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Cleopatra and Julius Caesar's Relationship: What Happened And Why Were They Together

Ancient History | August 21, 2020

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a publicity still issued for the film Cleopatra in 1963. The historical drama starred Burton as Mark Antony and Taylor as Cleopatra. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

If you're fan of romance stories from the classical era or just old epic movies starring Elizabeth Taylor, you're probably familiar with the life of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and her love affair with Julius Caesar, followed by her romance with Caesar's friend and general, Mark Antony. But there's a lot you may not know about this ancient love triangle.

A posthumous painted portrait of Cleopatra VII of Ptolemaic Egypt from Roman Herculaneum, made during the first century A.D. (Ángel M. Felicísimo/Wikimedia Commons)

Cleopatra's World

Cleopatra was born around 69 B.C. in the Ptolemaic era of Egyptian history. Founded in 323 B.C. by Ptolemy, a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great who seized control of Egypt following Alexander's death, it was an unprecedented time of prosperity for Egypt as they established trade with other civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. It was in this new, blended world that Cleopatra—not entirely Egyptian herself, thanks to her father, Ptolemy XII—became the queen of Egypt.

Not much information is known about Cleopatra's mother, but it's very likely that Cleopatra's parents were brother and sister. It was common back then for royals to wed their cousins and siblings to keep the family line "pure," and in fact, Cleopatra dabbled in incest herself. When her father died, he willed his empire to be co-ruled by then-18-year old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. She later married her even younger brother, Ptolemy XIV.

Cleopatra Before Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1866. (Jean-Léon Gérôme/Wikimedia Commons)

The Seduction Of Caesar

After a civil war, Julius Caesar was determined to capture his enemy, a general named Pompey, pursuing him around Europe and into Egypt. He needn't have bothered: When he arrived in Egypt, he was presented with Pompey's severed head by the nation's 10-year-old king, an attempt to secure Caesar's allegiance as Ptolemy XIII plotted to oust his co-ruler and sister-wife.

Cleopatra also recognized that Caesar could be the key to maintaining control of Egypt, so she hatched a scheme of her own. In a now-famous story, since Cleopatra's brother-husband forbid her to meet the Roman leader, she instructed a trusted servant to roll her into a carpet and carry it into Caesar's bedchamber under the guise of presenting him with a gift. Once inside, the carpet was unfurled, and the rest is history. The 54-year-old Caesar was so captivated by the lovely young queen that the two quickly became lovers and allies.

Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII may have needed Caesar for his military might, but Caesar had his own reasons for allying himself with the Egyptian queen, aside from her considerable charms. Cleopatra was perhaps the richest woman in the world at that time, and her wealth would provide Caesar with all the resources he needed to return to Rome and seize power back for himself. 

Reliefs of Cleopatra and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, at the Temple of Dendera. (Alex Lbh/Wikimedia Commons)

Caesar's Baby Mama

Caesar and Cleopatra sealed their alliance by taking a cruise along the Nile River in her posh royal barge, and by the time the new power couple returned to Alexandria, she was pregnant with his child. She gave birth to Caesarion, the only male heir Caesar ever had, on June 24, 47 B.C. It was a dangerous time for the queen: Cleopatra's alliance with the Roman ruler made her unpopular in her own country, and this sentiment only increased after Caesarion was born. The Roman soldiers stationed in Egypt kept Cleopatra under their guard, but when Caesarion was one year old, the queen fled with him to Rome and back into Caesar's arms.

In Rome, Cleopatra had to settle for the life of a mistress, as Caesar was already married when they began their affair and Roman law forbid the leader's marriage to a foreigner anyway. Still, Cleopatra had a pretty sweet setup in Rome, living on one of Caesar's vast estates and being showered with gifts, such as the golden statue of her likeness Caesar erected in the city.

Marc Antony's Oration at Caesar's Funeral by George Edward Robertson. (George Edward Robertson/Wikimedia Commons)

The Death Of Caesar

As everyone who managed to stay even half-awake in their high school English class can tell you, Julius Caesar was assassinated by his own cohorts on March 15, 44 B.C. After his death, Cleopatra no longer felt welcome in her adopted home. Her exotic beauty had made her popular in Rome and a fashion icon to Roman women, but she knew she would never be one of them, so she felt she had no choice but to return to her homeland.

Back in Egypt, her unhappy subjects and constant threats against her life awaited her once more. In 41 B.C., she heard the Roman general Mark Antony was in Egypt, and desiring another Roman strongman to protect her and the crown, Cleopatra arranged to meet with him. She had done her homework and knew that Mark Antony believed himself to be the living embodiment of the Greek god Dionysus, so she arrived at the meeting in a golden barge with purple sails and dressed like the goddess of love, Aphrodite. As soon as Antony saw Cleopatra as the goddess, he was hooked.

Like her affair with Caesar, Cleopatra needed Antony for protection and he needed her for her money, but they also seemed to genuinely love each other. By Roman standards, it was an illegal marriage, but it also appeared to be a happy one, full of evenings spent drinking, feasting, and playing games. They had three children together.

Tags: ancient egypt | ancient rome | marriage

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.