Queen Cleopatra VII is quite famous for being the last Pharaoh of Egypt, and also mostly because she took two Roman lovers, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Her daughter with Marc Antony grew to be just as amazing as she was.
Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s Only Daughter
Cleopatra’s only daughter, Cleopatra Selene, was born around the year 40 BCE. Since she was a girl, her birthdate didn’t really matter, and even if it was written down, it would be hard to figure out, since this was literally two thousand years ago. Cleopatra Selene, whom I’ll call Selene to distinguish her from her mother, had a twin brother, Alexander Helios. The funny thing about their names is that “Selene” is supposed to mean “moon”, while “Helios” is supposed to mean “sun”. Apparently, Selene was more beautiful than her mother (which would make sense since she wasn’t that inbred) and also very intelligent, since she was given the best education a woman could get in the first century BCE.
Selene was the daughter of the Roman triumvir, Marc Antony, and his much more famous lover, Cleopatra VII, the Pharaoh of Egypt. At the time of her and her brother’s birth, Cleopatra had already had a son, Caesarion, whom she’d had with her previous lover, Julius Caesar. Read my post on Cleopatra’s older sister, Berenice IV, to learn a little more about the family Selene was born in, but I’ll quickly summarize it for now. After a bunch of complicated succession stuff that had to do with Alexander the Great, his general Ptolemy ended up on the throne, and Ptolemy’s descendants became Pharaohs of Egypt for the next three hundred years until we get to Selene’s mother, Cleopatra.
Now, a little more about Selene’s father, Marc Antony. Marc Antony, along with Julius Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavian, and some other totally unimportant dude, were supposed to be ruling Rome together, it was called the Triumvirate, after all, but they were all trying to rule Rome for themselves, and it was mostly Octavian and Antony fighting each other because the third guy isn’t important at all.
At the time when Antony and Cleopatra began their affair, Antony had been married to a woman named Fulvia, and Fulvia had died shortly after the birth of Selene and her brother, Alexander. After the death of Fulvia, things cooled off between Antony and Octavian, and Antony took Octavian’s sister, Octavia Minor, as his fourth wife. Then, Antony proceeded to still be completely in love with Cleopatra which made Octavian and a lot of Romans quite unhappy.
Around 37 BCE, when Selene and Alexander would’ve been around three years old (the years go backward since we’re still before the year 0), Cleopatra took her children with her on a little family trip to go see Antony in Rome. Antony had not yet met Selene and Alexander, since he was off doing stuff in Rome when they were born. Cleopatra became pregnant again on this little trip and had another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Unlike Caesar, Antony loved that he’d had children with Cleopatra, and even acknowledged them as his own children.
It’s uncertain when Selene and Alexander would get their other names of “Selene” and “Helios”. Antony might have given them those names on this visit, or it may have happened on the next big event in the Ptolemy children’s lives: the Donations of Alexandria.
So, basically, Antony gave a lot of land to Cleopatra in the last few years, and at the Donations of Alexandria, a lot of it was officially given to Cleopatra’s children. Cleopatra and Antony were sitting on gold thrones, with Cleopatra’s four children on smaller ones. Antony had also recently had a successful campaign in Armenia, so at the elaborate event, the Armenian royal family was told to kneel to Cleopatra and Antony. They did not, and this was in front of everyone, so Cleopatra sorta freaked out, but the ceremony continued on.
Antony dressed as the Egyptian god of the underworld, Osiris, and the Roman god of wine, Dionysus, while Cleopatra was dressed as the Roman goddess of love, Aphrodite, and the Egyptian goddess, Isis. Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son with Julius Caesar (fun fact: Caesarion means “little Caesar”), was dressed as Horus, another Egyptian god. This whole thing was basically to show the Egyptian people that Selene’s family was the powerful family, and they were literally gods, so don’t mess with them.
At that ceremony, all of Cleopatra’s children, including Selene, her only daughter, were given new titles (because of all that land that Antony had given Cleopatra). Cleopatra was proclaimed to be Queen of Kings and was co-ruling with her (literally thirteen-year-old) son, Caesarion. Caesarion was declared King of Kings and the son and rightful heir of Julius Caesar (a sort of screw you for Octavian, who was Caesar’s adopted son and heir). Selene was made Queen of Cyrenaica and Libya, and her twin brother became King of Armenia, Media, and Parthia. Their youngest brother, Ptolemy, became King of Syria and Cicilia.
It was also possible that Selene and her twin brother, Alexander, were given the names “Selene” and “Helios” at this event. The sun-god Helios’s sister was Selene, the moon-goddess, so this made sense. Cleopatra’s children were obviously not intended to begin ruling in their own right at such young ages, though (Selene was six years old), and Cleopatra was still the de facto ruler of all these kingdoms.
It was also at this ceremony that Cleopatra may have married Marc Antony. If this happened, the Romans would have completely flipped out, especially Octavian, because remember: Antony was still married to Octavian’s sister. The Romans were not okay with polygamy. Octavian’s propaganda campaign against Cleopatra and Antony was actually quite effective, and the Romans were beginning to absolutely despise Cleopatra. If you know Cleopatra for her extravagance, beauty, and her manipulation of her Roman lovers, well, that’s from Octavian (and also maybe Shakespeare).
So, this is about when Cleopatra’s fall begins. Soon enough, Antony’s term as triumvir was over, but he still hated Octavian (who was still in power), and he continued to fight Octavian with Cleopatra’s military aid. Octavian declared war on Egypt because Cleopatra was giving a literal army to a private citizen.
Then came the Battle of Actium, which completely changed everything. It also turned Selene’s life upside-down. I haven’t spoken of Selene much, but all this stage setting is essential, I promise. So, this war between Rome and Egypt had mostly naval battles, and Cleopatra won most of them, so things were looking great for her. At the Battle of Actium, things did not go amazingly for Cleo and Antony, and they ended up fleeing back to Egypt.
Antony committed suicide, and Cleopatra was still alive, which Octavian was pleased with. After all, he couldn’t completely humiliate a dead woman, he needed Cleopatra alive. The popular story is that Cleopatra died by letting a snake bite her arm, but this story is probably not true. The Romans believed that suicide was the way powerless and quiet women would die, which is also why they said Boudica died by suicide. The Romans were the ones who would’ve recorded the manner of Cleopatra’s death, so it’s definitely debatable that she died by suicide.
La Reine Cleopatra Selene
Now, back to Selene. Cleopatra had sent her children away once she knew it was over. She sent Caesarion to India, and Selene, Alexander Helios, and Ptolemy Philadelphus away from Alexandria and deeper into Egypt. Caesarion was, in name only, the new Pharaoh, but Egypt was annexed by the Romans a few weeks later. Caesarion was also betrayed and captured by the Romans on his way to India and was promptly executed.
Selene and her remaining brothers were also captured and were brought to Rome. Selene’s youngest brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus, probably died before they reached Rome. Selene and Alexander Helios were paraded through the streets of Rome, which was what almost always happened to Roman captives. They were paraded behind an effigy of Cleopatra with an asp clutched to her breast. Selene and Alexander, who were still small children (they were about ten years old each), were in heavy chains that they could barely walk in.
But Octavian showed some sympathy for the children, at least. Octavia Minor, Antony’s wife, and Octavian’s sister raised the children well. We don’t know exactly what happened to Alexander Helios, and we have literally no record of him after the twins’ arrival in Rome. Since Alexander was the son, the Romans would have definitely made sure that there would be much more to learn about Alexander instead of Selene, but we have way more information about her, so it’s safe to assume that Alexander may have died.
Selene wasn’t the only royal in Rome. King Juba II of Numidia was also there. His father, the king of Numidia, had committed suicide in 46 BCE after a bunch of Rome messing things up and conquering everyone’s stuff, after which Juba was sent to Rome to be raised by Julius Caesar. Spending most of his childhood in Rome, he learned Latin and was a Roman-y guy. Juba was in Octavian’s custody after Caesar’s death and fought in the Battle of Actium with Octavian. A short while after Cleopatra’s downfall, Juba was given back his father’s kingdom of Numidia. In 25 BCE, Numidia was annexed by the Romans, but since Juba was friends with Octavian, he was made King of Mauretania instead.
Octavia Minor and Octavian himself (now Roman Emperor Augustus, I wonder how Selene felt about that) arranged for Selene to marry Juba, most likely around when Selene would’ve been between the ages of 15 and 20. Juba and Selene most likely already knew each other growing up, and were both very smart people, so they had a lot in common. He was also only a little older than her, so this wasn’t that bad for either of them. Cleopatra Selene II was now Queen of Mauretania. This poem was written in celebration of the marriage of the royals:
Great neighbouring regions of the world, which divides the Nile, swollen from black Ethiopia, divides, you have created common kings for both through marriage, making one race of Egyptians and Libyans. Let the children of Kings in turn hold from their fathers a strong rule over both lands.
Selene and Juba were client-kings of Mauretania, meaning that they were under the influence of Rome, but still technically ruling an independent kingdom. The couple moved to Iol, Mauretania. Iol became the capital of Mauretania (note that the Mauretania Selene and Juba ruled isn’t in the same place as Mauritania is today). Iol was renamed Caesarea in honor of Octavian and was completely redesigned, just the way a Roman city would look.
And Selene was exactly like her mother. She wasn’t just Juba’s consort or anything like that, she ruled herself. Selene had actually been de jure ruler of Egypt from when her brother Caesarion had been executed until when Egypt had been annexed by Rome, and at the Donations of Alexandria, she had been made Queen of Libya and Cyrenaica. Selene had much more experience with this monarch-ing stuff than Juba, and she had a great amount of influence in Mauretania.
Selene’s face was on coins, which was amazing for her. On one side would be the face of Juba, the king, and Selene would have her own face on the other side. She had the whole side of the coin to herself, which was a huge thing. It meant that she was quite a powerful woman. Selene took Mauretania from a not-so-amazing state to a thriving kingdom.
She brought people who had served her mother back in Egypt to Mauretania to serve her. Mauretania was literally an amazing place to live. The area was Egyptian, Greek, and even Roman. (I may or may not be quite sad that I wasn’t in Mauretania during Cleopatra Selene II’s reign. It feels like an amazing place to be: without the whole patriarchy thing Rome had, but with Rome’s amazingly built cities.)
Under Selene and Juba, trade flourished as well. Mauretania traded quite a lot with Spain and Italy, and just in the Mediterranean in general. The economy did amazing after so many years of not being amazing, all thanks to the only daughter of Cleopatra VII.
Death & Legacy
Selene died after about twenty years of ruling Mauretania, around 5 BCE (if we believed that she was born around 40 BCE, then she would’ve been about thirty-five years old). Cleopatra Selene II was buried in the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania, built by her and Juba. The epigram that is considered as her eulogy goes:
The moon herself grew dark, rising at sunset, covering her suffering in the night, because she saw her beautiful namesake, Selene, breathless, descending to Hades, with her she had had the beauty of her light in common, and mingled her own darkness with her death.
From the epigram, we can infer that her death probably had something to do with the lunar eclipse in March of 5 BCE. Finally, we have a date for something that has to do with Selene’s life. It’s also quite funny since her name is supposed to mean “moon”, and her death may have happened around the time of a lunar eclipse (am I the only one who noticed that?)
Like everything in this story, though, her death is quite complicated. If we believed that Selene died in 5 BCE, then the rest of Juba II’s life makes total sense. We don’t know if that specific lunar eclipse in 5 BCE was the one that occurred around the time Selene died, so she may have been alive long after that. There were coins found still minted with Selene’s face on them from 17 CE, which has made people think that Selene may have lived until then. But her husband reigned until 23 CE, and her son long after that, so this may just have been them respecting their amazing wife/mother.
Juba married again soon after 5 BCE, to a woman named Glaphyra of Cappadocia. If Selene had lived longer, that would mean either that Juba divorced Selene and married again, or that he simply ignored the Romans and took two wives at once. Perhaps Selene and Juba just separated for a time, and that’s when Juba took a new wife. There’s no way of being sure of a lot of stuff with stories like this one since everything happened over two thousand years ago.
Juba lived until 23 CE, which was long life by any standards (if we believe he was born around 50 BCE, he would’ve been in his seventies). Selene had had a son Ptolemy and a daughter, whose name we don’t know. After Selene’s death, her son, Ptolemy, became co-ruler with Juba, then became ruler on his own after 23 CE. His reign ended in the year 40 CE when the infamous Roman Emperor Caligula had him assassinated, and took Mauretania for Rome. In a way, Selene was a cause of her son’s death: she helped make Mauretania such a rich place that Caligula really wanted it.
There have been countless books with Selene as simply a supporting character, but there are a few about Selene herself that I haven’t read yet, but I’m quite excited to get my hands on. Cleopatra’s Daughter by Andrea Ashton and another book with the same title by Michelle Moran are about the early life of Selene. There’s also the Nile Trilogy by Stephanie Dray, with the books Lily of the Nile, Song of the Nile, and Daughters of the Nile.