What if Cleopatra and Octavian Had Been Friends?
Cleopatra and Octavian are one of the most famous sets of enemies in history. The lover and the adopted son of Gaius Julius Caesar both created monumental chapters in the history of ancient Egypt and Rome. For centuries, people have asked the same question: what would have happened if they had become allies instead of enemies?
Cleopatra VII was the last queen of Egypt and 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 times – Julius Caesar. The story about the beginning of their romance became one of the most famous love stories in the world.
The Most Famous Couple of the Ancient World
Julius Caesar seemed to be under the Cleopatra's spells. For that reason, the senators of Rome gossiped that the queen of Egypt must have been a witch, as she had such a strong influence on the thoughts of the famous Roman.
Cleopatra and Caesar (1866). Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme ( Public Domain )
Their story begins 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. They 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, knew 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, what means ''little Caesar''.
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Cleopatra VII and her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
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.
Although, the marriage with Calpurnia was political, Romans were annoyed because of 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 the 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.
The Forum of Caesar and the Temple of Venus Genetrix. (CC BY-SA 2.0 )
According to the famous orator and philosopher Cicero, Romans hated the foreign queen. The change to the political situation appeared ti be so dangerous for the position of many people that the nobles 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 the Queen of Egypt? Perhaps not, but the affair with a woman who made many Roman men afraid could have made the decision to assassinate Caesar easier.
The Death of Caesar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1867). ( Public Domain )
Conflict which Could Have Been Friendship
The real reason for the conflict between Cleopatra and Octavian was young Ptolemy Caesar and the ambitions of his mother. When she went back to Egypt, she poisoned her brother Ptolemy XIV and made 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 didn't want to accept that Octavian, as adopted son of Caesar, had rights to follow the ruler.
Octavian, on the other hand, felt himself to be the only person who could legitimately replace Caesar. When his adopted father died, he 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. With his close relationship with Caesar, Mark Antony now appeared as the strongest threat to Octavian’s wishes. The conflict between them started soon after the funeral of the deceased ruler.
A statue of Augustus as a younger Octavian, dated ca. 30 BC. ( 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. Mark Antony was Octavia’s husband, who was Octavian’s sister.
When Antony divorced his wife and officially married Cleopatra, there was no way back in the conflict with Octavian. For Rome it was obvious that the couple who lived in Alexandria wanted to rule all of the Roman Empire. The final defeat of Cleopatra's ambitions took place in 31 BC, during the battle of Actium.
A baroque painting of the battle of Actium by Laureys a Castro, 1672. The Maritime Museum of Greenwich, Director's office, UK. ( Public Domain )
The End of the War
According to many resources, Ptolemy Caesar was murdered and his mother committed suicide. The history of Octavian’s triumph over the Queen 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.
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The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur. ( Public Domain )
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. However, as a future emperor, he couldn't accept her behaviors. Cleopatra was afraid that he would murder all of her children. She was a mother of five: four sons and one daughter.
However, Octavian decided to take all of her children with Antony to Rome. Their new home became the villa of Octavia, 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. Most of Cleopatra's family was dead, but the question about the alternative possibility for the story of the famous enemies was already alive. People have long wondered what would have happened if Octavian and Cleopatra were allies. It seems to be likely that with their intelligence and ambition they could have created the most powerful empire in the world.
Featured image: A painting of Cleopatra and Octavian. Source: Public Domain
Joyce Tyldesley,Cleopatra: The Last Queen of Egypt, 2010.
Joann Fletcher, Cleopatra the Great. The Woman Behind The Legend, 2008.
Aleksander Krawczuk, Gajusz Juliusz Cezar, Ossolineum, Wrocław 1962
Aleksander Krawczuk, Kleopatra, Ossolineum, Wrocław 1969