What if Cleopatra and Octavian Had Been Friends?
While Caesar and Cleopatra have been remembered as the ultimate power couple, Cleopatra and Octavian are among the most famous enemies of ancient history. Both inextricably linked to Caesar, Cleopatra was his lover while Octavian was his adopted son, and they created monumental chapters in the history of both ancient Egypt and Rome. For centuries, people have asked the same question: what would have happened if Cleopatra and Octavian had become allies instead of adversaries?
While Caesar and Cleopatra, seen here in an 1866 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, were the ultimate power couple, Cleopatra and Octavian became enemies. (Public domain)
The Most Famous Couple of the Ancient World
Cleopatra VII was the last queen of Egypt and descended from the dynasty created by Ptolemy I Soter. After three centuries of Ptolemaic rule, she hoped to end the impoverished state of Egypt. To achieve her goals, she decided to connect her dynasty with the greatest man of her time: Julius Caesar. The affair between Caesar and Cleopatra, particularly the beginning of their romance, became one of the most famous in the world.
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According to the Roman gossip mill, Julius Caesar was under Cleopatra's spell. For that reason, the senators of Rome whispered that the queen of Egypt must have been a witch, as she had such a strong influence on the thoughts of the famous Roman. Their story began when Cleopatra was 21 years old. Caesar was already 52, and well-advanced in his political life. According to Plutarch, she entered past the guards rolled up in a carpet that Apollodorus the Sicilian was carrying. When Caesar saw her, he was very intrigued.
Cleopatra VII and her son Caesarion, the product of her powerful relationship and alliance with Caesar, at the Temple of Dendera in Egypt. (Francesco Gasparetti / CC BY 2.0)
Caesar and Cleopatra soon became lovers, but they also created a relationship based on common interests and passions. Cleopatra was highly educated. She spoke at least eight languages, and was well-versed in astronomy, mathematics, alchemy, and history. She wasn't a classical beauty, but her voice sounded like a lyre, and she was full of charm. As a result of this romance, in 47 BC Cleopatra gave birth to their son Ptolemy Caesar. His nickname was Caesarion, which means “little Caesar.”
Cleopatra visited Rome with her son in the summer of 46 BC. She resided in Caesar’s luxury house outside Rome. Officially it was because she was a foreign head of state and thus couldn't stay inside Rome, but in fact it was a very comfortable situation for the couple to have a little bit of privacy. Their romance was a huge scandal in Rome because Caesar was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis.
The ruins of the Caesar Forum and the Temple of Venus Genetrix in Rome, Italy, where Caesar is said to have erected a golden statue of Cleopatra to the dismay of the Romans. (AlexAnton / Adobe Stock)
Although the marriage with Calpurnia was political, the Romans were annoyed by the behavior of their leader. At the same time, Caesar erected a golden statue of Cleopatra presented as Isis and located it in the temple of Venus Genetrix in the Julium Forum. This act proved to Roman society that Cleopatra was much more than just a lover. She was a life partner and the woman at the side of Julius Caesar. It was also the moment when the beloved adopted son of Caesar – Octavian – started to worry about his future.
According to the famous orator and philosopher Cicero, the Romans hated the foreign queen. Her presence appeared so dangerous that the noble elite, afraid for their political station, decided to murder Caesar on March 15, 44 BC. Cleopatra was still in Rome at the time. Did Caesar die because of his attention to Cleopatra? Perhaps not, but the affair with a woman who incited fear in many Roman men could have made the decision to assassinate Caesar easier.
Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators at the Roman Senate, the aftermath of which is depicted in this 1867 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public domain)
The Power Struggle Between Cleopatra and Octavian
The real reason for the conflict between Cleopatra and Octavian was the young Ptolemy Caesar and the ambitions of his mother. After the assassination of Caesar, Cleopatra returned to Egypt, poisoning her brother Ptolemy XIV and making Caesarion her co-regent and successor. Cleopatra wrongly believed that the only successor of Caesar to the throne of the Roman Empire was her son. She had no desire to accept that Octavian, as adopted son of Caesar, had the rights to take control of the Roman Empire.
Octavian, on the other hand, felt himself to be the only person who could legitimately replace Caesar. When his adopted father died, Octavian was studying and undergoing military training in Illyria. But when he discovered what happened, he quickly went back to Rome.
Upon his arrival there, he discovered the consul Mark Antony, a friend of Caesar, trying to punish the killers. Due to his close relationship with Caesar, Mark Antony now appeared to be the strongest threat to Octavian’s claim to power. The conflict between them started soon after Caesar’s funeral.
A statue of the young Octavian circa 30 BC, who later became the Roman Emperor Augustus. (Public Domain)
Cleopatra knew that if she didn’t accept Octavian as the ruler of Rome, she couldn’t think of him ever being an ally. Thus, she decided to start a relationship with Mark Antony and defeat Octavian using the hands of her new lover, who was then the husband of Octavia, Octavian’s sister. The story of Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most famous love stories in history, and they remain household names even today.
When Mark Antony divorced his wife and officially married Cleopatra, there was no way to avoid conflict with Octavian. For Rome it was obvious that the couple who lived in Alexandria wanted to rule the entire Roman Empire. The final defeat of Cleopatra's ambitions took place in 31 BC, during the Battle of Actium.
The naval battle, known as the Battle of Actium, was the final battle between Octavian’s fleet and the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. (Public domain)
The End of the War Between Cleopatra and Octavian
The Battle of Actium took place in the Ionian Sea between southern Italy and western Greece in September 31 BC. Octavian’s victory is viewed by many historians as the true beginning of the Roman Empire and a resounding defeat for Mark Antony and Cleopatra, with 200 of their ships captured or sunk. Little evidence remains with details of what happened next.
In the aftermath of the battle many sources claim Ptolemy Caesar was murdered in Alexandria in 30 BC. Mark Antony is reported to have committed suicide on receiving false news that Cleopatra had committed suicide. It is said that Cleopatra was allowed to embalm Antony in her tomb, but many accounts claim she later committed suicide by snakebite to avoid the humiliation of being paraded through Rome in triumph.
The history of Octavian’s triumph over Cleopatra seems to be complete at first glance, but if one takes a closer look, it appears that something is missing. When Cleopatra and her son were dead, the war was over. Now, Octavian’s most powerful and impressive competitor deserved a funeral and homage.
He ordered a celebration worthy of the Queen and accepted all the Egyptian traditions for it. Due to his orders, none of the monuments of Cleopatra were destroyed in Egypt. Romans were very surprised with these decisions.
Nevertheless, it is possible that Octavian believed that it would have been much better for him to have Cleopatra on his side than against him, even after her death. Cleopatra had been afraid that Octavian would murder all her children. She was after all a mother of five: four sons and one daughter.
Cleopatra is said to have committed suicide by snakebite. (Public domain)
After her death, Octavian decided to take all of the children she’d had with Antony to Rome. Their new home became the villa of Octavia, his sister, who became their attendant, or even protector. Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony, even became a cherished member of Octavian’s family. He took care of her education and arranged a good marriage for her. She was also perhaps the most similar child to her mother.
Octavian ruled as emperor of Rome from 27 BC to 14 AD. He died peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones. Egypt was still a province of his Empire at those times. The death of Cleopatra and her son Ptolemy Caesar brought about the end of the Ptolemaic rule in Egypt.
Scholars have long wondered what would have happened had Cleopatra and Octavian been friends rather than enemies. It seems likely that with their intelligence and ambition they could have created the most powerful empire in the world.
Top image: The antagonistic relationship between Cleopatra and Octavian changed the course of history for two of the greatest empires in the world. Source: Public domain
Updated on February 17th 2021.
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Krawczuk, A. 1962. Gajusz Juliusz Cezar. Ossolineum: Wrocław.
Krawczuk, A. 1969. Kleopatra. Ossolineum: Wrocław.
Tyldesley, J. 2010. Cleopatra: The Last Queen of Egypt. Basic Books.