Cleopatra after the assassination of Julius Caesar

Cleopatra's name - literally kleopadra

When Caesar was murdered in the Senate, Mark Antony took steps to protect Cleopatra, but fearing the return of Octavian (who was Caesar’s named heir and therefore a threat to her son Caesarion) she wisely chose to return to Egypt. En route she stopped off at Cyprus which had been granted to Arsinoe (her younger sister) and Ptolemy XIV (her younger brother and co-ruler) in order to ensure that she was recognised as their true ruler.

Caesarion protected by Horus at Edfu

When she reached Egypt she immediately took steps to consolidate her rule. Ptolemy XIV’s name appeared on an official document dated 26 July 44 BC, but after this date he “disappeared” with many assuming he was poisoned on Cleopatra’s orders and it is notable that at around this time she dropped the epithet “brother-loving” from her titles. Cleopatra declared her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, co-regent. She continued building the Caesareum to honour Caesar and it is thought that she intended to build a complementary monument to be known as the Cleopatrion to service her own cult.

She also undertook building works all over southern Egypt which emphasised the position of her son. In Dendera Caesarion was depicted in front of images of Cleopatra, asserting him as the primary ruler, and in Edfu Caesarion appears under the protection of the Horus falcon. The birth house in the temple of Montu in Iuny (Hermonthis, Armant) already depicted the divine conception of Caesarion and to it was added a kiosk featuring columns depicting Bes along with the cartouches of Cleopatra and Caesarion. It is highly likely that she took a tour of the country with Caesarion to inspect the progress of these monuments and consolidate her rule.

All was not plain sailing in Egypt as a series of poor floods from 43 to 41 BC caused famine and disease which could have been interpreted by some as signs of divine displeasure. Cleopatra took steps to ensure that Sekhmet (sometimes known as the “Lady of Pestilence”) was placated and opened the royal granaries to feed her people. Dioscurides Phacas (medical advisor of Cleopatra) began ground breaking research into the causes and treatments of bubonic plague and Kallimachos of Thebes was so effective in implementing anti-famine measures that statues were raised in his honour. Cleopatra seems to have successfully managed domestic turbulence, which in previous times would have led to rioting and even rebellion. However, in Rome matters were coming to a head.

As Caesar had predicted, his murder sparked a civil war as Mark Antony (backed by Octavian, Lepidus and the troops loyal to Caesar) wrestled with the leaders of the assassination plot (most notably Brutus, Decimus and Cassius). Yet, even at this early stage Mark Antony and Octavian were vying for power within the pro-Caesar faction.

Mark Antony and Octavian could not have been more different. Mark Anthony was a handsome man, known for his womanising and martial prowess, but not for his intellectual abilities. He loved to dress after the fashion of Alexander the Great and was a devotee of Dionysus (god of wine and madness). Octavian dressed after the manner of Apollo and Mars despite being physically rather puny and cowardly, but was also extremely intelligent and ruthless. He took great pains to constantly stress his relationship with Julius Caesar, prompting Mark Antony to quip “You, boy, owe everything to your name”. However, Octavian was seen by many in the Senate as the lesser of two evils.

While Cicero branded Mark Antony as a “loathsome man” and “a disgusting, intolerable sensualist” and derided his love of all things Greek he referred to Octavian as “an excellent boy” for whom he had “high hopes for the future”. At Cicero’s prompting Mark Antony was declared an enemy of the Senate and the murderers of Caesar were offered pardons. But Cicero and Octavian underestimated the popularity of Mark Antony. Instead of fighting the army of Lepidus, Mark Antony simply walked into his camp whereupon Lepidus joined forced with him and Decimus’s men went over to his side. Meanwhile Octavian seized the treasury and tried and convicted the murderers of Caesar (including a now implicated Cicero). Faced with the large armies of Lepidus and Mark Anthony Octavian had no choice but to join with them and the three began to hunt down Caesar’s assassins.

Shortly after her return to Egypt her husband Ptolemy XIV died in suspicious circumstances and Cleopatra declared her son Caesarion her co-regent. Cleopatra then supported Antony, Octavian and Lepidus against Brutus and Cassius but a combination of storms and ill health prevented her from offering much direct military aid. She allied with Dolabella (a colleague and supporter of Caesar) as he fought Cassius in Syria but reinforcements she sent to his aid went over to Cassius’s side. Cassius then managed to obtain part of the Egyptian fleet from Serapion (governor of Cyprus) who was probably conspiring with Arsinoe against Cleopatra. It is sometimes suggested that Cleopatra gave Cassius the fleet, but this is extremely unlikely given his role in the death of Caesar and is not borne out by ancient records.

Once in possession of the fleet, Cassius began to close in on Egypt. Cleopatra delayed his approach as long as she could until finally Mark Antony and Octavian set out to engage Brutus and Cassius was called back to support him. Cleopatra also planned to join battle, setting out from Alexandria with a large fleet. Cassius sent an ambush of sixty warships to wait for her but a great storm hit her fleet first and she was forced to limp home. Octavian’s forces were defeated by Brutus at Philipi in October 42 BC but Mark Anthony managed to catch up with Cassius and after further skirmishes he was successful and both Cassius and later Brutus committed suicide.

Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus carved up the empire between them (with Mark Antony taking the lion’s share). However, Mark Antony (like Caesar) wished to conquer the East and to do so he would need Cleopatra’s help. He refused to travel to Egypt to beg her help and so in 41 BC he summoned Cleopatra to Cilicia (Turkey) stating that she needed to account for rumours that she had offered aid to Cassius against him – rumours no doubt encouraged by her sister Arsinoe (now named Queen Arsinoe by the priests of Ephesus).


Classical Texts

  • Cassius Dio (155 or 163 – post 229 AD) Roman History
  • Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus aka Plutarch (c46 – 120 AD) Life of Antony
  • Strabo (64 or 63 BC – AD 24) The Geography
  • Flavius Josephus (c37 – 100 AD) Antiquities of the Jews
  • Marcus Annaeus Lucanus aka Lucan (39 – 65 AD) Civil WarAppian (95 – 165 AD) Civil War

Modern Texts

  • Joann Fletcher (2011) Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend
  • Prudence J. Jones (2006) Cleopatra: a sourcebook
  • Duane Roller (2011) Cleopatra: a biography

Copyright J Hill 2011