Decadence, Todessehnsucht and the eroticism of the femme fatale - the Death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE

12 August 30 BCE, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra VII Philopator or just Cleopatra, committed suicide in Alexandria, allegedly by means of an asp bite.

“Peace, peace!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?" (Shakespeare, "Antony and Cleopatra")

An imagination of the Death of Cleopatra, typical for the late 19th century, mixing Orientalism, decadence, Todessehnsucht and the eroticism of the femme fatale in the popular salon style of academic art – this one was conceived by the Frenchman Jean-André Rixens, painted in 1874.

There are periods in one’s life, when simply everything goes wrong, no matter what. For Mark Antony, life finally went pear-shaped in the autumn of 31 BCE. First, he lost the Battle of Actium, his beloved Cleopatra ran away to her native Egypt, all the Levantine allies turned towards Octavian when he closed in via Asia with his excellent fighting troops under Agrippa’s command while his own men ran away or simply surrendered before the walls of Alexandria and with the dream of becoming a Hellenistic God King in the East being over and the news that Cleopatra had committed suicide before falling in Octavian’s hands, he decided to throw himself shamefully onto his sword and not even that worked. He died a couple of days later on August 1st, after being lifted through an opening of the mausoleum where the Queen of Egypt had locked herself in with her treasure, in Cleopatra’s arms. She was still pretty much alive.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 - 1912): "Antony and Cleopatra" (1885)

With her army scattered to the four winds, her capital occupied, her partner and field commander dead and her arch-enemy being not exactly known for going easy on his political adversaries, Cleopatra’s life and that of her four children, one by Julius Caesar and three by Mark Antony, hung on a silken thread. Her personal treasure was probably her only option for a negotiation with Octavian, who allegedly planned to shame her by leading the Queen of conquered Egypt in triumph through Rome and probably kill her and her offspring anyway. What happened over the next days is disputed, the antique sources vary from Cleopatra being a wreck on the brink of a nervous breakdown to acting as a still active powermonger who actively tried to seduce Octavian. Whatever she did to gain a better bargaining position, she was allowed to visit Mark Antony’s grave and committed suicide there. According to most sources with an asp, actually an Egyptian cobra, applied to her breast, a highly dramatic but rather painful way to go and since she probably had tested various methods of poisoning on her slaves before to learn the most pain-free way, a cocktail of something along the lines of hemlock, wolfsbane and, first and foremost, opium is far more probable. 

Alexandre Cabanel: "Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners" (1887)

However, she was found dead, together with the corpses of her true faithful chambermaids Iras and Charmion but sans asp. Her suicide did not really inconvenience Octavian and he had his triumph in Rome a year later anyway. With one of the gestures that so endeared the future princeps of the Roman Empire to everyone, Cleopatra’s likeness was carried along, flanked by two asps, to symbolise Egypt, of course. Her three sons did not survive her for long, Caesarion was certainly murdered by order of Octavian a fortnight after his mother’s death, Alexander and Ptolemy both were dead by 23 BCE, their sister Cleopatra Selene was married off to the Roman client king of Mauretania. And thus ended the Hellenistic rule of Egypt that began with Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 BCE. Cleopatra herself became a legend in her own right, representing over the next two millenia perceptions varying from Oriental femme fatal to Queen of the Alchemists and a highly skilled politician who tried to preserve her domain from the encroachments of an almighty Rome.

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