Cleopatra Selene: A Dynasty’s Last Breath

The streets of Rome were drunk and riotous with delight in the summer of 29 BCE on the final, most opulent day of Octavian’s three-day-long triumph celebrating his victory over Egypt’s Cleopatra. Always up for a party, hundreds of thousands of spectators—–some of whom had been standing for days, others for hours—were packed side by side as they lined the city walls to catch a glimpse of the three-mile-long procession winding its way through the capitol. As the clamorous procession rolled by Rome’s mud and brick buildings, the cobblestone streets were awash with the shimmering splendor of gold, silver, and ivory—-swaggering plunder from Egypt’s enormous reserves.

Spurred on by each other and goaded by the wine, the main exhibit the crowd was craning their necks to see was coming up at the rear. Since Cleopatra’s suicide denied Rome the supreme satisfaction of seeing her in shackles, Octavian was reduced to parading around her likeness instead. Fully costumed in effigy, the queen the Romans loved to hate was in a death throes abreast her soon-to-be trademark asp. But a hush fell upon the jeering crowd when their focus was drawn to the two children manacled in chains of gold standing beside her. So that there was no question over whose children they were, Octavian made Alexander Helios (Sun) and Cleopatra Selene (Moon) dress as the sun and the moon. Though the two ten-year-old fraternal twins of Cleopatra and Marc Antony were no strangers to public display, their fall from grace is hard to imagine. A few years preceding in the largest structure of Alexandria—the expansive six-hundred-foot-long gymnasium—- the children, along with their parents and two brothers, were hailed as potentates and worshiped as gods.

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892

That was when their parents summoned all of Alexandria to the marble-colonaded gymnasium for a lavish extravaganza known as the Donations of Alexandria. In the grand finale of the pageant, Antony and Cleopatra were seated on gigantic golden thrones and costumed as Dionysus/Osiris and Aphrodite/Isis. Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar—Ptolemy XV Caesar “Caesarion” —- was dressed as their son Horus. The twins, at six years of age, made their first public appearance similarly attired in elaborate costumes. More show than substance, the donations were a series of territorial “gifts” from Antony to Cleopatra. The territories, however, were either already within her domain or were under Roman control and fancifully within her reach.

In the ceremony, Antony confirmed Cleopatra as queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya, and central Syria while Caesarion—at thirteen years of age—-was proclaimed son of the deified Julius Caesar (thus son of god) and hailed as the king of kings and heir to his mother’s domain. The three children of Antony and Cleopatra were each given a portion of other lands. A diminutive Cleopatra Selene became queen of Crete and Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) and Alexander Helios became king of Armenia, Media, and Parthia. At a mere two years of age, her youngest brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus, was named king and awarded Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia. The donations were one of the factors that would ultimately lead to a rupture in the precarious relationship between Antony and Octavian, resulting in the final war of the Roman Republic. In three short years, it would spell defeat for Antony and Cleopatra.

But before Alexandria fell to Octavian, Cleopatra relocated the three youngest children to safety further inland. As co-ruler and Caesar’s son, however, Caesarion’s life was most at risk, so she packed the seventeen-year-old to India with his “trusted” tutor Rhondon whose only claim to fame would be betrayal of his charge. Alas, Caesarion did not get far into his journey before Octavian discovered his whereabouts and had him summarily executed. Octavian, who made much of his being Caesar’s (adopted) son, ensured that the Roman Republic had only one son of Caesar. Although no son to Caesar, another seventeen-year-old, Marcus Antonius Antyllus—eldest son thus heir to Marc Antony—-was also put to death on the same day as Caesarion.

After all that, Octavian wanted to be seen as merciful. So he made a great show of sparing the lives of Antony and Cleopatra’s three children and even became their guardian. To keep the former royals removed from the overly ambitious, he kept the children within reach and incorporated them into his ever-burgeoning extended family on Palatine Hill. Octavia, Antony’s third wife, and Octavian’s benevolent sister, offered to raise the three children along with other members of her extended family such as the thirteen-year-old lullus Antonius, a son of Antony by his second wife, Fulvia. Octavia also had two daughters by Antony—-Cleopatra Selene’s half-sisters—-Antonia Major and Antonia Minor. Before marrying Antony, Octavia had three children with her deceased husband—-Marcellus, Marcella Major, and Marcella Minor. Moreover, in addition to the children related by marriage, her household included an assortment of foreign royals such as Cleopatra Selene’s future husband, Juba—the son of Juba I of Numida—whose defeat by Julius Caesar in 40 BCE orphaned the two-year-old Juba. The children from the combined two neighboring households, including Octavian’s only child, Julia, and Livia’s two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, would play significant roles in the Julio-Claudian dynastic landscape.

Even so, during an era when disease ran rampant, not everyone survived. Because he does not appear in Octavian’s triumph, Ptolemy Philadelphus, the youngest of Antony and Cleopatra’s three children—orphaned at six years— is believed to have perished soon after the long sea voyage from Alexandria to Rome. Likewise, since we never hear from him again, an illness likely killed Selene’s twin Alexander Helios, within a year or two of the triumph in which he so famously walked.

Fate, however, had other plans for Cleopatra Selene. Despite her parents’ reversal of fortune, Selene appears to have thrived within the nascent Julio-Claudian clan. As an Alexandrian, Greek was her native language, but as a polyglot’s daughter, Selene likely knew her father’s tongue long before she stepped ashore to the Tiber. Nevertheless, navigating the sea change in venue and status must have taken some adjustment. Apart from the fact that Selene would likely have overheard her mother disparaged regularly, she would also have been hard-pressed to avoid seeing poignant reminders of her former life scattered throughout Rome, not the least of which was a statue of Cleopatra herself at the Forum.

Because Octavian’s conquest of Cleopatra was the shining moment that gave his regime legitimacy, he took every opportunity to showcase it. The glittering spoils of Egypt would become ubiquitous throughout Rome. From mountains of gold and silver in the form of crowns, shields, and breastplates to gem-encrusted furniture, artwork, and sculpture—the emperor who would become known for transforming a Rome built from bricks into one built of marble did it largely on the largesse of Cleopatra. Cassius Dio would write that Cleopatra ensured that “the Roman Empire was enriched and its temples adorned.” From the conquest and annexation of Egypt, interest rates and property values rose exponentially in Rome.

Aside from the many distractions inherent in being Cleopatra’s daughter, once again the family with whom she was associated was sovereign. Living amongst the most powerful family in the Roman Empire had its advantages. Although her education amongst the progeny of the up-and-coming Julio-Claudian clan would have been superlative, it must have come as something of a surprise that in addition to memorizing Homer, as a female she was expected to learn traditional domestic crafts such as spinning and weaving. Moreover, the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty were tasked with making clothes for others in the household. Such pursuits for Egyptian royal women would have been leagues below their exalted status. In Ptolemaic Egypt—-on account of sibling marriage—-royal girls stood just as good a chance at governing as boys, thus females were often educated alongside their male counterparts. Like her mother before her, Selene would have been educated in Alexandria by the leading scholars of the day. To be sure, weaving clothing was not the only adjustment she had to make. Selene had come from a kingdom where her mother reigned supreme to a state where women were not only restricted from holding public office, they were even restricted from voting.

So it should come as no surprise that her role models from the two disparate states were as divergent. Revered throughout the kingdom, her most influential role model in Egypt was her mother who was not only its queen but its most venerable goddess as well. After her parents’ defeat, Selene’s years with the larger-than-life Cleopatra and the power and pageantry surrounding her came to an abrupt end. She was conveyed to Rome in the Late Roman Republic —comparatively a provincial enclave—-and into the conservative home of her stepmother, Octavia. Often considered a counterweight to Cleopatra, the submissive and dependent Octavia—Rome’s archetypal matron—was the Egyptian queen’s polar opposite. Romans loved comparing the loyal Octavia, whom Antony left for the “Harlot Queen,” whom they would come to fear. After her only son, Marcellus, died in 23 BCE, Octavia withdrew from society completely. It must have taken some fancy footwork for a young girl to reconcile these two disparate feminine types.

Yet she seems to have done so successfully. As Cleopatra’s only daughter, all eyes were on her every move. The Roman writers who had found great joy in disparaging each of her mother’s so-called transgressions found no such delight with the daughter, who provided no fodder for their rumor mill. We hear nothing from the ancients about Selene until she marries her former housemate—-Gaius Julius Juba. Although Octavia played the role of matchmaker, even Octavian—now referred to as Augustus —-must have seen the wisdom of the union. Coming from the singular Ptolemaic dynasty, the marriage of Cleopatra Selene could pose a threat to Augustus’ regime if she married outside the Julio-Claudian clan and could pose an even greater risk if she married within the highly competitive clan —which was why the marriage to Juba was nothing short of brilliant.

A likely depiction of Cleopatra Selene II wearing an elephant scalp, raised relief image on a gilded silver dish, from the Boscoreale Treasure, 1st century BC

Besides both hailing from North Africa, they shared many things. Both had parents who were enemies of Rome, defeated by Roman forces, and would subsequently end their lives. Both lost their homes, families, and cultures and were brought to Rome as prisoners of war to be paraded in triumphs. And both had parents whom the Romans severely chastised. Even so, Octavian ensured the exiles were well-cared for and appropriately Romanized while living under his roof. Though nearly ten years separate Juba and Selene in age, it is easy to imagine the kinship that must have developed between the two exiles.

Eventually made a Roman citizen, Juba would accompany Octavia’s son, Marcellus, and Livia’s son, Tiberius, to join Augustus on a military campaign in Hispania (present-day Spain) in 27-25 BCE. But aside from proving himself on a crucial military mission, Juba had an intellect’s curiosity and would become a prolific writer interested in history, geography, archaeology, and the arts. Pleased with the man Juba had become and certain of his loyalty, Augustus consigned Juba with ruling the enormous region of Mauretania in North Africa as king at the young age of twenty-three. The region was a growing worry for Augustus after two former kingships went without leadership for several years. Because he felt the area needed the direction a monarchy could provide, in their place Augustus established the kingdom of Mauretania ostensibly to safeguard the Roman Empire from invasions by nomadic tribes. Hailing from neighboring Numida, Juba was a perfect candidate as its king. To find Mauretania’s ideal queen, once again, Augustus did not have to look any further than his expansive household.

Raised as a royal to rule as a royal, Cleopatra Selene was weaned at the foot of the master. As a Ptolemaic princess, she was Egypt’s natural heir to the throne and continued to hold the title of queen of Libya. Descending from the Ptolemaic dynasty with its nearly three hundred years of sovereignty—-not the least of which was her mother’s celebrated reign in the region—-Cleopatra Selene brought both credibility and stability to the newly minted monarchy. Moreover, she was the daughter of one of the most prominent and beloved Romans of the last generation, the General and Triumvir, Marc Antony—a man who was expected by many to become the sole ruler of the Late Roman Republic. In fact, as the only surviving child of the most powerful couple in the Hellenistic era, not only did Cleopatra Selene have more claim to the throne than Juba, she had more claim to the throne than any member of the Julio-Claudian brood. It is hard to imagine anyone more suited for the role of queen of Mauretania.

In 25 BCE, at fifteen years of age, Cleopatra Selene was married to Juba, known to subsequent generations as Juba II. For marriage to be considered legal in Rome, the couple each had to be of marriageable age (fourteen to sixteen years old) and they both had to be Roman citizens. Because there is no record of Cleopatra Selene becoming a Roman citizen, citizenship is believed to have been conveyed to her and her siblings by Antony at some point in their young lives.

The royal couple could have chosen anywhere to reside within the huge swath of land that was Mauretania (modern-day Algeria and Morocco). Still, they chose the coastal town of Iol as the capital and home to the royal court because it was situated on the Mediterranean, thus providing easier access to Rome. Upon arrival, they changed the name from Iol to Caesarea (today’s Cherchell, Algeria) in honor of Caesar Augustus, their benefactor.

Unless they ruled independently, in the ancient world a queen was often considered nothing more than her husband’s mere appendage. Unlike the kingship, there were no set duties for which queens were responsible; the strength of the queenship was dependent on the sovereign. But Cleopatra Selene was no mere consort. According to literary and archaeological records, she was powerful and formidable; her mother’s daughter through and through. Moreover, she was respected throughout the Roman Empire for playing a significant role in her husband’s administration, effectively acting as co-ruler.

Before embarking on policy, they had to lay out the groundwork for their newfound regime. It was their goal to emulate the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his sister-wife Arsinoe II (285-246 BCE) who were famous for transforming the cultural wasteland that had once been Alexandria into an Alexandria that would become known as the premiere center of scholarship in the Hellenistic world.

Toward that end, one of Selene’s first moves was to bring in many prominent advisors, scholars, and artisans from her mother’s royal court to help them in their endeavors. It did not take long before their court resembled her mother’s in Alexandria and became inhabited by the top scholars and artists of the day from the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and African realms. With its artwork and architecture emphasizing multiculturalism, Caesarea would become known as one of the largest urban capitals in the western part of the Roman Empire, celebrated as a center for arts and learning.

With Selene taking the lead, the couple embarked on a series of public work projects to transform their capital into a preeminent city. What is more, they took their cue from Augustus who used Alexandria as his model when transforming Rome from a city of brick to one of marble. Alexandria’s influence on the newfound North African capital would have been apparent to anyone who visited Caesarea. Like Alexandria, the harbor was blessed with an adjoining island on which they built a lighthouse. Though not one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the lighthouse’s being positioning situated near their newly built palace was not unlike the positioning of the Pharos Lighthouse from her mother’s royal residence.

Moreover, they renovated old temples and built new ones to favored gods and goddesses. Unsurprisingly Isis—the goddess linked to Cleopatra— and Selene’s goddess of the moon— figured prominently in their pantheon. In another nod to Alexandria’s shining example, they built a magnificent royal library that attracted scholars throughout the Roman Empire. Referred to as the “Scholar King,” Juba was strongly influenced by Selene’s Ptolemaic heritage. Some believe Selene may have contributed either in writing and/or research to the opus of Juba’s scholarship. Other notable public work projects included a Roman Forum and a Greek Theater.

But aside from public work projects to beautify Caesarea, they established new towns throughout Mauretania following Rome’s planning model. Moreover, Mauretania became known throughout the Mediterranean for its exports of items such as fish, figs, grapes, pearls, wheat, timber, and most of all its purple dye harvested from shellfish in Mauretania’s Purple Islands. Amongst other things, the famed purple dye was used in the production of purple stripes for Roman senatorial robes. As a result of all their efforts, Mauretania enjoyed great influence as a prosperous and well-regarded kingdom. Emblematic of this esteem was its coinage which held widespread respect across the empire. Moreover, it was within Selene’s authority to issue coins herself. One such has her wearing a diadem with the Greek (significantly, not Latin) legend Kleopatra Basilissa (queen) on the obverse face and a crocodile on the reverse with the familiar legend Kleopatra Basilissa.

Coin of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania. Juba II of Numidia on the obverse, Cleopatra Selene II on the reverse.


But Selene was much more than meets the eye. To quell incursions on the frontiers of Mauretania, Juba was often away enabling Selene to supervise the day-to-day activities of overseeing their kingdom. While overseeing the governance of the kingdom, Selene would have maintained frequent communication with a network of influential women around the Mediterranean, including the empress Livia and her foster mother Octavia— both considered members of a select group of three singular women who played a vital role in the founding of Augustan Rome.

Side by side, Juba and Selene ruled as partners for nearly twenty years. By all that is used to measure a royal union, theirs appeared to have been a successful one. All the same, it ended abruptly in 5 BCE when Cleopatra Selene died at the age of thirty-five. Ancient chroniclers are mute about how she died, but most historians today agree that she likely succumbed to childbirth. In the ancient world, childbirth was a dangerous proposition. By some estimates, fully one-third of women died in childbirth. But it was not only dangerous for the mother, it was perilous for the newborn as well. In her seminal book about Cleopatra Selene, Jane Draycott writes: “…when it came to such highly placed individuals, the death of a mother and child could be politically as well as personally catastrophic.” While it was personally devastating for households to lose young mothers and/or infants, it could signal the end of political dynasties when it occurred in royal homes.

While their exact number of children remains uncertain, they only had one surviving son, Ptolemy , and at least one daughter, named Drusilla. However, Regardless of how powerful their mother queens were, daughters could not succeed their father kings and were often married into other political dynasties. After his mother’s death, Ptolemy would co-rule with his father until Juba’s passing in 23 CE at which time Ptolemy became king. But the madness of Caligula put paid to Ptolemy’s seventeen-year reign when in 40 CE on a visit to Rome, Caligula—his mother’s great-nephew hence Ptolemy’s cousin—-had Ptolemy assassinated. Ptolemy was thought to be a target for the paranoid emperor because of Mauretania’s vast wealth. Cleopatra and Antony’s only surviving grandson was no more than 31 years of age. Ptolemy had one daughter (also named Drusilla) who would marry into the Julio-Claudian clan. After Claudius succeeded Caligula, he exploited Ptolemy’s lack of heirs to his advantage and took over the wealthy Mauretania, dividing it into the Roman provinces of Mauretania Caesariensis and Mauretania Tingitana.

Bust of Ptolemy of Mauretania in the Vatican Museums (Museo Chiaramonti)

In a sad twist of fate, the only building that remains extant from their reign is the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania in Caesarea. Anticipating a long and flourishing political dynasty, Juba had built the massive mausoleum entirely made from stone measuring sixty by sixty meters (or 209 by 209 feet) and standing at forty meters (or 130 feet) high. The base of the monument had once been decorated with sixty Ionic columns whose capitals have long since been stolen. While the mausoleum bears similarities to other funereal monuments in North Africa, in an attempt to connect the imperial family with his own, the mausoleum also has similarities to the Mausoleum of Augustus in the center of Rome. The mausoleum was completed two years after Selene’s passing. The remains of Selene, Juba, and perhaps one or two of their children had once been interred in the tomb along with statuary and artwork from the period, though it has long since been raided.

The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania, a tomb of Cleopatra Selene II and Juba II in Tipaza, Algeria.

Long neglected by historians throughout the ages, Cleopatra Selene has had the misfortune of being overshadowed by her larger-than-life parents and her male relations. She is merely there between the lines. Only after her death is she a literary subject. An epigram written after her passing is the sole literary reference that makes Cleopatra Selene the focal point. Even her manner of death remains obscure. After all, well-behaved women rarely get written about—- this was never more true than in ancient days. But indicative of her influence in the region are coins bearing her portrait that were still in circulation over decades after her death. Some historians claim that her impact may have had far-reaching implications for centuries following her death as demonstrated by women’s remarkably high status in Caesarea.

Respected and revered not only in her kingdom but throughout the Roman Empire, Cleopatra Selene was a prominent and commanding queen. Like her mother before her, her charisma, resourcefulness, keen intellect, and political acumen helped put the once-impoverished province of Mauretania on the map and created wealth and prosperity where there had been none.

Published in Classical Wisdom December 2023

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