Julius Caesar & Cleopatra

Instructor: Ian Aebel

Ian Aebel is a historian, researcher, educator, and writer with a Ph.D. in History and M.S.T. in College Teaching.

Cleopatra VII Philopator (69 BCE to 31 BCE) and Gaius Julius Caesar (c. 100 BCE to 44 BCE) were perhaps the original power couple, building kingdoms and empires amidst their great love affair. But could they hold it together, or was their union doomed for failure?

Two Powers Come Together

When we recall famous love affairs of the past, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez immediately come to mind for many of us. Right after them, however, we may consider the relationship of Cleopatra and Caesar. Cleopatra VII Philopator (69 BCE to 31 BCE) and Gaius Julius Caesar (c. 100 BCE to 44 BCE) met during a tumultuous period in both of their lives. Their affair was legendary and has captivated the modern mind. Likewise, it has been popularized in the classroom, as well as on stage and on screen. But who were these two storied lovers, how did they get together, and what finally drove them apart?

Bust of Cleopatra
Bust of Cleopatra

Cleopatra was born to rule in Egypt. Descended from Alexander the Great and the Macedonian people, who came from Greece and had conquered most of the known world several hundred years prior, Cleopatra was only a teenager when she gained the throne. Immensely smart and beautiful, Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, jointly ruled Egypt. But there was a great deal of economic chaos in Egypt at the start of their reign, which caused tension between the two. To make matters worse, she crossed a group of Roman thugs called the Gabiniani. Cleopatra was forced to flee the throne in 48 BCE and retreat into exile.

At this point, we get to meet the other half of this pair, Julius Caesar. Only a few months into her exile, a Roman civil war allowed her to meet Caesar, a great general in the Roman army who was quickly rising in the power structure of the Roman Republic. An enemy of Caesar, Pompey, had fled to the city of Alexandria in Egypt, hoping to regroup after fleeing from the general. But Ptolemy decided to behead Pompey when he arrived.

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

As you might be slightly confused to learn, Caesar was extremely angry at this, because he did not want Pompey to die. Although Pompey was his enemy, Caesar still liked him a great deal and wanted to give him a chance to become an ally once again. In the midst of all of this drama, Cleopatra sneaked into Caesar's tent, possibly by being rolled up in a carpet, and the general was instantly in love. One moment, Caesar was fuming, and the next, he was wrapped up in the arms of Cleopatra! Indeed, their meeting went exceptionally well, for Cleopatra became pregnant immediately with their child, Ptolemy Caesar.

Love at First Sight?

Was Caesar in love with Cleopatra? It appears so! Caesar was 52 years old when the two met, and Cleopatra was a 21-year-old beautiful aristocrat. She was charming and met Caesar at a moment when he was both devastated and angry over the death of his friend and political opponent. Indeed, within a year of meeting her, Caesar decided to put Cleopatra back on the throne. He went to war with her brother Ptolemy, who was killed in battle, and Cleopatra became the ruler of Egypt once again.

Cortona, Caesar Giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt (1637)
Cortona, Caesar Giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt (1637)

Was Cleopatra in love with Caesar, though? The answer is less clear. Scholars have enthusiastically denied that she loved him, arguing that she saw an opportunity to consolidate power in Egypt through Caesar and took it. Others have pointed out that Cleopatra was from the province of Macedonia in Greece, descended from the line of power established by Alexander the Great, and was therefore a natural enemy of the Romans who had splintered the Greek empire.

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