Cleopatra: A Verse Play

The play opens in 41 BC, when Antony and Octavian share the rulership of the Roman world with the third triumvir, the inoffensive Lepidus. Antony is tasked with bringing order to the eastern provinces, and creating some defence against marauding Parthian horsemen who regularly invade Syria. Octavian is in Rome, consolidating his hold on Italian politics and finding land and money to pay his troops. Octavian is Julius Caesar's adopted son, but much Antony's junior partner in years and military experience. His current problem is Sextus Pompey, Pompey the Great's son, who has turned pirate and withheld the grain supplies from Egypt so necessary to Rome's survival. Peace between the parties is made in Brundisium (40 BC), and the pact strengthened by Anthony agreeing to marry Octavia, Octavian's long-suffering sister and another pawn in his political manoeuvring.

Cleopatra is in Egypt, to which she fled when Julia Caesar was assassinated in 45 BC. She has taken no new lover, but rules her country competently, knowing there are always new claimants to the throne, especially her half-sister Arsenoƫ, then residing in Greece. Cleopatra VII is a Ptolemy, the Macedonian rulers of the last and richest Hellenic kingdom to remain outside Rome's clutches. Cleopatra has to balance the unruly passions of her polyglot subjects, who would welcome a recovery of the former territories of Judea and Syria, with the iron reality of the times, the aggressive expansion of the Roman state.

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ACT ONE: SCENE I

Gallus and Ammonius: Rome

GALLUS

What has it come to, that this braggart vies
with once-high Hannibal to block supplies?
The Senate orders but it's Sextus rules
the crossways of our scattered world, and schools
a simpering prudence in us lest we rue
more depredations when our grain fall due.
Where is the old command that arms had won,
where we but wished it and the thing were done?

AMMONIUS

We stand upon a troubled world that finds
10. Olympus even in its several minds.

GALLUS

So grows survival in the ravening jaws
of Roman justice bent on private cause.

AMMONIUS

Choose Antony beneath an eastern sky
or have our own good consul bleed us dry.
Soon comes that worst of things, a civil war.

GALLUS

It's Antony who has the conscience more,
and with his wildness and his drinking bouts
more given to openness and inner doubts.

AMMONIUS

Except that roisterer is never strong
20. enough to choose a course or hold it long.
His path's quixotic and can only fare
as some rich costume that an actor wear
for one scene only. Now a king, and then
most ruffianly of blood-besplattered men.

GALLUS

Such is the heritage of dragon teeth,
those ruinous conflicts Caesar sowed beneath
the ordered running of the state. Our wives
are sullied, properties, our very lives
are put at hazard by ambitious men
30. that we shall serve, and have to, and again,
for all Ammonius steer a quiet course.

AMMONIUS

My views are heard, perhaps, but have no force.
No threat to anyone, nor is my life
a pledge to party or a loving wife.
My wants are simple, and my one small room
is apt as fortress or eventual tomb.
Sweet is the morning's sunlight, bliss that falls
the same on hovels and on proud men's halls,
but all we cherish, this bright world of mind,
40. is winnowed far from us, and hard to find.