The Royal Rundown on Cleopatra's Children
Very few historical figures have captured the cultural imagination like Cleopatra. Arguably one of the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra ruled Egypt for 22 years, amassing an empire and controlling the wealthiest nation in the mediterranean.
She has become a mythic figure in her afterlife, to the extent that, as biographer Stacy Schiff writes, “there is no universal agreement on most of the basic details of her life.” Yet what we do know is that she was incredibly intelligent (she was fluent in nine languages), an astute politician, and a leader who knew the power of propaganda.
Despite her incredible accomplishments and legacy, historians, poets, and filmmakers have still been drawn to one thing most: her relationships with the Roman generals Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Less, however, is remembered about the four children she had with these men.
1. Ptolemy XV Caesar (Caesarion)
It’s hard to imagine being born to more legendary parents than Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, whose relationship seems to have started out of political necessity: Cleopatra was working to restore her throne after power struggles between her and her husband left her banished from Alexandria, while Caesar needed Egypt’s vast wealth. Both were married to other people—Caesar to his third wife Calpurnia, and Cleopatra to her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIII.
After defeating Ptolemy XIII in battle, Caesar installed another one of Cleopatra’s brothers, Ptolemy XIV (who she had also likely married after the former's death), as her co-ruler. When Caesar returned to Rome, he left Cleopatra with a child—a fact she was keen to highlight after their son’s birth, as she called him Caesarion, or “little Caesar.”
In 46 BCE, Cleopatra and Caesarion went to Rome as Caesar’s guests. The pair returned to Egypt after his assasination in 44 BCE. Months later, Cleopatra’s husband Ptolemy XIV died (likely killed on her orders), and she promptly installed 3-year old Caesarion as her co-ruler. With a young child on the throne beside her instead of her meddlesome brothers, “Cleopatra had no difficulty ruling as a female king,” Schiff writes.
In a extravagant political ceremony known as the Donations of Alexandria in 34 BCE, the controller of Rome’s eastern territories Mark Antony—who Cleopatra had since begun a relationship and had children with—declared 13-year old Caesarion as the true heir of Caesar and named him King of Kings and King of Egypt. This infuriated Roman consul Ocatvian, who was Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted son. Caesar had named him as heir in his will.
Octvaian soon began stirring up public disapproval for Cleopatra and Antony’s relationship. He pointed out that Antony was spurning a Roman wife (he was married to Octavian’s sister Octavia at the beginning of his relationship with Cleopatra) for a foreign affair.
After declaring war between Egypt and Rome, Octavian's forces defeated Cleopatra and Antony. Cleopatra appears to have sent her eldest son away with his tutor to India, fearing for his life. Caesarion was later lured back to Rome with promises of safety after Antony and Cleopatra died by suicide in 30 BCE and Octavian annexed Egypt. But his return to the city would prove to be a mistake.
Octavian—now first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar—had crafted his image around being Julius Caesar’s heir. Having a living rival heir would not do. Caesarion was murdered in 30 BCE, at the age of 17. Octavian did, however, spare the children Cleopatra had with Mark Antony.
2. Alexander Helios
Alexander and his twin sister Cleopatra Selene, born in 40 BCE, were the first children of Cleopatra’s passionate relationship with Mark Antony. Cleopatra named her son seemingly after Alexander the Great and the Greek god of the sun.
The twins did not meet their father until they were 3 years old, when Antony summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Syria. Later, at the Donations of Alexandria in 34 BCE, Antony bestowed the kingdoms of Armenia, Media, and Parthia on his son. But his hope for Alexander ruling these kingdoms later in life would not come to fruition.
During Cleopatra and Antony’s battles with Octavian, Cleopatra sent their children to Thebes. After the death of their parents and half-brother Caesarion, Alexander and Selene were technically the rulers of Egypt, so the kids were brought back to Alexandria. They were then taken to Rome with Octavian after Egypt was placed under Roman control.
Cleopatra’s death made Octavian’s wish of parading her through the streets of Rome unobtainable. Eleven-year-old Alexander and his sister were instead forced to walk through the city behind an effigy of their mother, dressed as the sun and moon she had named them after.
Octavian sent the remaining three children to live in his sister’s Octavia’s household, where they were educated with her own children. Alexander’s fate remains unknown after this, as he disappears from the historical record.
3. Cleopatra Selene II
Alexander Helios’s twin, Cleopatra Selene, was her mother’s sole daughter. As her brother had been named after the Greek god of the Sun, Cleopatra Selene was named for the goddess of the moon.
During the Donations of Alexandria in 34 BCE, Mark Antony bestowed the kingdoms of Crete and the Cyrenaica on his daughter. After returning to Egypt after her parents' death, Cleopatra Selene lived with her siblings at Octaiva’s house. When she was 15, she married King Juba II of Numidia. Octavian sent the pair to rule Mauretania, where Cleopatra Selene wielded significant political power, importing scholars and advisors from her mother’s court and expanding the kingdom.
Cleopatra Selene had two children with King Juba. She ruled for two decades before dying at the age of 35.
4. Ptolemy Philadelphus
Not much is known about Cleopatra’s youngest child. It’s believed he was born in 36 BCE and was named after the second Pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Like his siblings, Ptolemy was granted titles of land at the Donations of Alexandria in 34 BCE. He was named the ruler of Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia. Ptolemy was also sent to Rome with his siblings to live in the household of Octavian’s sister Octavia. As with his brother Alexander, his fate after this point is unknown.