Alexandrian Kings

Isis_Sarapis_Harpocrates_Dionysos_Louvre_Ma3128

The Alexandrians came out in droves
to have a look at Cleopatra’s children:
Caesarion, and also his little brothers,
Alexander and Ptolemy, who for the first
time were being taken to the Gymnasium,
that they might proclaim them kings
before the brilliant ranks of soldiers.

Alexander: they declared him king
of Armenia, of Media, of the Parthians.
Ptolemy: they declared him king
of Cilicia, of Syria, of Phoenicia.
Caesarion was standing well in front,
attired in rose-colored silk,
on his chest a garland of hyacinths,
his belt a double row of sapphires and amethysts,
his shoes laced up with white
ribbons embroidered with pink-skinned pearls.
Him they declared greater than the boys:
him they declared King of Kings.

The Alexandrians were certainly aware
that these were merely words, a bit of theatre.

But the day was warm and poetic, the sky pale blue,
the Alexandrian Gymnasium
a triumphant artistic achievement,
the courtiers’ elegance exceptional,
Caesarion all grace and beauty
(Cleopatra’s son, of Lagid blood):
and the Alexandrians rushed to the festival,
filled with excitement, and shouted acclaim
in Greek, and in Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
enchanted by the lovely spectacle—
though of course they knew what they were worth,
what empty words these kingdoms were.

In his poem the great C. P. Cavafy turns a characteristically ironic eye upon the Donations of Alexandria of 34 BC, in which the children of Cleopatra were invested with many royal and divine titles. Pride of place at this event was given to Caesarion, Cleopatra’s eldest child and alleged heir of Julius Caesar. Caesarion had already been declared pharaoh and co-ruler of Egypt at the age of three, on this day in 44 BC. He and his brothers never inherited the kingdoms given them and their true fates are unknown, the subject of many legends. Interestingly, Cavafy does not mention their sister, Cleopatra Selene II, who survived the intrigues that birthed the Roman Empire and became Queen Consort of Mauretania. Her children were the last known issue of the three-centuries-old House of Ptolemy.
Image: Isis, Serapis and their child Harpocrates; marble relief; c. 125 BC; found at Henchir el-Attermine, Tunisia; Musée du Louvre
Text: C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Read the poem in Greek
Hear the poem in Greek

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