Cleopatra's daughter: the tragic inheritance to triumphant reign of Cleopatra Selene
Jane Draycott reveals how Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, turned a tragic inheritance into a triumphant reign...
Cleopatra VII was the Egyptian queen who Romans loved to hate. By the end of 30 BC, her reputation plumbed the depths. She was, after all, the “fatal monster” who had seduced Mark Antony and lured him into an alliance that had ended in defeat to Rome’s emperor-in-waiting, Octavian. The whole squalid episode had reached a climax earlier that year when, with Octavian’s forces closing in on the Egyptian capital of Alexandria, the couple had taken their own lives.
But there’s another side to this story. For at the same time as Cleopatra’s name was being dragged through the mud, enthusiasm for Egypt – which Octavian had seized for the Roman empire – was at an all-time high in Rome. There was an explosion of Egypt-inspired decoration, from ornate frescoes to hulking pyramids, like Gaius Cestius Epulo’s imposing tomb at the Porta San Paolo in the south of the city.
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So while Rome was consumed by a burning hatred of Cleopatra, its admiration for the kingdom that had produced her shone undimmed. One person who would, no doubt, have been baffled by this juxtaposition was Antony and Cleopatra’s only daughter, Cleopatra Selene.
Born in 40 BC and raised in the Royal Palace at Alexandria, Cleopatra Selene was around 10 years old when her parents killed themselves. She and her fraternal twin brother, Alexander Helios, and their younger brother, Ptolemy Philadelphos, were taken back to Rome with Octavian and deposited in the household of his sister – and their father’s former wife – Octavia, on the Palatine Hill.
While Octavian’s biographer Suetonius claimed that the (future) emperor was a kindly father-figure to the children, insisting that they be cared for as if they were his own offspring, there was undoubtedly a political dimension to this decision. Retaining control of the children meant that any potential threat to Rome’s power over Egypt was neutralised.
The sun and the moon
This control was first expressed at Octavian’s Triple Triumph – an event staged to celebrate his military successes – in the summer of 29 BC. The third and final day of the triumph commemorated his conquest of Egypt, and in the absence of their mother, the children walked alongside an effigy of her entwined with the snakes that had supposedly ended her life. Cleopatra Selene was dressed as the moon and Alexander Helios as the sun, in reference to the celestial names that Antony had bestowed upon them, so as to ensure the crowds lining the processional route would recognise them. Luckily for them, unlike other enemies of Rome such as Vercingetorix of Gaul, their participation in a military triumph did not culminate in their ritual execution.
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But following the triumph, what was to be done with a princess who was no longer in possession of a kingdom? Octavian made sure that Antony’s other surviving children were raised as traditional Romans: Iullus Antonius, Antony’s son by his third wife, Fulvia, climbed the cursus honorum (ladder of offices) and was elected consul. Antonia Major and Antonia Minor, Antony’s two daughters by Octavia (his fourth wife), were married to suitable Roman men and numbered among their descendants the emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
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But Cleopatra Selene’s situation was not so straightforward. She had, after all, been declared queen of Crete and Cyrenaica (part of modern-day Libya) in her own right by Antony in 34 BC, and could technically be considered the rightful queen of Egypt in the wake of her mother’s death.
Luckily for Octavian, a solution presented itself in the form of another of his wards, Gaius Julius Juba. Like Cleopatra Selene, Juba was the last scion of a deposed royal family in exile. His father, Juba I, had been king of Numidia (a region north of the Sahara), but had backed the loser in the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Following Pompey’s defeat, Juba I had, like Cleopatra, died by suicide, and his kingdom, his treasure and his progeny had all been confiscated by Rome. Like Cleopatra Selene, Juba had been put on display in a military procession: Julius Caesar’s Quadruple Triumph in 46 BC. He had been an infant at the time, and Caesar’s biographer Plutarch described him as “the happiest captive ever captured”.
Cleopatra Selene and Juba were married in around 25 BC before being dispatched to the newly created Roman client kingdom of Mauretania (modern Morocco and Algeria). Their union was commemorated in a poem composed by the Augustan court poet Crinagoras of Mytilene: “Great bordering regions of the world which the full stream of Nile separates from the black Aethiopians, you have by marriage made your sovereigns common to both, turning Egypt and Libya into one country. May the children of these princes ever again rule with unshaken dominion over both lands.”
A visible queen
Mauretania was the only Roman client kingdom in the west of the empire. It was a vast territory, blessed with considerable natural resources that included many of the luxuries the Romans craved, such as purple dye, citron wood and exotic animals for the arena, as well as staples like grain and fish.
It was populated by many different indigenous groups, which are today referred to collectively as “Berbers”. There were also Greek and Roman colonies located along the region’s Mediterranean coast.
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While the women at the very heart of the Roman empire were expected to wield only soft power, client queens out on the periphery – in kingdoms such as Mauretania – would have been much more visible. They would have been involved in all aspects of the day-to-day running of their kingdoms as a matter of course, to the point where their subjects would have been aggrieved had they not participated fully. And of course Cleopatra Selene would have spent her childhood witnessing her mother doing just that, not only ruling her kingdom and receiving embassies from around the ancient Mediterranean, but also visiting and corresponding with other powerful women, such as Queen Amanirenas, who presided over Egypt’s neighbour Kush. Cleopatra Selene would likely have seen no reason why, once a queen, she should not do the same.
It is little surprise, therefore, that she showed no inclination to step aside and allow Juba to take the lead in their joint enterprise.
She was, after all, the one with the more prestigious lineage going back to Ptolemy, a general of Alexander the Great, and she could also boast a direct connection to the imperial family through her half-sisters and paternal grandmother, Julia. Instead, the pair ruled together, a fact that their coinage makes abundantly clear. In coins issued jointly (like the example shown above), a portrait of Juba and the Latin legend “Rex Iuba” (King Juba) appears on one side, while a portrait of Cleopatra Selene and the Greek legend “Kleopatra Basilissa” (Queen Cleopatra) is shown on the other.
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However, it is notable that Cleopatra Selene also issued her own autonomous coins. These are replete not only with references to herself through crescent moons, but also Egyptian motifs such as crocodiles, ibises, and the crown and sistrum of the goddess Isis. On one coin issue, she even styled herself “Queen Cleopatra, daughter of Queen Cleopatra”. This is powerful evidence of the daughter’s pride in her mother.
Ever cautious and tactful, the couple gave the Mauretanian capital city, Iol, a new name – Caesarea – in Octavian’s honour. However, they still found a way to honour Cleopatra and Egypt’s culture within the city’s walls. The pair embarked upon a lavish building programme to make it a fitting seat for their fledgling dynasty, and they clearly took inspiration from Cleopatra Selene’s former home of Alexandria and her mother’s building projects there. They constructed a lighthouse in the harbour akin to the famous Pharos, an extensive palace, a forum, a theatre and an amphitheatre. They also planted a sacred grove, as well as renovating old temples and dedicating new ones.
Egyptian gods and goddesses soon became popular in Mauretania, and there was a temple of Isis to which Juba dedicated crocodiles. Egyptian works of art were also imported from Cleopatra Selene’s former kingdom.
So, in many ways, Caesarea was influenced by Alexandria, and in time it would become a highly sophisticated and multicultural court, populated by well-educated and prolific Greek, Roman, Egyptian and African scholars, and talented and creative artisans. In Juba’s own writings, he included anecdotes about Egypt, Alexandria and the Nile that most likely came from Cleopatra Selene. This was a way for her to repurpose her memories of her mother and her former life in a manner acceptable to Roman readers.
Issues in the afterlife
Cleopatra Selene and Juba had, by all measures, turned turbulent childhoods – defeat, captivity, their parents’ suicides – into a triumph. But then disaster struck. At some point around the turn of the first millennium, this north African success story was brought to a sudden end by the queen’s early death. Although we don’t know the precise date of Cleopatra Selene’s passing, another poem composed by Crinagoras of Mytilene may provide a clue, as well as serving as an evocative eulogy to the dead queen’s achievements: “The moon herself, rising at early eve, dimmed her light, veiling her mourning in night, because she saw her namesake, pretty Selene, going down dead to murky Hades. On her she had bestowed the beauty of her light, and with her death she mingled her own darkness.”
In his poem, Crinagoras appears to suggest that Cleopatra Selene’s death coincided with a lunar eclipse. This has led historians to propose two possible dates for her demise – 23 March 5 BC and 4 May AD 3 – both of which witnessed lunar eclipses that were visible in Caesarea and Rome.
The queen was interred in a magnificent mausoleum, the remains of which can still be seen near Cherchell in Algeria today. Juba continued to rule Mauretania for two decades after his wife’s death, and their son Ptolemy was appointed as a co-ruler in AD 21. (Note that his name was taken from his maternal rather than his paternal lineage, another indication of how Cleopatra Selene promoted her mother and her dynasty.)
Even after her death, Cleopatra Selene remained a significant figure in the kingdom. A hoard deposited near Tangier contains coins that can be dated to the period AD 11–17, and includes those not only minted by Cleopatra Selene and Juba together, but also ones issued by the queen alone. This suggests that her coinage was not taken out of circulation upon her death and was still in use by her former subjects two decades later. That Juba and Ptolemy were able to stabilise their joint reign was, no doubt, thanks in part to their wife and mother’s enduring lustre.
Cleopatra Selene had an immense impact on her kingdom and the wider Roman world during her lifetime – even beyond it. So why is she so little known today? Paradoxically, the answer may lie in her success. Roman historians were very much fixated on what was happening in the centre of the empire. They would only mention client-kingdoms when there was a problem. The fact that they didn’t write much about Mauretania suggests that things were going smoothly there.
Unlike her mother and other Roman client-queens such as Boudicca, Cleopatra Selene seems to have succeeded quietly rather than have failed loudly. As the saying goes: “Well-behaved women rarely make history."
Jane Draycott is a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Glasgow. Her latest book, Cleopatra's Daughter, was published by Head of Zeus in November 2022.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine