Juba II and Cleopatra Selene: Was it a Love Match?

The King and Queen of Mauretania enjoyed an apparently stable marriage of at least twenty years in duration. In a time when spouses were swapped like fruitcakes at family gatherings, this was somewhat of an anomaly and leads many to wonder whether or not theirs was a love story.

Birds of a Feather

The two certainly shared a pathos. She was the orphaned daughter of the ill-fated lovers, Cleopatra and Mark Antony. She was a princess of Egypt without a throne to inherit. He was a deposed princeling, the orphaned son of King Juba I of Numidia. As children, both Juba and Selene had been marched as chained prisoners in a Roman triumphal parade. Both had also been pardoned, fostered by Augustus, and reared to adulthood as nominal members of the imperial family.

There is some indication that the match was suggested by the emperor’s sister, Octavia, who seems to have spent much of her life arranging marriages and tending to the children of others. Having observed Juba and Selene in her household, did Octavia sense that the young couple had romantic feelings for one another?

It’s entirely possible that as a Ptolemy, Selene’s love of learning drew her to Juba, the scholarly Numidian. A bust that has been identified as Juba II shows him to have been a remarkably handsome young man, so Selene may have found him quite attractive. Moreover, Juba seems to have been capable in military situations. What better way to earn the respect of Antony’s daughter?

Juba was, in fact, a remarkable man in every respect. A prodigy and scholar, he was insatiably curious. He wrote at least fifty books and made important contributions to the scholarship of the ancient world. He also seems to have been an able politician–at least insofar as it fell to him to stay on the right side of Augustus. Like other client kings, Juba walked a tightrope between national independence and obedience to Rome, but he never fell from grace–at least not during Selene’s lifetime. (Perhaps we can credit some of his good political sense to her.)

In summary, Selene would’ve had every reason to love Juba and it’s equally possible that Juba’s heart went out to the young Egyptian princess who, like him, had lost everything. Her status and influence over his reign suggests his deep respect, perhaps even a subservience to her.

Indeed, there are many indications that the marriage between Juba and Selene was an amicable one. The two managed affairs in Mauretania as co-rulers. Selene had the power to mint her own coins and her influence is felt everywhere in the relics of their capital city. Juba seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the legacy of the Ptolemies on his wife’s behalf and in 20 BC they started to appear on coins together. Perhaps theirs was a love match.

On the other hand, marrying Selene off to the newly made king of far-away Mauretania was a political convenience for Augustus.

A Princess Bride

Both Mark Antony and Cleopatra always had their partisans–even after defeat. As their daughter, Selene would have made a tempting prize for any Roman who intended to challenge Augustus for power. What’s more, any Roman son born to her may have served as a rallying cry to Mark Antony’s legions and loyalists. (That Antony’s offspring remained a threat to Augustus can be demonstrated by the example of Iullus Antonius, whose status as a member of the imperial family did not protect him when he was accused of having taken the emperor’s daughter as a lover and was implicated in some manner of treason against Augustus.)

In short, Selene was a dangerous girl to have in Rome.

Moreover, as the daughter of Cleopatra, neither could she be easily married off to one of the client kings in the East. Selene was the last of the Ptolemies; her blood was the most royal blood left in the world. She maintained a persuasive dynastic claim to Egypt and its surrounds. A marriage to Selene might help cement an alliance with Rome–but Selene’s Ptolemaic legacy might also create ambitions in a king to turn against Rome and ally with Parthia instead. And if that weren’t bad enough, as her mother’s daughter, Selene’s presence in the East might well have ignited a rivalry with King Herod.

Thus, marrying Selene to Juba and sending them both to Mauretania was the wisest political course of action. Mauretania was closer to Spain than to Egypt–none of Cleopatra’s old allies would be near by to whisper mischief in the ear of her daughter. Moreover, Juba seems to have been completely trusted and completely beholden to Augustus. Perhaps it was thought that Juba could control Selene and prevent her from pursuing any ambitions she may have had to return to Egypt. Also, it may have crossed Augustus’ mind to ensure Juba’s loyalty by rewarding him with the most prestigious princess in the western world.

We must recall that in the world of imperial politics, love seldom played a role in marriage–and if it did, it often had disastrous results. Augustus built his career on the idea that unlike a besotted Mark Antony who allegedly betrayed his country for love, his first love was and always would be Rome. Augustus seems to have set out to prove it by rather ruthlessly meddling in the love lives of his family, arranging and re-arranging marriages to suit his political purposes with apparent disregard for the feelings of those involved. (Just one example is when he forced his step-son Tiberius to divorce the wife he adored and then, when he discovered that Tiberius had followed his former wife with tears in his eyes, he forbid the two from seeing each other ever again.)

Beyond the cold, hard political realities, there are other indications that all was not flowers and rainbows between Juba and Selene.

Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

Though Selene’s parents were two of the most famously fertile individuals in ancient history, it is only certain that Selene had one son–a son who was born to her late in life and may have hastened her death. The name she chose for him is both the single most telling detail about her life and the most mysterious. Breaking with ancient tradition, her son wasn’t named after Juba or his family. Instead, Selene’s son was named Ptolemy. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It indicates that even after having been married to Selene and ruling his own country for at least a decade, Juba’s lineage was still considered to be inferior to hers. Perhaps it indicates that she was the true ruler of Mauretania. It also may have led some to question whether or not he was even the father of the boy.

That only one known child would have come from such a long marriage puts the idea that it was a love match to the test. In a time when it would have been considered their duty to produce children, perhaps Juba and Selene did not fancy sharing one another’s bed. On the other hand, child mortality rates were extremely high in the ancient world. There may well have been other children that we just don’t know about.

An inscription from ancient Athens indicated that Juba had a son and a daughter, who is unnamed. However, this daughter need not have been the child of Cleopatra Selene. Historians have argued that as a Roman citizen, Juba was unlikely to have broken with Roman law and taken more than one wife at a time. It must be pointed out, however, that like Juba, King Herod was also a Roman citizen and had more wives than he could keep track of. Juba’s father had kept many wives and it’s entirely possible that the young king may have done the same to earn the respect of his Berber peoples. It strikes me that admirers of King Juba II who insist that he couldn’t have taken a second wife because he wouldn’t have taken a second wife may be projecting onto him some virtues of modern morality. After all, even the most Roman of the Romans–Julius Caesar–is rumored to have tried to pass a law that would allow him to take more than one wife. A more persuasive argument, to my mind, is that Archelaus the King of Cappadocia was unlikely to allow his daughter, Glaphyra, to play second-wife to Cleopatra’s daughter.

So, what of Juba’s daughter? We know that Juba was married a second time to Glaphyra of Cappadocia, and whether or not Selene was alive at the time, the daughter may have been hers. Professor Duane Roller has suggested that Juba may have reinstated the tradition of a harem, in which case this unnamed daughter may have belonged to a concubine. (If so, it seems less likely that she would be mentioned in an inscription.) But the most probable explanation is that the girl mentioned in the inscription is Selene’s daughter. If so, the girl was likely named in the tradition of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Another Cleopatra Something or Berenice or Arsinoe. (In my own forthcoming novel, Song of the Nile, she will be named Cleopatra Isidora.)

A third child is also hinted at. Some scholars have suggested that Selene may have had two sons, both named Ptolemy, one of whom died young. This would reconcile some confusion in the historical record about Ptolemy’s age, and might also explain why Selene would have tried for another child so late in life when it was so dangerous for her to do so. If true, it would mean that Ptolemy wasn’t the only son born to Juba and Selene, but the only surviving son.

If, however, Ptolemy’s was the only child ever born to Selene and Juba, this isn’t the only hint at marital discord between the two monarchs.

Opposites Attract?

The two main centers of Mauretania were Iol-Caesaria, the relics of which reveal Selene’s overwhelming influence, and Volubilis, the relics of which do not. Is it possible the two monarchs kept separate homes in separate cities? Certainly, Juba’s geographical work suggests a great deal of travel on his part–a pattern confirmed by his later activities accompanying Gaius Caesar in the East. While Juba chronicled the flora and fauna of his kingdom, Selene was apparently busy at work, building up Iol-Caesaria’s architecture, reproducing Alexandria in miniature. It may have been a case of complementary strengths creating a strong union–or it may have been a case of a married couple pursuing their own interests, the other be damned.

Though Selene and Juba are thought to have been married in 25 BC she would not appear on the coinage of the realm as a co-ruler until 20 BC. Moreover, the way each would present themselves on coins is extremely telling. Juba’s coins are in Latin, with only one known exception. His coins are deferential to Rome, in perfect order. Selene’s coins are always in Greek, often flouting the emperor’s official narrative by celebrating her dead mother–an enemy of Rome, elevating the goddess Isis–who was deeply out of favor with Augustus, and hinting that either Egypt would soon break free of its bonds or that she represented the throne of Egypt in exile. The coins are the most enduring record of Selene’s reign as queen and they are so provocative that it leads one to wonder what proclamations or official documents must have been flying back and forth across the Mediterranean.

Perhaps this was a calculated strategy between Juba and Selene to present different faces to different powerful factions, thereby maintaining a balance of peace in Mauretania. Juba was the obvious choice to appease the concerns of Roman settlers; he wasn’t just a king; he’d also been granted magisterial powers elsewhere in the empire as an agent of Augustus. Meanwhile, Cleopatra Selene could give the native Berbers and imported Alexandrians of her kingdom the appearance of token resistance to Roman hegemony. After her mother, she was the best hope for Isis worshippers, the best representative of Hellenism, and the last vestige of the Ptolemaic dynasty. It may have been a shrewd thing for Juba and Selene to pretend that they had different visions for their kingdom.

On the other hand, the stark contrast between the way Selene and Juba presented themselves may reflect a genuine schism. Selene seems never to have suffered the slightest censure for her hubris, and one can only surmise that this is because she enjoyed an extraordinary relationship with Augustus. Either that, or Augustus decided to leave it to Juba to discipline his wayward wife. What awkward family dinners may have been the result?

Unfortunately, the mystery surrounding Selene’s death makes it even more difficult to determine what kind of emotional relationship the two shared. If the poem written by Crinagoras of Mytilene that describes Selene as having died during a lunar eclipse is taken literally, astronomers can narrow down the possibility to a few dates. The current theory is that Selene died in 5 BC while her son was still very young, and that the best evidence of her death is that Juba married Glaphyra some time between 1 AD-6 AD. As a Romanized prince, the argument goes, Juba simply would not have married Glaphyra if Selene was still alive.

However, the strange circumstances surrounding Juba’s marriage to Glaphyra raise all manner of questions. For one, Juba appears to have met Glaphyra while on expedition. If Selene was deceased, it would mean that our grieving widower would have left behind–for a number of years–at least one young child and a kingdom in flux without a ruler. This may be why it has more traditionally been supposed that Selene was in control of Mauretania while Juba was away. Her regency would also explain the cache of coins that has been discovered, indicating Selene minting her own currency as late as 17 AD–a currency that featured her and her alone. More interesting is the nearly concurrent uprising of the Berber tribes in Juba’s lands with his hasty divorce from Glaphyra, upon which he hot-footed it back to Mauretania.

Did a resentful Selene allow the political situation to get out of hand so that Juba would be forced to return home? Was he compelled to divorce Glaphyra to keep his throne? If so, was it because Augustus worried about an alliance between Juba and the Judean dynasty, or because Selene would not tolerate a rival?

It has been suggested that the puzzling cache of coins depicting Selene alone was minted by Juba as a commemorative of his late wife–perhaps to smooth over tempers, to remind his people who the mother of his son had been, perhaps as an apology for marrying Glaphyra, who seems never to have set foot in Mauretania. If so, this would indicate some measure of deep and abiding affection for Selene–if not on Juba’s part, then at least on behalf of the Mauretanian people over which she ruled for so many years.

So, was it a love match? You tell me!

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