Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
Alexander’s sojourn in Egypt left a legacy not only of one of the greatest Mediterranean ports of the ancient world, but also the Macedonian Greek dynasty of the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt from 305 BCE to 30 BCE. The last of the Ptolemies was, of course, Queen Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra was influential in the lives and affairs of two great Romans, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, besides which she also happened to be a great historical personage in her own right. In her dealings with the Romans, however, she deployed not only her royal prerogative, but other attributes too, and the result was one of the most famous love affairs of history.
Today we are going to look at her liaison with Julius Caesar, her objectives and how she achieved them. Cleopatra is typically described by history as a great beauty, but a marble bust reputed to be her, and housed in Antiken Museum in Berlin, does not appear to back this up. She seems rather plain and studious, with a conspicuously prominent nose. Bearing in mind that ancient portraiture tended, on the whole, to be flattering, one can assume that she was not that attractive at all. She must certainly have had something, however, and whatever it was, Julius Caesar wanted a piece of it.
Caesar arrived in Egypt during a war between Cleopatra and her brother over the rule of Egypt, and she certainly saw him, not only as an avenue to Roman support to secure her kingdom but also of advancing it into the Levant. He was not initially interested in any delays or diversion, but when she delivered herself into his bedroom, rolled in a bedsheet, he was immediately smitten. Thirty-two years her senior, married, balding and epileptic, she certainly did not pursue Julius Caesar for his physical attributes.
After a cruise up the Nile in a luxurious barge, she gave birth to his son Ptolemy Caesarian, cementing a liaison that proved ultimately to be very lucrative for her. With Roman help, her civil war was won, and with Egypt at peace, she returned to Rome with Caesar, and to the delicious consternation of Roman society, she paraded herself unabashed as his lover. She certainly was franker than Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, who was forced to swallow the fact.
Then, of course, came the Ides of March, and Caesar’s assassination, which occurred just as the great general was making plans to marry his Egyptian queen. This would have legitimized Ptolemy Caesarian and put him in a direct line to inherit the imperial throne of Rome, which Caesar, of course, was poised to claim himself.
In the wake of the Roman civil war that followed, Cleopatra returned home, did away with an illicit pretender to the throne, and got on with the business of being queen. It is doubtful that Caesars’ death broke her heart, and before long, in any case, she was in bed with Mark Antony, so she certainly knew on which side her bread was buttered.