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One of the saddest stories I’ve come across in my research for The Third Daughter is that of Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar. Born in 47 BCE, and killed in 30 BCE, this young man had no time at all to make a mark on life: there are few references to him in the sources and fewer images in coins and reliefs. Why the victorious Octavian, having defeated Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and Cleopatra, and taken the city of Alexandria, felt the need to pursue and kill a seventeen-year-old is incomprehensible to modern sensibilities. It makes complete sense when you look at how Octavian rose to power: some very nasty stories of his ruthlessness are recorded. And when you look at the situation, then was Octavian really going to allow a son of Julius Caesar to live?
Caesarion’s real name was Ptolemy in line with the family tradition: the people of Alexandria nicknamed him Caesarion, which means “Little Caesar”. The Romans themselves accepted that Julius Caesar was Caesarion’s father, for he never denied it, and contemporaries took it to be true. Cleopatra brought the young Caesarion with her when she visited Rome in 44 BCE (and also probably in 46 BCE), so I am sure that there would have been mention in the sources if Julius denied paternity. Of course, as the bastard son of a non-Roman mother, even if she was a Queen, there was never any possibility of Caesarion having any meaningful connection with his father or Rome. Julius was married to a woman from a good Roman family and Cleopatra was technically married to her own brother, as was the custom in her family. Caesarion’s destiny was always going to be Egyptian. When his uncle, Ptolemy XIV, died in 44 BCE, the young Ptolemy Caesarion was declared Pharaoh, joint ruler with his mother.
This photograph of a relief of Caesarion was taken in 1850 by the French photographer Maxime du Camp. It is traditional, with no hint of his Roman parentage, portraying him as an Egyptian ruler.
Throughout Caesarion’s childhood, Cleopatra juggled her country’s political relationship with Rome carefully, managing to stay in line with those in power, until she started her relationship with Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony). She had three children by Antonius, but Caesarion’s position was confirmed when he was declared “King of Kings” in a ceremony we call the Donations of Alexandria. This had serious outcomes: Antonius made himself very unpopular in Rome by appearing to give Roman territory to his children by Cleopatra. Worse, he declared that Cleopatra had been Caesar’s wife and that Caesarion was indeed Caesar’s son, thus making the boy a threat to the man who was Caesar’s Roman heir, Octavian. Poor Caesarion did not have a chance after this.
Before she committed suicide, Cleopatra did try to save her son, by sending him and his tutor south to find a Red Sea port to take him to a place of safety, probably on the western coast of India. The exact circumstances are unclear: but Octavian sent troops after Caesarion, and he was killed.
Nothing Caesarion said has been recorded: what we know about him, we know through the actions of those who controlled him. It seems likely that he died because of those people, without the chance to make his own imprint on history.
You may also like my earlier post about Cleopatra.