Julius Caesar in Egypt: Cleopatra and the War in Alexandria

Review

Arienne King
by
published on 01 May 2023
Julius Caesar in Egypt: Cleopatra and the War in Alexandria
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Title: Julius Caesar in Egypt: Cleopatra and the War in Alexandria
Author: Philip Matyszak
Audience: General Public
Difficulty: Easy
Publisher: Pen and Sword Military
Published: 2023
Pages: 192

Pop historian Philip Matyszak weaves a tale of violence, sex, greed, and deceit in this diligently researched book on the Alexandrian War. The war began with Julius Caesar's intervention in Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII's clash over the Egyptian succession, which Matyszak suggests was the dynasty's downfall. This easily read chronicle of Caesar's experiences in Egypt is highly recommended for history enthusiasts.

The book's first three chapters reconstruct the background of the Alexandrian War from the perspectives of Pompey, Cleopatra, and Caesar. Readers unfamiliar with the history of Ptolemaic Egypt will be glad to know that the important beats are summarized on the way. With this stage set, the rivalry between Cleopatra and her brother-husband Ptolemy is able to unfold. While they struggled over the throne, a different civil war between Caesar and Pompey the Great was tearing apart the Roman Republic.

The book is at its best when dealing with the human actors that shaped history.

These background chapters are brisk and satisfying, if perhaps a little biased towards the titular Caesar. Defeated, Pompey fled to Egypt to regroup, with Caesar in pursuit. Their arrival in the Nile Delta set off a chain reaction that claimed the lives of two of the four leaders involved.

Chapter Four opens with Pompey's murder, setting the tone for the inglorious war covered in the next seven chapters. Caesar's involvement in the Alexandrian War is presented as a series of diplomatic blunders, from his attempt to arbitrate the Egyptian succession to his affair with Cleopatra. But what he lacked in political acumen he made up for with military brilliance. Outnumbered five to one, Caesar withstood a prolonged siege while awaiting reinforcements. The book recounts brutal skirmishes from the Nile to Alexandria's streets, relying on textual and archaeological evidence. The final two chapters deal with the war's aftermath and cultural impact.

The book is at its best when dealing with the human actors that shaped history. Outside of the main cast, the author juggles an ensemble of courtiers and generals who altered the course of the war. The motives of these men and women are unraveled, revealing sympathetic and repugnant characters on all sides. The book is somewhat weaker when attempting to tackle wide-scale historical trends like Ptolemaic Egypt's gradual decline prior to the Alexandrian War.

Alexandria itself looms large in the narrative and is rightfully described as one of the war's protagonists. The city was founded by Alexander the Great at the crossroads of the ancient world, and this geographic fact helped to determine the war's existence. It was the crown jewel of the Ptolemies, a beacon of false hope to Pompey, and a nearly fatal trap for Caesar. As many rulers discovered, its agitated populace was as formidable as any army. Maps of Alexandria and the Nile Delta included in the book help readers visualize where key events and battles took place.

Matyszak argues that the war was not only a petty sibling rivalry but also meant the end of Egypt's independence. To him, Caesar's victory over Ptolemy was the final blow to the already crippled Ptolemaic dynasty. The book doesn't quite give Cleopatra her due, downplaying her autonomy and political ability, because Caesar is the protagonist. Nevertheless, it makes a compelling argument for remembering Cleopatra as a client-queen who ruled during a period when Egypt had been eclipsed by Rome.

The Alexandrian War was a complicated affair, but Julius Caesar in Egypt: Cleopatra and the War in Alexandria's conversational writing style makes it easily understood by the general reader. The author, Philip Matyszak, currently teaches at Cambridge University's Institute of Continuing Education. Key sources and their biases are discussed in the book. Yet, like most similar pop histories, it omits footnotes. An index of important places, people, and terms is placed at the end. Matyszak's perspective on the war's significance and Cleopatra's role in Mediterranean politics will not convince everyone, but he succeeds in condensing the war into an enjoyable read.

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About the Reviewer

Arienne King
Arienne King is a student and freelance writer with a passion for history, archaeology, and digital media. She runs the blog Muses & Mayhem and is the Media Editor for Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Cite This Work

APA Style

King, A. (2023, May 01). Julius Caesar in Egypt: Cleopatra and the War in Alexandria. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/review/351/julius-caesar-in-egypt-cleopatra-and-the-war-in-al/

Chicago Style

King, Arienne. "Julius Caesar in Egypt: Cleopatra and the War in Alexandria." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified May 01, 2023. https://www.worldhistory.org/review/351/julius-caesar-in-egypt-cleopatra-and-the-war-in-al/.

MLA Style

King, Arienne. "Julius Caesar in Egypt: Cleopatra and the War in Alexandria." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 01 May 2023. Web. 01 Mar 2024.

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