Cleopatra Selene: Egyptian Princess, Roman Prisoner, African Queen

Jane Draycott

The author of a new biography looks closely at the woman who continued the Ptolemaic dynasty beyond Egypt’s borders.
Antony & Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
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Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, and Marcus Antonius (known as Mark Antony), Roman consul and triumvir, was born in 40 BCE. This made her around ten years old when the civil war between her father and his fellow triumvir Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (known as Octavian) culminated in Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and his conquest and annexation of Egypt the following year. Following her parents’ suicides, she was taken back to Rome with Octavian and spent the remainder of her childhood in the household of his sister Octavia, who also happened to be her father’s ex-wife. While Octavian’s biographer Suetonius claimed that Octavian was a kindly father figure and reared her as if she was his own flesh and blood, there was undoubtedly a political dimension to this decision as retaining control of her meant that any potential threat to Rome’s power over Egypt was neutralized before it could gain any momentum. But what was Octavian to do with a princess who was no longer in possession of a kingdom? A convenient solution presented itself in the form of another of his wards, Gaius Julius Juba. Like Cleopatra Selene, Juba was the last surviving member of a deposed North African royal family. His father, Juba I, had been King of Numidia (modern Libya) but had chosen the wrong side in a previous Roman civil war, and as with Cleopatra, he had died by suicide leaving his kingdom and his child to be confiscated by Rome. Apparently Octavia made the match between her two foster children and the pair were married in around 25 BCE. As a wedding present, Octavian appointed them joint rulers of the newly created Roman client kingdom of Mauretania (modern Morocco and Algeria).

Mauretania was the only Roman client kingdom in the west of the empire and it was by far the largest, comprising a vast territory blessed with considerable natural resources that included not only luxuries such as purple dye, scented citron wood, and exotic animals for the arena such as lions, but also staples such as grain, fish, and fish sauce. Its population was diverse, made up of many different indigenous groups which are today referred to collectively as ‘Berbers’, but there were also a number of Greek and Roman colonies located along the Mediterranean littoral. The southern borders were not so clearly defined, leading to incursions by hostile indigenous tribes, and Juba would come to spend a considerable amount of his time on campaign against them.

Unusually for classical antiquity, in this marriage it was the wife rather than the husband who had the higher profile and greater prestige, as Cleopatra Selene could trace her lineage back to Philip II and Alexander IV of Macedon, and was not only a member of the ancient Roman families the Antonii and the Julii (through her paternal grandmother), but was also directly connected to the imperial family through her half-sisters, who were Octavian’s nieces. She had been appointed Queen of Crete and the Cyrenaica in her own right by her father in the Donations of Alexandria in 34 BCE, and as the sole surviving member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, was technically Queen of Egypt as well. As a result, she and Juba ruled together. In coins issued jointly, a portrait of Juba and the Latin legend REX IUBA (‘King Juba’) appears on one side, while a portrait of Cleopatra Selene and the Greek legend KLEOPATRA BASILISSA (‘Queen Cleopatra’) appears on the other. Additionally, Cleopatra Selene also issued her own autonomous coin issues, and these are covered not only with references to herself such as crescent moons, referring to her second name, but also Egyptian motifs such as crocodiles, ibises, and the accoutrements of the goddess Isis.

The couple renamed the Mauretanian capital city Iol Caesarea in Octavian’s honour, and embarked upon a lavish building programme to make it a fitting seat for their fledgling dynasty, yet they clearly took inspiration from Cleopatra Selene’s former home of Alexandria. They constructed a lighthouse in the harbour in the style of the famous Alexandrian Pharos, an extensive palace, a Forum, a theatre, an amphitheatre, and planted a sacred grove as well as renovating old temples and dedicating new ones. Egyptian gods and goddesses soon became popular in Mauretania, and there was a Temple of Isis to which Juba dedicated crocodiles, his wife’s particular favourites. Numerous Egyptian works of art were imported from Cleopatra Selene’s former kingdom to adorn the city. In time, Caesarea would become a highly sophisticated and multicultural court, populated by well-educated and prolific Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and African scholars and talented and creative artisans, of whom much archaeological and epigraphic evidence survives.

Cleopatra Selene and Juba ruled Mauretania together until Cleopatra Selene’s relatively early death, after which Juba ruled Mauretania in conjunction with their son Ptolemy (note his name was taken from his maternal rather than his paternal lineage). Although the precise date of Cleopatra Selene’s death has not survived, a poem composed by Crinagoras of Mytilene commemorated the occasion, noting that it occurred fittingly in conjunction with a lunar eclipse, so in either 5 BCE or 3 CE. She was interred in the mausoleum that Juba built, the remains of which can still be seen near Cherchell in Algeria today. However, even after her death she remained a significant figure in the kingdom: a hoard of coins deposited in around 17 CE near Tangier contains coins that can be dated to the period 11–17 CE and includes those not only issued by Cleopatra Selene and Juba together, but also those issued by Cleopatra Selene alone, indicating that her coinage was not taken out of circulation upon her death and was still in use by her former subjects some two decades after her death, enabling her husband and son to continue benefitting from her lustre in order to stabilise their joint reign.

Jane Draycott is an academic and author of Cleopatra’s Daughter: Egyptian Princess, Roman Prisoner, African Queen. Aspects of History Issue 18 is out now.