Throughout the annals of time, there have been relationships that have quite literally steered the course of human history, while such occurrences are rare and are fortunately few and far between this does not lessen their historical importance nor their need to be studied. Before beginning on an examination of one such relationship, it must first be noted that such relationships are comparable to that of Paris and Helen in ancient Greek mythology.
This is not to say that they brought disaster (though often they did) but rather they were the causes of great historical events and can even be considered an impetus of change within a distinct country or region which had a direct effect on the way historical events played out.
One such notable historical relationship, which has been rendered time and again in the annals of history and Hollywood films, is that of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. It must be noted that this particular relationship is unique among all others because not only are both individuals the heads of their respective states but they show similar character traits revolving around the ambition and the desire for power.
To better understand both individuals, this paper shall examine events detailing the lives of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, how they met and the events leading up to their eventual relationship and its subsequent unfortunate end. It must be noted though that based off historical accounts the relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar was bound to fail even before it started due to the volatile combination of their personalities and the fact that both individuals were the heads of state of their respective countries.
An Examination of Cleopatra
Cleopatra is known historically for her great beauty yet few realize that it was because of this very beauty that resulted at an end of an age for Egypt whereon upon her death she became the very last pharaoh to have ever ruled the country. When examining the historical context of her relationship with Julius Caesar one question that comes to mind is how did Cleopatra and Julius Caesar even have anything in common let alone spoke the same language?
What must first be understood is that Cleopatra or Cleopatra VII Philopator was originally a member of Ptolemaic dynasty. This was a family which was originally from Greece that had ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. As such, due to her family origins and the fact that she spoke mainly Greek (but knew Egyptian).
This resulted in her being more attuned to the language and culture of the Mediterranean rather than that of Egypt (Bergquist, 2010). This would explain why two people from different cultures were actually able to find some semblance of common ground and were able to communicate.
The inherent problem with the various pop culture accounts of Cleopatra is that they always seem to indicate her beauty but neglect to mention her origins resulting in most people today believing that she initially had no connection whatsoever to Rome or that she was a pure blooded Egyptian (Bergquist, 2010).
An examination of the various historical accounts preceding the events before the meeting of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar shows that when Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy the 12th died by 51 BC, his will indicated that both Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy the 13th would rule as joint monarchs.
Unfortunately, such a decision proved to be rather ill-advised since Cleopatra’s beauty was only exceeded by her lust for power. This particular behavioral trait resulted in her having no intention whatsoever in sharing power with her brother.
It must be noted that at the time of their joint appointment Cleopatra was 18 while Ptolemy the 13th was actually only 10 years old, while it may be true Cleopatra did have a certain lust for power the fact remains that her younger sibling, who she subsequently married as per Egyptian tradition, was nothing more than a child at the time of his appointment which probably facilitated her notion that she should not share power with a mere child.
While such a notion is quite logical the fact remains that Egyptian society did not truly accept the notion of sole female rulers without male guidance. As a result, while Cleopatra did attempt to isolate Ptolemy the 13th from power by removing his name from all administrative documents and having her image placed on Egypt’s legal tender (coins) at the time the fact remains that her rule was on tenuous ground as a result of both the fact that she was a woman and that during the start of her rule widespread famine had occurred over numerous territories in Egypt (Bergquist, 2010).
It was a combination of these factors that resulted in her brother’s advisors, who wanted to rule Egypt themselves, to conspire against her resulting in her removal from power by 48 B.C. It was at this precise time that Julius Caesar had arrived in Egypt to capture his political enemy Pompey.
Unfortunately for Ptolemy but fortunately for Cleopatra, Ptolemy had the ill-advised decision to have Pompey beheaded and presented the head to Caesar when he arrived. By beheading Pompey, Ptolemy had in effect angered Caesar since not only had the Egyptian ruler murdered a citizen of Rome he had in effect killed a member of the Roman leadership.
What must be understood is that at time of Pompey’s murder Egypt was financing a large percentage of the Roman army through supplies and various resources. While both Rome and Egypt were regional powers at the time of this particular event Rome was the stronger of two and as such supplies and resources provided by Egypt to Rome could, in fact, be constituted as a bribe to prevent its total annexation by the Roman Empire.
Through the death of Pompey Caesar seized the Egyptian capital to decide the fate of Egypt due to the actions of Ptolemy. Seeing an opportunity to take advantage of the situation yet unable to meet Caesar due to the guards posted outside the palace by Ptolemy Cleopatra has herself smuggled into the palace by having herself rolled into a carpet by a slave. When in the room of Caesar the slave then subsequently unrolled the carpet in front of Caesar thus initiating the romance between the two.
An Examination of Julius Caesar
Similar to the historical accounts of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar was also seemingly defined by his desire for power. In 60 BC Caesar, Crassus and Pompey entered into an alliance that dominates the political arena of Rome for many years.
Their attempt at gaining power was fueled by political strategies similar to today’s populist tactics resulting in the development of enmity between them and the Roman Senate due to the presence of the conservative elite who wanted Rome to retain its current method of leadership. It was only through his conquest of areas such as Gaul and the invasion of Britain using the Roman army that Caesar was able to gain enough political and military to politically spar against the Senate.
Unfortunately, with the death of Crassus by 53 BC and Caesar’s subsequent rise to power this, as a result, eclipsed the political standing of Pompey resulting in a distinct shift in the balance of power wherein Pompey began to side against Caesar with the other members of the Roman Senate backing him up.
This, in turn, resulted in various charges being brought against Caesar for his supposed “treasonous” actions against the Roman Senate. With the might of the several Legions behind him, Caesar traveled from Gaul to Italy which resulted in a subsequent civil war which Caesar won resulting in him becoming the uncontested leader of the Roman Republic which was to become the Roman Empire.
It must be noted that the contentions behind Caesar and Pompey also resulted from similar circumstances as that of Cleopatra and Ptolemy the 13th. Both Cleopatra and Caesar wished to rule without the interference, for Cleopatra this meant her brother while for Caesar this was Pompey and the Roman Senate (Feller, 2003).
In fact it can be argued that the case of both leaders are eerily similar, both used the Roman army in order to gain their power (in the case of Cleopatra the army was used by Caesar for her), and both refused to share power with someone far younger than them (Pompey was several years younger than Caesar at this point).
Throughout his political career, Caesar established numerous reforms aimed at creating a stronger central government and making sure that the Roman Republic became a cohesive whole (Caesar, 1996). While Caesar’s subsequent assassination by several members of the Roman Senate is a well-known fact, it must be established that it was not directly connected to his relationship with Cleopatra.
While it may be true that the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra was looked down upon by a various member of the Senate this was not enough impetus to cause the assassination of Caesar (Caesar, 1996). Rather it was Caesar’s strong-handed reforms as well as his continued personal appointments to the Senate and various members to several vital offices that precipitated his assassination.
Examining the Relationship Between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
First and foremost it must be stated that the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra was doomed to failure since the beginning. The reason behind this lies in the differences behind their origin and Caesar’s desire to rule Rome. AN examination of Ancient Roman customs at the time reveals that marriage, for it to be acceptable within the public domain of Rome, must be conducted only between two Romans.
While it is acceptable to have relations with members of other races a Roman cannot marry them rather such liaisons can be done extra-martially since there is no law that forbids a Roman from having extra-marital affairs. The reason behind this particular social practice which doomed the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra could be described as being similar to a form of xenophobia but not as severe since it allows liaisons to exist.
While there are obscure references to this apparent practice, one modern-day definition is to describe it as Humanocentric speciesism. Humanocentric speciesism is based off two distinct concepts the first being Humanocentrism which is described as a tendency for human beings to view the natural environment and other species from the standpoint of a distinctly human majority (Brennan, 2003).
Its premise is that anything that is outside the concept of being human is immediately classified as non-human or in extreme cases “alien” (Brennan, 2003). For the Romans, their belief in Rome is the epitome of civilization caused them to believe that all other races are inherently inferior. This is reflected in their various actions such as their subjugation of other races as well as laws and social practices forbidding marriages to occur between Romans and non-Romans.
Speciesism, on the other hand, is based on the belief that the species a particular individual or group belongs to is inherently superior to all other species (Brooks, 2002). One notable historical example of such a belief was the concept of the Übermensch developed by the German philosopher Nietzche in 1883 and taken to its extremes by the Nazi regime.
This particular brand of speciesism consisted of considering all other races inferior to Germans as the Übermensch or master race of humanity, a philosophy that helped to contribute to the genocide of the Jewish population in Europe (Brooks, 2002).
A similar concept was applied by the Romans in which their continued expansion into Gaul obliterated many of the native populations under the banner of Roman expansionism which is similar to the concept of Hitler involving “lebensraum” (living space). The reason such concepts are mentioned is that they address important issues in the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra.
It must be mentioned that at the time of their relationship Cleopatra did bear a son for Julius Caesar which she named Caesarian which can be interpreted as “little Caesar.” It must be noted that upon his assassination his will specifically stated that his nephew, Octavian, would inherit his title and wealth and not the son he bore through Cleopatra.
Such a concept would be considered rather confusing to most people since fathers would usually place in their will that their son would inherit a majority of the father’s accumulated wealth (Feller, 2003). The reason behind this is once more directly attributable to the concept of humanocentric speciesism, the reason why Caesar’s will never even indicated that his son would get anything is directly attributed to the fact that even he recognized that Roman society would never accept a son born from a non-Roman citizen.
In the eyes of Cleopatra, her path to greater power than being the mere ruler of Egypt was through bearing a son to Caesar and using that son as a method of controlling the power of Rome (Feller, 2003). It has already been evidenced by numerous historical accounts that Cleopatra was not above using poison to achieve her ends and in fact, marrying within the family was considered a normal concept within Egyptian royalty.
It can be assumed that based on Cleopatra’s past behavior if Caesar had acknowledged his son born through Cleopatra as his heir his days would have been numbered (Lutz, 1993). Historical records show that Caesar was perhaps also aware of this potential event coming to pass since he never truly acknowledges the boy as his, states that the boy is his heir, or even changes his will to include Caesarian into proceeds should he die (Feller, 2003).
Taking this particular train of thought into account, the relationship of Caesar with Cleopatra might have been one where Cleopatra constantly schemed to have Caesar recognize Caesarian as his rightful heir while Caesar knowing full well of her true intentions merely strung her along with false promises (Lutz, 1993).
While such an assumption has no historical evidence to back it up the fact remains that Caesar was still married at the time of his various liaisons with Cleopatra and never divorced his wife even until the time of his death (Caesar, 1996).
Based on this fact alone shows that Caesar never truly wished to marry Cleopatra it could even be stated that Caesar was using Cleopatra to ensure that resources from Egypt continued to flow into Rome. As such it can be stated that both Caesar and Cleopatra were using each other to achieve their ends and this supposed “relationship” of theirs was nothing more than a farce.
Bergquist, G. N. (2010). Caesar and Cleopatra. Masterplots, Fourth Edition, 1-3. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Brennan, A. (2003).Humanism, Racism And Speciesism. Worldviews: Environment Culture Religion, 7(3), 274-302. doi:10.1163/156853503322709146
Brooks, D. (2002).Superiority Complex. Atlantic Monthly (10727825), 290(4), 32. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Caesar, Julius. (1996). Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 159-160. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Feller, T. R. (2003). Caesar and Cleopatra. Cyclopedia of Literary Places, 1. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Lutz, R. C. (1993). Cleopatra’s Children. Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series, 1-2. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.