Cleopatra VII was the final Ptolemaic ruler.
Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt as part of the Ptolemaic dynasty that had held power since 305 BCE, when Ptolemy I consolidated his power in the region during the Wars of the Diodochi. Cleopatra’s rule was brought to an end by the young Roman politician Octavian – later to become Augustus – in the aftermath of the battle of Actium in 31 BCE.
With the Romans closing in, Cleopatra chose to kill herself and bring an end to Ptolemaic rule in the region. There is no real debate: she was the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt and, as the Ptolemies are so closely associated with Egypt, it is then often presumed that she was the last Ptolemaic ruler in the ancient world. But this is not strictly true.
Cleopatra was a mother to at least four children: Caesarion, the son of Julius Caesar; a set of twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, and a younger son Ptolemy Philadelphos, with Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) as the father. Antony acknowledged his three children after he separated from his legal wife Octavia, three years after their birth, and also positioned Caesarion as the true heir to Caesar.
Cleopatra Selene was destined for great things, and while her half-brother was declared the future king of Egypt, she was named the queen of Cyrenaica and the coast of what is now modern Libya (Cassius Dio 49.41):
[H]e promised to give to his own children by Cleopatra the following lands, — to Ptolemy Syria and all the region west of the Euphrates as far as the Hellespont, to Cleopatra Libya about Cyrene, and to their brother Alexander Armenia and the rest of the districts across the Euphrates as far as the Indi.
On the death of her parents in 30 BCE, Cleopatra Selene joined most of her other siblings and half siblings into the household of Antony’s former wife Octavia. Such a guardian ensured her betrothal to a powerful man, and Octavia did not disappoint (Plutarch, Antony 87.1):
Antony left seven children by his three wives, of whom Antyllus, the eldest, was the only one who was put to death by Caesar; the rest were taken up by Octavia and reared with her own children. Cleopatra, the daughter of Cleopatra, Octavia gave in marriage to Juba, the most accomplished of kings.
Juba II was the newly appointed king of Mauretania, handpicked by Augustus himself, years after his father Juba I had lost his lands following his defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar. Juba and Cleopatra ruled together for at least 20 years, and had a minimum of two children that we know of: a son, Ptolemy, and an unnamed daughter known only through an inscription found in Athens (IG II2 3439).
Ptolemy of Mauretania
While it could be (rather unfairly) argued that Cleopatra did not rule Mauretania, at least not alone, the same cannot be true of her son Ptolemy.
Ptolemy was sent to Rome at a young age, but once he came of age he returned to co-rule with his aging, widowed father. Coinage from this period of co-rule exist, and show father and son on either side of the coins.
When Juba died, Ptolemy took full control of the client kingdom. During his reign he proved himself a loyal and valued client king to the emperors of Rome. We are told by Tacitus that the emperor Tiberius was so grateful for Ptolemy’s assistance in putting down a revolt led by a former Roman soldier called Tacfarinas, that he resurrected an old Roman custom (Annals 4.26):
And now that this war had proved the zealous loyalty of Ptolemæus, a custom of antiquity was revived, and one of the Senators was sent to present him with an ivory sceptre and an embroidered robe, gifts anciently bestowed by the Senate, and to confer on him the titles of king, ally, and friend.
His positive reception in Rome did not last long, however. His relationship with the next emperor, Ptolemy’s second cousin Gaius Caligula, was less amicable and, in 40 CE, Ptolemy was summoned to Rome under false pretences (Suetonius, Caligula 35):
Ptolemy, mentioned before, whom he [Caligula] invited from his kingdom, and received with great honours, he suddenly put to death, for no other reason, but because he observed that upon entering the theatre, at a public exhibition, he attracted the eyes of all the spectators by the splendour of his purple robe.
The reasons for Ptolemy’s execution are unknown. Suetonius’ explanation here is widely dismissed by scholars as being an agenda on the part of the author, not an accurate reflection of what actually happened.
Drusilla of Mauretania
Ptolemy of Mauretania and his wife Julia Urania had a daughter, Drusilla, most likely named after the sister of the emperor Caligula. Drusilla’s life is notoriously difficult to fix down in specifics, but it is most likely that she was the great-granddaughter of Cleopatra VII.
With Ptolemy gone, the responsibility for marrying off Drusilla when she was of age was taken by the new emperor Claudius (Tacitus, Histories 5.9):
Claudius entrusted the province of Judæa to the Roman Knights or to his own freedmen, one of whom, Antonius Felix, indulging in every kind of barbarity and lust, exercised the power of a king in the spirit of a slave. He had married Drusilla, the granddaughter of Antony and Cleopatra
Their marriage was short lived, Felix divorced her within a few years and remarried to a woman also called Drusilla. It has been suggested that Drusilla may have gone on to marry Sohaemus of Emesa, a royal family in Syria, although there is no direct evidence to support this.
Indirectly, there is a claim made in the third century CE by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra that she was descended from Cleopatra and the mythical Queen Dido. The link to Dido indicates a lineage via Cleopatra Selene, as Juba II’s family claimed descent through the line of the Barcid family who themselves claimed Dido as an ancestor. The familial connections between the aristocracy of Palmyra and Emesa has been studied by Settipani (2000) and suggest that Zenobia’s claim may be more than mere propaganda.
If we accept this hypothesis, that Drusilla married into the Emesa family, then the Ptolemaic line continued well into the Roman Imperial period. Various powerful imperial women could claim her as an ancestor, such as Julia Domna, the wife of the emperor Sepitmus Severus and mother of Caracalla, and Julia Maesa, the grandmother of the emperors Elagabalus and Severus Alexander. But this is based on a tentative reconstruction offered by scholars.
What is clear from the available evidence is that Cleopatra VII was not the final Ptolemaic ruler when we consider lands outside of Egypt. Her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, co-ruled Mauretania with her husband Juba II. Cleopatra’s grandson, Ptolemy, inherited the throne following Juba’s death, and offers a very clear example of a Ptolemaic king.
It has also been speculated by some scholars that the line of Cleopatra VII continued in Syria, through the Emesa family, offering a potentially less direct set of examples of ancient rulers from the Ptolemaic family line.
While it is true she was the final Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, it is not true she was the final Ptolemaic ruler in the ancient world. It is for this reason we have rated the claim Mostly False.
- Jane Draycott, “Cleopatra’s Daughter”, History Today (2018).
- D. Braund, “Anth. Pal. 9. 235: Juba II, Cleopatra Selene and the Course of the Nile”, The Classical Quarterly 34.1 (1984), pp. 175-178.
- Duane W. Roller, The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene: Royal Scholarship on Rome’s African Frontier (2003).
- Duane W. Roller, Cleopatra’s Daughter: And Other Royal Women of the Augustan Era (2018).
- S.J.V. Malloch, “The Death of Ptolemy of Mauretania”, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 53.1 (2004), pp. 38-45.
- C. Settipani, Continuité gentilice et continuité familiale dans les familles sénatoriales romaines à l’époque impériale: mythe et realité (2000).