Questions in Egyptology 9: Why Did Cleopatra Kill Herself?

Juan Luna de San Pedro y Novicio Ancheta Public Domain.

Did Cleopatra wish to be noble in death, or did she fear public humiliation at the hands of Octavius Augustus?

According to American art historian Robert Bianchi, conflicting accounts of Cleopatra’s suicide were in circulation almost immediately after her death. He also claims Octavian would have savoured the thought of parading the defeated Cleopatra through the streets of Rome. [1]

Suicide, i.e. deliberately killing one’s self, was practically unheard of in ancient Egypt. This makes the story told about the end of Cleopatra’s life all the more intriguing. Egyptians generally did not see suicide as a violation of their religious or legal codes, and there is no archaeological evidence of suicides in the ancient Egyptian civilization. However, literary texts such as ‘Desperate from Life’, an intellectual dialogue on despair, injustice, and corruption in the world, suggest some people certainly thought about ending their own lives. [2]

The Death of Cleopatra, Guido Cagnacci, Met Museum, Public Domain.

The famous judicial papyrus of Turin records the so-called Harem Conspiracy, a plot to murder Ramses III. The conspirators were given punishments ranging from execution, suicide, flogging, imprisonment, and severing of the nose, for their respective roles in the crime. Although we do not know precisely how individual conspirators were punished, it is likely members of the royal family were offered the dignity of suicide as an alternative to execution.
Suicide was, however, a regular feature of elite Roman life. Romans promoted the idea of”patriotic suicide.” In other words, death was preferable to dishonour. Suicide was explicitly illegal for soldiers, slaves, and people accused of capital crimes.

Plutarch’s account of Cleopatra’s Death [3]

John Collier, Prado, Madrid. Public Domain.

On hearing of Antony’s defeat at Alexandria, Cleopatra took off to her tomb. ‘It is said that the asp was brought with those figs and leaves and lay hidden beneath them, for thus Cleopatra had given orders, that the reptile might fasten itself upon her body without her being aware of it. But when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said: ‘There it is, you see,’ and baring her arm she held it out for the bite. But others say that the asp was kept carefully shut up in a water jar and that while Cleopatra was stirring it up and irritating it with a golden distaff it sprang and fastened itself upon her arm. But the truth of the matter no one knows; for it was also said that she carried about poison in a hollow comb and kept the comb hidden in her hair, and yet neither spot nor other sign of poison broke out upon her body.’

‘When they opened the doors of the tomb they found Cleopatra lying dead upon a golden couch, arrayed in royal state. And of her two women, the one called Iras was dying at her feet, while Charmion, already tottering and heavy-headed, was trying to arrange the diadem which encircled the queen’s brow. Then somebody said in anger: ‘A fine deed, this, Charmion!’ ‘It is indeed most fine,’ she said, ‘and befitting the descendant of so many kings.’ Not a word more did she speak, but fell there by the side of the couch.’

‘Moreover, not even was the reptile seen within the chamber, though people said they saw some traces of it near the sea, where the chamber looked out upon it with its windows. And some also say that Cleopatra’s arm was seen to have two slight and indistinct punctures; and this Caesar also seems to have believed. For in his triumph an image of Cleopatra herself with the asp clinging to her was carried in the procession. These, then, are the various accounts of what happened.’

‘But Caesar, although vexed at the death of the woman, admired her lofty spirit; and he gave orders that her body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion. Her women also received honourable interment by his orders. When Cleopatra died she was forty years of age save one, had been queen for two and twenty of these, and had shared her power with Antony more than fourteen. Antony was fifty-six years of age, according to some, according to others, fifty-three. Now, the statues of Antony were torn down, but those of Cleopatra were left standing, because Archibius, one of her friends, gave Caesar two thousand talents, in order that they might not suffer the same fate as Antony’s.’

Livy’s Account [4]

The Death of Cleopatra, Arthur Reginald Smith, Public Domain.

‘After Caesar had reduced Alexandria, and Cleopatra, to avoid falling in the victor’s hands, had died by her own hand, he returned to the city to celebrate three triumphs: one over Illyricum, a second for the victory at Actium, and a third one over Cleopatra; this was the end of the civil wars, in their twenty-second year.’

Livy wrote that when Octavian met Cleopatra, she told him frankly that “I will not be taken as an achievement.’ Octavian only gave the cryptic answer that her life would be spared. He did not offer specific details about his plans for Egypt or his royal family. When a spy informed Cleopatra that Octavian intended to take her to Rome to be presented as a prisoner in her Roman triumph, she decided to avoid this humiliation and took her own life at the age of 39; on August 30. Plutarch elaborates how Cleopatra approached his suicide in an almost ritual process that involved bathing and then a good meal that included figs brought in a basket. [ Book 133].

Strabo’s Account and Horace’s Ode [5]

Horace concurs with Plutarch and Livy that Cleopatra died by her own hand as does Strabo.

Cassius Dio Account[6]

Cleopatra Meet Julius Caesar, Falkner: Public Domain

Cleopatra, on her part, unknown to Antony, sent to him (Octavian) a golden sceptre and a golden crown together with the royal throne, signifying that through them she offered him the kingdom as well; for she hoped that even if he did hate Antony, he would yet take pity on her at least. Caesar accepted her gifts as a good omen, but made no answer to Antony; to Cleopatra, however, although he publicly sent threatening messages, including the announcement that, if she would give up her armed forces and renounce her sovereignty, he would consider what ought to be done in her case, he secretly sent word that, if she would kill Antony, he would grant her pardon and leave her realm inviolate.

‘Upon hearing from the envoys the demands which Caesar made of them, sent to him again. Cleopatra promised to give him large amounts of money. Antony reminded him of their friendship and kinship, made a defence also of his connexion with the Egyptian woman, and recounted all the amorous adventures and youthful pranks which they had shared together. Finally, he surrendered to him Publius Turullius, who was a senator and one of the assassins of Caesar and was then living with Antony as a friend; and he offered to take his own life if in that way Cleopatra might be saved.

Caesar put Turullius to death, but this time also he gave no answer to Antony. So Antony despatched the third embassy, sending him his son Antyllus with much gold. Caesar accepted the money but sent the boy back empty-handed, giving him no answer. To Cleopatra, Octavian sent many threats and promises of love and loyalty alike, hoping to prevent her from destroying or absconding with the mountain of money she had stacked up in her tomb.
In the meantime, Octavian’s army proceeded to take the city of Pelusium in the delta. But believing Octavian’s protestations of affection, Cleopatra forbade the Alexandrians to rise against him, and so he took Alexandria as well. She clearly expected forgiveness, according to Cassius.

Antony, we are told, took refuge in his fleet and was preparing to give battle on the sea or, at any rate, to sail to Spain. When Cleopatra heard he was taking her ships, she ordered her sailors to desert and moved into her tomb, saying she feared Caesar and would thus take her own life. Cassius interprets this move as an act of betrayal to Antony. According to Cassius, Cleopatra’s cry for help would either make Antony rush to her side where she would kill him, or he would kill himself if he heard she had taken her own life. Either way, the wicked Cleopatra would ensure the end of the once noble Antony.

Cassius tells us that Antony went to the tomb dripping with blood because he had stabbed himself in the stomach when a friend refused to kill him. An implausible scenario, if you ask me. Why stab yourself before you go to rescue your wife and the mother of your children? Nevertheless, Cassius asks us to believe this and also that Antony died in Cleopatra’s arms in her tomb while she waited for Octavius to forgive her.

She embalmed Antony’s body and buried him. Then we are told Octavius removed anything she could use to kill herself from her apartment because he wanted her alive. A couple of sentences later, Cassius describes how Cleopatra redecorated the apartment, added a golden couch and draped herself upon it invitingly, thus ignoring her duty of mourning her dead husband, Antony. In Cassius’ eyes, Cleopatra was a fully paid up scheming slut.

Cleopatra, we are told, convinced Octavius she would travel to Rome with him while she planned her own demise. Her plan was to die as painlessly as possible. Cassius clearly thought she was a coward too. After putting on her best clothes and draping herself in symbols of royalty, she lay on her golden coach and killed herself.

Conclusions

In Doi’s version of her death, which is the most detailed, all the men are portrayed more honourably than her. This is the same Roman attitude to women who were considered to have transgressed sexually and betrayed their Imperial husbands as we see applied to Empress Messalina. It is straight forward misogyny.

A respectable woman in ancient Rome was required to keep a low profile. Women were supposed to be defined by their husbands, fathers, and sons. They were required to live faithful uncomplaining lives. Modesty and fidelity were the foremost virtues of a Roman woman — virtues Cleopatra clearly did not believe in either because she was not Roman or most probably because she was a queen in her own right and not a consort.

Whenever a Roman woman went out, assuming she was of noble birth, she would be chaperoned by slaves. She had to cover her body in a long gown called a stola, including her face. Over it, she wore a ‘palla’ or cloak. Indeed until the reign of Octavius Augustus, there were no statues of women at all. A noblewoman’s body was no business of anyone else except her husband. And, no respectable Roman woman would dare to be found lying around half-dress on a golden couch, especially when she was supposed to be mourning for her dead husband!

Valerius Maximus, writing in the century after Cleopatra’s death, gives several examples of errant women being ‘punished’ by their husbands. Egnatius Metellus, he tells us, bludgeoned his wife to death merely for drinking wine. Valerius tells his readers that far from being charged with murder, he received no public censure. According to Valerius, women needed to be kept under male control to stop them from scheming, as did Marcus Porcius Cato, otherwise known as Cato the Censor. [7]

It is possible Octavius might have paraded her at his triumph but unlikely. Working on the basis Cleopatra was not a ‘savage’ Gaul like Vertingeterex; and that she was the vanquished queen of the most culturally advanced nation on earth when she died, it is unlikely Augustus would have humiliated her. However, she was not a good example, so it was open season on her reputation for authors like Dio, whether she had died at her own hand or from a gnat bite.

Cleopatra — Waterhouse, Public Domain.

Sources

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Originally published at https://juliaherdman.com on May 6, 2021.

Julia Herdman writes about ancient Egypt and the Classical World. She also writes historical fiction about Regency London.