Cleopatra and Julius Caesar

Before Julius Caesar had even landed in Egypt, Plutarch records that Theodotus, the tutor of Ptolemy XIII, sailed out to meet him with the severed head of Pompey. This was intended to curry favour with Caesar and encourage him to set sail for Rome immediately with his business in Egypt being finished, but it had the opposite effect.

Caesar was absolutely furious at the cowardly murder of Pompey who was, of course, his son-in-law. It is possible that he intended to show mercy to Pompey (as he did to many of his enemies) as Plutarch suggested that he wept openly and then took measures to protect the head until a proper burial could be arranged. Dio disagreed, suggesting that Caesar did intend to kill Pompey but was dismayed that it had been undertaken in such a manner and on the orders of a foreigner, and perhaps exaggerated his grief for political effect. Either way, it hardened his feelings against Ptolemy XIII.

Julius Caesar

Caesar announced his intention to execute Ptolemy Auletes will (under which Cleopatra was co-regent with Ptolemy XIII). Pothinus, the ever present guardian of Ptolemy XIII and the real power behind his throne, stirred the Alexandrian mob up against Caesar but Caesar was not easily frightened. He landed with a small force and made his way to the palace. He insisted that Ptolemy and Cleopatra dismiss their armies and reminded Pothinus that the heirs of Ptolemy Auletes owed him 6000 talents (a large sum of money). Pothinus resented any challenge to his authority (he was acting chancellor and so controlled Egypt’s finances) and was openly insolent to Caesar – doing untold damage to the cause of his ward Ptolemy.

Cleopatra was determined to make the most of Pothinus’ miscalculation and managed to arrange a secret meeting with Caesar. Plutarch tells the famous tale of how Cleopatra was hidden in a role of carpet (or sleeping bag depending on the translation) which was unrolled to reveal her in all her glory. However, it is suggested by some authorities that she was in fact simply veiled, which is perhaps more likely.

Whether it was the beauty of Cleopatra, the fact that she was a direct descendant of Alexander the Great, her courage, or her charisma which charmed Caesar from this point (or shortly after) they became lovers. Caesar immediately reversed the decision of Pompey and reinstated Cleopatra as co-ruler with her brother. When Ptolemy XIII arrived for a meeting with Caesar he found his sister relaxing on a couch in his chambers and flew into a fit of rage. He burst out of the palace screaming that he had been betrayed and tried to rouse the Alexandrian mob against Caesar and Cleopatra. Ever the great orator, Caesar calmed the crowd by producing the will of Ptolemy Auletes decreeing that the siblings should rule together and by naming their younger siblings (Ptolemy XIV and Arsinoe) as the rulers of Rhodes (which Rome had recently recaptured). Returning Rhodes to the Egyptians was by no means a popular move with the Roman people, but it bought Caesar time, ensured the gratitude of Cleopatra and undermined the attempts of Pothinus and Ptolemy XIII to stir up rebellion.

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon Gerome 1866

Caesar held a banquet to celebrate their joint rule. While at this banquet, a servant of Caesar discovered that Achillas and Pothinus were plotting against him. Caesar had the banqueting hall surrounded by his troops and executed Pothinus. Ptolemy’s general, Achillas, escaped and rallied Ptolemy’s army (recently returned from Pelusium) and the Alexandrian Greeks who formed the town guard. His troops surrounded the palace but Caesar, mindful that he was seriously outnumbered, remained inside with Cleopatra holding Ptolemy XIII as hostage.

Caesar knew that reinforcements from Anatolia and the Levant were on their way to his aid, but he also knew that Achillas would try to stop them from disembarking so, as he mounted a desperate defence of the palace, he ordered that all of the ships in the harbour be set alight. The blaze spread to some of the warehouses on the shore and in the ensuing chaos Cleopatra’s younger sister Arsinoe fled with her tutor Ganymedes. Arsinoe joined forces with Achillas who proclaimed her Queen of Egypt, but she repaid his support by having him killed and replaced with Ganymedes when he disagreed with her decision to change tactics.

While violent clashes continued in the streets, Ganymedes arranged the poisoning of the water supply to the palace and set up road blocks to cut the palace off. Cleopatra, however, knew the locations of local water courses and new wells were quickly cut. Caesar decided to set Ptolemy free in the hope that in-fighting between him and Arsinoe would weaken them both. Unfortunately, they agreed to put their rivalries behind them to destroy Cleopatra and Caesar, and this only emboldened the Alexandrian guard and Ptolemy’s army.

It must have seemed to Cleopatra that her luck had finally run out, but Caesar does not seem to have countenanced handing her over to her enemies to save his own skin. This may have been due to his personal courage and his unwavering belief in his own martial abilities, but it is likely that his discovery that Cleopatra was pregnant with his son also played a large part in his determination.

Just when all appeared lost, the first of Caesar’s reinforcements arrived. After a fierce battle, they took the Great Lighthouse and the causeway linking it to the palace . When a further wave of forces led by the Prince of Pergamon arrived to support Caesar, Ptolemy was forced to head south to meet them. Caesar led his troops out in pursuit, forming a pincer with his ally from Pergamon. Following a bitter fight, Ptolemy was defeated and drowned in the Nile. Caesar retrieved his body and set out for Alexandria to tell Cleopatra the good news. She met him, no doubt dressed as her favoured goddess Isis at the head of a great procession of sacred emblems and gods.

Caesar established her younger brother Ptolemy XIV as her co-ruler to secure her throne and then married Cleopatra in the Egyptian manner (although this marriage was not recognised in Rome as he was already married and it was not legal for a Roman citizen to marry a foreigner). They embarked on a honeymoon cruise down the Nile which was both a chance for her to show Caesar Egypt and to confirm to the people that she was fully in charge. It may also have been intended as a pilgrimage to Edfu where the connection between her son, Caesarion, and Horus could be established, and his destiny as the future ruler of Egypt assured.

On their return to Alexandria, Caesar began to plan his return to Rome. He was criticised in Rome for failing to simply absorb Egypt into the empire and for remaining too long in Egypt after the defeat of Ptolemy XIII. There were still a number of factions loyal to Pompey, including many of his sons, so Caesar had a number of important matters to attend to, but he also had to visit his Jewish allies and reward their support in the Alexandrian war. He left three legions in Alexandria to support Cleopatra (and to confirm Egypt’s status as a protectorate) and took the treasonous Arsinoe back to Rome with him as his prisoner. He also gave Cyprus back to Cleopatra and this increase in her revenues allowed her to reduce taxation while continuing to improve the Egyptian economy.

Cleopatra and Cesarion at Dendera copyright Alex Lbh

Cleopatra gave birth to Ptolemy XV Caesarion on 23 June 47 BC. A decree in demotic (a shorthand version of hieroglyphs) was set up in the Serapeum at Saqqara and his lineage proclaimed on monuments across Egypt (including a famous scene in the Temple of Dendera). Caesar seems to have been very proud that he finally had a son. His aides began to investigate the possibility of changing Roman Law so that he could acknowledge Caesarion as his heir, despite the prohibition on marriages with foreigners and the fact that he was already married. He had a coin struck depicting Venus-Aphrodite and Cleopatra had a similar coin created in which she was depicted as Venus-Aphrodite nursing their son.

In 46 BC Cleopatra travelled to Rome with her brother/husband (Ptolemy XIV) and Caesarion (who Caesar could still not formally recognise as his heir). They were officially welcomed as “friends and allies of the Roman people” and installed in Caesar’s villa on the Janiculum Hill – a large villa with extensive gardens and an exceptional view of the city – while Caesar himself still officially lived with Calpurnia, his Roman wife.

Cleopatra became his acknowledged mistress as their Egyptian marriage was not recognised by Roman Law. Cleopatra held numerous “symposia” to which the great and good were invited to feast and listen to poetry and she seems to have been popular with Caesar’s friends. She also seems to have been instrumental in returning Mark Antony, who had been Caesar’s deputy but was replaced by Lepidus because of his debauched behaviour, to Caesar’s affection – no doubt in part because Mark Antony was known to love Greek fashion and culture and so was a friend to the Ptolemys.

Caesar giving Cleopatra the throne by Pietro de Cortone

Caesar had promised that if he was victorious against Pompey he would build a new temple in honour of Venus Genetrix, his divine ancestor. He placed a bronze statue of Bucephalus (the favourite horse of Alexander the Great) in front of the temple and placed a golden statue of Cleopatra in the form of Isis beside the statue of Venus in the centre of the temple. While it was common for Ptolemaic pharaohs to place statues of themselves alongside the gods, this was not at all in line with Roman practice, as it appeared to give her divine authority. The fact that Venus was closely associated with marriage was also seen by some as a blatant statement about his relationship with Cleopatra.

Caesar also set about placing statues of himself all over Rome, but most notably in the temple of Romulus, the deified founder of Rome. One statue even bore the title “the unvanquished god” which was previously associated with Alexander the Great. He oversaw a flurry of building activity, much of which was in the classical Greek-Egyptian style and set about establishing a large library in Rome (the largest library at the time being the Great Library in Alexandria). Cleopatra’s astronomers helped Caesar create a new calendar, the Julian calendar, to replace the defective Roman calendar. The new calendar had 365 days and a leap year and is the basis of the calendar we use today (with minor alterations added by Pope Gregory in 1585 BC). Cleopatra clearly had a profound effect on Roman art and culture.

Cleopatra and Caesar’s relationship was extremely unpopular with the Roman senate. Calpurnia was the daughter of a prominent Roman family and while, like a good Roman woman, she was subservient and demure, Cleopatra was powerful and outspoken. Caesar had many enemies in Rome by this time — chief among them, the orator Cicero. Cicero declared Alexandria “the home of all tricks and deceits” and openly admitted that he despised Cleopatra. He was of the opinion that women were intellectually weak and should always be under the power of their male guardians, so he was greatly concerned about Cleopatra’s influence over Caesar. Rumours began to circulate that Caesar planned to move the capital of the Empire to Alexandria and senators began plotting how they could reverse Caesar’s reforms.

In March 45BC Caesar met the sons of Pompey in battle and after a bloody struggle emerged successful. However, Pompey’s youngest son escaped and Caesar had another series of seizures which worried him so much that he retired to his villa in Lavicum to change his will. He left three gold coins to every Roman citizen and made the gardens of his villa on Janiculum hill a public park. He also left money to Mark Antony and Octavian (his nephew). He had not yet been able to amend Roman Law and so could not name Cleopatra or Caesarion in his will, but he did insert a clause setting up guardians for any future children (it is thought Cleopatra was again pregnant at the time). On route to Rome he stayed for a few days with Cicero to gauge the opinion of the senate to his measures. He had been named “Dictator for life” by the Senate but clearly intended to go further.

Caesar wanted to defeat the Parthians (following in Alexander the Great’s footsteps), but the Sybelline Oracle had stated that only a king could achieve this feat and Caesar clearly fancied that role. He became the first living Roman to appear on a coin, on which he was named as “father of the fatherland” and hatched a plan to be named king during the Festival of Lupercalia. Mark Antony was to “find” a crown and place it on Caesar’s head. He would refuse but be persuaded by the crowd. All did not go as planned, as the crowd cheered his rejection of the crown. In a bit of a huff, he began to prepare for his battle with the Parthians – but his intentions had been made all too clear to the Senate and the plotting began in earnest. Caesar was murdered in the forum on the ides (15th) of March 44 BC.

The assassins had hoped that the Roman people would welcome their deed but after speaking to the gathering crowd they were forced to flee to the Capitoline hill with cries for vengeance ringing in their ears. Mark Antony took charge of Rome, issuing coins on which he was depicted in mourning, and gave the role of head priest to Lepidus. He could not directly attack the conspirators, nor could he let them get away with it, so he began a period of armed neutrality during which he followed Caesar’s wishes and saw his will executed. Cicero claimed that Mark Antony lit Caesar’s funeral pyre, but eye witnesses recorded that two “divine forms” set it alight and it has been proposed that they were actors dressed as Castor and Pollux employed by Cleopatra to reinforce Caesar’s divinity.

Cicero gloated in his correspondence that Cleopatra suffered a miscarriage shortly after the funeral of Caesar. Furthermore, although Mark Antony advised the Senate shortly afterwards that Caesarion was Caesar’s true son and would no doubt have protected Cleopatra, she also knew that Octavian was named as his heir in Caesar’s will and that her son would be in danger if she stayed, so Cleopatra returned to Egypt in mourning on 15 April.


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