Adam Johnson

University of Ottawa
This piece seeks to challenge common perceptions about Julius Caesar’s expedition to Egypt in 48-47 BCE. The expedition is often seen as an unnecessary undertaking, ignited solely by Caesar’s supposed affection for Cleopatra rather than practical considerations. This view fails to consider both the strategic value of Egypt to the Romans and the importance of Roman assistance in establishing Cleopatra on the throne. Instead, this paper examines the successes of the Egyptian expedition and the advantages Caesar and Cleopatra gained from forming their alliance.

In late 48 BCE, Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria, Egypt. He was pursuing his opponent, the statesman Gnaeus Pompey, with whom he was engaged in a brutal civil war. Upon Caesar’s arrival, the young Egyptian king Ptolemy XIII presented Caesar with Pompey’s severed head. Ptolemy had initially supported Pompey’s faction in the Roman Civil War, but he altered his position after Pompey lost the Battle of Pharsalus and sought refuge in Egypt. Ptolemy, seeing Caesar’s rising prominence and hoping to gain his favor, killed Pompey. Despite the enmity between the two Romans, Caesar was supposedly saddened by the death of his former rival.1 Caesar also insisted on staying in Egypt contrary to Ptolemy’s expectations. Though he exiled his sister Cleopatra VII and acted as the sole ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy was supposed to be a co-ruler with Cleopatra according to the will of their father, Ptolemy XII. Egypt had formed an alliance with Rome under the consulship of Caesar, and accordingly Caesar felt obligated to mediate the dispute regarding the kingship. He therefore received Cleopatra into his presence, which further angered Ptolemy and his supporters. This caused unrest which devolved into a civil war.2 Caesar became entangled in the conflict and helped resolve it in favor of Cleopatra. Instead of returning to Rome following the war, he stayed for months in the queen’s company. Given the considerable amount of time Caesar spent abroad and the problems he encountered, his expedition to Egypt could be viewed as a failure and a waste of resources. According to this view, Caesar got involved in an unnecessary conflict, needlessly exposing himself and his men to harm. Caesar certainly took risks in going to Egypt, but his expedition there worked in his interests. Overall, it was a profound success.

After receiving Cleopatra into his presence in Alexandria, Caesar came under siege from Ptolemy’s supporters. The Romans were surrounded and had minimal supplies of food and water. The Alexandrians had fortified much of the city and even armed their adult slaves to fight Caesar’s forces.3Many of the details about the Siege of Alexandria come from Caesar’s own account of the event, which tends to emphasize Caesar’s problems to make his victories seem more impressive. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Caesar was in a perilous situation in Alexandria. He almost lost his life once during an attempt to cross the harbor. His boat capsized, and he had to swim to shore.4 While stuck in Egypt, Caesar could not tend to political affairs in Rome. He left Marc Antony in charge there as his magister equitum, but Antony governed poorly. After a new debt relief law proposed by the tribune Dolabella resulted in civil unrest, Antony was oppressive in reestablishing order and did so with much destruction. Furthermore, Caesar’s opponents in the Roman Civil War, among them Cato and Metellus Scipio, rallied their forces and recruited allies from Africa and Spain. Caesar could do nothing to stop them.5Given these issues, it is easy to dismiss Caesar’s Egyptian expedition as unnecessary and troublesome. 

Even though Caesar eventually defeated Ptolemy, there remains a common notion that Caesar’s expedition was still a waste due to his original motives for staying in Egypt. Many ancient writers promulgate the view that Caesar helped Cleopatra only because of his sexual liaison with her. Eusebius asserts that Caesar established Cleopatra’s rule in exchange for sexual favors.6 The Roman historian Cassius Dio is especially critical of Caesar, calling his disposition “very susceptible, to such an extent that he had his intrigues with ever so many other women—with all, doubtless, who chanced to come in his way.”7 According to Dio, Caesar was completely stricken by Cleopatra’s beauty, and this was the sole reason for his intervention in the royal dispute. This account exaggerates Cleopatra’s charm and influence, claiming that the queen took advantage of Caesar’s fondness for women in order to secure his assistance.8 Appian of Alexandria also makes the Egyptian expedition seem insignificant, summarizing that Caesar spent most of his time simply enjoying himself with the queen.9Similarly, Plutarch addresses the possibility that the war in Egypt started because of Caesar’s passion for Cleopatra. If this was the case, Caesar’s intervention was dishonorable and served only to put him at risk.10All these authors were writing after Caesar’s era and thus relied on second-hand accounts. Although Cleopatra was a powerful woman, these ancient authors tend to overemphasize the queen’s influence. This is hardly a positive portrayal, but rather a kind of invective that is intent on damaging Caesar’s credibility.11 The ancient authors effeminize Caesar by portraying him as being under the control of a woman. By extension, the expedition to Egypt appears illegitimate—the result of Caesar’s weak desires and his inability to resist a woman. Some modern authors perpetuate the notion that Caesar dallied in Egypt while neglecting his responsibilities.12 This view relies on the assumption that Caesar was only motivated by passion, even though this motive is impossible to prove. In addition, this view does not consider the practical benefits Caesar gained by going to Egypt and installing Cleopatra on the throne. 

The Pompeian faction in the Roman Civil War took advantage of Caesar’s absence to accumulate their forces. Despite this, Caesar’s expedition to Egypt actually helped him crush support for his opponents. Ptolemy had been supporting the Pompeians and sent troops to assist them.13 Pompey’s ally Aulus Gabinius even led a contingent of Roman troops in Egypt which fought alongside Ptolemy’s army. This was why Pompey thought he might find safety by fleeing to Egypt.14 By deposing Ptolemy, Caesar was therefore stripping his opposition of a valuable ally. While Ptolemy did eventually betray Pompey and appear to align himself with Caesar, this was an ingenuine alliance which Caesar could not trust. The duplicity of Ptolemy is evident in how quickly he turned against Caesar after the Roman leader decided to stay in Alexandria. Once this happened, Caesar had no choice but to fight the Egyptian king. Caesar remained besieged in Alexandria until he escaped the city and received reinforcements from Mithridates of Pergamum. Caesar’s forces eventually defeated Ptolemy, who drowned in battle.15 After the king’s downfall, Gabinius’s troops were left unemployed and could no longer pose any serious threat. Without transportation, they could not join other Pompeian forces in Africa. They thus remained in Egypt, pillaging or assimilating into the local population.16 By defeating Ptolemy, Caesar also deprived his enemies of a strong fleet, which was a considerable threat until Cleopatra came to power.17 Caesar’s military position improved greatly after Ptolemy’s downfall. 

After the war in Egypt ended in early 47 BCE, Caesar remained there for a few months.18 During this time, he allegedly sailed the Nile with Cleopatra, which has contributed to the view that Caesar dallied in Egypt unnecessarily.19However, it was in Caesar’s interest to stay in Egypt following the war, as he still had important work to do. He made plans to construct buildings in Alexandria, including a monumental structure to himself called the Kaiserion. He would not have had time to finish the building, so Cleopatra assumed responsibility for its completion. The supposed pleasure cruise along the Nile also would have served practical purposes. Caesar had an interest in geography and had studied contemporary maps to assist him in his earlier expeditions in western Europe. He was also probably familiar with the results of travels the Ptolemies had conducted along the Nile. It is possible Caesar wished to find where the Nile began, and it is reasonable to assume Cleopatra would have wanted to familiarize herself with her kingdom. The Nile cruise thus would have been a means of exploration as well as recreation.20 The trip also would have been a way for Cleopatra to display her power to her subjects. Besides traveling, Caesar used his time in Egypt to ensure Cleopatra would maintain control. Her rule was not yet solidified, so Caesar assigned three legions to Alexandria to help defend the queen if needed.21 Caesar was not dallying in the early months of 47 BCE; he was making necessary arrangements.

Caesar’s expedition to Egypt not only allowed him to depose a strong enemy but also enabled him to establish a powerful ally. By elevating Cleopatra to the throne, Caesar could take advantage of the many resources the queen had at her disposal. Cleopatra used the Egyptian navy, which had once fought against Caesar, to assist Rome.22 The cruise on the Nile in 47 BCE supposedly featured an impressive display of more than 400 ships. Leading the procession was the thalamegos, the Ptolemies’ luxurious state vessel. Caesar now had access to this mighty fleet.23 Also at Caesar’s disposal were the immense natural resources of Egypt. Despite famines and crop shortages in the region in the late 50s and early 40s BCE, Egypt was still the largest source of grain in the Mediterranean.24 Egyptian grain proved vital for Rome’s prosperity. Later, during the 1st century AD, Egypt was able to keep Rome stocked with enough grain to last a third of the year.25Egypt was also a source of wealth. Ptolemy XII had accumulated a large amount of debt to Rome, which he passed on to his heirs after his death.26Caesar had demanded this debt be repaid, but Ptolemy XIII did not comply. In Cleopatra, Caesar found a cooperative ally who would be more willing to repay the debt because of her reliance on Rome.27

Considering the perils Caesar faced in Egypt, it is easy to view his time there as a waste. His absence from Rome allowed the political situation there to degenerate. The Pompeian faction in the Roman Civil War also gathered strength while Caesar, trapped in Alexandria, could do nothing to stop them. When examined from another view, however, the expedition to Egypt was one of the great achievements of Caesar’s life. Far from being unnecessary, Caesar’s time in Egypt served practical purposes. He deprived the Pompeians of an important ally and replaced him with Cleopatra, from whom Rome profited greatly. The queen remained close to Caesar, even visiting him in Rome for the two years prior to his death in 44 BCE.28 In the following years, other Roman leaders recognized the immense value of Egypt. Marc Antony and Octavian both tried to gain control over the tremendous wealth the region had to offer, just as Caesar had done before them.29

Primary Sources

Appian. Roman History, Volume III: The Civil Wars, Books 1-3.26. Translated by Horace White. Loeb Classical Library 4. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913.

Caesar. Alexandrian War. African War. Spanish War. Translated by A. G. Way. Loeb Classical Library 402. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955.

Dio Cassius. Roman History, Volume IV: Books 41-45. Translated by Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster. Loeb Classical Library 66. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916.

Plutarch. Lives, Volume VII: Demosthenes and Cicero. Alexander and Caesar. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb Classical Library 99. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1919.


Secondary Sources

Ashton, Sally-Ann. Cleopatra and Egypt. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Barnes, T. “The First Emperor: The View of Late Antiquity.” In A Companion to Julius Caesar, edited by M. Griffin, 277-287. Blackwell Publishing, 2009.

Gruen, Erich. “Cleopatra in Rome: Facts and Fantasies.” In Myth, History and Culture in Republican Rome, edited by David Braund and Christopher Gill, 257-274. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003.

Hillard, Tom. “Republican Politics, Women, and the Evidence.” Helios 16, no. 2 (1989): 165-182.

Kleiner, Diana. Cleopatra and Rome. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. 

Rawson, E. “Caesar: Civil War and Dictatorship.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume IX: The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 B.C., 2nd ed, edited by J.A. Crook, A. Lintott, and E. Rawson, 424-467. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Roller, Duane. Cleopatra: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Thompson, D. “Egypt, 146–31 B.C.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume IX: The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 B.C., 2nd ed, edited by J.A. Crook, A. Lintott, and E. Rawson, 310-326. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

  1. App. B Civ. 84; Erich Gruen, “Cleopatra in Rome: Facts and Fantasies,” in Myth, History and Culture in Republican Rome, eds. David Braund and Christopher Gill (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003), 262.
  2. Sally-Ann Ashton, Cleopatra and Egypt (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 42-43.
  3. Bell. Alex. 1-2.
  4. Gruen, “Cleopatra in Rome: Facts and Fantasies,” 262.
  5. E. Rawson, “Caesar: Civil War and Dictatorship,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume IX: The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 B.C., 2nd ed, eds. J.A. Crook, A. Lintott, and E. Rawson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 435.), 42-43.
  6. T. Barnes, “The First Emperor: The View of Late Antiquity,” in A Companion to Julius Caesar, ed. M. Griffin (Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 285.
  7. Cass. Dio 34.3.
  8. Cass. Dio 34.3, 35.1.
  9. App. B Civ. 90.
  10. Plut. Caes. 48.5.
  11. Tom Hillard, “Republican Politics, Women, and the Evidence,” Helios 16, no. 2 (1989): 166.
  12. Barnes, “The First Emperor: The View of Late Antiquity,” 285; D. Thompson, “Egypt, 146–31 B.C.,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume IX: The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 B.C., 2nd ed, eds. J.A. Crook, A. Lintott, and E. Rawson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 321.
  13. Duane Roller, Cleopatra: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 2010), 58.
  14. App. B Civ. 49; Gruen, “Cleopatra in Rome: Facts and Fantasies,” 262.
  15. Rawson, “Caesar: Civil War and Dictatorship,” 434.
  16. Roller, Cleopatra: A Biography, 54.
  17. Cass. Dio 41.1; Roller, Cleopatra: A Biography, 58.
  18. Rawson, “Caesar: Civil War and Dictatorship,” 434.
  19. App. B Civ. 90; Thompson, “Egypt, 146–31 B.C.,” 321.
  20. Roller, Cleopatra: A Biography, 66-67.
  21. Ashton, Cleopatra and Egypt, 153.
  22. Ibid.
  23. App. B Civ. 90; Roller, Cleopatra: A Biography, 66.
  24. Diana Kleiner, Cleopatra and Rome (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 20; Roller, Cleopatra: A Biography, 54.
  25. Kleiner, Cleopatra and Rome, 162; Roller, Cleopatra: A Biography, 105.
  26. Ashton, Cleopatra and Egypt, 40.
  27. Ibid., 40-41; Rawson, “Caesar: Civil War and Dictatorship,” 434.
  28. Ashton, Cleopatra and Egypt, 17.
  29. Kleiner, Cleopatra and Rome, 162.
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