Death of Cleopatra

Cleopatra was determined that she would not be paraded through the streets of Rome before being executed, so she began to test poisons on condemned prisoners to see which one would be best. Deciding that the fast poisons were too painful, and the least painful were too slow, she apparently turned to animal venoms and settled on the bite of an asp. She continued work on her mausoleum to ensure she had a fitting place to see out eternity and left instructions for her mummification when the time came.

Cleopatra by Michelangelo
Cleopatra by Michelangelo

When her fleet surrendered to Octavian’s fleet she assumed the worst and set off for her tomb with her servants Charmion and Eiras, leaving instruction that if anyone asked for her they were to be told she was already dead. However, Mark Anthony was still very much alive and returned to the palace to find her. When he was told that she was dead he fell upon his sword saying “why delay any longer? Fate has snatched away the only thing for which I still wanted to live”. Grievously wounded but still alive he was at last told that Cleopatra lived and he was helped to her tomb by her servants. The entrance was already sealed, so he was hauled up to a window on a rope. Cleopatra then began to mourn him in the traditional manner, by beating her breast, cutting herself and covering her face and hands with his blood. Mark Anthony tried to calm her and they drank a last glass of wine together before he died in her arms.

Fearing that Cleopatra would kill herself and set fire to her treasures Octavian ordered his men to keep her talking with promises that her son would be allowed to rule Egypt after her death while others crept into the tomb to seize her. She was placed under house arrest and Octavian set out to try to calm the citizens of Alexandria and inspect the tomb of Alexander the Great (while checking to see if the Ptolemys’ treasure was still there). Mark Anthony’s son was discovered in the Caesareum and beheaded and Cleopatra’s three youngest children were seized and held captive. Meanwhile, Octavian helped himself to the treasures in the Caesareum and in Cleopatra’s tomb and inspected the body of Mark Anthony.

Cleopatra continued to mourn and harm herself, eventually falling into a fever from her wounds. She refused to eat but Octavian reputedly threatened to harm her children if she did not recover, as he wanted her to feature in his triumph. Some later commentators have suggested that she may have been murdered by Octavian rather than committing suicide, but there is no evidence for this. Although she may have been a figurehead for a rebellion against him, he could simply have let her die of a fever at this point, so murder seems unlikely.

Death of Cleopatra, Juan Luna
Death of Cleopatra, Juan Luna

It is claimed in some sources that Octavian visited her when she had recovered and she tried to seduce him. The sources further suggest that “the chastity of the princeps was too much for her” – a laughable claim given his known promiscuity. Many commentators doubt that this meeting ever took place.

On 10 August 30 BC she was allowed to pay her last respects to Mark Anthony. Cleopatra then bathed and put on her finest robes and jewellery. She left a note requesting that she be buried with Mark Anthony and dismissed all but her two closest servants, Charmion and Eiras, and the three committed suicide.

Most ancient sources record that Cleopatra died following the bite of an asp which was smuggled into her chambers either in a basket or a vase. This is first mentioned by Strabo who was a contemporary. Plutarch (writing around one hundred and thirty years later) agrees that she died following the bite of an asp. Although Classical sources all suggest that the snake bite was on her arm, it is popularly suggested that she clutched an asp to her breast. This is entirely down to the description of her death in “Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare.

The bite of an asp is slow and painful and Dio recorded that her death was peaceful and quick. Plutarch contended that two of her handmaidens committed suicide with her and that when her suicide was discovered one was still alive and engaged in arranging the queen’s crown on her head before succumbing to poison – not a description which accords with the effects of an asp bite.

Some commentators have suggested that the snake in question was actually a cobra, whose venom does result in a quick and relatively pain free death. The cobra would also make sense in terms of Egyptian mythology, as it was associated with many gods and the sacred ureas worn by the pharaohs. However, the cobra dispenses all of its venom in one bite and so one snake could not have killed all three women. Furthermore, cobras are large snakes and it is hard to imagine three of them being hidden in her quarters or smuggled in a basket without drawing any attention. More likely the venom taken from three cobras could have been smuggled in to her in an ointment. Strabo also mentions the possibility that she may, in fact, have taken poison and some ancient sources refer to a pin coated in poison which was harmless until taken internally.

When Octavian’s men broke into the room to find Cleopatra dead with Charmion arranging the crown on her head, one apparently demanded angrily “was this well done of your lady” to which the servant replied “Extremely well done as befitting the descendant of so many kings” before she too succumbed to the poison.


Classical Texts

  • Cassius Dio (155 or 163 – post 229 AD) Roman History
  • Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus aka Plutarch (c46 – 120 AD) Life of Antony
  • Strabo (64 or 63 BC – AD 24) The Geography
  • Flavius Josephus (c37 – 100 AD) Antiquities of the Jews
  • Marcus Annaeus Lucanus aka Lucan (39 – 65 AD) Civil WarAppian (95 – 165 AD) Civil War

Modern Texts

  • Joann Fletcher (2011) Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend
  • Prudence J. Jones (2006) Cleopatra: a sourcebook
  • Duane Roller (2011) Cleopatra: a biography

Copyright J Hill 2011