How Did Cleopatra Die?

Bust of Cleopatra

Cleopatra is perhaps one of the most recognized names of all ancient personalities. She is known as a clever temptress who helped reignite the Roman Civil Wars and oversaw the collapse of the Ptolemaic-Egyptian kingdom. Her life and death has been portrayed in fictionalized accounts on both the big and small screens, most notably in the 1963 film Cleopatra and more recently in the HBO series Rome. The real Cleopatra was much more complex than how she is often depicted: she ruled Egypt with the power of a king during a period when rulership was often a male prerogative.

It is true that Cleopatra played a pivotal role in the last phase of the Roman Civil Wars, but in the final analysis it is clear that she was as much as a “player” with her own agency as Mark Antony or Octavian. Perhaps one of the more fascinating and controversial aspects of Cleopatra’s life is her death. After Cleopatra’s and Mark Antony’s forces lost to Octavian at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, the pair had few options. Mark Antony took his life in true Roman fashion by stabbing himself with his gladius, while Cleopatra was said to have either died from the bite of a venomous snake or some other type of poison. An examination of the classical sources combined with more recent studies indicates that Cleopatra more than likely did die from a venomous snake bite.

The Ptolemies of Egypt

Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria

After the Macedonian general and conqueror Alexander III “the Great” died in 323 BC, his generals divided the spoils of the former Achaemenid Persian Empire. While the generals, known as the Diadochi were fighting for control of Greece and Anatolia, Ptolemy I (ruled 305-282 BC) quietly became the king of Egypt. After he defeated another Macedonian general named Perdiccas for possession of Alexander’s body and control of Egypt, he was no longer threatened by his kinsmen and was able to start a new dynasty in Egypt comprised entirely of Macedonian Greeks. [1]

Ptolemy I established many of the cultural attributes that were representative of Ptolemaic Egypt and it was during his reign that the city of Alexandria was first built. Although he remained thoroughly Greek and never learned the Egyptian language, his coronation and some of the more impressive aspects of his reign were commemorated on the “Satrap Stela,” which was an Egyptian language text. [2] The stela was an example of how the Ptolemies were willing to accept some features of traditional Egyptian culture on the outside while still remaining members of the Hellenistic world at their core.

Ptolemy's successors would go on to make Alexandria a cultural magnet as it was a city where some of the greatest scholars of the Hellenistic world traveled to in order to establish themselves in their respective fields, including history, science, philosophy, and art. Although built on Egyptian soil, Alexandria was essentially a Greek city, which was due in large part to large scale Greek immigration to the city during the first 100 years of Ptolemaic rule. [3] The result was that Alexandria looked more like a Greek city with a veneer of Egyptian influence, while the rest of Egypt continued on as it had for centuries. Citizenship followed the Greek model, but a tripartite legal system developed where lawsuits, marriage customs, and criminal laws were followed according to membership in one of the three major ethnic communities: Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish. [4] Along with the political alterations the Ptolemies brought to Egypt, there were also significant cultural changes that took place. Later, when the Romans took control of Egypt they continued the trend by building amphitheaters and other public monuments such as Pompey’s Pillar, which is dated to the third century AD.

Roman influence in Ptolemaic Egypt began in the early second century BC. During that period, the Roman Republic was fresh off its victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War and the Hellenistic successor states were involved in internecine fighting for control of the east. Under King Ptolemy VI (reigned 180-145 BC), Ptolemaic Egypt became embroiled in a war with the Hellenistic successor kingdom known as the Seleucid Empire, which was led by Antiochus IV (ruled 175-164 BC). The war, known as the Sixth Syrian War (170-168 BC), was the last one between the two kingdoms and although the Seleucids technically won when he successfully invaded Egypt and proclaimed himself pharaoh, they were forced to leave when the Romans intervened. According to the second century AD Roman historian Dio, Antiochus IV knew better than to challenge the Romans:

“In a campaign directed against Egypt he conquered the greater part of the country and spent some time in besieging Alexandria. When the rest sought refuge with the Romans, Popilius was sent to Antiochus and bade him keep his hands off Egypt; for the brothers, comprehending the designs of Antiochus, had become reconciled. When the latter was for putting off his reply, Popilius drew a circle about him with his staff and demanded that he deliberate and answer standing where he was. Antiochus then in fear raised the siege.” [5]

Cleopatra in Power

Relief from the Temple of Dendera in Egypt Depicting Cleopatra VII and Caesarion/Ptolemy XV Offering to the Egyptian Goddess Hathor

The Cleopatra in question here was actually the seventh member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty to take the name. Cleopatra came to power when her long-ruling but mostly ineffective father Ptolemy XII (ruled 80-51 BC) declared before he died that he desired his oldest daughter, Cleopatra VII, and oldest son, Ptolemy XIII, to co-rule as king and queen. The rule would require that the offspring marry, which was a practice initiated by the second Ptolemaic king, Ptolemy II (reigned 284-246 BC), and continued until the end of the dynasty. [6] When Ptolemy XII died, Cleopatra VII was sixteen and Ptolemy XIII was only twelve, which meant that there was bound to be plenty of court intrigue.

It took little time before Ptolemy XIII and his advisors, who were no doubt pulling the strings, decided Cleopatra VII was no longer needed so she was expelled from Egypt. It was at that point that Egypt became a major theater of operations during the Roman Civil Wars. The general Pompey fled to Egypt after his defeat to Julius Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC; but instead of being welcomed in Egypt, Pompey was murdered, which gave Caesar the pretense to enter Alexandria with his legions to make Cleopatra VII the sole ruler of Egypt in 47 BC. [7]

At that point, Cleopatra was clearly more of an Egyptian than a Macedonian ruler. The idea of a woman ruling alone was rare in ancient Egypt, but not totally unheard of, with at least three known examples before Cleopatra, the best one being Hatshepsut (ruled ca, 1478-1458 BC). Hatshepsut adopted the titulary of kingship in texts and was shown with the accoutrements of kingship in artistic depictions, leaving no doubt to modern scholars that she was in fact a “king” in the pharaonic sense. [8] There is no evidence to suggest that Cleopatra consciously followed Hatshepsut’s example, or if she even knew about her illustrious predecessor, but there is little doubt that she also assumed all of the prerogatives of an ancient Egyptian king, much like Hatshepsut. One of the first things she did was to give her full support to Caesar and Rome, which she believed would be bolstered when she gave birth to his son, Ptolemy XV/Caesarion on July 23, 47 BC. [9]

Any plan that Cleopatra may have had of ruling over Rome and Egypt at Caesar’s side was dashed when he was assassinated on the Senate floor in 44 BC. His assassination led to the formation of the Second Triumvirate by Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus and another round of the Civil Wars. After the trio achieved victory over Brutus, they divided their spoils with Mark Antony gaining control of the allied eastern kingdoms, which included Ptolemaic Egypt. Mark Antony and Cleopatra soon found themselves as natural allies and later as lovers: she wanted to restore the Ptolemaic Egyptian Empire and he wanted to reorganize the east into Roman provinces. [10] Eventually, Octavian made his own move to conquer all Roman territory by declaring war on Cleopatra. Mark Antony loyally went to war for his ally and lover but was soundly defeated by the upstart Octavian at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC. Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony fled to Alexandria, but eleventh months later Octavian and the Roman army came calling. [11]

The Death of Cleopatra

Mark Antony

According to the ancient sources, when Octavian’s entry into Alexandria was imminent, Mark Antony followed Roman tradition by falling on his gladius sword. There is little controversy surrounding the accounts because that is what a distinguished Roman officer such as Mark Antony would have been expected to do. There is no evidence to suggest he did otherwise. Cleopatra’s death, though, has been a bit more controversial largely due to the oldest classical account. The first century AD Roman historian Plutarch and Cassius Dio were the last two classical historians to mention Cleopatra’s death, which they claimed was the result of a snake bite, but the earliest reference was made by the first century BC Greek geographer, Strabo. The account gives two possibilities for Cleopatra’s death:

“Augustus Caesar honoured this place because it was here that he conquered in battle those who came out against him with Antony; and when he had taken the city at the first onset, he forced Antony to put himself to death and Cleopatra came into his power alive; but a little later she too put herself to death secretly, while in prison, by the bite of an asp or (for two accounts are given) by applying a poisonous ointment; and the result was that the empire of the sons of Lagus, which had endured for many years, was dissolved.” [12]

All modern scholars agree that Cleopatra took her own life in some fashion. If Cleopatra would have surrendered to Octavian, she would have been brought back to Rome as a prisoner, probably tortured, and then more than likely ritually strangled in a public spectacle. A pharaoh would never suffer such indignities so there is little doubt that she committed suicide, but the question remains, which method did she use? Some scholars believe that the poison theory is attractive and point out that according to later ancient sources she was well-schooled in poison lore. [13]


Logic would dictate, though, that it would have been easier for Cleopatra to commit suicide by snake bite than through ingesting poison. Getting the right poison may have been difficult to do while under guard, but there were plenty of poisonous snakes around Egypt at the time. Also, there is the symbolic importance of an Egyptian ruler dying from a snake bite that should be considered. Along with being knowledgeable on medicinal topics, Cleopatra was the only Ptolemy who could speak the Egyptian language and by all accounts she was well-versed in all aspects of pharaonic culture. [14] Because of this knowledge, she would have known that the uraeus, a cobra often depicted on crowns in Egyptian statuary, was a sign of kingship. During the Ptolemaic Period, the double ureaus became particularly popular in statuary and reliefs. [15] Due to these factors, Griffiths argued in his article that Cleopatra probably wore a crown with the double uraeus and that when she committed suicide she did so with two cobras that were brought to her in a basket containing figs, as Plutarch mentioned in his account. [16]

Conclusion

Cleopatra VII was truly a remarkable woman who influenced the course of history in the ancient world. Although she demonstrated incredible guile and intelligence, Cleopatra is unfortunately remembered best for her more tabloidesque affairs and situations, one of them being the manner of her death. There is no doubt that Cleopatra died by her own hands, which was more than likely done through the venom of a snake, or snakes; but until more evidence is uncovered there will be some who believe she ingested a pharmaceutical poison.

References

  1. Bowman, Alan K. Egypt after the Pharaohs: 332 BC-AD 642 from Alexander to the Arab Conquest. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), p. 22
  2. Chauveau, Michael. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society under the Ptolemies. Translated by David Lorton. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 38
  3. Bowman, p. 122
  4. Bowman, pgs. 124-125
  5. Cassius Dio. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1954), XX, 9, 25
  6. Bowman, p. 24
  7. Chauveau, p. 24
  8. Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 46
  9. Chauveau, p. 25
  10. Chauveau, p. 26
  11. Chauveau, p. 28
  12. Strabo. Geography. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), Book XVII, 1, 10
  13. Scarborough, John. “Cleopatra’s Asp.” Pharmacy in History. 37 (1995) p. 33
  14. Bowman, p. 24
  15. Griffiths, J. Gwyn. “The Death of Cleopatra VII.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 47 (1961) p. 118
  16. Griffiths, p. 118

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