Cleopatra's Daughter and Other Key Figures of the Multicultural Roman EmpireHistorians in the News
tags: ancient Egypt, Cleopatra, classics
Hovering in the background of ancient history’s headlines is King Juba II—writer, explorer, and ruler of Mauretania, the Roman satellite kingdom in North Africa, for almost 50 years until his death in the early 20s A.D. His skin color is debated (was he light brown? or black?). All we know is that his father was a Berber king in North Africa who supported the wrong side in the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, forged a suicide pact with an ally, and left his infant son to be carted back to Rome and displayed in Caesar’s triumphal victory parade in 46 B.C. The child was then brought up within Rome’s ruling family as something between honored guest, lodger, and prisoner. When he was about 25, the emperor, Augustus, sent him back to North Africa to be king of Mauretania, which extended from modern Algeria west to the Atlantic coast, a buffer state between the Roman empire and the peoples to the south.
The new king seems to have divided his time among the battlefield (there was plenty of “buffering” to be done), the library, and research trips to investigate the flora and fauna of the region. Juba had started writing in Rome (including a history of the city and at least eight volumes on the subject of painting), and in North Africa he produced weighty studies of the region’s geography, history, and culture. He argued, no doubt with a degree of local pride, that the source of the Nile lay in Mauretania, and gave detailed descriptions of the North African elephant. None of his work survives complete, but we have more than 100 extracts quoted by later writers.
Juba’s scientific contributions are his greatest legacy to the modern world. He is not only our best witness to that now-extinct elephant; drawing on his doctor’s name (Antonius Euphorbus), he christened the group of plants still known as Euphorbia (the red-leaved poinsettia is the most easily recognized of these), which was discovered on one of his expeditions into the Atlas Mountains. Chances are he’s behind the name of the Canary Islands too, taken from the big dogs (canes, in Latin) found on one of his expeditions there.
More generally, Juba opens our eyes to all kinds of different perspectives on how Roman power worked. In Rome itself, for example, the royal residences served as a boardinghouse and school for foreign royalty (several other princes and princesses also lodged there). Juba’s Mauretania was one of many “friendly” border kingdoms, where Rome could exert sway from a distance and establish a broad, easily defensible frontier zone—quite unlike the single line usually marked on our modern maps of the empire.
Juba also raises big questions about cultural and ethnic diversity in the Roman world. He was brought to Rome as a baby and reared there. Did he think of himself as Roman or as foreign? Or did he combine those different identities, and adapt them to different circumstances? Is his treatise on North Africa, Libyka, an attempt to define a specifically African history and culture, of which he was a part? Or was it a weapon of Roman imperial control? Most modern empires have used knowledge as a form of power. Systems of geography, history, and even the classification of plants and animals have been imposed as a subtle means of domination. In the ancient world as well, to map meant to own. The 40 or so extracts or paraphrases from Libyka that have come down to us, many of them very brief, were quoted for the scientific “facts” they contain, and give no clue to the underlying ideology.
But in recent years, interest in Juba has been overshadowed by interest in his wife, who went with him from Rome to be queen of Mauretania, and to set up a court in what is now Cherchell, in modern Algeria, a town they called Caesarea. Unlike her husband, she still has an instantly recognizable name: Cleopatra Selene (“the moon”), the only daughter of one of the most notorious, glamorized, and in the end spectacularly unsuccessful couples in Western history: Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt, and the Roman Mark Antony. She raises just as many questions as Juba does.
How did Cleopatra junior, the daughter of the most famous female enemy Rome ever had, become the wife of a Roman vassal king? How did she negotiate her relationship between the Egypt of her mother and the Rome of her father? And what were her political and cultural ambitions? How did you see yourself if your mother was Cleopatra? A string of contemporary novels and several careful historical analyses (notably by Duane W. Roller) have tried to tell her story from her point of view. The same goal drives a new full-length biography, Cleopatra’s Daughter: From Roman Prisoner to African Queen, by Jane Draycott, a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Glasgow.