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The Children of Cleopatra

Posted June 30th, 2014 at 12:27 PM by Salah

Cleopatra VII, surnamed Thea Philopator, ruled Ptolemaic Egypt from 51 to 30 BCE, though she briefly shared the throne with two younger brothers, both named Ptolemy, early in her reign. The story of Cleopatra's life is fairly well-known. Her position was solidified by Julius Caesar, who became her lover. After his assassination she became associated with Marcus Antonius, and backed him during the final civil war between Octavian and Antony. After the defeat at Actium, Antony, and then Cleopatra committed suicide - the latter, by allowing a venomous snake to bite her. Egypt subsequently became a province of the Roman Empire.

What isn't as well known, is the fact that Cleopatra was the mother of four children at the time of her death; the eldest was in his late teens, the youngest was less than ten years old. Inevitably, her adult son by Caesar became one of the last victims of the late power struggle, but the fates of his three younger half-siblings remain shadowy.


Ptolemaios XV Philopator Kaisar was probably born in 47 BCE. The debate over his fatherhood was never conclusively settled in ancient times, though both past and present historians have generally assumed that he was Julius Caesar's child. Cleopatra seems to have become pregnant with him during her famous 'pleasure cruise' on the Nile with Caesar. The child was given the typical name and titles of a Ptolemaic prince, but he also received the unique surname of Kaisar in honor of his alleged father. The Alexandrian mob, always prone to making fun of its betters, declared him Kaisarion, little Caesar. He is modernly known by the Latinized form of this nickname.

Julius Caesar never recognized Caesarion as his son, but he could hardly have been expected to. The child would have been an embarrassment at best back in Rome, where Cleopatra would increasingly become the target of xenophobic propaganda and hysteria. Nonetheless, Caesar obviously did not object to Cleopatra's naming her child in his honor; modern historians often intrepret this as proof of the boy's parentage.

Caesarion was perceived as a threat to Octavian from the moment Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. Shortly thereafter, Octavian persuaded Caesar's friend Gaius Oppius to publish a short work claiming that Caesar could not have fathered Cleopatra's child. As for little Caesarion himself, he had lived with his mother at Caesar's Roman villa 46-44 BCE, but after the dictator's murder the royal mother and child returned to Egypt. Here Caesarion would spent the rest of his short life.

Antony, unlike Octavian, did not feel threatened by the existence of Caesarion. In 34 BCE Antony declared Caesarion 'king of kings' and the true son of Julius Caesar. These were part of the Donations of Alexandria, a catalyst for the final encounter between Octavian and Antony. Antony had the worst of it, and by August of 30 BCE both Antony and Cleopatra had taken their own lives.

Accounts vary as to exactly what happened in the final months of Caesarion's life. When Octavian first landed in Egypt, Caesarion was sent to the port of Berenike for safety. Plutarch weaves a somewhat unlikely tale of Caesarion fleeing all the way to India, before turning back at the insistence of a treacherous guardian. One way or another, Caesarion had fallen into Octavian's hands by the end of 30 BCE, and seems to have been executed. As a possible blood son of Julius Caesar, who had been raised as a royal prince, Caesarion was simply too dangerous to be left alive.

The Sun and Moon

In or around 40 BCE, Cleopatra gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, fathered by Marcus Antonius. The children were named Alexandros Helios and Kleopatra Selene, literally the 'Sun' and 'Moon'. Along with their older half-brother, the twins were honored by Antony during the 34 BCE Donations of Alexandria. Alexander was declared honorary ruler of Armenia and Parthia, while Cleopatra was declared queen of Cyrenaica and Libya.

After his victories in Egypt, Octavian chose to spare Alexander and Cleopatra, apparently viewing them as too young to pose any serious threat. The children were raised and educated by his elder sister, Octavia minor, who was in fact the widow of Antony. History does not record how Octavia, who had been a devoted and loving wife, felt about raising children that her husband had sired by another woman.

The fates of Alexander and Cleopatra are mostly unknown from here. It is generally presumed that Alexander died of an illness not long after his move to Rome. Cleopatra, however, lived to adulthood and was married to Juba II, client-king of Numidia. This marriage produced two children, a daughter, whose name went unrecorded, and a son, Ptolemaios. This son succeeded his father in 23 CE, but was executed by Gaius 'Caligula' seventeen years later for wearing a purple cloak in his presence.

Interestingly, Zenobia, the famous rebel queen of Palmyra in the 3rd Century, traced her ancestry back to to the Ptolemaic clan via Cleopatra Selene. Modern historians are not inclined to believe this legend.

The Last Ptolemy

Antony and Cleopatra had one more child, probably born in the fall of 36 BCE. He was named Ptolemaios Philadelphos, and his birthplace seems to have been Antioch, Syria. During the Donations of Alexandria, Ptolemy was made honorary ruler of Syria and Cilicia. It seems unclear as to whether Antony and Cleopatra intended for their kingdom to be partitioned between their children, or if these titles were strictly honorary. More than likely, they hadn't planned that far ahead - nor would they have time to do so.

When Octavian landed in Egypt, this last Ptolemaic prince disappears from history. Cassius Dio mentions only Alexander and Cleopatra as appearing in Octavian's Triumph. This could be an accidental omission on Dio's part, or it could mean that Ptolemy had not survived the voyage to Rome. Alternatively, it is possible that he was exempted from participation in the Triumph due to his exceptionally tender age. The fact that he does not appear again in written history would suggest that Ptolemy, like his brother Alexander, died young. This has traditionally been attributed to illness. However, their sister Cleopatra was coincidentally the only child of Antony and Cleopatra to survive to adulthood - this would almost suggest a more sinister cause for Alexander and Ptolemy's abrupt disappearance from the historical stage.

Primary Sources:

Goldsworthy, Adrian - Antony and Cleopatra
Grant, Michael - Cleopatra
Roller, Duane W. - Cleopatra: A Biography
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  1. Old Comment
    okamido's Avatar
    How is that Goldsworthy book, Salah? I just watched a marathon of 'Rome' agains, and was contemplating picking it up.
    Posted July 4th, 2014 at 07:32 AM by okamido okamido is offline
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