30 B.C.E: Caesarion, “Little Caesar”

10 comments August 27th, 2009 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

Like father like son … unfortunately, in this case.

It was around this date that Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, “Caesarion” to his pals, the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, was put to death by orders of the autocratic Octavian.

Cleopatra and Caesarion walk like Egyptians at the temple of Dendera, Egypt.

Caesarion (“Little Caesar”) was the only known son of Julius Caesar. Octavian, whose claim to power proceeded from his status as Caesar’s adoptive son, became the Emperor Augustus after eliminating the dangerous rivalry of his “brother”.

While most of us at the age of three were putting Matchbox cars in our mouths and eating macaroni and cheese, little Ptolemy XV was co-ruler of Egypt with his famous mom. King in name only, he must have seen his mother still grieving because of Caesar’s assassination March 15, 44 B.C.

The little tyke, though born in Egypt, spent the first couple of years in Rome with Caesar and his mother. Then his dad was stabbed, repeatedly, and Cleopatra took the boy home to Egypt. Proclaimed “King of Kings,” little Caesarion couldn’t realize at his young age the power struggles roiling around him and his mother.

Indeed, things were a little tense outside the family home. (And inside.)

There was some wrestling going on, and not Greco-Roman. No, there were men who wanted power. Lots of power.

There was Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover and a Roman General. He was Julius Caesar’s second cousin.

There was the patrician Marcus Lepidus, Caesar’s, for lack of a better word, deputy dictator.

Then, the aforementioned Octavian (Julius Caesar was his great uncle).

Together, the three were the Second Triumvirate, a dream team of Roman political heavyweights. Supreme rule they had. Ambition, sometimes, makes a mess of things. Only one of the three would stand victorious at the end, and there’d be casualties, like Caesarion.

Lepidus was driven into exile to Circeii. At least he died peacefully years later, securely ensconced as the Triumvir You’re Most Likely To Forget.

Conflict between Octavian and Antony climaxed at the Battle of Actium, one of history’s signal events.* (Its anniversary is next week, September 2.)

Octavian won the battle.

Antony escaped to Egypt, but as Octavian’s legions closed in the following year, Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself with a sword. He died in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra’s arms would be cold with death soon after when she committed her famous (supposed) suicide-by-asp on August 12, 30 B.C.


“Death of Cleopatra”, by Edmonia Lewis. (Commentary.)

Before the Queen died, she sent her son Caesarion away from the political tumult.

Now 17, Caesarion bolted to the Red Sea port city of Berenice. Things were looking bleak for the young man. Octavian controlled Alexandria in early August, annexing Egypt to the Roman Empire. Antony died. His mother died. His father had been dead most of his young life. And now Octavian — making an offer he couldn’t refuse — was asking for the lad, the closest living blood relation to Caesar, to come to Alexandria. He was to be spared. There was nothing to fear. Mercy would be heaped upon Caesarion.

It was not to be. “Two Caesars are too many,” Octavian declared … so Caesarion was subtracted. No documentation has been discovered about his death; because of his young age, it is thought he died of strangulation.

Octavian assumed absolute power, became known as Augustus, and died of illness August 19, AD 14. While Augustus, during his reign, was proclaimed a god by the Senate, Caesar’s only known son became a footnote in history, long dead and buried.

* More on the Battle of Actium here and here, and at this episode from the highly recommended The History of Rome podcast. -ed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Children,Egypt,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Roman Empire,Royalty,Strangled,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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41 B.C.E.: Arsinoe IV, Cleopatra’s sister

9 comments December 6th, 2007 Headsman

On an unknown date late in 41 B.C.E., Cleopatra’s younger sister and rival Arsinoe was put to death in Asia Minor as the famous queen cemented her fatal alliance with Mark Antony.

Like Cleopatra herself, Arsinoe lived her short life in the internecine maelstrom of Ptolemaic politics under the sway of a Roman Empire itself immersed in civil strife. Violent death was something of an occupational hazard.

Nevertheless, had some flash of prescient irony visited her when Antony’s legionaries unsheathed their blades, she might well have wondered at the small happenstances of fate that left her a nigh-forgotten footnote in her sister’s story, rather than the other way around.

Three siblings had grasped at the Egyptian throne during the Alexandrian War, and whether it was charm or cold calculation won Caesar’s backing for Cleopatra, Arsinoe and her brother Ptolemy XIII still pressed the Roman garrison of Alexandria with a vastly superior force in a battle that was said to have set the Library of Alexandria aflame.

Timely Roman reinforcements decided the matter, and Arsinoe was marched in chains at Caesar’s sumptuous quadruple Triumph of 46 B.C.E. — though she was spared the execution that typically concluded such an ignominy and instead packed off to a temple on the coast of modern-day Turkey.*

In Margaret George’s historical novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra, the danger of maintaining an enemy who has styled herself Queen is neatly summarized in a conversation between Caesar and Cleopatra set after the Triumph:

“I have spared Arsinoe.” [said Caesar]

My [Cleopatra’s] first feeling was a rush of relief. My second was worry. Arsinoe the proud would not retire quietly.

“Where is she to go?”

“She has requested sanctuary at the great Temple of Diana in Ephesus,” he said. “And I will grant it, if you agree.”

Ephesus! Too close to Egypt! Better send her to Britain! Yet … I would gamble, and be merciful. Perhaps I was not enough of a Ptolemy after all. Arsinoe would not have granted it.

“Yes, I will allow it.”

That very perception of her potential danger hung over Arsinoe like the sword of Damocles.

The sword fell — figuratively and literally — five years later after Cleopatra seduced Mark Antony at Tarsus in the autumn of 41. Her terms for Egypt’s alliance supposedly included elimination of this lingering rival — though if Arsinoe had made common cause with Caesar’s Republican assassins, Antony may well have had his own reasons to dispatch the young woman.

Arsinoe’s death helped seal a pact that was itself destined for a bloody end. Distracted by his foreign paramour, Antony steadily lost political ground to his adversary Octavian. In another decade’s time, open war broke out again.

The Egyptian fleet would gather at Ephesus, not far from Arsinoe’s final resting place, bound for the catastrophic Battle of Actium whose outcome added Cleopatra’s and Antony’s blood to the soil from which sprung the long reign of Octavian — soon to be styled Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome.

* A Temple of Artemis — either in Miletus (as Appian has it), or the wonder of the world in Ephesus (as Josephus has it). She met her death at the temple — whichever it was — dragged to its steps and put to the sword. Ephesus seems to be the more generally accepted locale, and an octagonal tomb there has been speculatively identified as Arsinoe’s.

Part of the Themed Set: The Fall of the Roman Republic.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Power,Roman Empire,Royalty,Summary Executions,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Women

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