When King Auletes of Egypt died in 51 BCE, the leadership of the kingdom was left to his two children, Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII. The two were meant to be co-rulers of Egypt as an incestuous married couple, yet a divide quickly formed between the siblings. Despite their young ages (Cleopatra was a teenager and her brother was even younger than she), the two children had far different visions for Egypt. Ptolemy, heavily influenced by powerful advisors, supported the traditional style of Ptolemaic rule. Cleopatra, however, strove to bridge the widening divide between the Ptolemaic government and the Egyptian people. She learned the Egyptian language, as well as Hebrew and Ethiopian, and participated in the religious ceremonies of Egypt. Cleopatra’s ambition and vision was incompatible with the methods used by Ptolemy and his advisors. Soon, civil war erupted to decide which sibling would rule Egypt.
Julius Caesar threw himself into the Egyptian conflict when, in 48 BCE, he arrived at Alexandria in pursuit of his Roman rival, Pompey the Great. At that time, King Ptolemy XIII’s supporters had control of Alexandria and the twenty-one year old Cleopatra had been forced to abandon the city. When Pompey arrived in Egypt, the supporters of Ptolemy saw a chance to gain support from Julius Caesar—they had Pompey assassinated and presented the man’s head to Caesar when he arrived in Alexandria. The ploy turned out to be a mistake. Caesar was irritated and disgusted by the actions of the Egyptian government. Instead of showing gratitude for the killing of Pompey, Julius Caesar demanded payment of ten million denarii owed to Rome by the previous Egyptian king, Auletes. Then, to the horror of many Egyptians, he occupied Alexandria with his battle-hardened Roman soldiers.
Caesar was determined to end the civil war in Egypt before returning to his struggles in Rome. From his fortified position in the royal palace of Alexandria, Julius Caesar declared himself to be the guarantor of the late King Auletes’ final wishes. Caesar then called for Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra to meet with him and discuss the future of Egypt. Ptolemy was sent to Julius Caesar, even though the advisors assented only grudgingly. Cleopatra, however, was still outside the city, denied access to Alexandria by hostile soldiers and assassins who supported her brother. Nevertheless, the young Queen of Egypt was determined to attend that meeting with Julius Caesar.
Plutarch gave one of the more vivid accounts about how Cleopatra was smuggled into Alexandria. He wrote that she and an attendant named Apollodorus were ferried into the royal quarter of Alexandria in a small boat, easily hidden among the merchant ships busily trading in the city. Before they departed the docks in the royal quarter, Cleopatra either was rolled up inside a rug or hid herself in a laundry bag and had her assistant, Apollodorus, carry her into the royal palace. Reportedly, Apollodorus was not stopped or searched in the palace, for he apparently delivered Cleopatra straight to Julius Caesar, opening the laundry bag or unrolling the rug before the dicatator’s very eyes.
With the meeting of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, one of the world’s most famous love affairs began. With Caesar’s backing, Cleopatra was able to defeat her rivals and usurp what remained of her younger brother’s power, making her the undisputed Queen of Egypt.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- War Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 2014.
- Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.