Cleopatra had four children, one with Julius Caesar and three more with Mark Antony. The children lived with her and Antony in Egypt and were raised as princes. But after Cleopatra killed herself, what happened to them?
Caesarion was Cleopatra’s eldest child. On top, two statues that probably represent Caesarion. Bottom, a relief showing Caesarion (center) with his parents: Julius Caesar (left) and Cleopatra (right). The relief is from the Hathor Temple at Dendera, Egypt. Cleopatra commissioned it. (Photo: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World/CCBY2.0)
Caesarion is by far the best known of Cleopatra’s children.
Julius Caesar and Cleopatra began an affair in late 48 BC. And, most probably, Caesarion was born in June 47 BC, in Alexandria, Egypt. Cleopatra always claimed the boy was Caesar’s, even if not everyone believed her.
In 46 BC, Cleopatra arrived in Rome with her son Ptolemy XV, nicknamed Caesarion (Little Caesar). And they stayed in one of Caesar’s houses just outside the city. That caused quite the scandal in Rome since both Caesar and Cleopatra were married to other people.
Two years later, in 44 BC, Caesar was killed. Cleopatra waited in Rome until his will was read. She hoped that the powerful Roman had made Caesarion his heir. But that was not the case. Caesar made his grand-nephew Octavian his heir instead and adopted him. And he did not mention Caesarion at all.
So one month after Julius’ death, Cleopatra returned to Egypt with her almost three-year-old son. In September of that same year, Cleopatra made him her co-ruler.
Not much is known of Caesarion’s life in the following years. He grew up in the palace of Alexandria, Egypt’s capital. He received a Greek education like his ancestors. And when he was about 17, he joined the ‘gymnasium.’ That meant he was now an adult, according to Greek custom.
The gamble: Reaching for Rome’s throne
When Caesarion was about 6 years old, his mother began an affair with another powerful Roman: Mark Antony.
Antony spent many years in Egypt and became Caesarion’s stepfather.
When Caesarion was about 14, his mother and stepfather orchestrated an infamous event in Alexandria. They celebrated a Roman triumph there. And Antony gave lands that belonged to Rome to Cleopatra and her children.
Cleopatra and Caesarion, who were co-rulers, received Cyprus, Libya, and Coele Syria.
And Caesarion was named King of Kings, an ancient Persian title that meant he ruled over other kings. That was an unprecedented move during Roman times since Rome was bent on weakening other kingdoms and turning them into its ‘clients.’
But Antony did not stop there. During the ceremony, he also announced that Caesarion was Julius Caesar’s true son and heir. Now, that was quite problematic since Octavian had built his entire career on being Caesar’s heir.
Octavian and Antony had had a fragile alliance for years. They were the two most powerful men in Rome, and they had partitioned the empire between them.
By announcing Caesarion was Julius’ rightful heir, Antony was attacking Octavian. He was most likely announcing, too, that Caesarion, king of Egypt, had a claim to the throne of Rome.
War broke out. Octavian was on one side, Cleopatra and Antony on the other.
Octavian won the war in 31 BC in Greece. Antony and Cleopatra had gambled and lost. So the duo fled back to Egypt to wait for the unavoidable.
The outcome: Caesarion’s fate
In August 30 BC, Octavian marched on Alexandria and took the city. Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves a few days later.
Caesarion, on the other hand, was not in Alexandria at the time. Wisely, Cleopatra had sent him away, to the east.
The 17-year-old boy was to get to Berenice, a port in the Red Sea, and sail to Arabia or India with his wealth. There, he would be out of Octavian’s reach.
But. After Cleopatra killed herself, Octavian sent messengers to Caesarion. The Roman claimed that he would spare Caesarion’s life and that Caesarion would be a client-king of Rome, like his mother had been.
Caesarion’s Greek tutor, Rhodon, advised his pupil to believe Octavian and to turn back. The boy did. He was killed by Roman soldiers midway in late August 30 BC -mere days after his mother had killed herself.
After Ptolemy XV Caesarion’s death, Egypt ceased being a kingdom and became a province of the Roman Empire.
Cleopatra Selene II
This statue represents either Cleopatra or her daughter Selene. Most likely, it is Selene. Marble bust, 1st. century BC. Archeological Museum of Cherchell, Algeria. (Photos: Hichem algerino/CCBYSA4.0)
After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra returned to Egypt. Some years later, in 41 BC, she began a relationship with Mark Antony, another Roman power-player.
Soon, in 40 BC, Cleopatra gave birth to twins: Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios.
The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, grew up in Alexandria. She received a Greek education and was brought up like a powerful Ptolemaic princess.
But that was not enough for the likes of her ambitious parents. They made Selene queen of Cyrenaica, Egypt’s neighbor, when the girl was six years old.
Yet, three years later, disaster happened. Selene’s parents lost the war they had been waging against Octavian, a powerful Roman. And the following year, Selene’s parents killed themselves.
So the victor, Octavian, took Selene to Italy. He paraded her in his triumph, through the streets of Rome, covered in chains.
But then the girl had a respite. Octavian’s sister, Octavia, asked to raise Selene. Octavia was a good woman, and she was Selene’s stepmother since she was Antony’s ex-wife.
Selene spent the next five years of her life in Octavia’s house, and she was treated like one of Octavia’s own children.
When Selene was fifteen, she was married off to a North African prince: Juba of Numidia. Juba, too, had been orphaned young and had been raised in Rome by Octavian’s family.
Octavian had grown fond of Juba and Selene. So he gave Juba part of his kingdom back, and he gave Selene the neighboring Kingdom of Mauretania as a dowry.
The newlyweds left for their new kingdoms in Africa.
Selene co-ruled successfully for at least two decades. Some think she died in 5 BC when she was 35 years old. But she may have died later.
That makes Cleopatra Selene the most successful of Cleopatra’s children -by far.
This sandstone statue probably shows the twins. Selene is on the left under a moon. Alexander Helios is on the right under a sun. The statue is from c. 40 BC and was found in Dendera, Egypt. It is kept at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
Alexander was Selene’s twin brother, so his first years mimick hers.
His parents were Cleopatra and Mark Antony. He was named after Alexander the Great. That famous king was closely entwined with Cleopatra’s family since she descended from five of Alexander’s generals, a fact Cleopatra was quite proud of.
This new Alexander, Cleopatra’s son, was born in 40 BC in Alexandria. By then, his father Antony had already left Egypt. So Alexander only met his father in 37 BC. That same year, Antony recognize the twins as his.
Alexander grew up in the court of Alexandria. When he was about six, his father Antony celebrated a triumph in Egypt. And during the ceremony -known as the Donations of Alexandria-, Antony gave territories to all his children.
Alexander Helios received Armenia, Media, and Parthia. Now, here Antony was being optimistic since he had not actually conquered Media or Parthia yet.
Prince Alexander lived in Egypt until he was 10. Then, after his parents’ dramatic deaths, he was taken to Rome and displayed in the triumph along his sister Selene.
But then, what?
Then, kind Octavia took Alexander in and raised him. But what happened to him after that is a bit of a mystery.
Cassius Dio adds that Octavian spared them as a favor to Selene and Juba. The sparing would have been sort of a wedding gift.
So some scholars think Alexander may have lived in Octavia’s house until he was fifteen, and then after his sister married, he may have accompanied her to Mauretania.
A fourth ancient author, though, Herodian, seems to imply Octavian exiled the boys to an island, perhaps Sicily, and gave them funds to live comfortably there.
Despite all the ancient authors saying in unison that Alexander was spared, modern scholars are less trusting.
Some think Alexander Helios may have died in Rome. Octavian could have had him killed.
Alexander was heir to wealthy Egypt. And he was the legitimate child of a powerful Roman: Antony. That could mean trouble for Octavian later on if Alexander turned out to be ambitious or vengeful.
Then again, child mortality was high at the time, so he could have simply died of natural causes.
In any case, Alexander disappears from the historical record after Selene’s wedding. He likely died young, whether that was in Rome, Mauretania, or on a Mediterranean island.
Ptolemy Philadelphos II
Ptolemy’s parents: Cleopatra and Mark Antony -on coins issued by themselves.
Ptolemy was Cleopatra and Antony’s youngest child.
Cleopatra and Antony began their affair in 41 BC. But after a few torrid months, Antony left Egypt to return to his duties, and so the duo split. Three years later, they resumed their romance. They were a solid couple for the following seven years, until their deaths.
Ptolemy Philadelphos was born in this period of stability, one year (36 BC) after his parents rekindled their affair.
He, like his siblings, received a grandiose name. The original Ptolemy Philadelphos was one of Cleopatra’s ancestors. During his reign, the kingdom of Egypt had been at its greatest territorial extent.
So there is little doubt at what Cleopatra was aiming at as a queen. And she succeeded too. Thanks to Mark Antony’s donations, Cleopatra recuperated almost all the territories that Philadelphos had ruled.
This younger Ptolemy Philadelphos, Cleopatra’s son, was three years old when his parents celebrated their Roman triumph in Alexandria. He, too, received territories, like his siblings. He was luckier than his brother, though, since the nations he got had already been conquered by Rome: Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia.
Young Ptolemy lived in the Egyptian court in all splendor until he was seven. Then, he was taken to Rome and was probably displayed in Octavian’s triumph with the twins. After that, he went to live with Octavia.
His later fate is, like his brother’s, unknown.
The four ancient authors -Dio, Suetonius, Plutarch, and Herodian-, say that Octavian spared Ptolemy. And Dio adds that the boy was spared for Selene.
If that was the case, he may have gone to Mauretania with her when he was 11.
But there is no further news of him. Ptolemy, too, may have died in childhood, either in Rome -aided or unaided-, on an island, or in Mauretania.
So those were the fates of Cleopatra’s four children. Only her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, flourished. She became a queen on her own right -and a capable queen at that- and had known descendants. While Cleopatra’s three sons died young or fell into obscurity.