History’s Heirs: The Royal House of Mauretania  

Great neighbouring regions of the world, which divides the Nile,/ Swollen from black Ethiopia, divides,/ You have created common kings for both through marriage, making one race of Egyptians and Libyans./ Let the children of Kings in turn hold from their fathers a strong rule over both lands. – epigram on the occasion of the marriage of Juba II of Numidia and Cleopatra Selene II of Egypt

Oh boy, folks, I apologize in advance if these entries get disjointed or (more) silly in the next month or so. Last week my editor sent back my manuscript for the last book in my God’s Wife trilogy, so I’ve been all over the place in the rest of my life while I comb through her work. The good news is so far I’m not looking at the level of rewrites that Daughter of Eagles needed, so that means a (hopefully) sooner-rather-than-later release date for Children of Actium. I would love, and so would all of the marketing advice I get from my distributors, to promise a holiday release, but as I get incrementally better at publishing, the most important thing I’ve learned is not to rush the process. So, as we sit here in the first week in October, I’m aiming for a January 2022 release date. Stay tuned!

While The God’s Wife follows Arsinoë IV through the fall of Ptolemaic Egypt and Daughter of Eagles picks up the thread of history twenty years later in Octavius’ Rome, Children of Actium rejoins the action thirty years later still, in the twilight of Octavius’ reign. My girl Aetia, the protagonist of Daughter of Eagles, returns to kick ass and chew bubblegum, but the real leads in CoA will be the heirs of Rome and Egypt: Octavius’ grandson, Gaius Caesar, and Cleopatra’s granddaughter, Drusilla the Elder of Mauretania. But in a book where the sins of older generation come home to roost on my three main characters, my Dru is the glue that holds everyone together, so I thought as an appetizer, this week we’d take a more thorough look at the brief, bright flame that was her kingdom, the Roman client Kingdom of Mauretania

The early history of ancient Mauretania (as opposed to the modern state of Mauritania, as I’ve tried to explain to my autocorrect for five years running), is actually the story of two kingdoms, that of Numidia and Mauretania. Between them, these lands covered coastal North Africa from modern Libya to Morocco, minus the easternmost part of Libya known in ancient times as Cyrenaica, which was a satellite territory of Ptolemaic Egypt on par with their dependent lands in Cyprus. And much like Cyprus, the rule of Cyrenaica was generally given to a junior member of the royal family, with the last childless member willing the state to the Roman Republic.

Numidia and Mauretania were both ruled by tribal chieftains of the Berber people. “Berber” (βάρβαρος) was the Greek name for this collection of indigenous North African people, literally Greek for “barbarian.” Although the Greeks were famous for calling all non-Greeks barbarians, the Berbers were the only ones for whom the name has stuck through the historical record. Modern members of this ethnic group call themselves Imazighen (ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵏ in their own alphabet), particularly in the Moroccan west. The Imazighen of the period we’re discussing were divided into three large tribal entities: the Numidians in the east, the Mauri in the west, and the Gaetuli in the south beyond the Atlas Mountains. The Gaetuli, because of their southern-oriented lands, retained a more nomadic culture than the two coastal powers, who had more contact with the Greeks and later the Romans, although the Roman historian Sallust says they constructed semi-permanent dwellings as well. Much like the Bedouin in the Arabian peninsula, the Gaetuli maintained a mobile, warrior-led raiding culture deep into the Roman Empire period, but as a result, were generally viewed as “less civilized” than their ethnic cousins in the north. However, they used this to their advantage, because long after Rome absorbed both Numidia and Mauretania into the Empire, the Gaetuli would remain the only free Imazighen people in Africa.

Although the Mauri claimed the Titan Atlas as their legendary first king, for most antiquity the Numidians were the strongest Imazighen tribal group. But much like the clan organization of the Celts and Germans, all of the Imazighen groups intermarried and power was always shifting among them to whoever had the strongest ruler. The Numidians gained ascendence in the region when Rome used the indigenous Numidians and their chief, Masinissa, to put the squeeze on the Punic Phoenicians in Carthage during the Punic Wars (the latest of which occurred during the 200s BC). However the proverbial ink was hardly dry on the Roman-Numidian alliance before Rome was already suspicious that their African allies intended to exercise a much more solo claim to the region Scipio Africanus et al had worked so hard to subdue.

[A satellite view of the Atlas Mountains]

This culminated in the Numidian wars (112-105 BC) against Masinissa’s illegitimate grandson, Jugurtha, whose conflicts with Masinissa’s other heirs eventually sucked Rome into the dynastic struggles of the region. But a distracted Rome was on the verge of the Social War, so for nearly seven years Jugurtha rapidly consolidated power in North Africa with only minimal resistance from the Imazighen or Rome. He arranged a marriage alliance with the chief of the Mauretanians, BocchusI’s, daughter, and his still semi-nomadic light cavalry rode circles around the late Rome Republic’s comparatively plodding horse troops. The Roman consul on the scene, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, and his legate, Caesar’s uncle Gaius Marius, work hard to make alliances with the Gaetuli and try to keep the Mauretanians neutral during his service on the African front, but the fighting was largely at a stalemate when Marius returned to Rome to stand for election to the second consulship. He wins, and ends up sending his quaestor and eventual political rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to see if he can break the African logjam. Sulla agrees that Marius had the right of the situation and the only way to beat Jugurtha on his own turf is to cut the strength out from underneath him. He focuses on Jugurtha’s father-in-law, Bocchus of Mauretania, who’d reluctantly joined the Numidian fight in 107 BC. Sulla gets Bocchus to agree to betray Jugurtha in exchange for a large territorial grab in Numidia, and the Numidian chieftain is captured by Bocchus in 105 BC. Jugurtha was sent to Rome to be paraded in Marius’ triumph the next year and was subsequently strangled in the traditional manner at its conclusion.

Jugurtha’s half-brother Gauda takes up the diminished throne of Numidia, while Bocchus rules that of ascending Mauretania, and both territories get embroiled in the war between Marius and Sulla, and later, the civil war between Pompey and Caesar. Gauda’s son, Hiempsal II, is weak enough to be chased from his rule in Numidia, but Pompey steps in to reinstate him. It’s this client loyalty that will ensure Hiempsal’s son, Juba I, will back Pompey in his fight with Caesar. Unfortunately, this proves to be a losing hand for Juba, as his army and that of Pompey’s new father-in-law, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio, are routed by Caesar’s forces at the Battle of Thapsus. This defeat leads to the effective dissolution of Numidia, as well as the suicides of Metellus Scipio, Cato the Younger, and the Numidian Juba, who wishes to avoid his great-uncle Jugurtha’s fate in Rome. But Caesar isn’t to be thwarted so easily, and in the dead king’s place, he brings Juba’s only son, also named Juba, back to Rome to be marched in the Numidian portion of his unprecedented four-triumph extravaganza in 46 BC.

Now, unlike the seventeen year old Arsinoë, who was brought to Rome as an actual punishment for her role in the Alexandrian War and was expected to be executed as an enemy queen, it is pretty obvious that was never the intention for the younger Juba. Based on the extant sources, Juba is described with the Greek word brefos, indicating that at the time of the triumph, he was an infant no more than two years old. Even if Caesar had somehow originally intended pull an Odysseus and Astyanax and execute a baby, once popular opinion forces him to commute Arsinoë’s sentence he could hardly kill little Juba. So instead, Juba is taken into Caesar’s household, where he is raised and educated as a Roman, first under Julius’ protection, and after the Ides, under Octavius’. We’ll get back to him in a minute.

[Juba II of Mauretania]

Meanwhile, Bocchus of Mauretania had divided his territory between two of his sons, Bocchus II and Bogud. Each took a different side in the civil war, with Bocchus II supporting Pompey (and later Pompey’s son, Sextus Pompeius) and Bogud backing Caesar. Despite ostensibly choosing the wrong side, Bocchus comes out ahead— in part because he spends a lot of the civil war years grabbing territory from Juba I rather than really helping the Pompeian cause, even though technically Bocchus and Juba were allies. After the fall of Numidia, Bocchus also takes advantage of his brother Bogud being away helping Caesar’s cleanup campaign in Hispania and effectively merges all of Mauretania and Numidia into a single conglomerate kingdom, of which he is now the sole ruler. Bogud objected, obviously, but he is defeated in the end largely because, while he’d backed the right horse in the first half of the civil wars, his brother picked the right party to be with when the music stopped. Bocchus was smart enough to get into Octavius’ good graces while Bogud was in Hispania, which left Bogud with no choice but to side with Antony in hopes of getting his birthright back. Unfortunately for him, even if Antony had been successful, Bogud dies during the Actium campaign, leaving Bocchus the winner by default. However, Bocchus himself dies childless in 33 BC, which leaves neither brother the victor. Like other Mediterranean ruler before and after him, Bocchus wills his kingdom to Rome to administer, but Actium means that rather than the Republic, he leaves Mauretania to Octavius personally. This gives Rome’s new princeps individual control not just over the conquered kingdom in Egypt, but of the whole of the North African coast. For the next eight years, Rome will govern Mauretania directly as a quasi-province.

Now, during the back half of the civil war, young Juba is growing up in Julii milieu in Rome. Aside from exposure to arguably the intellectual hub of the Mediterranean at the time that he soon proved to excel in, the teenaged Juba would become part of an increasingly multicultural extended household when he returned from serving with Octavius’ troops at Actium. After the suicides of their parents, the children of Mark Antony and Cleopatra would be taken to Rome to be marched in Octavius’ triumph, but like Juba, they would otherwise be freed and placed in the home of Octavia the Younger, the Roman widow of their father. This sounds like it was a special Octavius-brand sadistic punishment, but Octavia seems to have held to the adage that divorces are between adults, not children, and all indications say that the Ptolemy kids enjoyed perhaps their first stable home life living with their Antonii step-siblings in Rome. It also appears that the orphaned Juba gravitated towards them. Six years older than the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and ten years older than young Ptolemy Philadelphus, Juba was the perfect older brother figure to help the no doubt traumatized Ptolemies learn the ropes of their new life. He probably was an especially welcome replacement for kids who’d lost not only their parents, but their original big brother, the recently executed Caesarion.

Juba’s deep intelligence and loyalty make Octavius decide to award him his hereditary title of king of Numidia when he turns sixteen in 30 BC. Although it was merely an honorary title, it likely meant a great deal to the dispossessed boy to be able to call himself Juba II of Numidia, to harken back to his long-lost roots. We don’t know who Juba’s mother was, but most of the ruling Imazighens were at least biracial (Afro-Greeks), if not solely African, and even though that wouldn’t have been a specific detriment in Rome, his likely appearance would have always marked Juba as different in Italy. Being allowed to call himself a titular African king was a kind allowance by Octavius that gave him more of a place in a rapidly changing society. 

Fate (or possibly Octavius) was not as kind to the Ptolemy boys. Between 29 BC and 25 BC, both Alexander and Ptolemy Philadelphus vanish from the historical record. It is very possible that both boys died of illness, but historians have always been quietly unsettled at how extremely convenient the deaths of Cleopatra’s last two sons was for Octavius. Now, in Octavius’ defense, Cassius Dio says that he had promised to spare them as a last favor to Antony and Cleopatra (Roman History, 15.6), and no one, not even Suetonius or Tacitus, claims he had the boys killed, where everyone is quick to admit he had Antony’s son Antyllus and Cleopatra’s son Caesarion executed as necessary. That said, as we saw with Arsinoë, it’s one thing to cop to the execution of the seventeen year olds Antyllus and Caesarion, who would have been seen as adults, and quite another to the deaths of two boys who would have been somewhere between the ages of seven and fifteen. Like the medieval Princes in the Tower, or their brother’s Caesarion’s paternity, the fate of Alexander and Ptolemy Philadelphus is a question with no provable answer, and how much blame one wants to put on Octavius generally aligns with one’s overall opinion of him, good or bad.

[Richard III knows how that goes…]

Regardless of who or what was responsible for the boys’ demise, Octavius was relieved of figuring out what to do with them, but he still had their sister. Selene seems  to have adapted to her new life well under the circumstances, in part because when she comes of age (in 25/24 BC), Octavius appears to be interested in doing well by her. Which is either evidence that he had no interest in killing her brothers, or that he felt guilty about killing her brothers. Anyway, there was only one thing for a highborn young woman to do in those days and Octavius started looking about for a suitable marriage for her, when he suddenly realized he had a single African king and a single African princess under his care…

[This is where I wish I could draw because I can so clearly picture Octavius holding his two African kids together and being like, “NOW KISS!!”]

Luckily for them, the bookish Juba and the erudite daughter of perhaps the most intellectual woman of her generation were as compatible in personality as they were in their accident of geography. Octavius divides the former kingdom of Numidia, with the western half of the kingdom becoming the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, and the eastern half is joined to Bocchus’ old territory to create a new Mauretania, which he then gives to Juba and Selene to rule as a semi-independent client kingdom, in addition to a generous dowry for the new queen. Just as Juba is allowed to recall his defeat father by calling himself Juba II, Selene is permitted to style herself as Cleopatra Selene II, harking back to her Ptolemy ancestors (the first Cleopatra Selene was the daughter of Ptolemy VIII Physcon, and ruled as a queen consort of Egypt and a queen regnant of Syria). Married off by the Julii, the royal couple leave Rome in 25 BC and return to their own continent to begin their rule.

They choose the Mauretanian city of Iol (near modern Cherchel, Algeria) as their new capital, and in a clear act of gratitude, rename it Caesarea in Octavius’ honor. Mauretania’s Caesarea quickly becomes a cultural hub, as Selene rebuilds the city very much in the image of Alexandria, the lost city of her childhood. The architecture of Caesarea and the nearby settlements was in the Greco-Egyptian/Roman style with which the king and queen were familiar, and the royal couple quickly became noted patrons, particularly of the performing arts and the natural sciences. The later was largely because Juba himself was a respected writer of nonfiction and poetry. It is believed he wrote his first book, a study of Roman archeology, by the age of twenty, but his interests were wide-ranging and we know he was the author of at least ten works which covered topics from painting to geography. His treatise On Arabiawas the gold standard ethnographic treatise on the region during antiquity and was a bestseller throughout the Mediterranean. None of his works have survived, but he is extensively quoted in other ancient authors’ texts. Pliny the Elder quotes him sixty-five times in his Natural History, and through Pliny the Younger we learn that Juba is the one who gave the Canary Islands their name— not for the bird, but for the ferocious dogs (canarius— Latin for “of the dogs”) his expedition found on the islands. But Juba’s impressive literary output also demonstrates that he and his wife were a gifted and highly effective political team, where Selene’s own acumen for government gave her husband time to write while still performing the job they’d been sent to do by Octavius, which was maintain the security of Rome’s interests in Africa.

[The African coast at Chercel]

And it is a sign of how well they were succeeding in that endeavor that when Selene gave birth to their first child and crown prince (c. 13-10 BC), they had no compunction about naming him Ptolemy and Octavius registered no complaint about that. However, Juba and Selene were still good clients, so when their daughter was born a few years later (c. 8-6 BC), they named her Drusilla as a sign of respect for Octavius’ wife, Livia Drusilla, and her gens.

[Ptolemy of Mauretania]

This is where I have to take a break to note that the records of the Mauretanian royal family are a mess. There isn’t a ton of scholarship out there about them, and much of what there is exists solely in French (because of the French colonial control of the sites in Algeria). Now, I actually can read enough French to get by even in academia, but it often means having to rely on places like Wikipedia to check one’s work. I love Wikipedia (I find some of my best primary sources in the bibliographies), but jumping between Juba, Selene, Ptolemy, and Drusilla’s pages is a perfect example of why it’s important to engage in attentive reading when one is researching. One page will tell you Selene dies in 6 BC and another in 6 AD, and there’s an ongoing confusion about how many Drusillas there are in this family. When I started writing CoA, Drusilla’s page was trying to convince me that she is the Drusilla married to Marcus Antonius Felix in 53 AD and mentioned by St. Paul in the Book of Acts (24: 24-7), even though that would have made her at least sixty to Felix’s forty-odd. Now, marriages like that happened, especially with a rich bride like the princess of Mauretania would have been, but it would have been a first marriage for both of them, which seems ludicrous.  It is much more likely (and currently the going explanation on Wikipedia), that this is Drusilla the Younger of Mauretania, the only known child of Ptolemy, who was born c. 38. A bride of the standard Roman age of fifteen makes much more sense, particularly considering Drusilla the Younger and Felix divorce and they bothremarry. Felix complicates the matter by marrying another Drusilla, Drusilla of Judaea, the daughter of Herod I Agrippa. Anyway, this is a friendly reminder that if something you’re reading doesn’t make logical sense, don’t be afraid to question it. As you can see, even experts have trouble keeping all these people with the same four names straight.

[Cleopatra Selene II of Mauretania]

I also think some of the confusion comes from we don’t really know anything about Drusilla the Elder of Mauretania. We mostly agree she existed, but beyond her birth, she doesn’t have a historical footprint. This likely means that if she existed, she died young, but obviously the novelist in me saw the perfect protagonist and I’ve made her a story where history lets us down.

After Selene’s death (on whichever side of the BC/AD divide that was), Juba eventually remarries, choosing Glaphyra of Cappadocia, daughter of Archelaus Philopatris, the king of the Roman client kingdom of Cappadocia. Glaphyra had been married to one of Herod the Great of Judaea’s sons, but her husband was executed by his father in one of Herod’s many family purges and she returns to her father’s court. When Juba passes through Cappadocia in the entourage of Octavius’ grandson, Gaius Caesar, he and Glaphyra meet. By roughly 6 AD, they marry, but lightning in a bottle doesn’t strike twice for Juba, because by 7 AD, Glaphyra’s divorced him for one of Herod’s other sons. After this marital misadventure, Juba clearly returns to his books and remains unattached until his death sixteen years later. Some of the confusion about Selene’s death comes from the fact that Mauretanian coins minted as late as 17 AD still bore her face, but in view of the extremely brief nature of Juba’s marriage to Glaphyra and the obviousness of his marriage to Selene being a true love match, I think Juba missed his wife and was honoring her memory as his eternal partner.

[Juba and Selene’s tomb in Iol-Caesarea]

As for Ptolemy, he becomes the king of Mauretania upon his father’s death in 23 AD, though he’d officially been Juba’s co-ruler since 20 AD. Like Juba, Ptolemy spent a significant amount of his childhood being educated in Rome in the household his mother’s stepsister, Antonia Minor, and living with his Julii cousins. Although he seems to have had a Ptolemy-esque reputation for enjoying the finer things, Ptolemy also carried on his parents’ excellent administration and Mauretania remained one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the Roman orbit. He continues on like this, rich and generally very popular until 40 AD, when he makes one of his frequent trips to Rome to visit his Julio-Claudian relatives at the invitation of the emperor, his young second cousin (or first cousin, once removed) Gaius, aka Caligula. Everything appears to be fine at first, with Caligula affirming Ptolemy in his kingdom and his status as a friend of the Empire. But this is Caligula in the back half of his increasingly unhinged reign, and with seemingly no provocation, Caligula suddenly does a complete 180 and promptly has Ptolemy assassinated before he can return to Mauretania.

As with most of Caligula’s motivations, historians are divided about why he chose to do this. Cassius Dio claims that Caligula was jealous of Ptolemy’s (and Mauretania’s) wealth and simply wanted to abolish the client kingdom and make it a full Roman province (Roman History, 59.25.1), while Suetonius says that Caligula was driven into a murderous rage at the public acclaim a particularly fine purple cloak that Ptolemy wore to the theater received (The Twelve Caesars, Caligula 35.2). I’ve also read a theory that the clever, Ptolemaically confident Ptolemy came to Rome, saw his cousin’s kid acting crazy, and was the only person willing to call out Caligula on his behavior, and the emperor didn’t appreciate that. At any rate, Ptolemy’s death ends the sixty-five year existence of the Roman kingdom of Mauretania and one of Ptolemy’s loyal freedmen gathers up a coalition of Imazighen tribal groups to launch a protracted revolt in the name of the dead king against Roman authority that wouldn’t be put down until 44 AD. Once Rome regained control of the territory, the emperor Claudius divides the remains of Mauretania into two provincial entities: Mauretania Tingitana and Mauretania Caesariensis.

[Zenobia of Palmyra]

On a final note, we don’t know much about Ptolemy’s consort, Julia Urania, who may have been as humble as his favorite concubine, or as exalted as a daughter of the Emesene dynasty, an Arab client kingdom ruling in Syria. The latter may explain how her daughter Drusilla the Younger ended up married to the Emesene priest-king Sohaemus after her divorce from Felix. We know that Drusilla and Sohaemus had at least one son, Gaius Julius Alexio, who ruled Emesa after his father as Alexio II, but after Alexio, the historical record breaks down and no one can be definitively identified as his descendant, and by extension, descended from the royal house of Mauretania. Julia Domna, the wife of Roman emperor Septimius Severus (145-211 AD), was a member of the Emesene royal house and could be a descendant, and Zenobia (240-274 AD), the legendary queen of the Syrian kingdom of Palmyra, claimed descendant from the Mauretanians, and through them, the Ptolemies, but this is also debatable. But both of these indomitable women, famed for their political savvy and flair were certainly the spiritual heirs of Cleopatra and the Mauretanians, if not their blood relations.

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