hair was always pulled into a bun with a few curly strands escaping. Her style was impeccable and she always wore the latest Roman fashions.
I sighed, running a hand through my hair. “It’s just that Antony has been doing some very frustrating things in Egypt.”
“Declaring that Rome is now an enemy of Egypt while still being a part of the Triumvirate. Things like that.” My voice was drained of all emotions.
Livia put a hand over her mouth. “Oh, gods. What are you going to do?”
“The only thing I can. If Antony wants to be enemies then I’ll be his enemy.” My mind swarmed with pictures of the mighty Egyptian empire being under Roman control and the fall of the Pharaohs.
“But you must rest, my love,” Livia said, breaking my train of thought. “You can’t go to war when you’re half asleep on your feet.”
I nodded. “Very well.” I paused and met my wife’s eyes. “Will you join me?”
After a moment, she nodded. “I will. Just let me put Drusus back to sleep and I’ll meet you in your chambers.” Without as much as a goodbye, she turned on her heel and disappeared into the darkened corridor. I quickly retired to my own chambers and Livia’s presence was a welcome distraction.
The next few months were stressful to put it simply. With that first hateful letter, I ignited a fire in Antony. We never fought in combat, but instead we waged a war of words. We threw taunts at each other, trying desperately to make the other look bad. I accused him of going ‘native’ and turning his back on Rome. Another thing I alleged him of was keeping land for himself instead of casting lots. I also brought up the fact that he divorced my sister just so he could be with Cleopatra.
Antony came back with his own propaganda. He accused me of forging Caesar’s will to get myself into power and noted that some of the document didn’t look exactly like Julius’s writing. Some of the names he called me was ‘weak,’ ‘pathetic’ and ‘power hungry.’ He also speculated that I had only gotten into Caesar’s good graces because I had done some sexual favors for him. That was definitely not true.
“Livia, I need you to do something for me,” I said one day. The war was still raging and we were neck-and-neck with no true winner so far.
“What, Octavian? If you say it, I’ll do it.”
I took a deep breath. “I need you to retrieve Mark Antony’s will from the Vestal Virgins.” If I was correct, than this would give me the lead and hopefully, I could win this war.
Livia’s amethyst eyes widened. “Octavian, that’s against the law!”
I smiled coldly. “I’m practically Caesar. Just tell them Octavian sent you and they’ll comply.”
She nodded, but I could tell she had a bad feeling about it. I didn’t harbor her fears. I would do anything win this war, even if meant taking what I wanted. So, the next time the Senate reconvened I had Mark’s will resting in my toga.
“Gentlemen,” I cried, hushing the crowd with a single word. “Some of you may know of my . . . falling out with Mark Antony. After much searching, I have found this.” I held up the scroll. “The will of Mark Antony!”
The Senators looked all around and whispered to themselves. I ignored them and opened the scroll. “Interesting . . . here it says that Mark Antony wants to be buried in Egypt. And, might I add, next to the Pharaoh Cleopatra.” This sent the men into a rage. Good. This is what I needed. After little discussion, Antony was stripped of his Triumvirate powers and Egypt was declared an enemy of Rome.
Finally, we would settle this on the battlefield.
The only true battle of Roman-Egyptian War—if I dare call it that—was the Battle of Actium. And that, in itself, was a disaster. Agrippa had captured a naval city that was loyal to Antony and now, we were going to meet at another port city.
My ships were relatively small while Mark’s were big and bulky. My men were also well-equipped and rested while our enemies were hungry, tired and dirty. As the carnage ensued around us, Juba and I stood on the deck of the royal barge. I prayed to Mars that the siege was successful. “They look as if they don’t have a general,” I commented with a small smile. Our smaller ships had maneuvered past the Egyptian’s lines and were sinking their ships, some soldiers even boarding enemy vessels. Well, it did help that one of Antony’s men had given us all of the navy’s secrets.
“Antony has lost control of his forces.” Juba’s hair whipped wildly in the brisk wind. “They’ll surrender sooner or later.”
That man was an Oracle. Not even ten minute after that offhand statement, the commanding ship raised its white sails—the signal of surrender. A sudden chain reaction happened, white sails popping up from every Egyptian ship. When the final flag admitted defeat, the battle was over.
The Battle of Actium was won by the Romans.
It only lasted twenty minutes.
With their dignity in tatters, the Egyptians limped back to Alexandria. I debated to follow Antony and his fleet back to Alexandria, but I decided against it. I needed to rest my army if we were to even dare to think of invading of Egypt.
I thought that we’d be obliterated when we arrived on the Egyptian shores, but to my surprise, the streets were completely deserted, devoid of all human life. I turned to Agrippa and he explained, “Most of Antony’s army and navy have deserted. The people of Alexandria have gone into hiding.”
Things could not be more in my favor. We walked down the streets of Alexandria unchallenged. That is, until we passed Cleopatra’s splendid mausoleum. A soldier blocked our path—no, it was a general. As I stared into his wild brown eyes, I realized that this was the mighty Mark Antony!
“You’re going to pay what you did to us, Octavian,” he growled, pulling his sword out of its sheath.
“Oh? I’m going to pay?” With a snarl, Antony attacked. He thrust the sword downwards towards my gut. With a quick swish of my own blade, I parried his attack with one hand. He looked astounded at my sudden agility. “I’ve been lying to you, Antony. I’m not as sickly as you think. No one would expect me to be strong.”
The fighting continued. Jab, parry, thrust, block, slash. It was evident that I had the upper hand and Mark knew it. At one point, he did manage to get my sword out of my hands and it clattered to the ground with a ring. He thought he had won, but he was wrong. Dead wrong.
Using a technique I had learned from Julius, I rushed up to Antony and grabbed the hilt of his sword. We grappled for it but I soon turned the blade towards Antony’s gut. I took a second to mentally prepare myself. I had done this technique before, yes, but not against another human. With a heave, I sunk it deep in Mark’s abdomen, its tip barely jutting out the back of his armor. If he were to die here alone, it would look like he had fallen on his own sword. That was the genius of the move.
I watched with a stony expression as Mark Antony stared up at me, blood dribbling down his chin. “Why?” he rasped.
“You are a disgrace to all Romans,” I hissed icily. Antony’s eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped on the mausoleum steps. He was dead.
I glanced up at my guards, who stared at me with a mix of awe and horror. I quickly shook myself off and retrieved my sword off the ground. “Where is Cleopatra?” I asked, looking directly at Juba.
“In the mausoleum,” he replied. I vaulted up its steps and pounded on the doors. I hastily put on a strained expression in case Pharaoh was to open the door.
“Cleopatra!” I cried. “Cleopatra, it’s Antony! He’s committed suicide!” This was the bait in my trap and knowing Cleopatra’s relationship with Antony, she would fall right into it.
After a tense moment, the doors opened. One of Cleopatra’s servants stood in the doorway, her face pale with fear. “Is it true?” she asked in a whisper.
I nodded. “It is.” I peered into the mausoleum. “May I see the Queen?”
“Of course.” I was ushered in while the guards were left to deal with Antony’s cold body. The treasures of Egypt lay stashed in this place, filling with a melancholy feeling. In the center was Cleopatra lying on a bed with lion’s paw legs, dressed in all of Egypt’s finest jewels. Her face was wan, deep lines etched in the smoothness of her face.
“It’s true then,” she said in no more than a whisper. “He’s dead.”
“He is.” I approached Cleopatra and she did nothing to stop me from advancing. Soon enough, I was standing over her prostrate body. “But you won’t have to be apart too long, I promise.” I placed a hand over her heart, feeling its erratic thump. I took a deep breath to calm myself. I had known for a long time now that I’d have to get rid of Cleopatra one way or another. And now was my chance to follow through with that plan.
She didn’t move as the sword sliced cleanly through her throat, ruby blood cascading out of the wound. It wouldn’t be long before she bled out. I watched numbly as the blood pooled around her hair and dribbled down the bed. The deed was done and Egypt was finally mine, all mine!
A sudden scream pierced the silence. I turned to see her two servants staring at me with sheer terror in their eyes. With a snarl, I turned towards them and silenced the two forever.
When I opened the mausoleum doors, the others rushed to me. They must’ve been alarmed to see the hideous amounts of blood on my blade and hands. I started barking orders immediately. “Cleopatra is dead. Go clean up the others and bring Antony to the place where he wanted to be buried—next to his lover. Erase all of the evidence that I was there. And I swear to you, if you tell anyone what really happened, I will crucify you.” They hesitated, taken by surprise at my sudden harsh tone. “GO!” They quickly scrambled inside, not wanting to feel my wrath. Juba was the one to hesitate before going in.
“Octavian . . . what are we going to tell the people?”
I stared at the caked blood on my hands, shrugging. “I’m not quite sure . . .” Which way of death would make Cleopatra look the worst? “Let them believe that she killed herself by smuggling in a cobra in a basket and having it bite her.”
I held up a hand. “But nothing. Cleopatra killed herself and so did Antony. It’s better this way.”