Julius Caesar and Cleopatra: A Match Made in Power

Graham Land

3 mins

26 Jul 2018

Cleopatra the VII’s famous relationship with Julius Caesar has its beginnings in the Egyptian ruler’s ascent to power at the hands of the Roman dictator. It was at first a political alliance.

Ptolomy’s power play

Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII Auletes had decided to ally with Rome, as he rightly believed it was becoming the region’s greatest power. But there were powerful Egyptians and Greeks who disagreed with this policy and decided it would be better to have Cleopatra in control.

So Ptolemy paid Rome to invade Egypt and guarantee his place in power, incurring large debts by borrowing from a Roman businessman in the process. As was the custom of the Greek Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt, Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII were married in order to maintain the family’s power and inherited the rule of Egypt upon the death of their father in 51 BC.

A pair of civil wars

caesar and cleopatra

Caesar giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt. Painting by Pietro da Cortona, c. 1637.

During Caesar’s civil war with Pompey, the latter fled to Egypt. Caesar pursued Pompey — who had already been murdered by a trio of treasonous Roman military men who were stationed there — and defeated his armies at Alexandria.

Meanwhile, in the midst of a civil war between her supporters and those of her brother, Cleopatra sought help from Caesar. In order to avoid being caught by her brother’s forces, she was secreted into Alexandria while rolled up in a carpet. Her servant, disguised as a merchant, unrolled the Queen in front of Caesar inside the general’s suite.

A mutually beneficial relationship

The pair’s need of one another was mutual. Cleopatra required the might of Caesar’s armies to install her as ruler of Egypt, while Caesar was in need of Cleopatra’s vast wealth. She is believed to have been the world’s richest woman at the time and able to finance Caesar’s return to power in Rome.

Caesar declared Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII to be joint rulers, but this was not accepted by Ptolemy’s supporters, who laid siege to the palace in Alexandria. Meanwhile Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe, escaped and declared her own rebellion. Caesar and Cleopatra were stuck inside for several months before Roman reinforcements arrived, allowing Caesar to take all of Alexandria.

caesar and cleopatra

An 1884 drawing of an image of Cleopatra depicted in the ruins of Egypt’s Dendera temple complex.

Placing Ptolemy XII’s daughter on the throne meant she would inherit her father’s debts to Rome and was capable of paying them off.

With Cleopatra successfully installed, the couple cruised the Nile on the Queen’s royal barge, after which Caesar returned to Rome, leaving a Cleopatra with child.

Cleopatra in Rome

The Queen, who was unpopular in Alexandria, required the protection of Roman legions. After a year she came to Rome where Caesar housed her on one of his estates.

In Rome Caesar had a gilded statue of Cleopatra erected, but it is not known if their affair continued. Although marriage between a Roman and a foreigner was not permitted (not to mention the fact that Caesar was already married), he never denied fathering her child.

The Goddess-Queen of Egypt did not fit into Roman morals and upon Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra returned to Egypt where she later had another legendary affair and illegal marriage with Marc Antony.

Caesar’s son

During the time in which Caesar stayed with Cleopatra in Egypt, he is believed to have fathered her son, Ptolemy XV Caesarion, born on 24 June 47 BC. If Caesarion was indeed Caesar’s son as his name suggests, he was Caesar’s only biological male issue.

Caesarion, the last king of Egypt’s Ptolemy dynasty, ruled together with his mother until Octavian (later Augustus) had him killed on 23 August 30 BC. He was Egypt’s sole ruler for the 11 days between Cleopatra’s death and his own.