The sensuous, voluptuous queen Cleopatra ended her life with a singular, stylish death.
When she and Antony lost the war and he killed himself, that spirited woman determined to die like royalty, where and when she herself chose, rather than as a captive in Rome, after being put on show in a victory-parade.
On her final day, first she savoured a leisurely, languorous bath in water swooning from Syrian and Assyrian perfumes. Next she was caressed by a whispering silk robe, double-dyed in Tyrian purple, and adorned by a diadem of glittering gold, with jutting crescent moons and rearing jade-eyed asps. Then she took her ease at a sumptuous banquet, sipping rare vintages from Chios and Campania, and sampling lobster and Sicilian lamprey; pheasant, flamingo and Gaetulian antelope; aromatic apples and plump, succulent figs. During dinner she diverted herself by listening to love poetry, as honey-tongued voices recited ornate lyrics by Ibycus and passionate lines of Catullus. Her face, free from pallor and devoid of tension, showed that she was serene, resolute, imperturbable, as she strolled towards Death. After dinner she even played with her pet sunbird, inciting it to peck her fingertip and smiling at its harmless nips. She also said goodbye to each of her slaves, in their own native language, and rewarded them all not only with their freedom but also with talents of silver and gold, emeralds and diamonds, onyx and sardonyx, beryl and chrysoberyl.
Finally, she takes from her hair an ivory comb containing a swift poison and uncaps it. A deadly black glob hangs at the end of the comb, then oozes off it and slowly slides down through her drink. She gazes briefly at the wine, glowing now in the golden goblet, and swallows the acrid draught in one. It is only at this point that her self-control splinters. Her eyes fill with spilling tears, tears of joy. Flinging her diadem away, she cries: ‘Antony, my love, my soul, being a queen, being descended from so many kings, is nothing without you.’ And all her slaves break into a keening, screaming dirge of despair as she murmurs: ‘Now we’re together again,’ and dies.
After writing those words Cornelius sat with his chin resting on his interlaced fingers, thinking how different her actual death had been – a sad end for the great queen of Egypt, an exceptional person, who he’d admired and pitied so much. He shook his head at the tragic waste, the passing of all that passion and beauty and intelligence.
After Octavian won the war against Antony and Cleopatra and established himself as the most powerful man in the Roman world, Antony committed suicide and Cleopatra became a shadow of herself, and then a shadow of a shadow. She hated life without her lover, neglected her appearance, wouldn’t eat. But she drank. She drank to dull her acute misery and despair. And it was apparently drink that killed her.
Cornelius was on guard outside her quarters when he heard screams from the two attendants with her. He rushed in and found her dead. Lying in spilled wine. Supine. Legs splayed. Neck twisted.
He deduced that she’d slipped on the liquid and cracked her skull on the table. Iras and Charmion claimed that she’d taken poison concealed inside a comb in her hair, but he decided that the women were just inventing a dignified death for their beloved mistress.
After finding Cleopatra dead Cornelius came out, locked the door, stationed a soldier there with orders to let nobody in or out and stumbled off to tell Octavian the news, numb with dread.
He entered Octavian’s quarters to find that he had impaled a fly with a stylus and was observing its death-struggle on the table before him through a large emerald. After it finally stopped moving, he looked over at Cornelius and jerked his chin up. As he heard about the queen’s death he stopped breathing and became unnaturally still. In the silence that followed he raised his left hand to his mouth, put his little finger inside it and bit down on it, hard. After several seconds he took it out and hissed through blood-stained teeth: ‘Stupid, stupid imbecile! You were ordered to keep the bitch alive, to be the highlight of my grand victory-parade. You botched that, so you salvage something from this disaster! Go and write a report of a death fitting for a queen and a formidable enemy of Rome. I’ll see to the rest. I’ll send men to pick it up in one hour. Now get out.’
An hour later Octavian’s two agents arrived.
They had murdered the queen’s two attendants, mangled her face and thrown the bodies out for the dogs to eat.
They took Cornelius’ report and killed him.
They handed it over to Octavian, and were killed themselves.
Octavian glowered as he examined what Cornelius had written. The besotted fool had made it far too positive. But there was some material in it that could be used for the official version of her death, now beyond challenge. Cuts and changes would have to be made. He would figure in the account himself, as a right-minded man of feeling. She must not dominate the end with the last words. And her death should be alien, barbaric, repellent…
Octavian sat there with winter in his eyes, calculating, controlling the narrative.
A little over a hundred years later the Greek writer Plutarch sat looking over the first draft of his version of Cleopatra’s death, based on the accounts then available to him. He intended to include it at the end of his Life of Antony, because it reinforced his depiction of the dangerously alluring qualities of the queen which undermined the Roman and led to his downfall. He pondered what he could add to make his narrative more dramatic and moving and portray Cleopatra as more clever and passionately attached to her man. He read:
After taking a bath she reclined at table and was served a sumptuous meal. When an Egyptian peasant turned up carrying a basket, the guards asked him what was in it. He opened the lid, parted the leaves and showed them that it was full of figs. As they admired the large, lovely figs, he smiled and invited them to help themselves to some. This allayed their suspicions, and they told him to go in with them. After her meal Cleopatra took a sealed writing-tablet containing a message from her and sent it to Octavian. Then she told all her attendants to leave, apart from Charmion and Iras, and closed the doors.
When Octavian opened the writing-tablet and read there mournful appeals by the queen begging him to bury her with Antony, he quickly worked out what she had done. His first impulse was to go himself to save her life, but then he sent others rushing off to see what was going on. But it was all over. Although the men ran there and the guards they met at the doors were unaware of anything wrong, when they opened up, they found her dead, lying on a golden couch, in her royal regalia. The woman called Iras was dying at her feet; Charmion was by now unsteady and her head was lolling, but she was setting straight the diadem around the queen’s brow. Somebody said angrily: ‘Here’s a fine thing, Charmion.’ And she replied: ‘Yes it is, really fine, fitting for someone descended from so many kings.’ And without another word she collapsed there beside the couch.
According to one account the asp was brought in with the figs, hidden under their leaves, on Cleopatra’s orders, so the snake could make a surprise attack on her; but when she took some of the figs, she caught sight of it and said: ‘So here it is,’ and bared her arm and held it out to be bitten. Others say the asp was confined in a water-jar and was being observed by Cleopatra, and when she enticed it and irritated it with a golden distaff, it sprang out and fastened on her arm. But nobody knows the truth of the affair. For there is also a story that she was in the habit of carrying poison in a hollow comb concealed in her hair; however, there was no discolouration on her body or any other indication of poison. Several people also say that two small, faint punctures were seen on her arm, and Octavian also seems to have believed this, as an image of Cleopatra with an asp fastened to her was carried in his victory-parade.
Although he was angered by her death, Octavian admired her nobility of spirit and gave orders that she should be buried with royal splendour beside Antony. Her two attendants also received an honourable funeral at his command.
Paul Murgatroyd was Professor of Classics at McMaster University, Canada. His publications include Tibullus Elegies II (1994); The Amatory Elegies of Johannes Secundus (2000); Mythical and Legendary Narrative in Ovid’s Fasti (2005); and From Augustus to Nero (2006). His short stories have been published in Horla, Crossways, Winamop and elsewhere, and over 50 of his Latin poems have appeared in British, European and North American periodicals.