Death of Cleopatra by Arnold Bocklin (Swiss, 1827–1901)

Death of Cleopatra by Arnold Bocklin (Swiss, 1827–1901)

Some dramatic Victorian paintings depict “Mother of Kings, Queen of Kings, the Youngest Goddess” Cleopatra VII releasing herself from life with a deadly snake at her pale breast. Like many of the sparse, but vivid, stories about Cleopatra, it’s poetically stirring. It would have been a gruesomely painful death, though, and according to Plutarch when her body was discovered by Octavian she was laying in peaceful repose with her handmaidens Iras and Charmion joining her in death. Charmion was still awake and is said to have spoken before she passed out, indicating that what killed the trio may have been a kind of narcotic elixir.

In her nearly 40 years, Cleopatra used her brains and charm to run the one of the richest countries in the world, secure power over much of the rest of the world, and embody the goddess Isis in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew of her. She was a performer as well as a ruler. There had been many Cleopatras before her, but there is now only one Cleopatra. Via her romance with Julius Caesar, she introduced Rome to a thirst for learning and culture at a level their rather austere land had not known. Her hometown, Alexandria, Egypt, was the most cosmopolitan and scholarly city of the time, a metropolis whose wonders have since been drowned by time and water.

We remember Cleopatra and she continuously excites our imaginations because she was rich and powerful, but also because she was smart, clever and stylish. Her decadent artistry was beyond compare; her strategies were often ahead of everyone else’s game. It’s one thing to be rich; it’s quite another to have taste. It’s one thing to have power, quite another to use it wisely. Her body succumbed to mortality, but she turned out to be a goddess after all, living eternally in the world culture, influencing us not only with the things she set in motion but the legends and stories she left behind and inspired. Because there is less evidence of her life than we would like, we take what little we can find and reshape her again and again. The production of Cleopatra’s legend, an epic of glamour and sorrow, shows no signs of stopping.

Cleopatra was a scholar, already extremely well-read and well-spoken by age 16 when the rule of Egypt landed at her feet. One of her particular specialties during her reign was the study of poison, a useful endeavor for a Ptolemy. How she became such a poison expert, of course, has macabre implications. She is said to have tested her concoctions on condemned prisoners, watching them carefully after they’ve been bitten by a snake or imbibed a poison recipe. When it’s the family tradition to murder your relations, it’s good to know which will do the trick quick and easily.

She lived in mean times, seemingly meaner than the times we live in now. In Cleopatra’s age, the constant murders and bloody betrayals of family and friends depicted in Game of Thrones would seem tame. The surest way to eliminate competition was to snatch time itself from them. Assassinations were constant and furious. One of the greatest wonders of Cleopatra was that she was able to somehow keep herself alive as long as she did and that she did not die at the hands of another. The best way she knew to secure her survival (beyond establishing blood and love allegiances with married Roman leaders,) was to murder her siblings. Her older sister Berenice was executed by their father, and her other siblings succumbed to war, but Cleopatra did away with her second brother-husband herself with an arranged poisoning while she was away.

Cleopatra, 1888, by John William Waterhouse

Cleopatra, 1888, by John William Waterhouse

But even with her intricate machinations, August 12, 30 BC all of Cleopatra’s grand plans had failed her. She was already at the mercy of Octavian, whose forces were moving in to seize the glorious Alexandria, and her lover and political partner Marc Antony had slain himself after erroneously hearing that Cleopatra had already extinguished her light. Resolved never to walk in chains as someone’s captive, and no stranger to showy production, Cleopatra staged a beautiful death.

Shakespeare wrote than an asp delivered to the fallen queen in a basket of figs during her last supper was the source of her death, painters loved to imagine how the small snake looked upon her chest, and the 1963 film starring Elizabeth Taylor shows Octavian finding Cleopatra in a room crawling with the menacing serpents.

But, Cleopatra’s death, as perfectly planned and staged as many of her ceremonies and celebrations, could not be a ravaging and violent one like the one delivered by a cobra bite. If that had been Cleopatra’s fate, she would have stayed alive for days, and her beauty would be spoiled by spots on her skin. Even if she was willing to bear that, death was uncertain with a snake’s sting. No, she needed to slip away quickly, before she would be found. She needed a perfect death, laying across her gilded chaise. Her dignity, wrapped in divinity and legend, must stay unspoiled. Christoph Schäfer, a German scholar, speculates that her last cocktail was a mixture of opium, hemlock, and aconitum, a tonic sure to slip her into a painless slumber. Charmion, still alive but woozy when Octavian discovered them, is reported by Plutarch (and reprinted by Shakespeare) to have said of Cleopatra’s death, “It is well done, and fitting for a princess / Descended of so many royal kings.”

Even Plutarch doubted that it was a snake’s bite that killed her because there was no snake found in the room where she died. He suggested that she kept a poisoned comb in her hair that would only kill her if she pricked herself and mixed the poison with her blood.

John Collier: The Death of Cleopatra (1890)