Julius Caesar and Cleopatra's Relationship

Learn about the Roman Emperor Caesar exploring Egypt and the historians interpretation of the relationship with Cleopatra. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

14 Mar 23 · 7 mins read

Julius Caesar and Cleopatra’s Affair in Egypt

The infamous love affair and political alliance between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra VII Philopator stands out as a prominent chapter in history. This captivating entanglement between the astute and bold Egyptian queen and the influential Roman dictator, a key figure in the Roman Empire‘s ascension, has intrigued historians and the public alike. Their fateful encounter in Alexandria during the tumultuous events of 48 BCE, amidst a power struggle between Cleopatra and her brother, led to the formation of a strategic alliance driven by mutual political objectives and an irrepressible romantic bond, reshaping the course of Ancient Egypt significantly.

The love affair and political alliance between is one of history’s most notorious relationships. Indeed, historians and wider publics have long been captivated by the entanglement between the intelligent, charismatic, and bold Egyptian queen and the influential Roman dictator who played a key role in the rise of the Meeting in Alexandria in the summer of 48 BCE, amidst the turmoil of a power struggle between Cleopatra and her brother, an alliance would be formed built on mutual political needs and uncontrollable romantic attraction. Ancient Egypt would be transformed as a result.

This piece delves into the intricate interplay of politics and romance that defined the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra, exploring its profound impact on Egyptian history. It serves as essential background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s 18-day small group escorted history and culture tour of Egypt tailored for mature and senior travellers. With the guidance of a seasoned tour leader, participants can immerse themselves in Egypt’s rich ancient history, imperial legacy, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and vibrant cities, all set against a backdrop of breathtaking landscapes.

The insights presented in this article draw upon Terje Tvedt’s authoritative work, “The Nile,” to offer a comprehensive understanding of the dynamic connection between these historical figures and the lasting legacy they left on the sands of time.

Julius Caesar and Cleopatra by Carl Gottlieb Venig (1875-1900)

Cleopatra VII and the Ptolemy Dynasty

Cleopatra VII, the daughter of King Ptolemy XII Auletes, ruled during a tumultuous time in Ptolemaic Egypt‘s history. Her father’s reign, marked by instability and financial troubles, led to a reliance on borrowing substantial sums from Roman businessmen to secure his power. This dependence on Roman support kept Egypt theoretically independent while in practice, Rome exerted increasing influence over the region, especially under Pompey the Great‘s conquests in the 60s BCE.

Upon Ptolemy XII’s death in 51 BCE, Cleopatra, only 18, and her 12-year-old half-brother Ptolemy XIII inherited the throne. To preserve the dynasty’s purity and authority, they followed the Ptolemaic tradition of marrying each other. This move, however, intensified the power struggle between the siblings, with Ptolemy XIII growing wary of Cleopatra’s strong leadership.

Tensions peaked in 49 BCE during the Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Cleopatra, by then ruling Egypt alone, faced mounting debt owed to Rome, particularly to Gabinius, a Pompey supporter. Despite the unpopular sentiment among Egyptians, Cleopatra sided with Pompey, leading to widespread opposition and her eventual expulsion by Ptolemy XIII’s advisors, forcing her into exile in Syria.

In exile, Cleopatra marshalled her own mercenary army to challenge her brother’s rule. However, her attempts to return to power were obstructed by Ptolemy XIII’s forces until Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria in October 48 BCE, fundamentally shifting the dynamics in Cleopatra’s favour.

Statue of Cleopatra VII / Tiffany Silver (Flickr) / CC BY-NC 2.0

Caesar Arrives in Alexandria

After Caesar’s decisive victory over Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus, Pompey sought refuge in Alexandria, counting on his previous ties with the Ptolemies for safety and reinforcements. However, Ptolemy XIII’s advisors, wary of Pompey’s potential to instigate internal strife, conspired to have him assassinated upon his arrival. In an unexpected turn of events, Ptolemy sent Pompey’s severed head to Caesar as a gesture to win favor and distance himself from any association with his sister, Cleopatra.

Contrary to Ptolemy’s anticipation, Caesar’s response to Pompey’s brutal assassination was one of grief and shock. Despite their adversarial history, Caesar was deeply moved by the fate of his former rival, viewing the Egyptians’ actions as dishonourable. In an emotional moment, Caesar was presented with Pompey’s head, reflecting the grim reality of the lengths to which his enemies would go.

The head of Pompey is delivered to Julius Caesar in Caesar Before Alexandria, an eighteenth-century oil painting by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675–1741)

Upon Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria with his legion, he asserted his authority by positioning himself in the royal palace and intervening in the ongoing power struggle between Ptolemy and Cleopatra. Recognizing the political significance of the situation and the alliance between Rome and Egypt, Caesar demanded a resolution to the dispute, positioning himself as the impartial arbiter of the royal succession.

In a bold move to present her case directly to Caesar, Cleopatra orchestrated a daring entrance into the palace disguised as a humble servant, smuggled within a carpet. Unveiling herself before Caesar, Cleopatra’s ingenuity and courage captivated the Roman leader, far surpassing the impact of Ptolemy’s grim gift of Pompey’s head. This pivotal encounter marked the beginning of a profound alliance and a legendary romance between Caesar and Cleopatra that would echo through the annals of history.

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon-Gerome (1866)

Julius Caesar and Cleopatra’s Relationship

Upon their initial meeting, Cleopatra’s political acumen swiftly won over Caesar, captivating him with her intellect, grace, and charm. Their connection transcended mere romance, evolving into a strategic partnership driven by mutual political interests.

Cleopatra sought Caesar’s military protection against Ptolemy to solidify her reign as Queen, while Caesar leveraged her substantial wealth (making her reputedly the wealthiest woman of her time) to finance his military endeavors and strengthen his standing in Rome. Their symbiotic relationship was founded on this pragmatic alliance.

Under Caesar’s authority as a Roman client state, he reinstated Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII as co-rulers, a decision contested by Ptolemy and his advisors who distrusted Cleopatra’s influence over Caesar. This discord culminated in a siege on the palace in Alexandria, confining Cleopatra and Caesar for months until Roman reinforcements arrived to liberate them.

The ensuing conflict escalated into a fierce civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy, culminating in the pivotal ‘Battle of the Nile,’ where with Caesar’s military backing, they emerged victorious over Ptolemy’s forces, resulting in Ptolemy’s demise by drowning in the river, a customary tribute to the conqueror.

Securing her position on the throne, albeit as a subordinate ally to Rome, Cleopatra shared her reign with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, whom she wed according to tradition. Despite this union, Cleopatra’s bond with Caesar persisted, underscoring the complexity of her political and personal entanglements.

Caesar giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt by Pietro da Cortona 1637

Caesar and Cleopatra’s Journey on the Nile

After their triumphant conclusion of the civil war, Caesar and Cleopatra embarked on an opulent voyage up the Nile aboard a grandiose boat, symbolizing power and prestige. This deliberate move mirrored the ancient pharaohs’ traditions of showcasing their dominance by navigating the river, a longstanding symbol of authority in Egyptian society.

Caesar strategically utilized this journey to assert his dominance as the formidable leader of Rome’s newest territory, while Cleopatra sought to emphasize the benefits of her alliance with Rome without compromising Egypt’s sovereignty. The symbolic significance of the Nile as a sacred river, with Cleopatra embodying the goddess Isis, underscored the couple’s awareness of the cultural and political importance tied to the river, aligning themselves with Egypt’s historical rulers.

Traditional Nile sailboats near the banks of Aswan, Egypt.

Upon their return to Rome, Caesar and Cleopatra faced challenges due to Roman laws prohibiting his marriage to a foreigner, compounded by his existing marital status. Despite these constraints, Cleopatra bore Caesar a son, Ptolemy XV Caesarion, and ventured to Rome to reside in one of his properties. Tragically, in 44 BCE, Caesar’s assassination prompted Cleopatra’s return to Egypt, where she later became entwined in a notable romance with Mark Antony, further cementing her legendary status.

Tour of Alexandria Egypt

Boats in Alexandria, Egypt

Explore Alexandria’s rich historical tapestry on the Odyssey Traveller’s 17-day Escorted Small Group History & Cultural Tour of Egypt for mature and senior travellers. Engage in a journey through time as you discover the fusion of Greco-Roman and Egyptian architectural styles at the Catacomb (Kom El Shoafa) and marvel at the grandeur of the Roman Amphitheatre. Delve into knowledge at the modern resurrection of the Alexandria Library, reopened in 2002 to revive its former grandeur. Wander through the Montazah gardens surrounding the Montazah Palace, a royal summer retreat constructed in 1892.

The tour continues with captivating visits to the Oasis of Wadi El Seboua, historic Alexandria, and El Alamein. Glide along the enchanting Nile River with enriching shore excursions to Luxor, the Valley of Kings, and Kom Ombo. Stand in awe before the Red Pyramid, the Great Pyramid, the Valley Temple, and the majestic Great Sphinx. Unveil the mysteries of the Temple of Philae, the ancient Abu Simbel temple complex, and the vast expanse of Lake Nasser.

While some tour operators focus solely on ancient marvels like the Pharaohs’ monuments and the Giza pyramids, Odyssey Traveller’s Egypt tours delve deeper. Witness the contemporary wonders of Egypt, including the Aswan Dam and iconic landmarks like Tahrir Square. These modern sites underscore Egypt’s enduring significance as a pivotal force in civilization.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles published by Odyssey Traveller about Egypt.

The following articles may also be of interest:

Links to External Sites About Egypt.

Learn more about Egypt before you travel with these articles and links to external sites.

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