The primary description of Cleopatra's floating pleasure palace comes from Plutarch's Lives (written in the 2nd century), specifically The Life of Marcus Antonius, in which he writes of Cleopatra's arrival in Tarsus based on the accounts of eyewitnesses.

Plutarch is here italicized, with interpollated commentary.

Cleopatra came sailing up the river Kydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and harps. She herself lay under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as the painted Aphrodite.

Cleopatra's barge was what is now called a dahabiyah (from the Arabic word for "golden"), a "large river sailing vessel with high lateen sails associated with the River Nile. Originally the term applied to the gilded state barges of Egyptian rulers, hence its name." (The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, p. 224)

Beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. The most beautiful of her women were dressed like nereids and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. All the while an indescribably rich perfume, exhaled from innumerable censers, was wafted from the vessel to the river banks.

Cleopatra's censers would have been piled high with kyphi--the most expensive scented offering known to the Egyptians, compounded from the roots of Acorus and Andropogon together with oils of cassia, cinnamon, peppermint, pistacia and Convolvulus, juniper, acacia, henna and cyprus; the whole mixture macerated in wine and added to honey, resins and myrrh. According to Plutarch it was made of 'those things which delight most in the night' and was a soporific which "brightened the dreams". It is also hypothesized that Cleopatra soaked her barge's sails in jasmine-infused water.

The spectacle diverted the multitudes who had come to the market place to see Marc Antony. Eventually the market-place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal; while the word went through all the multitude, that Aphrodite was come to feast with Dionysus, for the common good of Asia.

Shakespeare would later borrow heavily from Plutarch in writing Domitus Enobarbus' colorful, evocative speech about the arrival of Cleopatra in Tarsus in Antony and Cleopatra:

I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them;
the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion--cloth-of-gold of tissue--
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i' the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i' the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature...

Act II, scene ii, Antony and Cleopatra.


Plutarch, The Life of Marcus Antonius
Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra


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