Another Alexandria mystery

(Next time you visit Alexandria, bring your metal detector?)

Facts About Cleopatra’s Death That Sound Made Up – But Aren’t

Megan Summers

Updated December 18, 2020

Picture the scene: It’s summer in Egypt, and Cleopatra, the kingdom’s most famous ruler, knows Augustus, her mortal enemy, is in Alexandria ready to dethrone her with his legion of Roman soldiers. Cleopatra senses the end is imminent – not just for her, but for her long-time partner, the Roman general Mark Antony.

While historians debate the particular events that transpired that August in 30 BC, it’s certain that, by the end of the month, Cleopatra and Antony were no more. Over the centuries, the legend of Cleopatra’s death has overshadowed the true history of this often misrepresented, self-proclaimed goddess’s final days. However, the truth is sometimes more unbelievable than fiction, and no one proves this better than Cleopatra herself.

  • Photo: Justus van Egmont / 
  • After The Battle Of Actium, She Created A Goth-Sounding Secret Society In 31 BC, a year prior to her demise, Cleopatra watched as the combined naval fleets of Egypt and Mark Antony were decimated by Augustus’s forces at the Battle of Actium. While Augustus consolidated power in Rome, the ill-fated lovers retreated back to Alexandria to bide their time before Augustus’s next move.In the year following the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra and Antony put their exorbitant wealth toward one lavish party after another. They also dissolved their drinking club, “The Society of Inimitable Livers,” and formed a new one: “Companions to the Death.”Cleopatra took this macabre obsession with her demise to the next level, erecting her own mausoleum in Alexandria. In her defense, most of her Roman allies abandoned her. The queen knew her reign was coming to an end.
  • Photo: Sergey Sosnovskiy 
  • Believing Cleopatra Had Perished, Mark Antony Attempted To Do The Same. It all came to a head around August 1, 30 BC. Antony and Augustus battled on the outskirts of Alexandria, but Antony’s army was no match for his opponent’s. Antony’s men, knowing they were doomed, deserted him and joined Augustus. Antony had no choice but to surrender.When word of this reached Cleopatra, she fled to her mausoleum. She decided to fake her death by sending a note to Antony, believing he would follow suit. Some historians think Cleopatra was secretly negotiating with Augustus, and she knew Antony was doomed no matter what.Whatever her motivation, when the letter about Cleopatra’s demise reached Antony, he was devastated. As the Greek historian Plutarch tells it, Antony spoke these words:”O Cleopatra, I am not distressed to have lost you, for I shall straightaway join you; but I am grieved that a commander as great as I should be found to be inferior to a woman in courage.” Antony then stabbed himself in the stomach with his own sword.
  • Photo: Pompeo Batoni 
  • A Fatally Wounded Antony Was Carried To Cleopatra’s Tomb. The self-inflicted wound did not end Antony’s life. When word of his condition made it to Cleopatra, she had her injured lover brought to the mausoleum. Soon after, Antony expired in Cleopatra’s arms. Without her companion, Cleopatra likely worked many angles to win Augustus’s favor. It’s clear the would-be Roman emperor only cared about one thing: obtaining Cleopatra’s wealth, which she stockpiled in the mausoleum.
  • Plutarch wrote that Augustus “was fearful about the treasures in her funeral pyre, and he thought it would add greatly to the glory of his triumph if she were led in the procession” of victory back home in Rome.If there’s anything Cleopatra refused to be, it was a trophy.
  • Augustus Apparently Allowed Her To Give Antony A Proper Burial.
  • Nearly two weeks transpired between the passings of Antony and Cleopatra. While popular lore often excludes this detail, Augustus granted Cleopatra permission to tend to Antony’s body. Antony was either embalmed, inhumed, or cremated according to Egyptian customs.This funerary ritual may have filled Cleopatra with a sense of foreboding and dread, as she was well aware that a similar destiny awaited her.
  • Photo: Peter Paul Rubens 
  • She May Have Used A Snake To End Her Own Life. Museums around the world are full of paintings depicting a scantily clad Cleopatra grasping a venomous snake. As the story goes, the ruler lured a cobra or viper into her chamber, which promptly bit her. The snake’s venomous bite brought Cleopatra’s 39 years of life to an abrupt end.Spoiler alert: No one knows exactly how Cleopatra perished on or around August 12. Augustus made it clear her only option was to return to Rome with him, where she would be paraded around like a conquest. It’s on-brand that this powerful, female ruler would rather take her own life than be subjected to so much ridicule.Many historians believe Cleopatra either poisoned herself or was assassinated by Augustus. A hundred years after her demise, Plutarch hypothesized in his published annals that Augustus developed the snake bite narrative as a propaganda tool to amplify his power in Rome. Other ancient historians, most of them Roman, stand by the snake bite tale. More and more contemporary historians, though, think Plutarch’s theory is a more realistic one.
  • Photo: Juan Luna 
  • Two Of Her Maidservants Passed With Her. From the beginning of the ordeal, two of Cleopatra’s closest maidservants stayed by her side: Iras and Charmion. In multiple chronicles and works of art, the women flank the lifeless body of their ruler, having succumbed to the same plight as Cleopatra.Most portrayals show the three pallid women in Cleopatra’s mausoleum, surrounded by vestiges of her riches. If the saga is true, it’s less likely one venomous snake could be responsible for three fatalities, and more likely the women came into contact with a lethal concoction or poison.Ultimately, though, as the second-century writer Cassius Dio declares in his Roman History, “No one knows clearly in what way [they] perished.”
  • Before She Passed, Cleopatra Was Considered An Enemy Of The Roman StateBefore the Battle of Actium, Augustus and Antony vied for control of Rome in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. The two generals essentially split the growing Roman Empire between them, and Cleopatra sided with Antony.As Cleopatra and Antony’s romance blossomed, Antony neglected his wife in Rome – Octavia, Augustus’s sister. Augustus used the affair between Cleopatra and Antony to rile up his fellow Roman statesmen. When Antony officially divorced Octavia, Augustus used his power to declare war on Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, in 32 BC.The move was a strategic one for Augustus, who later journaled about how the declaration improved his chances of defeating Antony: “The whole of Italy voluntarily took oath of allegiance to me and demanded me as its leader in the war in which I was victorious at Actium.”
  • Photo: John William Waterhouse 
  • Her Only Child With Julius Caesar Also Met A Terrible Fate. Antony was not the first Roman general Cleopatra fell for. In 47 BC, she gave birth to a son named Caesarion, whose father was allegedly Julius Caesar. After Caesar was taken out by Roman senators, Cleopatra shacked up with Antony, with whom she had three children: one girl and two boys.When she lost the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra sent the teenaged Caesarion away, convinced he would be assassinated on the spot by Augustus’s army. Caesarion and part of his mother’s royal treasury sailed up the Nile River, where he hoped to eventually make it all the way to India.Unfortunately, the 17-year-old Caesarion was caught along the way and didn’t survive the trip.
  • While Her Daughter Survived, The Fate Of Her Two Sons With Antony Remains Unknown. Cleopatra and Antony shared twins (one female, the other male) and a young son. After their parents perished, the children were shipped to Rome and put under the care of Octavia, Antony’s former wife.The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, by all accounts went on to live a full life. The boys, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus, eventually disappeared without a trace. What happened to the young men remains shrouded in mystery.
  • Photo: Einsamer Schütze 
  • The Ptolemaic Dynasty Ended With Cleopatra. Even though she donned the title Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was not ethnically North African. Her royal family, the Ptolemaic Dynasty, were all Macedonian Greeks who controlled Egypt for nearly 300 years. The first ruler, Ptolemy I Soter, rose to power after the demise of Alexander the Great, reigning as both an Egyptian Pharaoh and a Greek monarch.The Ptolemies, as they came to be known, isolated themselves in their capital city, Alexandria, and married within the family line in order to keep their lineage Greek. The kingdom came crashing down when Cleopatra perished, and what remained of it was eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire.
    • The so-far undiscovered tomb?
  • Photo: The Boucicaut Master 
  • Antony And Cleopatra Were Buried Together In An Alexandrian Tomb. Honoring Cleopatra’s final wishes, Augustus buried the deceased ruler next to Antony in a large tomb somewhere around Alexandria. Like something out of a Shakespearean play, the two lovers were reunited in their final rest.This story was corroborated by Plutarch, who wrote that Augustus declared that Cleopatra’s “body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion.” Another ancient historian, Suetonius, backs this up, explaining that Augustus “allowed them both the honor of burial, and in the same tomb, giving orders that the mausoleum which they had begun should be finished.”
  • The Location Of Their Tomb Has Yet To Be Discovered. Where is the fabled tomb that contains the remains of Cleopatra and Antony? What other treasures, if any, exist inside it? Despite what some archaeologists have claimed over the years, the location of the tomb remains unclear. One recent theory is that her tomb lies 30 miles outside of Alexandria in the ancient temple site of Taposiris Magna.Scientists have searched far and wide in and around Alexandria for clues, but the hunt continues for the queen of Egypt and her Roman lover.
Categories: History, Science and Biography | Leave a comment

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