Thousands of people around the world have heard of the famous love story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, many of us having learned about it since grade school. Indeed, the Egyptian-Greek queen Cleopatra, known officially as Cleopatra VII, stands across history for her roles as a ruler, wife, lover, and political monarch. However, very little is made of Cleopatra’s role as a mother and the futures of her children. Royalty though she was, this ancient beauty from our history books was both a caring and shrewd mother, as seen through the lives of her children, Caesarion, twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus.
While most individuals think of Cleopatra and Antony (hereon referred to by his Latin name Marcus Antonius) as a couple, few recall that before that infamous meeting, Cleopatra had several liaisons with the great Julius Caesar himself. Cleopatra gave birth to a child shortly thereafter, known to history as Ptolemy XV after his mother’s lineage, and known to Alexandrians as Caesarion, or “Little Caesar.” There was much debate on all political sides whether Julius Caesar was the father, with Cleopatra vigorously insisting his paternity (Roller, Cleopatra). Cleopatra planned all of her pregnancies very carefully, making sure the fathers were men of influence and the timing would not affect her rule. While there is no explicit evidence of Caesar refuting or verifying the queen’s claims, he still apparently allowed her son to bear his name. Later sources would comment on the similarity in looks and personality between the young Greek prince and Roman dictator (Plutarch & Pelling). History also tells us that Cleopatra was unusually close with her firstborn son. This is shown through her persistent insistence of Caesarion’s parentage, as well as the multiple depictions of him and his royal mother in art at the time. Some pieces of art even suggest similarities between the queen and prince and the Egyptian goddess Isis, a goddess long associated with the Ptolemy family, and her child. An intimate relationship such as this between mother and son was singular in Ptolemaic history, as Cleopatra’s own father had murdered his eldest child (Clayton). During her pregnancy, Cleopatra withdrew from the public eye for nearly a year, ensuring that her child would have a healthy delivery and infanthood. Unfortunately, Caesarion would later be killed in Alexandria by Octavian after the death of his parents, eliminating any last threats to Octavian’s grasp for power (Burstein).
In addition to her oldest son, Cleopatra also showed a mother’s love and care to her second and third children, twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Both of the children were by Marcus Antonius, though the parents would not meet again for another three years. Although the exact birth date is difficult to place, most historians agree that the royal twins were born sometime in 40 B.C., when their mother would have been approximately 29 years old (Josephus & Whiston). While the name Alexander was uncommon in the family dynasty, the boy was doubtlessly named after Alexander the Great of Macedonia, whose general Ptolemy founded the Ptolemaic dynasty. In addition, the original Cleopatra was also Alexander the Great’s sister. Cleopatra VII clearly wanted people to connect the twins’ names with the famous conqueror and his family of old. Once again, the queen retired to a private life for almost two years during her pregnancy and early childhood months (Burstein). This is noticeably longer than in the case of Caesarion, who would now be around seven years old. As Duane W. Roller points out in his book Cleopatra: A Biography, “Sometimes, being a mother was more important than being a queen (Cleopatra 84).”
The surnames of both twins are also interesting to note. “Helios” and “Selene” mean “Sun” and “Moon” respectively in Ancient Greek. This could very well represent the idea (most likely promoted heavily by Cleopatra) that these children represented the dawning of a new era (Clayton). Both names also apply to Ancient Greek gods of the sun and moon. However, these surnames may not have been applied until the parents met again in 37 B.C. and Antonius publically acknowledged his paternity (Plutarch & Pelling).
Cleopatra Selene is the most well-known of Cleopatra’s children, in part because she was the child who lived the longest, and also because of her later marriage to Juba II of Numidia (Bennett). After the death of her parents in Alexandria, both her, Alexander Helios, and younger brother Ptolemy Philadelphus were brought to Rome. The twins were paraded through the streets in Octavian’s great Roman triumph, alongside a statue of their mother; the children were draped in gold chains that were supposedly so heavy they were unable to walk (Roller, Juba II & Cleopatra 82). The twins would have been close to eleven years old at the time. Both Alexander Helios and young Ptolemy died shortly thereafter, most likely caused by the cold Roman winters and high child mortality rates.
Cleopatra Selene was given over the care of Octavia, Octavian’s (now called Augustus) older sister and Antonius’s former wife. There the young princess lived until she was married to the young prince Juba II of Numidia, who also happened to be under the care of Octavia in Rome. Augustus placed them on the throne of the new allied kingdom of Mauretania in North Africa (present day Morocco and Algeria). There Cleopatra was quick to commemorate her famous mother by bringing paintings and sculptures from Alexandria and enlisting many members of her mother’s former circle to be a part of her entourage (Bennett). She also had coins minted in memory of her mother, a clear sign of the devotion she felt towards her family. Another strong piece of evidence for the new queen’s feelings of her heritage is the name of her son, Ptolemy (Roller, Juba II & Cleopatra 84). Clearly, Cleopatra Selene saw herself as the surviving Ptolemaic ruler, and her mother’s rightful heir. Again, this speaks to the pride and attachment Cleopatra Selene held for her linage and her mother.
The youngest child of the great Cleopatra VII was Ptolemy Philadelphus, also fathered by Marcus Antonius around the summer of 36 B.C. Being a boy, he was named “Ptolemy” after the family dynasty, with his surname deriving from his ancestor Ptolemy II Philadelphus (Roller, Cleopatra). The naming of her children was again a shrewd and thought-out process for Cleopatra. Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the most famous of Ptolemaic kings, ruled over a vast empire in his time. This name would reflect the current expanding Ptolemaic empire, which nearly rivaled the one of old, an obvious sign that the young prince’s name was no accident. After the death of his parents, Ptolemy Philadephus disappears from the records at the age of six, most likely dying on the journey to Rome (Plutarch & Pelling).
Cleopatra VII has been known by many names across the centuries, some praise-worthy, others derogatory. However, in the midst of her historical renown, it’s easy to forget the one title held most dear to her, mother. A smart and calculating women, the queen also cared deeply for her children, carefully planning their births around the demands of a kingdom. As evidenced by the children’s names, it becomes clear that Cleopatra truly believed they were all destined for greatness. After all, what mother doesn’t believe that about their child? Indeed, though she was a shrewd ruler and passionate lover, Cleopatra the Queen was foremost a caring and loving mother, seen through the lives of her children Caesarion, twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelpus. This knowledge allows us to look at Cleopatra in a different light, even though history may forever overlook this side of the famous Greek queen.
Bennett, Chris. “Ptolemaic Dynasty: Cleopatra Selene.” Ptolemaic Dynasty. Tyndale House, Feb. 2002. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.
Burstein, Stanley Mayer. The Reign of Cleopatra. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004. Print.
Clayton, Peter A. Chronicle of the Pharaohs. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. Print.
Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Antiquities of the Jews. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Plutarch, and C. B. R. Pelling. Life of Antony. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.
Roller, Duane W. Cleopatra: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Roller, Duane W. The World of Juba II and Cleopatra Selene: Royal Scholarship on Rome’s African Frontier. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.