A warm welcome on Historical Authors Across Time to author Brook Allen.
Historically speaking, Antony and Cleopatra have always been known as lovers. Because of their relationship and eventually the damnatio memoriae—damning of memory—that Octavian ascribed to Antony’s name in particular, one pertinent fact is often lost in our perception of this famous couple.
Cleopatra VII Philopater had already given Julius Caesar a son in 47 BC. When she and Antony became lovers after the Battle of Philippi in late 42 BC, she became pregnant again—this time with twins—during Antony’s time in Alexandria the following winter. It has always amazed me that not only did she give birth to twins, but they both survived! Childbirth was difficult enough in the ancient world, but Cleopatra must have been a robust and healthy woman, carrying the babies full term. Antony left Egypt before they were born, returning to Rome and may not have even known that he and the Queen were to be parents.
Probably born early in 40 BC, fraternal twins Alexander and Cleopatra were raised in Alexandria, and their education had to have been impressive, having both the Great Library and educators from the Alexandrian University at their beck and call. Their mother was multi-lingual, and undoubtedly wanted her children to be just as proficient in languages and known sciences of the day.
In 37 BC, Antony left Rome for Antioch, busily planning his Parthian campaign. It had been roughly four years since he’d last seen Cleopatra, as upon his return to Rome, he had been coerced into marriage with Octavia, Octavian’s sister. Antony summoned Cleopatra and once their business was settled, they promptly reignited their affair and were likely married in Egyptian tradition. The twins accompanied Cleopatra on this occasion, so their father could meet his children. And during this period, before Antony fought his Parthian Wars, Cleopatra became pregnant again with their third child: Ptolemy Philadelphus.
It’s unknown what sort of parents Antony and Cleopatra were, but due to extended periods of absence, Antony didn’t get to see any of his children much—neither those in Rome or in Egypt. However, I do find it interesting that when Octavian eventually forced Antyllus to choose, this eldest son and heir of Antony chose to leave Rome at age thirteen, to live in Alexandria.
Nicolaus of Damascus was chosen to teach the twins. Antyllus, Antony’s son who wound up living in Alexandria, was tutored by a man named Theodorus. Caesarion, Caesar’s son, was taught by a scholar named Rhodon. It’s not known who assigned their teachers, but because of her inquisitive mind and love for the arts and learning, maybe it was Cleopatra. She certainly fostered the importance of learning governance upon them, for she and Antony showed all of the signs of beginning a dynasty.
In 34 BC, Antony and Cleopatra took a huge risk by staging what can only be titled as a “triumph” in all but name. Octavian and the Senate had denied Antony a triumph in Rome when he annexed Armenia, after having been betrayed by the Armenian King Artavasdes. So, in front of thousands of Alexandrians and Roman staff officers, Antony proclaimed his Egyptian children as kings and queens of territories under his jurisdiction—including some that were yet unconquered. It was an incendiary act which broadened the breach between the two powerful Romans: Antony and Octavian.
By this time, the twins were dubbed Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. In Greek, the names literally meant the sun and moon. The ultimate power couple were making a pretty frank statement, likening their offspring to deities representing the sun and moon. Truth be told, there was a lot of that sort of thing going on in the late 1st century BC. Julius Caesar was declared a god, Octavian—his heir, declared himself the “son of the god” (divi Filius), and Antony and Cleopatra had been styling themselves after Dionysus, Hercules, and the Egyptian deity, Isis.
After Antony and Cleopatra were defeated, they returned to Alexandria. Most everyone knows their tragic end, but they did attempt to rescue their family. While Antony crawled out of depression to salvage troops, Cleopatra had a ship hauled across the desert toward the Red Sea, for a possible escape to India. However, King Malchus of Nabataea, proving loyalty to Octavian, swept down upon the engineers, soldiers, and sailors involved—destroying them all.
Backs against the wall, Antony and Cleopatra made a desperate choice before dispatching themselves. They chose to send Antyllus and Caesarion—both teenage boys—away with their tutors. What they didn’t know was that both men, Theodorus and Rhodon had been bought by Octavian.
Both youths were killed.
But what of the twins and little Ptolemy, who was only about five years old at the time? Alexander and Selene were both ten and undoubtedly old enough to know what was going on. Their parents chose to keep them close and they were taken to Rome by Octavian. All three were forced to parade in Octavian’s triumph, imprisoned in golden chains and made to walk behind the victor’s chariot. What a piteous sight and a horrible thing for the children to endure.
Both boys disappeared from history after that. But Selene’s story is remarkable and her parents would have been proud of her. She married King Juba of Numidia and became a queen herself! Her son’s name was Ptolemy and she was well-respected by her people and esteemed by her husband.
Indeed, history’s real stories are usually better than whatever Hollywood scripts, and I think it’s enlightening to view both Antony and Cleopatra—such legendary figures—as they really were. Not just lovers, but a married couple with children.
For more resources on this topic, I suggest reading the following materials which I included in my own research: Plutarch: Life of Antony; Eleanor Goltz Huzar: Mark Antony, a biography; Patricia Southern: Mark Antony, a life
Author Brook Allen has a passion for ancient history—especially 1st century BC Rome. Her Antonius Trilogy is a detailed account of the life of Marcus Antonius—Marc Antony, which she has worked on for the past fifteen years. The first installment, Antonius: Son of Rome was published in March 2019. It follows Antony as a young man, from the age of eleven, when his father died in disgrace, until he’s twenty-seven and meets Cleopatra for the first time. Brook’s second book is Antonius: Second in Command, dealing with Antony’s tumultuous rise to power at Caesar’s side and culminating with the civil war against Brutus and Cassius. Antonius: Soldier of Fate is the last book in the trilogy, spotlighting the romance between Antonius and Cleopatra and the historic war with Octavian Caesar. In 2019, Son of Rome won the Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year Award. In 2020, it was honored with a silver medal in the international Reader’s Favorite Book Reviewers Book Awards and is currently listed as a finalist in the CIBA Chaucer Division Awards.