Did Descendants of Cleopatra VII Survive and Produce the Legendary Queen Zenobia of Palmyra?
Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of an independent Egypt, had four children: Caesarian (with Julius Caesar), twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphia (the latter three with Mark Antony). But she only had descendants through one of her children: her sole daughter, Selene, who married King Juba II of Mauretania.
Selene probably had two children of her own, after which her descendants faded into obscurity. But two hundred years later, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra in Syria (who conquered Egypt in the third century AD) claimed descent from Cleopatra. Was it possible that Cleopatra’s descendants lived, throve, and survived to challenge her ancient frenemy of Rome?
How Cleopatra’s Daughter Survived…and Throve
As wife to Juba, a client king of Emperor Augustus, Cleopatra Selene reigned over his kingdom of Mauretania (not far from Juba’s ancestral home of Numidia). This was a strategic alliance for Juba, as Selene was practically a part of the imperial family—she and her full siblings were raised, after their mother’s suicide, by Augustus’s beloved sister, Octavia, who was also their stepmother (wife of their father Antony).
Portrait of Juba. (Louvre Museum/CC BY 2.5)
Cleopatra Selene, who married Juba sometime between 25 and 19 BC, apparently ruled with her husband. They developed Mauretania’s capital into a Greco-Roman paradise. Cleopatra issued coins in her own name (Juba appeared on them, too) and tapped into her regal heritage by naming her son Ptolemy, who ruled Mauretania after his dad. According to Suetonius’s biography of Caligula in his Life of the Caesars, that nutty emperor didn’t treat his friends or relatives well.
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Coin of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania. Juba of Numidia on the obverse, Cleopatra Selene on the reverse. (Public Domain)
That included his first cousin once removed, “Ptolemy, son of King Juba, his cousin,” who was “rewarded for [his] kinship and for…loyal services with a brutal death.” In Ptolemy’s case, Caligula killed him “for no other reason than that when giving a gladiatorial show, he noticed that Ptolemy on entering the theatre attracted general attention by the splendor of his purple cloak.” Sadly, he had no recorded descendants before his death in the late 30s or early 40s AD.
Ptolemy of Mauretania Louvre. (Public Domain)
In addition to Ptolemy, Juba and Selene may have also had a daughter, perhaps named Drusilla. Tacitus records a Drusilla as “the granddaughter of Cleopatra and Antony” who married Antonius Felix, a freedman of Emperor Claudius (also a grandson of Antony) and procurator of Judea. Confusingly, the Jewish-Turned-Roman historian Josephus reports that Felix was married to a different Drusilla, daughter of Agrippa I of Judea.
Did Tacitus confuse these two women of the same name? Suetonius alleges that Felix married “three queens,” so it’s possible more than one of them was named Drusilla—not an uncommon moniker at the time, since it was a family name of the Julio-Claudians, and royals under Roman rule very well might name their kids after the imperial family to honor their overlords. Others posit that Drusilla of Mauretania wasn’t Selene and Juba’s daughter, but their granddaughter, a child of their son Ptolemy.
Either way, how did Drusilla, married to a Roman official, get the title of Regina (queen), as Suetonius dubs her? Perhaps she married a king after Felix. The monarch in question was probably Gaius Julius Sohaemus, king of Emesa, a prominent city-state in Syria. The family came to international attention through the affairs of his brother Azizus’s wife, also named Drusilla, the aforementioned wife of Felix.
According to Josephus, Felix fell in love with Drusilla of Judea and forced her to divorce her husband; in turn, Felix would have had to divorce his Drusilla. It isn’t far-fetched to imagine that Drusilla of Mauretania married the ex-brother-in-law of Drusilla of Judea. In the process, she would have become queen of Emesa. But while Wikipedia reports that Drusilla definitely married Sohaemus and had kids with him, carrying Cleopatra’s lineage on through the generations, that claim is far from proven.
Paul before Felix, 1752. Drusilla of Judea is seated on Felix's right. (Public Domain)
This idea makes even more sense if one considers the potential identity of the mother of Drusilla of Mauretania, daughter of Ptolemy and granddaughter of Cleopatra Selene. Evidence for Ptolemy’s wife is scanty, but it seems her name was (Julia) Urania. We don’t know much about her, but a French historian pointed out that the name “Urania” has ties to those of the ruling class of—guess where? —Emesa! If Drusilla’s mother was a princess of Emesa, it would make sense for her daughter to marry back into the royal clan from which her mother originated.
Claims of Cleopatra
From either her first marriage to Felix or her second marriage to Sohaemus, Drusilla may well have had children, heirs to her royal ancestress. Any kids by Felix could have married into the Emesan royal family, too: The aristocrats of Judea often intermarried with the royal family of Emesa (just witness Drusilla, daughter of Agrippa I, married King Azizus of Emesa). Azizus’s sister, Princess Iotape, wed Aristobulus, brother of the aforementioned Agrippa (and guess what they named their daughter? Drusilla!).
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And the children of Drusilla and King Sohaemus of Emesa very well could have married into the royal family of neighboring Palmyra, which is located about 160 kilometers (99 mi) from modern Homs (ancient Emesa). As Barbara Levick relates in Julia Domna: Syrian Empress, a study of an Emesa-born Roman empress, “Emesa was closely linked for its prosperity with its neighbor Palmyra.” The two cities probably cemented their alliances with dynastic marriage; as a result, Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, could have had Cleopatra as “the founder of her family,” as she claimed, which was recorded in the Historia Augusta. Or, at least, perhaps it was her husband, King Odaenathus, who was directly descended from her.
Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian. (Public Domain)
In addition to claiming Cleopatra as an ancestress, Zenobia kept her legacy alive. Apparently, the writer Callinicus of Petra, who probably lived at the Palmyrene court, wrote a ten-book history about the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Cleopatra’s capital city, and dedicated it to Zenobia under the name of “Cleopatra.”
Female Trailblazers: Cleopatra VII and Queen Zenobia's Rise to Power
Related or not there are clear similarities between these 2 female leaders. Both Cleopatra VII and Zenobia held strong female leadership, political power, defied societal norms of their time and emerged as powerful figures in male-dominated political landscapes.
These female rulers challenged the expanding influence of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra famously aligned herself with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, while Zenobia led the rebellion against Roman rule and successfully conquered Egypt before being eventually defeated by the Roman Emperor Aurelian.
By taking on these leadership roles, both queens actively promoted their cultural heritage. Cleopatra VII, as the last pharaoh of Egypt, aimed to align herself with the traditions of the Ptolemaic dynasty and Greek culture. Zenobia, as Queen of Palmyra emphasized the Greek influences in her rule and associated herself with the legendary figure of Cleopatra.
But did calling herself a descendant from Cleopatra mean Zenobia was literally blood-related to her? Perhaps this was just political propaganda, in part to justify her conquest of Egypt. In doing so, she cast herself as a true Hellenistic Greek monarch and the most powerful woman of her period, as queen of a state who owed little if no allegiance to its western overlord—in this case, literally in the mold of Cleopatra. Both queens ruled over cities that were eastern crossroads of trade, held power in their own right (while technically ruling sometimes for brothers or sons), and had to deal with Rome encroaching on their beloved territory.
Top image: Queen Zenobia's last look upon Palmyra. Source: Public Domain
By Carly Silver
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