How did Cleopatra die?

As is well known, Cleopatra VII was the Queen of Egypt and the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Even today, the public is impressed by the story of how she used her charm and intelligence to seduce powerful men and secure her throne as pharaoh, especially Julius Caesar and, after him, Mark Antony.

However, the end of her life was tragic. In the aftermath of Caesar’s death, Mark Antony and Octavian (who later became the Roman Emperor Augustus) fought for power. After Antony’s final defeat in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Cleopatra, who had been Antony’s companion for many years and had three children with him, fled home to Alexandria. Augustus pursued Antony and her, and laid siege to the city.

The events around the death of Cleopatra

What happened then is described first by Strabo and, then by Cassius Dio and Plutarch. Strabo is the earliest source for Cleopatra’s suicide and he even may have been in Alexandria at the time she died. Plutarch desribes the events more than a century later and Dio a century later still, although his source probably was a document written by Olympus, Cleopatra’s personal physician, whom he mentions.

Strabo, a Greek geographer and historian, wrote about Cleopatra’s death in his work Geography in quite simple terms:

“When he (Augustus) had taken the city at the first onset, he forced Antony to put himself to death and Cleopatra to come into his power alive. However, 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.”

It is evident, that the public wanted more information, detail and the juicy bits of it all.

Plutarch obliged and thus described her death in much more vivid detail in the 85. Chapter of his Parallel Lives. What is truth and what fiction in his account remains to be debated. It seems that his grandfather visited the court in Alexandria at Cleopatra’s time, though. Moreover, other sources agree on the general lines. Especially Cassius Dio in his account. Let us compare them and try to separate truth from fiction.

Cleopatra flees

The scene between Mark Antony and Cleopatra, as described by Plutarch, was horrendous. Cleopatra had ordered her fleet to retreat, while Antony had intended to fight. Plutarch writes, “Antony, after being defeated with his infantry, retired into the city, crying out that he had been betrayed by Cleopatra to those with whom he waged war for her sake. But she, fearing his anger and his madness, fled for refuge into her tomb and let fall the drop-doors, which were made strong with bolts and bars. Then she sent messengers to tell Antony that she was dead.”

One can imagine the impression this would make. The Pharaoh of the country, fleeing to her pre-prepared tomb and protecting herself from anyone, including her partner.

According to Plutarch, Antony believed the false message of Cleopatra’s demise and attempted suicide by running a sword through his belly, but was not immediately successful. As the blood ceased flowing, he regained consciousness and begged the bystanders to give him the finishing stroke. But they fled from the chamber, and he lay in pain until Diomedes, a secretary, came from Cleopatra with orders to bring him to her into the tomb.

According to Cassius Dio, Cleopatra was seen looking out of her tomb and did not send anyone for Antony. But Antony was told of her being seen and got his servants to carry him to her. It is unclear which version is correct as it cannot be verified anymore.

In what regards locations: Probably, Antony gave himself his mortal belly wound in the Timonion, a small palace that he had himself constructed in the port of Alexandria. The name of the place, chosen by him, is quite telling. Timon was a Greek, that was left by all friends, when he became poor.

Which distance the dying Antony is carried, is equally unclear, as the tomb of Cleopatra is sought for until today. But most probably it lay in the middle of Alexandria and just some hundred meters away from the Timonion. See here more on that question.

Plutarch says: “Having learned, then, that Cleopatra was alive, Antony eagerly ordered his servants to raise him up, and was carried in their arms to the doors of her tomb. Cleopatra, however, would not open the doors, but showed herself at a window, from which she let down ropes and cords.”

Dio says that the reaction to Antony’s death was due to a certain contrivance, as the tomb’s doors, once closed, could not be opened again, but the upper part of it next to the roof was not yet fully completed and there were ropes hanging there. Antony was fastened to the ropes, and Cleopatra drew him up herself, with the aid of the two women she had admitted with her into the tomb (Dio also mentions an Eunuch being there). Plutarch then writes: “Never, as those who were present tell us, was there a more piteous sight. Smeared with blood and struggling with death, he was drawn up, stretching out his hands to her even as he dangled in the air. For the task was not an easy one for women, and scarcely could Cleopatra, with clinging hands and a strained face, pull up the rope, while those below called out encouragement to her and shared her agony. And when she had thus got him in and laid him down, she laid her garments over him, beat and tore her breasts with her hands, wiped his blood upon her face, and called him master, husband, and imperator, almost forgetting her own ills in her pity for his.”

Antony still asked for a drink of wine, either because he was thirsty or in the hope of a speedier release. Then he advised Cleopatra to seek her own safety and among all the companions of Augustus to put confidence in Proculeius. After that, Mark Antony died.

It is peculiar to note that neither Plutarch nor Cassius Dio dwell much on the fate of Antony. Both concentrate on Cleopatra’s and Augustus’ feelings.

Plutarch writes that Cleopatra suffered, and Augustus wept (as he knew Antony very well). Then, Augustus did everything to get hold of Cleopatra alive. Plutarch says this was to have something to show in the much hoped-for triumph in Rome. Dio writes instead that Augustus feared for the money, as the tomb of the Pharaohess also held the royal treasure. He claimed moreover that Cleopatra “kept at hand fire to consume her wealth, and asps and other reptiles to destroy herself, and she had the latter tried on human beings, to see in what way they killed.”

For the latter, there is no proof, as both her handmaidens made it out of the tomb alive and only later died with her. Also, for the feelings of the people concerned, there are no reliable sources. Neither Plutarch nor Cassius Dio were present. It would have been interesting to read the original account of the physician of Cleopatra, Olympus, on which Dio relied.

Cleopatra is captured by ruse

In any case, Augustus sends Proculeius to negotiate with the queen, who sits in her tomb like in a fortress.

Yet, Cleopatra does not accept to put herself into his hands. According to Plutarch, she “confers with Proculeius after he had come close to the tomb and stationed himself outside at a door, which was on a level with the ground. The door was strongly fastened with bolts and bars, but allowed a passage for the voice. So, they conversed, Cleopatra asking that her children might have her kingdom, and Proculeius bidding her to trust Augustus.”

Indeed, at that moment, Cleopatra’s eldest son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, was on his way to India with a part of the royal treasure. Later, he would be slain by Augustus. The murder of the 15-year-old was perceived as a crime. Augustus also had the eldest son of Mark Antony, the 17-year-old Antyllus, put to death.

What Cleopatra did not realize at the moment she negotiated with Proculeius was that the latter was surveying the place. He brought back word to Augustus, and someone else – according to Cassius Dio, a certain Epaphroditus, a freedman – was sent to have another interview with the queen. Coming up to the door, he purposely prolonged the conversation while Proculeius applied a ladder and thus went in through the window by which the women had taken Antony inside. Then he went down to the very door at which Cleopatra was standing. One of the women imprisoned with Cleopatra cried out, “Poor Cleopatra, you are taken alive,” whereupon the queen turned, saw Proculeius, and tried to stab herself, for she had a dagger at her girdle.

But Proculeius managed to take away her weapon and even shook out her clothing to see whether she was concealing any poison. Some very dramatic words are put in the mouth of Proculeius, praising Augustus and how Cleopatra should trust him. They are pure flattery and rather reflect how Plutarch wants to be seen than what happened. Yet the fact is that Cleopatra was indeed captured.

It is also confirmed by all historians that Augustus allowed Cleopatra to bury Mark Antony in a sumptuous and royal manner in her tomb. According to Cassius Dio, she embalms him, and according to Plutarch, he is cremated, and his ashes are put into an urn. Which of the two is not verifiable, as the grave has not been found.

Plutarch adds that Cleopatra is in sorrow and pain, and her breasts were wounded and inflamed by the blows she gave them. She falls ill, abstains from food, and even consults her doctor, Olympus, on how to die.

Cleopatra tries to seduce Augustus

Augustus, however, had no interest in seeing her dead. He wanted to have her as a prized showpiece of his – much hoped for – triumph in Rome. He thus assailed her with threats concerning her children so that she surrendered and accepted care and nourishment.

After a few days, apparently at Cleopatra’s request, Augustus came to speak to her and comfort her. Plutarch describes the following scene:

“She was lying on a wicked bed of pallets, clad only in her tunic, but she rose at his entrance and threw herself at his feet. Her hair and face were in a terrible disarray, her voice trembled, and her eyes were sunken. There were also many marks of cruel blows on her chest. In a word, her body seemed to be no better off than her mind. However, the charm for which she was famous and the boldness of her beauty were not quite extinguished but, although she was in such a sad state, they shone from within and were manifested in the play of her features.”

The subsequent exchange between her and Augustus is quite telling in what concerns her situation and her character, or at least what was thought by Plutarch to be her character. If Plutarch can be believed, it also gives a quite human image of her and shows that Augustus and Cleopatra must have been close and known each other well.

Plutarch writes that Augustus invited Cleopatra to lie down in bed and sat down beside her. “She began justifying her conduct, attributing it to necessity and fear of Antony. But Augustus opposed her and refuted her arguments, so she quickly changed her tone and sought to move his pity by praying, as one who, above all else, clung to life. Finally, she gave him a list of all her treasures, and when Seleucus, one of her stewards, showed that she was stealing and hiding some of them, she sprang up, seized him by the hair, and struck him in the face.

When Caesar, with a smile, stopped her, she said, “Is it not monstrous, O Caesar, that at the moment when you have deigned to come and see me and speak to me, while I am in this miserable situation, my slaves reproach me with having kept some female ornaments, not for myself, unhappy as I am, but to make trifling presents to Octavia and your Livia, and that by their intercession I may find you more merciful and gentle?”

Caesar was pleased with the encounter and left with the impression that Cleopatra had no suicidal thoughts.

However, the story that Cassius Dio recounts sounds different.

Cleopatra and Octavian, painting by Gauffier

“Cleopatra accordingly prepared a splendid apartment and a costly couch, and moreover arrayed herself with affected negligence, — indeed, her mourning garb wonderfully became her, — and seated herself upon the couch. “

Beside her, she placed many images of Julius Caesar, of all kinds, and in her bosom, she put all the letters that he had sent her. When Caesar Augustus entered, she leaped gracefully to her feet and cried, “Hail, master—for Heaven has granted you the mastery and taken it from me. But surely, you can see with your own eyes how Julius Caesar looked when he visited me on many occasions, and you have heard people tell how he honored me in various ways and made me queen of the Egyptians. That you may, however, learn something about me from him himself, take and read the letters which he wrote me with his own hand.”

Some points are confusing: Julius Caesar was not the biological father, but only the adoptive father of Augustus and was declared so posthumously. It is also unclear why the love letters of Julius Caesar should seduce Augustus. And finally, it is likely that Olympus was not present in the scene (and even less the much later-born Cassius Dio).

Yet, Dio adds even more romance: “Sweet were the glances she cast at him and the words she murmured to him. Now Caesar was not insensible to the ardor of her speech and the appeal to his passions, but he pretended to be; and letting his eyes rest upon the ground, he merely said: ‘Be of good cheer, woman, and keep a stout heart; for you shall suffer no harm.’ She was greatly distressed because he would neither look at her nor say anything about the kingdom nor even utter a word of love, and falling at his knees, she asked him to let her die with Antony.”

If anything, the text shows that even in antiquity the main appeal of the Cleopatra story lay in her seductive powers and tragic fate.

Cleopatra decides to die

The story continues to become even more awe-inspiring.

When Cleopatra learned from a young nobleman named Cornelius Dolabella, who was in love with her, that Augustus was preparing to march with his troops through Syria and had decided to send her and her children away within three days, she decided to die.

According to Plutarch, she asked Augustus to allow her to make libations for Antony, and as he granted this, she had herself carried to the tomb. Kissing the urn that contained his ashes in the company of the women who usually surrounded her, she said, “Dear Antony, I buried you only recently, with my hands still free, but now I pour libations for you as a captive and a monitored person. […] Expect no other honors or libations. These are the last from Cleopatra the captive.”

Then she embraced and kissed the urn and ordered a bath to be prepared for her. After her bath, she sat down at the table and prepared a sumptuous meal. A young man was stopped by guards at the door, and they asked him what he brought. He opened the basket, removed the leaves, and showed them that the dish it contained was full of figs. The guards were amazed at the size and beauty of the figs. The man smiled and asked them to take some, so they were not suspicious and invited him in.

After the meal, Cleopatra took a tablet that was already written and sealed, sent it to Caesar, and then, dismissing all the rest of the company except her two faithful maids, she closed the doors.

Caesar opened the tablet and, when he found the lamentations and supplications of one person who begged him to bury her with Antony, he soon understood what had happened. At first, he thought of going to help himself, then he ordered messengers to go quickly to the scene and investigate. But the misfortune had been swift, for although his messengers had come running, and the guards had not yet seen anything, when they opened the doors, they found Cleopatra dead on a golden couch, dressed in royal costume. Of her two girls, the one called Iras was dying at her feet, while Charmion, already staggering and with a heavy head, was trying to arrange the tiara that encircled the queen’s forehead.

Someone said angrily, “This is a fine deed, Charmion!”

“It is indeed a fine deed,” she said, “befitting the descendant of so many kings.” She said no more and collapsed beside the table.

It is said that an asp had been brought with the figs and leaves and was hidden under them, for Cleopatra had given orders that the reptile should attach itself to her body without her noticing. But when she removed some figs and saw the reptile, she said, “There it is, you see,” and, laying her arm bare, she held it out for it to bite.

Others say that the asp was carefully enclosed in a jar of water, and that while Cleopatra was stirring and irritating it with a golden distaff, it sprang up and attached itself to her arm. But no one knows what the truth of this is, for it is also said that she carried the poison in a hollow comb and hid this comb in her hair, and yet no stain or other sign of poison appeared on her body. Moreover, the reptile was not even seen in the room, although traces of it were said to have been seen near the sea, where the room overlooked it through its windows. Some also say that Cleopatra’s arm bore two slight and indistinct punctures, which Caesar seems to have believed as well. Indeed, at her triumph, an image of Cleopatra herself, with the asp hanging from it, was carried in the procession. So these are the accounts of what happened.

Cassius Dio (LI.14) adds some details to the account of the minutes, writing:

“When Caesar heard of Cleopatra’s death, he was stricken with grief. He visited her body, sent for remedies and Psyllids to try to save her. Psyllids are men (no female psyllid is born). They can, at the moment before a person is dead, suck out all the venom of a reptile without experiencing any danger themselves since none of these animals bite them.”

In truth, it is unlikely that Cleopatra died from a snake bite. The asp, the Egyptian Cobra, has special traditional importance in Egypt and would thus be a very fitting murder weapon for a Pharaoness. Yet, the symptoms are lacking.

Bites by vipers and cobras usually cause tissue damage. Often, the area becomes tender and severely swollen within five minutes. The area may also bleed and blister, and eventually, this will lead to necrosis. Other common symptoms include bleeding, nausea, vomiting, and respiratory failure. It is unlikely that nothing of all this would have been visible on Cleopatra’s body.

In some sources it is claimed that Cleopatra had sent some of her maidservants to act as guinea pigs to test different poisons, including belladonnahenbane, and the strychnine tree’s seed. Indeed, the ancient Egyptians as well as Romans had good knowledge of deadly poisons and it is much more likely that Cleopatra used strychnine.

Plutarch and Cassius Dio both agree that Augustus, unable to bring Cleopatra back to life by any means, was seized with admiration and pity for her. He also felt sorrow for himself, as if he had been deprived of the most beautiful part of his victory.

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