The death of Queen Cleopatra and Mark Antony

The war with Rome was lost and no more allies were to be found. The wrath of Rome and it’s all powerful new dictator, Octavian – now renamed Augustus Caesar by the Roman Senate – was coming. Cleopatra knew this all too well and so she made preparations while Antony sulked.

The Most Wicked Women of The Old World...Season 1 ..Episode 8

The war with Rome was lost and no more allies were to be found. The wrath of Rome and it’s all powerful new dictator, Octavian – now renamed Augustus Caesar by the Roman Senate – was coming and Cleopatra knew this all too well, and so unlike the idle and sulking Antony, she made her preparations.

Cleopatra set into motion, one of the most daring escape plans ever. First, she had her private fleet of luxury ships dragged across the desert to the Red Sea – of course, slaves driven by slave masters were the ones doing the dragging. Next, as some historians say, she tested out several poisons on doomed criminals to see which was most effective. Clearly, she was leaving no stone unturned.

She opened up a means of communication with Octavian in Rome to know his intentions towards her. His terms were clear: she could retain her throne, parts or her empire and some of her treasury but she must be able to report beyond all doubt that Antony was dead. Some historians argue that if Rome had asked for just Antony’s head, they would have gotten it on a golden pike but the prospect of losing more than half her empire and her vast treasury was just too much for Cleopatra to bear and so she flung the terms back at Octavian’s face.

Cleopatra’s overthrow was only a matter of time and when Octavian’s ships landed in Alexandria, few remained loyal to her or Antony. The Egyptian Navy capitulated at once and the army was not far behind them with an unconditional surrender. Worse of all was the total surrender of Antony’s Calvary as soon as Octavian’s forces landed. The great city of Alexandria was lost without a fight and a false report reached Antony that Cleopatra had taken her life. He tried to fall on his sword in the old Roman tradition of suicide but missed the heart and lay mortally wounded. Then came the news that Cleopatra was still alive and Antony begged to be carried to her. As Cleopatra wept over her dying lover, he pleaded for her to make peace with her enemy then called for wine and died in her arms.

This sounds like a typical Hollywood ‘high tragedy’ and not of real life. Nonetheless, all the historians I have researched on the issue agree that this was how Antony’s death played out and so who am I to differ.

An even more hideous scene was awaiting the actors, though.

Minutes after Antony’s death an envoy arrived with news that Octavian had marched into Alexandria. Cleopatra was put under house arrest in the mausoleum with Antony’s corpse for company.

Octavian did not demand savage reprisals: he issued pardons freely and even allowed Cleopatra give Antony an honorable burial. She herself performed the burial rites. On returning to her rooms, she fell ill with fever and exhaustion. She was thirty-eight now and the strains and agonies of the past months were taking their toll.

Octavian announced that he would pay her a visit of condolence and consolation. During that visit, Cleopatra tried to bargain with him, even offered a bundle of the love letters written to her by his uncle, Julius Caesar. Octavian was coldly polite but unaccommodating. Cleopatra finally asked his permission to visit Antony’s tomb the following day and the request was granted.

Cleopatra’s sorrows and tragic beauty so moved a young officer on Octavian’s staff that he warned her in a smuggled message of what was in store for her – she was to be sent to Rome in chains as the centerpiece of the Triumph which would be given to the latest conquering hero.

The recollection of her wretched sister, Arsinoe, must have dwelt very clearly in her mind and no doubt it was then that she took her resolve to cheat the Roman mob of its long-awaited spectacle: that of the Egyptian queen who had lured away two of their idols dragging chained limbs through their street amid their yells of and mocking laughter.

Her ladies in waiting made her up to look her most radiant self, they dressed her up like the queen she never ceased to be. When all was ready and she satisfied her own critical inspection, she sent Octavian a request to permit her body to be buried beside that of Antony.

Octavian forgot his royal slippers as he rushed to the royal mausoleum to see what had become of his prized prisoner. He found her lying composed and so peaceful in the sleep of death wearing a white silk dress and adorned with all her royal ornaments. It is said that a peasant (a commoner) was admitted into her midst carrying a basket of figs under which lurked an asp. A tiny snake whose bite brought quick and painless death. When Octavian examined her body, he found two telltale bite marks on her left arm.

And thus, ends the story of the most famous woman in history, a queen who has excited the imagination of the greatest writers, from her days even to ours. According to an illustrious German researcher who lived during the mid-twentieth century, apart from the abundant Roman literature on the theme Cleopatra, from the sixteenth century to his time there had been seventy-seven plays, forty-five operas, and five ballets written around Cleopatra but staggering are the number of books – histories, biographies, essays and a lot of other studies. Of course, our German friend did not live long enough to watch Hollywood’s movie on the Egyptian queen which broke a financial world record – the first movie ever to cost millions to produce.

Depending on the approached, varying impressions of Cleopatra are gotten from the works of historians. Roman historians of her time were harsh in their description of the woman who stole two of their heroes as where Jewish histories who, I guess, saw Cleopatra as the direct descendant of the Pharoh who held their ancestors in bondage for forty years a few hundred years before.

One Jewish historian put his words this way….

* ‘She was by nature very covetous and stuck at no wickedness. She had already poisoned her brother bemuse she knew he was to be king of Egypt, and this when he was but 15 years old. And she got her sister Arsinoe to be slain by the means of Antony when she was a supplicant at Diana’s Temple at Ephesus, for, if there was any means of getting money, she would violate both temple and sepultures.
Nor was there any holy place which was esteemed the most inviolable from which she would not fetch the ornaments that was in it: or any place so profane but was to suffer the most flagitious treatment from her, if it could but contribute somehow to the covetous humor of this wicked creature; yet did all this not suffice so esxt4avant a woman who was a slave to her lusts. She still imagined she wanted everything she could think of and did her utmost to gain it. *

One of the greatest Roman historians ever, Horace, who celebrated Octavian’s victory over Antony with a song of triumph, made Cleopatra the chief enemy, painting her as the demon queen who was bent on the destruction of the Roman empire. She was to him, a woman of insane ambition struck down by Octavian.

But even the ranks of these counterparty Romans could not help but admire the nobility of her defeat and in the end, Horace sees her as a woman of 'mighty spirit'.

Other great Roman historians were not so generous, though. Propertius, writing at the same period as Horace, described Cleopatra as a ‘royal whore’. He publicly warned the Roman people that she was bent on replacing their gods with the animal deities of Egypt and then claimed that her defeat saved them from both a religious and a national calamity. Another great historian, the poet Virgil, in his work Aeneid, reveals his horror at ‘Antony’s alliance’ with Rome’s greatest enemy –  Cleopatra,

The historian, Dante awards her a place among ‘Carnal Sinners’ in the second circle of his hell and for a companion, she has Helen of Troy.  Shakespeare saw her as a strumpet (a whore or a woman who is too sexually active) and a ‘gipsy woman’ but ennobles her with the epitaph in his death scene:

“Now boast thee death, in thy possession lies 
A lass unparalleled”

One famous historian that blasted the hell out of Shakespeare-- for romanticizing the death of a ‘sex kitten’, as he put it, was Bonnard Shaw, ..... and on it went, one great historian against the other, but it was always the same woman ...Cleopatra.

Well, with such great talents arrayed against her, it is impossible to enter a plea of innocent on Cleopatra’s behalf.  However, the charge of being evil and a whore seems ridiculous, particularly given the evidence at hand. This was certainly a phenomenal beauty who exploited her sex appeal in matters of state. Her only mistake and, yes, crime, seems to be that she reached out to grasp the world through a backdoor but failed to seize it.

The end.....

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