Complain all you like about your own nutty family. You have nothing on the Ptolemies, the dynasty that produced Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt. That clan made a habit of stabbing, poisoning, and dismembering each other. Mothers sent troops against daughters. Fathers hacked sons to pieces. It was rare to find one who didn’t liquidate a relative or two, Cleopatra included. Which makes it all the more improbable that the woman who has come down to us as seductress and sex symbol in fact made an artful career of motherhood—and of single motherhood at that.
When Cleopatra was 21 she met Julius Caesar, twice her age and the master of the Roman world. Just over nine months later she gave birth to his son. There were a few awkwardnesses. For a start, each of the new parents was married to someone else. Caesar’s wife was in Rome, and Cleopatra was at the time nominally joined in marriage to her 13-year-old brother.
Nothing better suited her political program than the birth of Caesarion, or “little Caesar.” Like the queens who preceded her, Cleopatra associated herself with Isis, the goddess of marriage, love affairs, pregnancies. Caesarion did more than assure her fertile, family-friendly credentials: With him on her lap, Cleopatra could rule as king. Her subjects were willing to submit to a female pharaoh so long as a male figured somewhere in the picture. She ordered his likeness carved on temples, at massive scale; if anything, images mattered more in a pre-literate age than they do in a televised one. Caesarion assured Egypt’s dynastic future. And with him Cleopatra cemented an alliance with Rome. In all ways, he was the ideal partner. He resembled his father. He was Roman. He was divine in both countries. And, as a 3-year-old, he was unlikely to meddle in any way with his mother’s agenda.
Several years after Caesar’s murder, Cleopatra sailed into Mark Antony’s life, in gilded barge with soaring purple sails. The most distinguished military commander of the day, Antony appeared the likeliest candidate to assume control of the Roman east. The two spent the early winter together. Afterward he married, for political reasons, in Rome. In Egypt 29-year-old Cleopatra gave birth to his twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and later presented Antony with another son. His wife, meanwhile, produced daughter after daughter.
Cleopatra paraded her children out to special effect in royal pageants; here already was the campaign-trail baby, the Palin or Pelosi brood. She also saw to it that the children were well educated, in part by a distinguished, hard-driving tutor. In his care, they devoted themselves to rhetoric, philosophy, and history, which would not be good to them. In 31 B.C., Octavian soundly defeated Antony and Cleopatra in battle. Cleopatra’s options were death or transport to Rome as a prisoner. She chose the former. Caesarion was hunted down and murdered soon thereafter. Her surviving three children sailed to Rome, to be raised by the sister of her sworn enemy, who also happened to be Antony’s ex-wife.
As a teenager, Cleopatra Selene married an African king. She continued her mother’s legacy, posing as Isis and naming her son Ptolemy. Cleopatra’s only known grandson, he would be murdered by a Roman emperor. All traces of her children dissolved on that bloody spot. Less sexually bold than strategically fertile, she had used her brood to great political advantage. The irony was, of course, that had events followed their normal dynastic course, had Rome not intervened, Cleopatra would ultimately have been deposed—exiled, poisoned, hacked to pieces—by one of those four precious children.
Also in the news this week is the question of Cleopatra's race. Over on the Oxford University Press Blog Duane Roller discusses whether Cleopatra was a black African or Macedonian Greek. He is responding to those who have suggested that the famous Egyptian queen was black. Ultimately he concludes that Cleopatra's race is insignificant and what is important is that she was a powerful queen. But he does suggest that the possibility of her being a black African is slim. It is an interesting read.