Cleopatra and Caesar

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Cleopatra and Julius Caesar – Jean-Léon Gérôme

Little is known of Cleopatra’s early life beyond her familial connections. She enters the history books during her meeting with Julius Caesar, three years after becoming queen. Her brother Ptolemy XIII was proclaimed co-ruler with her, but she was exiled from Egypt by his ministers shortly thereafter. There is no record of Ptolemy XIII’s actions or public standing during Cleopatra’s absence from Egypt. At approximately 14 years of age, he was most likely a puppet king controlled by his ministers. Pompey the Great, the prominent Roman politician who supported Ptolemy and Cleopatra’s father, was at war with Julius Caesar during this time and in desperate need of aid. He believed his assistance to the Ptolemies years earlier bought him loyalty and support. He arrived on the shores of Egypt on September  28, 48 BCE. Rather than provide assistance, Ptolemy set up a throne on the beach and watched one of the Romans on his payroll sail out to the general’s ship in a small boat. The Roman general was invited aboard under the guise of meeting the King, but was stabbed and decapitated before reaching shore. Pompey was losing the Roman civil war at the time and the Ptolemaic ministers were likely hoping to gain favor with Julius Caesar by murdering his opponent.1

The plan backfired. Caesar arrived in Egypt just two days later. When he was presented with Pompey’s head, Caesar became angry and denounced his murderers for breaking the rules of war. Under the guise of diplomatic intervention, he set up residence in the palace until the dispute between Ptolemy and Cleopatra could be settled. As was precedent at the time, Ptolemy XII had named the Roman people as the executors of his will. This was done as a sign of respect, though it was now being used by Caesar to intervene in the internal politics of Egypt.

Cleopatra was informed of these events and believed Julius Caesar could help restore her to the throne, but there was great risk in entering Egypt. Her brother’s army still waited at the border and would kill her on sight. Cleopatra needed to use cunning rather than force to gain an audience with Caesar. Taking a small boat to Alexandria with an assistant named Apollodorus, she had herself rolled up inside a carpet.3 It was common practice for client monarchs to present their overseers with gifts as a symbol of loyalty. Historians believe the rug may have been presented as a gift to Caesar so as not to arouse suspicion among the palace guards. When unrolled, Cleopatra’s presence inside was revealed. In this manner, she gained an audience with Ceasar without alerting her brother’s forces.

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Bust of a young Cleopatra – Vatican Museum

Ancient sources state that Cleopatra was intelligent and quite beautiful. Although the vast majority of these documents were written by Romans attempting to portray her in a negative light, they nevertheless mention that her beauty and personality were something to be admired. Cassius Dio describes her as “a particularly beautiful woman and, at the time, being in her prime, she was conspicuously lovely. She also had an elegant voice and she knew how to use her charms to be attractive to everyone.”4 Plutarch also wrote of her verbal skills, describing her tongue as “a many-stringed instrument: she could turn it easily to whichever language she wished.”5 Caesar was immediately impressed with Cleopatra. It was at this time that they began their legendary love affair.6

Ptolemy became irate when Cleopatra’s presence in the palace was revealed the following morning.  He ran outside shouting about betrayal in order to spark an uproar against Caesar.7 Tensions regarding Rome were especially high at the time. To pacify the Alexandrians, Caesar publicly reunited King Ptolemy and Queen Cleopatra as rulers of Egypt according to their father’s will. He also restored Cyprus to the Ptolemaic Empire as a gift to their younger siblings, Arsinoe IV and Ptolemy XIV (Cyprus was annexed by Rome in 58 BCE from Cleopatra’s uncle, Ptolemy of Cyprus). Although these actions temporarily restored peace to the palace, Prime Minister Pothinus continued his attempts to gain power and plotted the death of Julius Caesar. His plan was uncovered and he was executed shortly thereafter.8

Upon the death of the minister, Ptolemy XII and Arsinoe IV, who was approximately 18 years old at the time, escaped and waged war against Caesar and Cleopatra. The war lasted for months, during which Cleopatra became pregnant with Caesar’s child. The Roman forces were cut off from the outside world. There was little fighting during the campaign; the Egyptian army contaminated the palace water supply and attempted to starve the Romans out instead. Despite being under-resourced and outnumbered, Caesar’s forces prevailed and finally won the campaign in the Battle of the Nile, February 47 BCE. Ptolemy drowned in the Nile River while attempting to escape and Arsinoe was taken captive by the Roman army.Out of 6 siblings, only Cleopatra and her youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV, remained candidates for the throne of Egypt after the war.

Caesar kept a personal account of his campaigns in a series of military diaries which can still be read today. For further study of the Roman civil wars or the Alexandrian War, please visit the Recommended Reading page.

Julius Caesar continued to uphold Cleopatra’s position as Queen of Egypt after the war but Ptolemy XIV was instated as co-regent for appearances.10 It was not customary for a Ptolemaic Queen to rule without a consort but, at 12 years old, Ptolemy was most likely a ceremonial figure, giving Cleopatra sole control of the government.

In celebration of their victory, Caesar and Cleopatra took a brief cruise down the Nile with a fleet of 400 ships.11 The voyage publicized the Roman support for Cleopatra’s government, making challenges to her authority much more difficult. Caesar left Egypt to continue fighting wars in Syria and Pontus shortly after their cruise. Cleopatra gave birth to a baby boy on June 23, 47 BCE.12 His official name was Ptolemy Caesar, but the Alexandrian people nicknamed him Caesarion, “Little Caesar,” the name by which he is most commonly referred to today.

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A model of Cleopatra’s Royal Barge – Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Myrtle Beach

Caesar victoriously returned to Rome one year after departing Egypt, at which time he was granted four triumphs13 by the Roman Senate. Cleopatra, Caesarion, and Ptolemy XIV traveled to Rome in order to partake in the celebrations. They lived in one of Caesar’s villas on the River Tiber during their stay.

Arsinoe IV was marched in chains during Caesar’s second triumph, which commemorated his victory in the Alexandrian War.14 Breaking with the traditional execution of foreign prisoners, she was later exiled to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Cleopatra’s skillful reign before and after the Alexandrian War seemed to satisfy both the Greek and Egyptian populations during her absence from Egypt. The allies she made during her trip to Hermonthis years earlier proved to be particularly valuable, for the Egyptian priests publicly supported her as a legitimate Pharaoh.15 She also had connections outside of the religious aristocracy. The governor of Thebes was a strong supporter of her reign until her death.16 Despite a drought which dwindled food supply, the Alexandrian population did not rebel or attempt to dethrone the Queen (an act which they carried out against several previous monarchs).17 Cleopatra had established her supremacy in Egypt and it would not be effectively challenged until the time of her death.

But Cleopatra’s visit did great harm to Julius Caesar’s reputation in Rome. Cassius Dio states that “Caesar received the most blame from everyone because of his love for Cleopatra, not his relationship with her in Egypt… but for that which happened in Rome.”18 The relationship was politically advantageous for both leaders: Cleopatra wanted Caesar’s forces to continue supporting her claim to the throne, while Caesar needed a loyal leader in Egypt to continue repaying the nation’s debt to Rome.19

But there had to be more to their liaison than pure political ambition. Caesar was frequently the target of criticism during Cleopatra’s stay in his villa, usually as a result of his own actions. Such a position would be of no advantage to a strict politician. It was even rumored that Caesar asked a tribune named Helvius Cinna to pass a law which permitted Roman men to have more than one wife “for the purpose of producing children.”20 Such a law would have permitted Caesar to marry Cleopatra and proclaim Caesarion his heir because  it was public knowledge that his Roman wife was barren.

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Death of Julius Caesar – Vincenzo Camuccini

In one of his most criticized actions, Caesar ordered a statue of Cleopatra to be sculpted and placed in the Temple of Venus Genetrix21, the goddess from which the Julian family claimed its ancestry. This show of respect and gratification towards a foreigner and a monarch, two things discriminated against in Rome, was unprecedented. It led to rumors that Caesar, at the persuasion of Cleopatra, intended to proclaim himself King of Rome. Despite Caesar’s denial of these claims, a faction of Senators considered him a threat to the ideals of Roman government. On the Ides of March, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar attended a meeting of the Senate during which several politicians stabbed him to death “in the name of law and justice.”22 March 15 was later declared Parricide Day, and the Senate no longer met on that date.23

Cleopatra believed to be in immediate danger after Caesar’s death; her primary supporter was gone and his murderers were roaming the city.  She hastily made arrangements to return to Alexandria, “and the Romans were not sorry to see her go.”24 Despite being Caesar’s son, Caesarion was a foreigner and could not legally inherit any of his father’s possessions under Roman law.  Therefore, Caesar’s will adopted his great-nephew, Octavian, as a son and proclaimed him the sole heir.25 Being only 19 years old at the time with no military experience, Octavian needed to reinforce his political legitimacy.

Julius Caesar became extremely popular after his death; his will rationed off a large portion of his wealth to the Roman people and part of his estate became a public park.  He was deified shortly thereafter and Octavian quickly adopted the title Divi Filius, “son of a god.” Octavian also sponsored a series of games in honor of the deification, during which a comet was visible for seven continuous days. The comet was interpreted to be the spirit of Caesar taking its place among the gods, and a star was added to the forehead of Caesar’s statues.26

Cleopatra’s position was stable for the moment, but she would soon need to make plans to ensure security for her future.

This is Part I of the Biography series. Please click here to access Part II.

[learn_more caption=”Footnotes”]1Appian, Civil War

2Cassius Dio, Roman History

3Plutarch, Life of Caesar

2Cassius Dio, Roman History

5Plutarch, Life of Antony

6Suetonius, The Divine Julius Caesar

7Cassius Dio, Roman History

8Plutarch, Life of Caesar

9Julius Caesar (or Aulus Hirtius in Caesar’s name), The Alexandrian War


11Appian, Civil War

12Plutarch, Life of Caesar

13A triumph was granted to the leader of a successful army campaign.  Lasting a day, each triumph featured parades, free food and various forms of entertainment throughout the city of Rome.

14Appian, Civil War

15Jean Bingen, Hellenistic Egypt (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 54.

16Stanley M. Burstein, The Reign of Cleopatra (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 16.

17Cleopatra’s father had been dethroned by the Alexandrians several years earlier. In addition to deposition, the Alexandrians killed a former King, Ptolemy XI, when they became displeased with his actions.

18Cassius Dio, Roman History

19Cleopatra’s father was restored to the throne at a high price. Unable to repay the debt to Rome, he initiated a debasing of the coinage, though it still was not enough to repay the debt in full.

20Suetonius, The Divine Julius Caesar

21Appian, Civil War

22Plutarch, Life of Antony

23Suetonius, The Divine Julius Caesar

24Prudence J. Jones, Cleopatra: A Sourcebook (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 84.

25Octavius became known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus after the adoption. He is historically best known by the name Augustus.

26Suetonius, The Divine Julius Caesar[/learn_more]

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