This week in history: Cleopatra's suicide

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Aug. 12 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

On Aug. 12, 30 B.C., Cleopatra VIII, queen of Egypt and mistress to first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony, committed suicide.

A member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra's forebears had been Macedonians who had conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. under the command of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra was a direct descendant of Ptolemy, one of Alexander's most valued generals. When her father, the Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes, died in 51 B.C., he left his kingdom to the 18-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII. In keeping with tradition, the two siblings were expected to marry.

Joyce Tyldesley writes in her biography, “Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt”: “Husband or brother, Ptolemy, as king, should have been the dominant partner in the relationship. But he was a minor, ruling via a regency council, and for the first year and a half of their joint reign, Cleopatra became the effective monarch while her brother was pushed into the background.”

After a palace coup, a cabal sidelined and exiled Cleopatra and ruled through her brother. This lasted until Rome's civil war intervened. Pompey the Great, fleeing after his defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar in Greece, sought asylum in Egypt. As he waded ashore, he was beset by soldiers and decapitated.

When Caesar arrived in Egypt a short time later, he was enraged to find that Pompey had been murdered, setting him at odds with the ruling cabal immediately. Soon seduced by Cleopatra, Caesar backed her bid for power and with the strength of Rome behind her she was once again queen of Egypt.

Together, Caesar and Cleopatra had one son, Caesarion. After Caesar's murder in Rome in 44 B.C., she sought protection from another powerful Roman, Caesar's protege Mark Antony. The two began living as husband and wife in Alexandria, Egypt, putting Antony at odds with Roman public opinion.

To most citizens of the republic, a good Roman woman was far superior to any foreign barbarian, whether or not she was a queen. It didn't help Antony's position that his character was under constant attack from Caesar's adopted son and heir Octavian (later Augustus), whose sister Octavia was married to Antony.

Tyldesley writes of the anti-Antony propaganda spread in Rome: “Tales of Antony's unnatural subservience to Cleopatra spread like wildfire ... she had recruited Roman soldiers into her bodyguard; she had made Antony rub her feet like a slave at an official banquet (and everyone knew what foot-rubbing led to!) ... Cleopatra had only to appear and Antony would drop everything and run after her. Antony was ... planning to abandon Rome and establish a new capital in Egypt. He was assuming un-Roman, foreign ways.”

Such attacks worked, and Octavian had public support on his side. In late 32 B.C. the Roman Senate stripped Antony of his titles and declared war not on Egypt but on Cleopatra herself. The war came to a climax in the following year when Cleopatra and Antony's fleet met Octavian's forces.

Historian Tom Holland writes in his book “Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic”: “Throughout the summer of 31 B.C., with his fleet rotting in the shallows and his army rotting with disease, Antony was blockaded on the eastern coast of Greece. ... Finally, when the stench of defeat had grown too overpowering for Antony to ignore any longer, he decided to make a desperate throw. On 2 September he ordered his fleet to attempt a breakout, past the Cape of Actium, into the open sea.”

Though Cleopatra and Antony were able to escape, the Battle of Actium was a disaster for their cause. The next summer, Octavian's armies advanced on Alexandria and Cleopatra and Antony knew their time was almost up. Cleopatra also feared for the safety of her son Caesarion, who as Caesar's biological son posed a potential political threat to Octavian.

According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, Cleopatra perhaps realized that her only hope for survival was to distance herself from Antony and appeal to Octavian. To this end she had a message delivered to Antony stating that she was dead, and in his grief Antony killed himself. Meeting with Octavian, she tried to flatter him and begged that he take pity. When she realized that Octavian only wanted her alive to be paraded in Rome, she decided to take her own life on Aug. 12.

Dio writes: “No one knows for certain by what means she perished, for the only marks that were found on her body were tiny pricks on the arm. Some say that she applied to herself an asp. ... According to others she had smeared a pin with some poison ....” The exact cause of her suicide is still debated more than two thousand years later. Caesarion was soon hunted down and murdered by Octavian's men.

Dio sums up the remarkable woman's life with all the prejudice of a third-century Roman: “Cleopatra was a woman of insatiable sexuality and insatiable avarice. She often displayed an estimable ambition, but equally often an overweening arrogance. ... Through her own unaided genius she captivated the two greatest Romans of her time, and because of a third, she destroyed herself.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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