In late summer 30 BC, the last ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, Cleopatra VII, died by suicide. Holed up in a mausoleum she had built on her palace grounds in Alexandria, the story goes that she sent for an asp, a poisonous Egyptian serpent and symbol of divine royalty. After the asp was smuggled into the mausoleum in a fig basket, Cleopatra held it up to her bare breast, where it bit and fatally poisoned her.
However, the precise circumstances of the death of the so-called Queen of the Nile have long been hotly debated. As one of the most famous women to have ever lived, Cleopatra’s death has been extensively depicted in works of art and writing throughout history, with sculptures such as Sleeping Ariadne immortalising the imagined final moments of her fascinating life.
So, how and why did Cleopatra die?
She suffered a severe military defeat
In 31 BC, Roman leader Octavian won a decisive naval victory against the forces of Roman Mark Antony and Queen of Egypt Cleopatra in an exchange known as the Battle of Actium. In a naval battle off the west coast of Greece, just before their forces suffered a final defeat, Antony and Cleopatra broke through enemy lines and fled to Alexandria in Egypt.
Roman historian and senator Cassius Dio wrote that at home in Egypt, Cleopatra urgently tried to forestall any revolt and punish those who rejoiced at their defeat. Nonetheless, months later, Octavian’s Roman army had reached the city’s gates.
Octavian was concerned that Cleopatra and Antony might, as a desperate last offensive against him, hoard and destroy all of their vast wealth, which Cleopatra had been storing in her tomb and was threatening to burn if he didn’t listen to her attempts at bribery or bargaining. However, Octavian needed the wealth to pay his troops.
Octavian attempted to bargain with the couple, suggesting that they retreat to a quiet life. All attempts at negotiation were refused. On 1 August 30 BC, Antony confronted Octavian, but his fleet and cavalry surrendered without a fight.
Cleopatra told Antony she was dead
Cleopatra fled to her mausoleum that she had had built and sealed herself inside, accompanied by only her maidservants Iras and Charmion.
She had a message sent to Antony that she had died by suicide, possibly to prompt him to do the same, which would curry favour with Octavian. Antony is said to have asked a nearby servant to kill him with a sword; however, the servant killed himself instead. Antony then stabbed himself but didn’t immediately die.
Hearing that Cleopatra was actually still alive, he was hoisted through an upper-story window to her chamber and died there, with her, on 10 August.
Cleopatra might have used poison, rather than a snake
Popular belief states that Cleopatra died by allowing an Egyptian cobra, an asp, to bite her. However, Roman-era writers such as Plutarch, Strabo and Cassius Deo have maintained that she might have poisoned herself using either a toxic ointment or by introducing it to her body by using a sharp implement such as a hairpin.
Indeed, there were two slight pricks on her arm – which led to the snake bite theory – but they could also have been caused by a hairpin or hollow comb filled with poison. The snake is also said to have been smuggled into the mausoleum in a basket of figs. However, no snake or basket of figs was found.
Octavian may have popularised the snakebite story
Figs and snakes carried a sexual connotation, which may have been a deliberately calculated move by Octavian to portray Cleopatra as a foreign seductress.
Indeed, he favoured the story that she died from a snake bite, and during his triumphal procession he had her image created with an asp clinging to it.
She might have been forced to die by suicide
Before Cleopatra died, Octavian faced a dilemma: he considered whether to keep her alive and parade her in his triumphal victory. However, he remembered that his younger half-sister Arsinoë had been paraded by Caesar, and instead of glorifying the ruler, it had aroused sympathy.
Cleopatra could not be allowed to live if she would not yield to Octavian’s negotiations. Equally, Octavian could not be seen as directly responsible for her death. It has thus been hypothesised that Octavian forced Cleopatra to die by suicide, and allowed her to do it however she chose.
However, what is consistent across all accounts is that Cleopatra died around 12 August, aged 39 years, wearing her most beautiful clothing, her body arranged on a golden couch and the emblems of royalty placed in her hands.