Egypt's last pharaoh was the 'love child' of Caesar and Cleopatra

Caesarion embodied his mother's alliance with Rome, but assassination and war would bring about his death at age 17 - ending Ptolemaic rule in Egypt.

By Juan Pablo Sánchez
Published 19 Oct 2020, 14:30 BST
Caesarion wears the striped head cloth (nemes) of the pharaohs in a first-century B.C. rose granite ...

Caesarion wears the striped head cloth (nemes) of the pharaohs in a first-century B.C. rose granite statue, National Roman Museum, Rome

Photograph by Akg, Album

Ptolemy Caesar “Theos Philopator Philometor”—“Ptolemy Caesar, The God Who Loves His Father and Mother”—became king of Egypt at the tender age of three. His alleged father, Julius Caesar, had been assassinated several months earlier, and his mother, Queen Cleopatra VII, placed him on the throne to solidify her power as queen of Egypt.

Better known to history by his Greek nickname “Caesarion,” or “little Caesar,” Cleopatra’s son reigned only a short time; his rule ended with his murder, shortly after the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 B.C. The deaths of mother and son brought an end to the Ptolemaic line of rulers who had controlled Egypt since the time of Alexander the Great.

Family quarrels

A bust of Caesarion’s mother, Cleopatra, held in the Neues Museum, Berlin
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Caesarion’s story began when his grandfather, Ptolemy XII, named his two oldest children, 18-year-old Cleopatra and 10-year-old Ptolemy XIII, as co-heirs. They would serve together under the guardianship of Rome. Because Egypt had become a Roman protectorate during the elder Ptolemy’s rule, Romans had a say in who would be ruling Egypt. (Watch how Cleopatra achieved immortality through her personal story of love and tragedy.)

After their father’s death in 51 B.C., Ptolemy and his sister were symbolically wed, but there was no love between them, familial or otherwise. The Ptolemaic kings and queens had a long family tradition of competing for the throne: sibling against sibling or parent against child. Two years later, Ptolemy’s advisers tried to move against Cleopatra to make the young boy the sole ruler.

As the two Egyptian siblings were squabbling over their throne, Rome was in the middle of its own power struggle. Two of its great military heroes, Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, were engaged in a civil war and were looking for alliances. Pompey needed Egypt and decided to back Ptolemy XIII over his sister, who went into exile. Far from the capital, Cleopatra established her own base of operations where she raised an army and bided her time.

In the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C., Caesar defeated Pompey, who fled to Alexandria. In a reversal, the young Ptolemy had Pompey executed and presented his head to Julius Caesar when he swept into Egypt later that year. Caesar was saddened and disgusted: Ancient historian Plutarch wrote in the first century A.D. how Caesar had “turned away in horror [when] presented the head of Pompey, but he accepted Pompey’s seal-ring, and shed tears over it.”

Cleopatra prepares to depart the island of Philae in this painting by 19th-century artist Frederick Arthur Bridgman.
Photograph by Dea, Album

This gross miscalculation on the young pharaoh’s part was a prime opportunity for Cleopatra and her forces. She smuggled herself into Alexandria for a meeting with Caesar and won him to her cause. He supported her claim to the throne, sparking an uprising of Ptolemy’s supporters who were defeated. The young king was killed, and Caesar placed the 21-year-old Cleopatra VII on the throne. She would co-rule, in name, with a younger brother, Ptolemy XIV. To consolidate the alliance, Cleopatra invited Caesar, 30 years her senior, to stay in Egypt with her.

Son of Rome and Egypt

For two months Cleopatra entertained Caesar, revealing to him the charms that both the Nile Valley and she herself had to offer. Plutarch wrote: “[Caesar] often feasted with her until dawn; and they would have sailed together . . . to Ethiopia.” By the time Caesar left Egypt, Cleopatra was pregnant. She gave birth to a boy in 47 B.C. and openly proclaimed Julius Caesar the father. Egyptian priests began to teach that the god Amun had incarnated himself in the person of Caesar, the most powerful man in the world at the time, to father the baby prince. (Meet history's top ten, red-hot power couples.)

At the end of 46 B.C., Cleopatra visited Rome at Caesar’s invitation, bringing Caesarion and all the royal pageantry of her court. Plutarch wrote that Caesar “would not let her return to Alexandria without high titles and rich presents. He even allowed her to call the son whom she had borne him by his own name.” Caesar welcomed Cleopatra and her family in one of his suburban villas, the Horti Caesaris, showering her with official honours.

Julius Caesar restores Cleopatra to the Egyptian throne in a 1637 oil painting by Pietro da Cortona. Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon.

Many Romans remarked that the child looked markedly like Julius Caesar. Mark Antony, Caesar’s lieutenant, told the Senate that Caesar had acknowledged to his closest friends that Caesarion was indeed his son. If Cleopatra’s claims were believed, Caesarion was Caesar’s only surviving child. His daughter, Julia, who had been married to Pompey, died in childbirth in 54 B.C.

Despite the cool reception from the Roman people, Julius Caesar was optimistic about the relationship between Rome and Egypt. He erected a statue of Cleopatra in the Temple of Venus Genetrix. This era marked what Caesar saw as the beginning of an ambitious imperial project. Rumours spread that he was even mulling a transfer of the imperial capital to Alexandria. (For most Romans, becoming a citizen was the path to power.)

His plans would not be realised, for Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. He never acknowledged Caesarion as his heir and instead had written in his will that his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius (Octavian), was his heir. Cleopatra and Caesarion were in Rome when Caesar was killed. Realising that their lives were in danger, Cleopatra decided to return to Egypt immediately.

The figures of Caesarion (left) and Cleopatra (right) were carved over earlier inscriptions on this granite stela from Karnak, which dates originally from the eighth century B.C. The new texts and images, carved in the 13th year of Cleopatra’s reign, pay homage to one of Cleopatra’s generals. Egyptian Museum, Turin

Photograph by Dea, Album

Life after Caesar

As soon as she arrived back in Alexandria, the queen moved to consolidate her power. Sources say she had her brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV, poisoned and then appointed her toddling son as her co-regent. From this point, Caesarion was officially recognised as Ptolemy XV Caesar.

In Rome Octavian refused to recognise the lineage of Egypt’s young co-regent. With calculated timing, the late Julius Caesar’s right-hand man and confidante Gaius Oppius published a book in which he claimed that Caesarion was not the son of Caesar at all. It was a warning to Cleopatra to tread carefully with the new masters of Rome.

Caesarion’s fortunes were revived in 42 B.C. when Mark Antony arrived in Egypt as Roman triumvir in charge of the eastern provinces. He was seeking a way to bring down fellow triumvir Octavian, and in 41 B.C. he summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus. The queen navigated this important meeting just as carefully as her first with Julius Caesar.

Lover of Cleopatra and father to three of her children, Mark Antony competed for control of Rome with Octavian, Julius Caesar’s heir. Yellow marble, first-century A.D. bust. Vatican Museums, Rome
Photograph by Oronoz, Album

For the sake of her kingdom and of her son, Caesarion, she took Antony on a sumptuous cruise and a love affair ensued. This relationship has long been regarded as one of history’s most passionate, but historian Mary Beard revealed its more practical side: “Passion may have been one element of it. But their partnership was underpinned by something more prosaic: military, political, and financial needs.” (See inside Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s decadent love affair.)

Antony spent the winter of 41-40 B.C. in Egypt with Cleopatra. From their union twins were born and named after the astral deities: Alexander Helios (Sun) and Cleopatra Selene (Moon). Later, they had another son named Ptolemy Philadelphus. During this time, Cleopatra was also expanding her empire, gaining territory for Caesarion in southern Syria, Cyprus, and northern Africa.

Cleopatra’s greatest moment came during a ceremony held at the Alexandria gymnasium in 34 B.C., when Antony officially recognised her as queen of Egypt and bestowed on Caesarion the title “King of Kings.” Antony also formally recognised Caesarion as the legitimate son of Julius Caesar. Antony granted his three children with Cleopatra the title of royal highnesses and to his son Alexander Helios he promised territories and kingdoms.

Cleopatra VII ordered this huge relief of herself and her co-regent and heir, Caesarion, carved on the walls of the Dendera temple complex.
Photograph by Science Source, AGE Fotostock

The provocation was too much for Octavian and he declared war on Cleopatra and Antony. On September 2, 31 B.C., he vanquished their forces at the Battle of Actium. The defeated pair retreated to Alexandria. Cleopatra decided it was safer to send Caesarion out of the city. He headed south in the company of his tutor, who took him up the Nile to the village of Copt (Qift), not far from Thebes. From there, caravans set off, passing through the eastern desert to the commercial port of Berenice, on the shores of the Red Sea. Caesarion’s only feasible escape route was across these inhospitable lands. If he made it to Berenice, he would have a chance to get out of Egypt and set sail for Arabia or even to India.

A silver coin to commemorate the conquest of Egypt by Octavian bears a crocodile and the inscription aegypto capta, which means “Captive Egypt.” Berlin State Museums
Photograph by Bpk, Scala, Florence

While making his way to the port that might have allowed him a route to exile, Caesarion learned that Roman troops had entered Alexandria and that his mother and Mark Antony were both dead. Had he carried on with his escape plan, Caesarion might have survived, but his tutor suggested that Octavian would take pity on the orphan. (Follow the search for Cleopatra’s true face and burial place.)

Indeed, Octavian had considered sparing the young man’s life. One of his confidants convinced him otherwise; it was inappropriate, he said, for there to be “too many Caesars.” So when Caesarion arrived in Alexandria to meet Octavian in August 30 B.C., he was immediately executed. The dream of a Roman-Egyptian pharaoh vanished, and the ancient Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt died with Caesarion.

Juan Pablo Sánchez is a specialist in classical history and literature, and a translator of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

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