Emperor Caligula Brought an End to the Illustrious Ptolemies, But Why?
When Cleopatra VII and Mark Anthony closed their eyes for the last time, passing through to their longed-for afterlife, among the successors were their three orphans: Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene II, and Ptolemy Philadelphus. The one who finally became ambassador of the testimony of the powerful couple was Cleopatra Selene, whose son became the character of the last episode of the famous family of Ptolemies.
The remarkable fame of the Ptolemies was related to the impressive rule of Alexander of Macedonia (‘Alexander the Great’), whose short life transformed the world forever. Although he died at the young age of 32, his military genius in conquering new lands became an inspiration and unreachable goal to many who would follow.
Alexander had founded the great city of Alexandria in 331 BC, which flourished under the wealthy Ptolemaic dynasty. The dynasty was greatly admired due to its grand and powerful roots, but at the same time, the cockiness and terrible diplomacy of many Ptolemies caused them numerous troubles. The story of the last man from the dynasty ends with the shadow of Alexander behind him and the Emperor of Rome celebrating his death.
The detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing Alexander the Great. (Public Domain)
The Fate of Ptolemy of Mauretania
Ptolemy of Mauretania was born before the year 5 AD in the beautiful capital city of Mauretania, which was a safe shelter for every free thinker, intellectual, artist, and scientist. Due to the vision of Queen Cleopatra Selene, the construction and development of the city was inspired by the soul of Alexandria, once a grand city of knowledge, culture, and art.
Ptolemy was related to the most powerful families in the world at the time, including the lineage of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. His father, Juba II of Numidia ruled as a wise and good king. He was an intellectual whose remarkable works related to history, geography, and philosophy were one of the greatest scientific achievements of his times.
Ptolemy grew up in Rome, where he had been sent to receive the best education. He learned how to rule the country, not from his ancestors, but from the powerful Roman Emperors themselves. His ambitions were high and he had in his sights the highest position in the Empire. This caused great concern among the Roman politicians.
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Bust of Ptolemy of Mauretania, c. 30–40. (Public Domain)
When Ptolemy returned to Mauretania, his father made him a co-regent and his official successor. Juba II died in 23 AD, and before his body had even become cold, his son already had aspirations for the regions that had been dependent on the Romans for far too long.
Portrait of Juba II, Louvre Museum. (CC BY 2.5)
Under the rule of Ptolemy, the kingdom of Mauretania became one of the wealthiest of the regions around the Mediterranean Sea. He was known as a brave warrior and a wise politician. But he had no intention of being a provincial marionette in the hands of the Roman Emperor. Ptolemy of Mauretania’s successful period of rule lasted for 17 years, before being cut short by notorious Roman Emperor Caligula.
For reasons that are unconfirmed, in 40 AD Caligula ordered the assassination of Ptolemy. He invited Ptolemy for a diplomatic visit in Rome, but soon after he arrived in the capital of the Empire, he was murdered by order of the Emperor. After his death, a revolt erupted in Mauretania with the Berbers against Rome, and this resulted in the kingdom of Mauretania being split into two provinces – it would never be so great and powerful again.
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Cities of Roman Mauretania in the Tabula Peutingeriana. (Public Domain)
Why was Ptolemy Assassinated?
There are several theories related to this question. The one that seems to be the most accurate says that the tragedy that struck him was caused by his Royal roots and the need for eliminating as many competitors as possible. However, according to Stephanie Dray:
“Modern scholars wonder exactly how crazy Caligula really was–and whether or not Ptolemy was murdered for entirely rational political reasons. Some have speculated that the emperor didn’t take kindly to Ptolemy’s bragging about his successful military campaign against Tacfarinas. Anthony Barret argues that Caligula may have suspected Ptolemy in a recent conspiracy against his life. Another interesting interpretation of this incident–and one that helped motivate my own narrative arc in my trilogy about Cleopatra Selene–is that Caligula wasn’t angry about the cloak at all. He was sent into a fury by a mob’s jest that Cleopatra Selene’s son was the real Caesar. My favorite theory, however, involves Cleopatra Selene’s unique status as a representative of Isis worship. Within the faith, she was a religious symbol from birth. Once Isis worship was banned from Rome, she remained its most prominent advocate. While Augustus and Agrippa were both busily persecuting Isis worshippers in Rome, she and Juba were building a giant Museum in Mauretania–one that would later be referenced to as a home for sacred crocodiles.''
Reconstructed bust of the Emperor Gaius, known as Caligula. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Caligula’s Greatest Failure
Ptolemy of Mauretania was related to the ‘god’ that Caligula worshiped – the deified Alexander the Great. The story of his visit in Alexandria, during which he stole the breastplate of the Macedonian king is well known from the books of ancient writers. So it is perhaps a paradox that he should murder a relative of the one whom he worshipped.
Fanciful renaissance depiction of Caligula. (Public Domain)
After the death of Ptolemy, the descendants of the great dynasty were never as cherished again. Ptolemy of Mauretania had a wife, Julia Urania, and a daughter named Drusilla. However, the Ptolemies that followed no longer had great power or influence. Once deified and worshipped as gods, the family of Ptolemies would never recover their position again.
Top image: Senate massacre by ‘Ethically Challenged / DeviantArt’
Duane W Roller and Duane W. Roller, The world of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene, 2003.
Why Was Ptolemy Of Mauretania Murdered By Caligula? available at:
The Death of Ptolemy of Mauretaniaby S. J. V. Malloch, avialable at:
Bust of Ptolemy of Mauretania, available at: