Cleopatra Selene was one of three children born to Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and Roman triumvir Mark Antony. A princess who became a prisoner, she went on to become an important and influential ruler in her own right, at a time when most women were marginalised. Unlike her mother and other contemporary female rulers of the time whose regimes experienced domestic trouble, civil wars and rebellions, it is thought little is known of Cleopatra Selene simply because of her success.
In her fascinating book, Cleopatra’s Daughter: Egyptian Princess, Roman Prisoner, African Queen, historian Jane Draycott explores the life of Cleopatra Selene and how her life shines revelatory light on Roman politics, society and culture in the early years of the Empire, on Roman perceptions of Egypt, and on the relationship between Rome and one of its most significant allied kingdoms.
Here we explore more about how this remarkable woman became an influential ruler.
Antony and Cleopatra’s mutual desires
Following the Battle of Philippi in northern Greece in 42 BC, the victors – Mark Antony and Gaius Octavius (Julius Caesar’s great nephew and heir, the future Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus) – divided the Roman world between them; Antony received the East, Octavian the West.
Antony’s priority was the invasion and subjugation of Rome’s old enemy, Parthia. This required a base of operations in the East as well as funds, supplies and equipment. Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt was the ruler of Rome’s wealthiest client kingdom, a highly fertile agricultural region which also contained mineral resources mined for gold, precious stones and coloured marble. The region’s city, Alexandria, was also a major Mediterranean trading centre, and her kingdom also had a monopoly on trade with India and the Far East.
In 41 BC, Antony summoned Cleopatra to meet him at Tarsus in Asia Minor. While the two had met on several previous occasions, this time Cleopatra deliberately set out to make a favourable impression. With Caesar dead, she and her son needed a powerful new Roman protector. Thus, displaying her wealth prominently, Cleopatra set out to woo Antony.
Antony and Cleopatra’s legendary love affair led to them having fraternal twins, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, and later another boy, Ptolemy Philadelphos. Thus for the first decade of her life, Cleopatra Selene was raised in Egypt as an Egyptian princess.
Recognising Octavian intended to destroy him, Mark Antony found refuge in Egypt. Shortly after his return to Alexandria in 34 BC, Antony held a lavish ceremony, ‘the Donations of Alexandria’, where he bestowed vast swathes of land onto Cleopatra, declaring her to be Queen of Kings and Caesarion to be King of Egypt. He also bestowed kingdoms upon their joint children. Cleopatra Selene was given Crete and the Cyrenaica. Antony therefore ensured that Egypt gradually regained the territories it had ruled at its peak during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphos.
Rome’s new leader, Octavian, was angered by this, accusing Antony of betraying Roman culture and becoming an Egyptian. Octavian was further outraged after discovering a copy of Antony’s will revealing his wish to be buried in Alexandria with Cleopatra rather than in Rome with his wife Octavia. These factors led to the Battle of Actium. Despite a brief return to Alexandria, defeat was inevitable for both Antony and Cleopatra, who famously then took their own lives rather than surrender to Octavian.
Meanwhile Cleopatra Selene and her brothers had been sent to Thebes in the south of Egypt by Cleopatra for their safety. After the deaths of their parents, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios were nominally in charge of Egypt, yet a fortnight later their kingdom was annexed by the Roman Empire and they were brought back to Alexandria by Octavian. Octavian then left the newly created province, taking the twins and Ptolemy Philadelphos back to Rome with him where he paraded them as war trophies at a triumph, covering them both in heavy gold chains to indicate their subservience to him.
In the absence of any surviving relatives, responsibility for Cleopatra Selene passed to Octavian. Some sources say Octavian planned to kill the children, but his sister Octavia intervened in their favour, raising them as her own in her house on the Palatine Hill in Rome along with their extended family of a half-brother, two half-sisters and Octavia’s older children from a previous marriage. Octavian and his wife Livia Drusilla, lived nearby with Augustus’ daughter and Livia’s sons.
Gaius Julius Juba
Augustus had accumulated a collection of royal children – some were the heirs of friendly client rulers sent to Rome to ‘Romanise’ them, some the children of former client rulers who had been deposed or died. One of these was Gaius Julius Juba, the son of King Juba of Numidia (modern-day Algeria, Tunisia and Libya), who had taken his own life after his defeat at the Battle of Thapsus by Caesar in 46 BC.
Only a baby, Gaius Julius Juba had been taken back to Rome by Caesar and raised in his household. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, custody passed to Octavian (and subsequently Octavia). Juba was awarded Roman citizenship, was well-educated and adopted Roman practices. Juba served alongside Octavian in his conquest of Egypt, even participating in the Battle of Actium that had defeated Cleopatra Selene’s parents. Opting to make Numidia a client state rather than a province of Rome, Octavian (now known as Augustus) sent Juba to rule there as its king.
In 25 BC Cleopatra Selene and Gaius Julius Juba were married. Octavia had been instrumental in arranging their marriage noting the two had many similarities – they were both North African royals, both their parents had lost to Rome and had killed themselves, both had been left orphaned and had been taken to Rome, paraded on a triumph, and then been raised in the house of their parents’ enemies, and both had received Roman educations.
Augustus had changed his mind and re-annexed Numidia into Rome. By marrying Juba to Cleopatra Selene, Augustus was able to install them as his client rulers, proclaiming them king and queen of Mauretania. Cleopatra Selene and Gaius Julius Juba were finally free, accountable only to Augustus.
While this was Juba’s first time as a king, Cleopatra Selene had previously been declared Queen of Crete and the Cyrenaica in 34 BC, and had technically reigned briefly as the Queen of Egypt in 30 BC. This prestige therefore enabled her to rule alongside her husband as a queen in her own right, with her Greek and Egyptian heritage evident on coins she issued in her own name as well as those in conjunction with her husband Juba.
Cleopatra Selene had inherited her mother’s intellect – she was interested in the arts, architecture, religion and medicine amongst other subjects, and is said to have exercised great influence on Juba’s policies.
The Mauretanian Kingdom
Their vast new kingdom encompassed modern-day Algeria and Morocco, and contained two capital cities and a few Greek and Roman colonies. Under their rule, the Mauretanian Kingdom modernised and flourished. They re-founded one of the capital cities as ‘Caesarea’ in honour to Augustus, and had many grand buildings built, inspired by those in Rome and Alexandria, including a royal palace, a lighthouse and numerous temples dedicated to Roman and Egyptian deities. Their court became a cosmopolitan fusion of Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman architectural styles and culture.
Mauretania also became rich through trade. In addition to producing an expensive dye, Tyrian purple, that was much-coveted throughout the Roman Empire, they also exported wood, grapes, grains, pearls and fish (including a fish sauce, garum, popular in Rome).
Despite mild rebellions against the Romanisation of Mauretania, Cleopatra Selene and Juba wisely remained steadfast allies of Rome. Together they ruled Mauretania successfully for almost two decades, until Cleopatra Selene’s death aged 35.
Jane Draycott is a Roman historian and archaeologist with a special interest in Graeco-Roman Egypt. She has degrees in archaeology, ancient history and classics, has worked in academic institutions in the UK and Italy, and excavated sites ranging from Bronze Age villages to First World War trenches across Europe. Jane is currently Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Glasgow. Her book, Cleopatra’s Daughter: Egyptian Princess, Roman Prisoner, African Queen is published by Head of Zeus publishing, published November 2022.