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Caesar and Cleopatra in Egypt

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.

Julius Caesar and Cleopatra’s Affair in Egypt

The love affair and political alliance between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra VII Philopator 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 Roman Empire. 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 article explores the political and romantic relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra and its impact on Egyptian history.  It is intended as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s 18-day small group escorted history and culture tour of Egypt for mature and senior travellers. Led by an experienced tour guide, on this tour we explore Egypt’s ancient history, imperial heritage, World Heritage Sites, and world-famous cities, all with some truly spectacular scenery along the way.

Much of the information used in this article has been sourced from Terje Tvedt’s The Nile.

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

Cleopatra VII and the Ptolemy Dynasty

Cleopatra VII was the daughter of King Ptolemy XII Auletes (the “Flute Player”). Ptolemy XII’s rule (80 BCE – 51 BCE) was a precarious and unstable one. Although Ptolemaic Egypt was still a regionally powerful and immensely wealthy state during this time, it had been weakened over the centuries by dynastic struggles. As Rome rose to prominence they were brought into direct involvement in Egypt’ affairs, directly intervening on several occasions, most notably during Ptolemy XII’s reign.

In order to maintain his rule, Ptolemy was forced to incur large debts, borrowing incredible amounts of money from Roman businessmen in order to bribe prominent Roman politicians. In this way Egypt had been able to maintain its independence, at least in theory, even as the Rome and the RomanEmpire became the de facto ruler of the east through the conquests of Pompey the Great in the 60’s BCE.

Cleopatra was 18 years old in 51 BCE when her father died and she ascended to the throne together with her half-brother, Ptolemy XIII, aged 12. In order to keep the line pure and retain the family’s power, the two of them were then married (a custom of the Greek Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt).

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

The institutionalising of an incestuous power politics did not remove all rivalry, however. Rather, it helped to concentrate it between brother and sister. Soon, Ptolemy XIII, threatened by the strong ruling personality of his sister, would look to exploit regional political developments to overthrow her.

The chance came in 49 BCE when civil war broke out between the two Romans Caesar and Pompey. At this point, Cleopatra was firmly in control of Egypt, ruling alone. But she had inherited deep financial debt to Rome from her father. In particular, she was indebted to Gabinius, who had restored her father to the throne just six years earlier and had settled in Egypt with his forces. As Gabinius was a supporter of Pompey, Cleopatra had little choice but to support him too.

Cleopatra’s decision to back Pompey, however, was widely unpopular amongst the Egyptian people, who saw it as yet another Egyptian ruler cowering before Rome. Immediately, the aristocracy and most of the rest of the population turned against Cleopatra in support of her brother. With this backing, Ptolemy XII’s advisors ousted Cleopatra and drove her from the palace into exile in Syria.

While in exile, Cleopatra recruited her own mercenary army to take on her brother and regain power. But as she began her march back west to Alexandria in Egypt she was blocked by her brother’s forces. Things didn’t look great. However, in October 48 BCE, Caesar arrived in Alexandria chasing Pompey, changing the situation for Cleopatra drastically.

Caesar Arrives in Alexandria

Pompey had fled to Alexandria after Caesar destroyed most of his army at the Battle of Pharsalus on 9 August 48 BCE.  Pompey had a close relationship with the Ptolemies, having previously supported Ptolemy XII Auletes and had the king’s forces serve under his own army. So, he believed Egypt would be a safe place where he could take refuge and replenish his forces.

Ptolemy XIII’s advisors, however, worried that Pompey might subvert their army and turn Egypt into a base in a protracted civil war. To prevent this from happening, Ptolemy ambushed and had him assassinated as soon as he landed on Alexandria’s shore. Ptolemy then severed and embalmed Pompey’s head and gifted it to Caesar soon after he arrived at the royal palace in Alexandria in early October.

Ptolemy had clear intentions for doing so. He believed that providing Caesar with proof of his rival’s death would be both a demonstration of his power and an indication that he, in contrast to his sister-wife, had never supported Pompey. He believed this would gain the favour of Julius Caesar, which would create a military advantage over Cleopatra.

Caesar’s reaction to the killing of Pompey, however, was not what Ptolemy expected. According to Plutarch, Caesar was in tears when he learnt of his former foe’s death and recoiled in horror when presented with his head. Although Pompey was his enemy, he was still a senior Roman, and the actions of the Egyptians was seen as unacceptable.

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

Having arrived with a force of around 30,000 legionnaires, Caesar installed himself in the royal place and begun issuing orders as if he ruled Egypt. At this point Alexandria was in turmoil due to the dispute between Ptolemy and Cleopatra. Caesar decided this was of direct concern to the Roman people due to the alliance that had been formed between Ptolemy XII and Rome. He thus ordered Ptolemy and Cleopatra disband their armies and settle the matter of who should rule legally, with himself as the judge.

Before making his decision Caesar privately requested Cleopatra to be summoned before him so that he could assess her merits as a ruler. But her return to Alexandria was still blocked by her brother’s forces who controlled the city despite the presence of Caesar’s legion. So, Cleopatra devised a plan.

She had her servant, disguised as a merchant, smuggle her behind enemy lines in a rowboat. In order to conceal herself, she rolled herself up in a carpet. Then, once the servant arrived in Caesar’s private room, he unfolded the carpet, presenting the queen to the Roman dictator. This made an immediate impression upon Caesar, much more favourable than Ptolemy had made delivering him the head of Pompey. The encounter would mark the beginning of both a powerful alliance and love affair.

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

Julius Caesar and Cleopatra’s Relationship

The politically brilliant Cleopatra was immediately able to secure Caesar’s loyalty upon their initial meeting, seducing him with her intelligence, elegance and charisma. Their relationship, however, would not only be a romantic and sexual one, but one built on the mutual political need for each other.

Cleopatra needed the protection of Caesar’s armies against Ptolemy in order to secure her position as Queen. Caesar, meanwhile, needed Cleopatra for her vast wealth (she was believed to have been the world’s richest woman at the time) in order to fund his armies and resources so that he could return to power in Rome.  He thus took the opportunity to form an alliance that would serve them both well.

Using his authority over Egypt as a Roman client state, Caesar declared Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII to once again be joint rulers. Ptolemy and his advisors, however, sensed Cleopatra’s influence over Caesar and so opposed this arrangement. Instead, they laid siege to the palace in Alexandria, trapping Cleopatra and Caesar inside for several months.

Eventually Roman reinforcements arrived in Alexandria freeing the couple. With this a full-scale civil war erupted between Cleopatra and Ptolemy. With the help of Caesar’s military support, including soldiers and ships, the pair were able to triumph over Ptolemy’s forces in what was called the ‘Battle of the Nile’. Following this, Ptolemy was drowned in the river, a traditional way to celebrate a victor’s conquest.

With this, Cleopatra’s was restored to the throne, albeit as s subordinate Roman ally.  She accordingly reigned together with another, even younger brother, the 11-year-old Ptolemy XIV who, in keeping with tradition, became the new husband. Even so, Cleopatra maintained a relationship with Caesar.

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

Caesar and Cleopatra’s Journey on the Nile

To celebrate their victory in the civil war, Caesar and Cleopatra undertook a magnificent journey up the Nile in an enormous, lavish boat. The journey lasted for several months, following the river along the length of the entire country down to the border of Ethiopia.

This high-profile journey was a calculated power play, with a political objective in mind. Since time immemorial the pharaohs had made boat trips along the country’s life artery as a display of power and might. Because all life was oriented towards the river and everyone knew that only the mightiest could afford the larges boats, the pharaohs travelled up and down the Nile to evoke and secure their elevated place in society.

This idea was exploited by Caesar and Cleopatra. After their victory, Caesar wanted to appear as the powerful, invincible ruler over the Roman Republic’s new province. For Cleopatra it was important to demonstrate that her Roman alliance was to Egypt’s advantage and did not signify submission.

Traditional Nile sailboats near the banks of Aswan, Egypt.

The voyage may have also had a religious significance since the Nile was considered to be a holy river and Cleopatra to be the earthly representative of the goddess Isis. As such, the procession up the Nile clearly significant that Caesar and Cleopatra, like other Egyptian rulers before and after them, understood the river’s cultural importance, not to mention the political capital to be gained by appearing to be the river’s sovereign and divinity.

Following the journey, Caesar returned to Rome. He and Cleopatra would continue their romance, but he was not permitted by Roman law to marry a foreigner, not to mention the fact that he already had a wife. Even so, Cleopatra would give birth to his son, Ptolemy XV Caesarion, and a year after the birth she would visit him in Rome, staying in one of his estates. When, in 44BCE, Caesar was assassinated, Cleopatra returned to Egypt, later having another legendary affair with Mark Antony.

Tour of Alexandria Egypt

Boats in Alexandria, Egypt

Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of Alexandria as part of our 17-day Escorted Small Group History & Cultural Tour of Egypt for mature and senior travellers. During our Alexandria city tour, we visit the Catacomb (Kom El Shoafa), which is a remarkable example of the Alexandrian blend of Greco-Roman and Egyptian styles, carved into 100 feet of solid rock and the Roman Amphitheatre. Next, we visit the Alexandria Library, which was reopened in April 2002, with the ambition of reclaiming its former glory and prestige. We then continue to the Montazah gardens of the Montazah Palace. Originally built in 1892, the palace was the summer home of the Egyptian royal family. All this and more can be experienced as part of the Alexandria day trip on our Egypt tour.

Other highlights of our Egypt tour include:

  • The Oasis of Wadi El Seboua, Alexandria, and El Alamein.
  • A cruise down the Nile River, with shore excursions to Luxor, the Valley of Kings, and Kom Ombo.
  • The Red Pyramid, the Great Pyramid, the Valley Temple, and the Great Sphinx.
  • The Temple of Philae, the 3000 year old Abu Simbel, and Lake Nasser.

Other tour operators or tour companies may simply survey the archaeological sites and monuments to the Pharaohs and the Giza pyramids. Our Egypt tours, however, also visits contemporary feats such as the Aswan Dam and lets us witness landmarks of the contemporary Egyptian experience, such as Tahrir Square. These sites show that Egypt’s role as the pivot of civilisation is far from ended.

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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