Who Was Cleopatra’s Daughter?

The perils of searching for feminist heroes in antiquity

watercolor illustration of woman with two figures behind
Ángel Hernández
watercolor illustration of woman with two figures behind

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Hovering in the background of ancient history’s headlines is King Juba II—writer, explorer, and ruler of Mauretania, the Roman satellite kingdom in North Africa, for almost 50 years until his death in the early 20s A.D. His skin color is debated (was he light brown? or black?). All we know is that his father was a Berber king in North Africa who supported the wrong side in the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, forged a suicide pact with an ally, and left his infant son to be carted back to Rome and displayed in Caesar’s triumphal victory parade in 46 B.C. The child was then brought up within Rome’s ruling family as something between honored guest, lodger, and prisoner. When he was about 25, the emperor, Augustus, sent him back to North Africa to be king of Mauretania, which extended from modern Algeria west to the Atlantic coast, a buffer state between the Roman empire and the peoples to the south.

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The new king seems to have divided his time among the battlefield (there was plenty of “buffering” to be done), the library, and research trips to investigate the flora and fauna of the region. Juba had started writing in Rome (including a history of the city and at least eight volumes on the subject of painting), and in North Africa he produced weighty studies of the region’s geography, history, and culture. He argued, no doubt with a degree of local pride, that the source of the Nile lay in Mauretania, and gave detailed descriptions of the North African elephant. None of his work survives complete, but we have more than 100 extracts quoted by later writers.

Juba’s scientific contributions are his greatest legacy to the modern world. He is not only our best witness to that now-extinct elephant; drawing on his doctor’s name (Antonius Euphorbus), he christened the group of plants still known as Euphorbia (the red-leaved poinsettia is the most easily recognized of these), which was discovered on one of his expeditions into the Atlas Mountains. Chances are he’s behind the name of the Canary Islands too, taken from the big dogs (canes, in Latin) found on one of his expeditions there.

More generally, Juba opens our eyes to all kinds of different perspectives on how Roman power worked. In Rome itself, for example, the royal residences served as a boardinghouse and school for foreign royalty (several other princes and princesses also lodged there). Juba’s Mauretania was one of many “friendly” border kingdoms, where Rome could exert sway from a distance and establish a broad, easily defensible frontier zone—quite unlike the single line usually marked on our modern maps of the empire.

Juba also raises big questions about cultural and ethnic diversity in the Roman world. He was brought to Rome as a baby and reared there. Did he think of himself as Roman or as foreign? Or did he combine those different identities, and adapt them to different circumstances? Is his treatise on North Africa, Libyka, an attempt to define a specifically African history and culture, of which he was a part? Or was it a weapon of Roman imperial control? Most modern empires have used knowledge as a form of power. Systems of geography, history, and even the classification of plants and animals have been imposed as a subtle means of domination. In the ancient world as well, to map meant to own. The 40 or so extracts or paraphrases from Libyka that have come down to us, many of them very brief, were quoted for the scientific “facts” they contain, and give no clue to the underlying ideology.

But in recent years, interest in Juba has been overshadowed by interest in his wife, who went with him from Rome to be queen of Mauretania, and to set up a court in what is now Cherchell, in modern Algeria, a town they called Caesarea. Unlike her husband, she still has an instantly recognizable name: Cleopatra Selene (“the moon”), the only daughter of one of the most notorious, glamorized, and in the end spectacularly unsuccessful couples in Western history: Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt, and the Roman Mark Antony. She raises just as many questions as Juba does.

How did Cleopatra junior, the daughter of the most famous female enemy Rome ever had, become the wife of a Roman vassal king? How did she negotiate her relationship between the Egypt of her mother and the Rome of her father? And what were her political and cultural ambitions? How did you see yourself if your mother was Cleopatra? A string of contemporary novels and several careful historical analyses (notably by Duane W. Roller) have tried to tell her story from her point of view. The same goal drives a new full-length biography, Cleopatra’s Daughter: From Roman Prisoner to African Queen, by Jane Draycott, a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Glasgow.

In some ways, Cleopatra’s career mirrors her husband’s. She was born in Alexandria around 40 B.C. Antony was a largely absent father, but when his daughter was about 6, he made the extravagant, though mostly empty, gesture of declaring her queen of Crete and Cyrenaica (on the North African coast), territories that he had no authority to give away. When she was 10 or so, her parents—defeated in their war against Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus—both killed themselves, and she and her brothers, like Juba before them, were taken to Rome, where they appeared in a triumphal procession staged by her parents’ enemies in 29 B.C. According to one ancient account, she and her twin brother, Alexander Helios (“the sun”), walked in the parade next to an effigy of their dead mother. Draycott evokes the experience of being put on show this way by comparing it to the scene of Princes William and Harry walking in procession through London next to their mother’s coffin.

The young Cleopatra grew up in the residence of the imperial family in Rome, before marrying (or being married off to) Juba and moving with him to Mauretania. There she had at least one son, Ptolemaios, who followed his father onto the throne, but came to a nasty end under the Roman Emperor Caligula in 40 A.D. Cleopatra Selene’s own death, commemorated in a surviving poem, has usually been dated to 5 A.D. thanks to an allusion to a lunar eclipse known to have happened that year.

That is the sum of what we know about Cleopatra Selene from ancient written accounts. With scrupulous honesty, Draycott assembles all the references to her in a short appendix, fewer than five full pages long. She hints that we might know more about her if she had been a rebel against the power of Rome, like Boudicca or Zenobia; Cleopatra Selene, Draycott writes, “succeeded quietly rather than failed loudly.” But as it is, decades of her life—most of her adult years, in fact—go completely unrecorded. All we know for sure of her time in Mauretania is that she had a son. Even less information exists about other key characters in her story. Her twin, for example, simply disappears from view after his arrival in Rome. Did he get lucky and find a nice place for a comfortable exile, out of the public eye? Or did he simply die? Draycott enigmatically writes that he “failed to adapt to his change in circumstances.” Others have suspected murder.

The result is a wonderful vacuum for fiction writers to fill. Cleopatra Selene has been given a steamy, star-crossed love affair with Juba in Rome, before the two head off to build a new life in Mauretania. Elsewhere we can read high-stakes political drama. In a trilogy by Stephanie Dray, for example, the young princess is some kind of proto–Egyptian nationalist, battling to recapture the status of her mother, married to Juba against her will, and raped by Emperor Augustus with the active connivance of his wife Livia (echoing the report in one ancient biography that Livia used to groom virgins for her husband). But telling her story in nonfiction, vividly or not, is harder.

Draycott, too, wants to see Cleopatra Selene as a “powerful ruler in her own right,” trying to “fuse her past and present” in a multicultural monarchy that was “new and distinctive in the Roman Empire.” In the absence of any written evidence for that, she turns to archaeology and the material remains from Mauretania and elsewhere. There have been many attempts over the past few decades to find the face of young Cleopatra on cameos and silver dishes. She has even (implausibly) been identified as one of the figures, along with her son, in the procession sculpted on one side of Augustus’s famous Altar of Peace, in Rome. But only on Mauretanian coins do we have images of her that are actually named. One coin depicts Juba on one side, with the title (in Latin) “King Juba, son of King Juba,” and on the other Cleopatra Selene, with the title (in Greek) “Queen Cleopatra, daughter of Cleopatra.” Another coin does not feature Juba at all, but has her head on one side and a crocodile on the other, with the title “Queen Cleopatra” written on both.

For Draycott, these are among the most clinching pieces of evidence for her view of the commanding queen: They show Cleopatra Selene as, at the least, an equal co-ruler alongside her husband, with the authority to mint coins. And they show her using her ancestry and symbols of Egypt as a mark of power. Draycott also imagines her having a hand in Juba’s Libyka and in the royal couple’s “project of laying claim to the entire continent,” which is how she boldly interprets that work.

All of that is possible. But a skeptic might object that having your head on a coin does not indicate that you had the authority to mint (plenty of Roman empresses with no such authority appeared on coins); that queen can just as well mean “wife of the king” as “regnant ruler”; and that every ancient account treats Juba as having sole power. To be sure, that might be because the writers could not accept that a woman was in joint command—but they might also have known what they were talking about. Besides, giving your new capital the aggressively Roman name of Caesarea (“Emperorville”) is an odd choice for a couple with multicultural, almost Pan-African aspirations.

The interpretive debates about what scant evidence there is can go round and round. The fact that I am skeptical does not mean Draycott is wrong. But the arguments point beyond the story of Cleopatra Selene and Juba to the more general problems inherent in undertaking modern biographies of ancient subjects, and raise the question of why we are writing such books. The young Cleopatra may be an extreme case, but there is no character in antiquity (with the possible exception of Cicero, the first-century-B.C. Roman orator, theorist, wit, and letter-writer) for whom we have enough information to create a biography that satisfies the expectations of modern readers and publishers.

To turn written evidence that fills fewer than five pages into a 256-page account, Draycott uses well-established tactics. She offers a lot of fascinating context and background to add bulk. Her chapters on the culture of Alexandria and on Egyptomania in Rome are excellent and accessible, but they help us relatively little with Cleopatra Selene herself. She projects a few familiar modern anxieties onto her ancient characters: She wonders at one point about Juba’s “midlife crisis.” And to bolster what is necessarily a fragile narrative, she liberally sprinkles would have s and must have s through her text, occasionally up to five or six times on a single page (she “would have been highly educated,” “it would have been terrifying,” and so on). Most modern biographies of ancient Romans, when they don’t simply assume that we know things we do not, adopt this “would have” brand of storytelling. It makes for an awkward narrative.

Draycott is well aware of these issues. She starts the book by asking, “How does one dare to attempt to write a biography of any ancient historical figure?” But she has powerful reasons for trying to reconstruct Cleopatra Selene’s life story. As she explains, she wants young women of color to be able to identify with the queen, whom she sees as an inspiring model for them and for the rest of us—a figure who “successfully wielded power … when women were marginalised,” and when she herself was an outsider in so many ways.

I hope that I am as keen as Draycott that classics as a discipline should find ways of engaging with diverse communities and also being enriched by them. And she is admirably judicious on the controversial question of whether Cleopatra, mother or daughter, was in our terms Black (answer: We don’t know). But I am suspicious in general of finding exemplary figures for our own times in the distant past. After all, one of the things that we now rightly find problematic about the 19th-century study of classics was that elite white men did claim to see themselves in the ancient world, and they presented antiquity in their own image, not as a strange and different place. It doesn’t help us understand either the ancient world or ourselves to supplant one set of such role models with another. More than that, to hold up as an ideal for today’s young people a woman about whom we know next to nothing is to promote fantasy over fact.

Historians should certainly try to uncover the forgotten women of classical antiquity, and to spot those whose strength has been overlooked. Sometimes that has been done with great success. The ancient account, for instance, of the martyrdom of Perpetua—a young Christian woman put to death in North Africa in the early third century A.D.—has been given new life in the past few decades, after centuries of being scarcely noticed by historians. The neglect was extraordinary, given that Perpetua left us her own words, preserved in her prison diaries, describing her trial and imprisonment: a rare example of a woman’s voice surviving from the Roman empire.

But understanding how women in the ancient world were silenced is equally important. What social mechanisms and cultural assumptions help explain why those who may have claimed some power were overlooked—or, alternatively, demonized? Cleopatra senior is a good case of vilification, and so is Augustus’s wife Livia, who was blamed for almost every death within the palace walls. In the end, for the historian, unearthing the reasons we know so little about Cleopatra Selene—probing into who wrote her out of the story, and how—is a more instructive project than reinventing her to fit our own template of power. My question is, why do we know more about Juba’s elephants than about his wife?

This article appears in the June 2023 print edition with the headline “Who Was Cleopatra’s Daughter?

By Jane Draycott

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