Cavafy’s Historical Poetics in Context: “Caesarion” as Palimpsest


  • Takis Kayalis University of Ioannina


C. P. Cavafy, Caesarion, Literary palimpsest, Cultural genealogy, Historical poetics


This article explores the multiple genealogies of C. P. Cavafy’s “Caesarion” (1918), a poem often claimed as a key to our understanding of his historical poetics, by tracing its European cultural and literary context. Despite his perception as an obsolete and marginal historical figure, Caesarion was highly recognizable in the poet’s time and was often portrayed in various contexts, from scholarly studies to various forms of popular culture. The article examines the unexpected ways in which Cavafy absorbed and transformed elements from his main historical source, J. P. Mahaffy’s The Empire of the Ptolemies (1895), and surveys the unknown series of Caesarion’s literary depictions by several European authors before the composition of Cavafy’s poem. As this discussion demonstrates, Caesarion’s composite portrait is marked with insinuations of effeminacy, which may result from his enfoldment in the legend of Cleopatra and explain this ancient historical figure’s transformation into an object of homoerotic desire in Cavafy’s poetry. The article concludes with speculations connecting Cavafy’s poem to the historical Caesarion’s treatment in early 20th-century cinematic renderings of the story of Antony and Cleopatra.