Denderah3 Cleopatra Cesarion

Cleopatra and Caesar

Posted by Barry Strauss under on July 5, 2023

Thanks, everyone, for your continued enthusiasm about my podcast, Antiquitas. I hope you enjoyed the third and final episode of my three-part series on “How to Win A War,” this one on Clausewitz, the most important military thinker of modern times. Now, let’s turn back to antiquity.

Last time, in the first of four posts, we met Cleopatra and got an introduction to her art of power politics. In today’s post, we’ll marvel at her boldness, her ambition, and her ability to leverage her assets to get ahead. We meet her first leading man – Caesar.

Cleopatra met him in the royal palace in Alexandria. The year was 48 BC. At the time, Gaius Julius Caesar was the man of the hour. By conquering Gaul, he became Rome’s greatest general. His rivals then tried to drive him from power, but Caesar fought back: the result was civil war. Caesar’s enemies more than matched his resources but not his skill in combat. He crushed them on the field of battle in Greece in the summer of 48 BC. His leading rival, Gnaeus Pompey, escaped to Egypt, where he had friends. Caesar followed in hot pursuit. But he was too late.

“Sex and power often go together.”

Just before Caesar arrived, Egypt’s King Ptolemy XIII had Pompey assassinated, thereby cheating Caesar of the chance of effecting Pompey’s surrender. That could have proven invaluable since Pompey’s allies were still at large and in control of more than enough resources to continue the war. Deprived of his opportunity, Caesar was angry and broke; he needed money to pay his soldiers. Ptolemy refused but his sister, Cleopatra, was another matter. She had inherited the throne with Ptolemy when their father died three years earlier, but then her brother drove out Cleopatra and forced her into exile. She wanted to return, and she saw her chance. But first she had to see Caesar without getting captured.

The solution was having herself smuggled into the palace in Alexandria. Cleopatra was, covered, as one story has it, in bed linens. They were unrolled in front of Caesar and – voilà! – there was Cleopatra. As we’ll see, Cleopatra has few rivals when it comes to mastering entrances and exits. As for her willingness to take risks, Cleopatra stands out in that category as well. Perhaps only Caesar, a risk-lover himself, is her equal. No wonder there was an instant affinity between the two.

Cleopatra was 21, charming if perhaps not beautiful, persuasive, and immensely intelligent. She combined the glory that was Greece with the glamour that was Egypt. At 52, Caesar was at the height of his powers. He was brilliant, sharp, and an accomplished ladies’ man. He was also a Roman and the most powerful man in the Mediterranean world. Cleopatra needed a mighty Roman ally. Caesar needed money and a friendly monarch on the Egyptian throne. We don’t know who seduced whom, but it would be surprising if the two of them hadn’t fallen into each other’s arms.

There followed a whirlwind romance. When Caesar and Cleopatra were together, the parties often went on until first light. They cruised together on the Nile on her state barge.

Cleopatra’s brother struck back, and it came down to war. By spring 47 BC, after hard fighting in Alexandria and the Nile Delta, Caesar was master of Egypt. And Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt, her brother having drowned in the Nile after being defeated in battle. Cleopatra had to share the throne with another, much younger brother for a while, Ptolemy XIV, but he died within a few years, perhaps on her order. There was also a sister, a bitter rival who fought against Cleopatra in 47 BC and was sent into exile.

But Cleopatra would not rule alone for long. Shortly after meeting Caesar, she was pregnant. She gave birth to a son. He was named Ptolemy XV. Caesar gave Cleopatra permission to add Caesar to the child’s name, so he was called Ptolemy XV Caesar – better known by his nickname, Caesarion. Sleeping with Caesar was an obvious move on Cleopatra’s part. Sex and power often go together. Bearing his son was a stroke of good fortune and Cleopatra knew how to make the most of it. Naming the boy Caesar was a brilliant act of flattery. She never let either Caesar or anyone else forget that the king who ruled beside her on the throne of Egypt, and would inherit it one day, was the son of Caesar.

Cleopatra and Caesarion are pictured above in a relief sculpture on the walls of an Egyptian temple. The sculptor depicts them in the traditional artistic style of pharaonic Egypt. No Greeks or Romans here!

Bold Cleopatra had made an immensely profitable alliance. Caesar gave her a throne and an heir. If he won the civil war, Egypt would not be annexed by Rome, not any time soon. And Caesar did win the war, after fighting additional hard battles in today’s Turkey, Tunisia, and Spain. By the autumn of 45 BC, he was supreme in Rome. In fact, he was the most dominant politician the Roman Republic had ever seen, eventually holding the unprecedented title of Dictator for Life. The Republic, many thought, was on its way to becoming a monarchy.

“Cleopatra knew how to keep calm in a crisis.”

Cleopatra was by his side. She came to Rome to represent her country’s interests and, it seems, to continue her affair with Caesar. She may have brought Caesarion with her, the better to endear herself to his father. She was living in Caesar’s villa across the Tiber River but then disaster struck. A posse of Roman senators, furious at Caesar’s dictatorial ways, stabbed the man to death at a Senate meeting. It was March 15, 44 BC, the Ides of March, as the day was known on the Roman calendar. I discuss the shocking event in my book, The Death of Caesar.

We can only imagine Cleopatra’s emotions. Alarm and perhaps heartbreak were probably among them, but if so, she recovered her equilibrium. Cleopatra knew how to keep calm in a crisis. Although no doubt concerned for her personal safety, the queen put her country first. Since Rome controlled Egypt’s fate, Cleopatra needed as much intelligence as she could gather about who would come out on top in Roman politics. She didn’t leave Rome for a month.

There was a rumor that Cleopatra was pregnant by Caesar again and that she had a miscarriage. If so, it didn’t stop her from carrying on. Cleopatra returned to Egypt where she geared up for the continuing struggle. There was a country to govern; domestic enemies to fend off; a son and heir to raise. Above all, she had to defend her kingdom’s independence from an ever-predatory and now quite possibly hostile Rome. Just as with her entrance to Caesar’s life, she planned her exit from it carefully. But with Caesar gone, her survival was at stake once again.

Let’s consider what the Egyptian Queen’s encounter with the most powerful man in the world, Julius Caesar, adds to Cleopatra’s Rules of Power:

  • Be bold.
  • Find the most powerful ally you can.
  • Sex is power.
  • When fortune smiles on you, embrace it with gusto.
  • Don’t stint on flattery.
  • Keep calm in a crisis.
  • Cultivate the art of exits and entrances.

In the next post, we’ll see how Cleopatra recovered from the loss of the most powerful man in Rome by forming a liaison with the new most powerful man in Rome – or so she thought.

Barry Strauss © 2024