More than 2,000 years after her death, Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, remains one of the most famous and fabled women in history. Almost forgotten, however, is Ptolemy XV Caesar, AKA Caesarion, her son fathered by Julius Caesar, who was groomed for greatness that was never to be. Caesarion, whose name means “little Caesar,” was the last Pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and an heir and potential successor to his father in Rome as well. Instead, he apparently met a brutal, ignominious end at age 17, gasping futilely for his last breath as he was strangled by a Roman captor.
The strange, sad saga of Cleopatra’s and Julius Caesar’s male offspring–and probably, the Roman leader’s only son–began in 47 BC, when he was born in Egypt out of wedlock. As a young child, he and his mother spent two years in Rome as Caesar’s guests. The Roman historian Suetonius notes that by some accounts, “the boy closely resembled Caesar in features as well as in gait.” Cleopatra had ambitions that Caesarion would someday inherit his father’s place as leader of Rome and Egypt as well, but those ambitions were dashed by Julius Caesar’s murder in 44 B.C. Instead, Caesarion and his mother returned to Alexandria, where she installed him as her co-ruler–in name only, of course– at the age of 3.
As the son of Caesar and Cleopatra grew into a teenager, he became a pawn of sorts in the Roman power struggle between his mother’s new lover, Marc Antony, and his father’s nephew Octavian. As co-rulers of Rome, Antony and Octavian each sought to undermine the other and grab sole power. One of Antony’s strategies was to promote Caesarion as being a closer and more worthy heir to Julius Caesar and his authority than Octavian. Antony showed land claims and lofty titles upon Caesarion, and even proclaimed him to be divine. Unfortunately for Antony, those ploys known as the Donations of Alexandria, turned out to be his undoing. Octavian successfully portrayed Antony as a traitor who was out to subordinate Rome to Egypt, and exploited the resulting resentment to rally support for a war against Antony and Cleopatra.
In 30 BC, after Octavian’s forces defeated Antony’s and Cleopatra’s defenders in the battle of Actium, they invaded Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra both committed suicide, rather than submit to Octavian. But before her death, Cleopatra apparently laid out an escape route for Caesarion.
What happened after that is murky. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio’s account, Octavian’s forces captured Caesarion on the road to Ethiopia and murdered him, and Suetonious gives a similar report. Other sources have Caesarion being tricked into coming out of hiding at the port of Bernenice, on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. Another Roman historian, Plutarch, tells a different story:
Cleopatra had him sent unto the Indians through Ethiopia, with a great sum of money. But one of the governors also called Rhodon, even such another as Theodorus, persuaded him to return into his country, and told him that Caesar [Octavian] sent for him to give him his mother’s kingdom.
Instead, however, Octavian listened to his confidant, the philosopher Arius Didymus, who advised that “too many Caesars is not good,” which Plutarch informs us is a pun based on a line from Homer’s Odyssey, “Too many lords doth not well.” (In Robert Fagles’ modern translation of Homer, the line becomes, “If you serve too many masters, you’ll soon suffer.”)
Octavian then ordered Caesarion’s murder. There is no definitive account, but the most popular version seems to be that he was strangled by his captors. Octavian then declared himself ruler of Egypt, and went on to become the first Roman emperor, under the name of Augustus.