When on August 12, 30 BC, Octavian’s soldiers stormed the rooms of the last queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, they encountered an overwhelming sight: the queen lay lifeless on her royal bed, with one of her dying maidens at her feet and the other, about to collapse, retouching her headband.
The soldiers’ attempts to revive the queen were in vain: the three women had just committed suicide. The soldiers saw two slight pangs on Cleopatra’s arm, suggesting that she had died from the bite of an asp.
Others believed that she had ingested some poison. However it was, the suicide was a posthumous victory for Cleopatra: Octavian could not take her alive to Rome and display her in a humiliating way in the triumphal procession with which he planned to celebrate his conquest of Egypt.
Mark Anthony, the queen’s lover, had escaped the same fate by committing suicide a few days before.
The fate of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony had been sealed a year ago, in September 31 BC, when their fleet was defeated at the Battle of Actium by the ingenuity of Marcus Agrippa, Octavian’s general and right hand man.
Cleopatra returned to Alexandria, her capital, and shortly thereafter Mark Anthony joined her. The courtly atmosphere that had sprung up around the ostentatious couple quickly faded from fear of their impending fall from grace.
Gone were the days of banter and revelry, amid the merry company of drinkers and sycophants in Alexandria, when they called themselves the “inimitables” ( amimetobioi).
His troops and supporters deserted en masse, and only a circle of faithful friends remained with Mark Anthony willing to share his fate and who changed their name to the more appropriate “companions in death” ( synapothanoumenoi ).
Indeed, as Octavian approached Alexandria, Antony and Cleopatra began to seriously think about taking their own lives before they were captured.
The fall of Alexandria
Despite this discouraging environment, for a moment Cleopatra thought that she might come to some kind of agreement with Octavian. He would undoubtedly demand the death of Mark Anthony, the only rival who threatened his supremacy in Rome, but perhaps he could exercise magnanimity and forgive Queen Cleopatra and her children.
However, the obstacle of Caesarion, the son that the queen had with Julius Caesar, was too dangerous as Octavian’s rival in the future.
So Rome’s new strongman simply responded ambiguously to the embassies sent by the Egyptian queen as his army advanced on Alexandria.
In the summer of 30 BC, the Egyptian capital was totally encircled by Roman troops. Cleopatra, surrounded by her most intimate and faithful servants, barricaded herself in the most impregnable building of her palatial complex.
There she also kept all her treasures: gems, jewels, works of art, gold chests, royal clothes, spices … Meanwhile, Mark Anthony decided to fight.
Together with his faithful he fought bravely at the gates of the city to repel the incursion of Octavian’s cavalry and to maintain even a little more the siege and the illusion of resistance.
But Mark Anthony had to see how his fleet surrendered, or rather went to the side of Octavian, which caused the cavalry to desert immediately.
Burdened by the situation and shocked by a sudden rumor that spread about the suicide of his beloved queen, Anthony resolved to kill himself with his sword, accompanied by a trusted slave.
When Octavian at last entered a silent and surrendered Alexandria, his main concern was with Cleopatra, who had barricaded herself in the mausoleum, with the massive doors locked tight and with a supply of wood to set the buildings on fire, after committing suicide.
That was precisely what the new master of Alexandria feared most. Octavian sent a trusted man, Gaius Proculeius, to try to persuade the queen to desist from her confinement, but to no avail; the legacy could not grant the only thing that Cleopatra wanted: to save her children and especially Caesarion.
In the hands of Octavian
A day later a new interview was held. While one of the envoys spoke with Cleopatra through a grating, Proculeius climbed the building with two servants and entered the room where the queen was.
When one of her women warned her – “Wretched Cleopatra, they are going to capture you alive!” – the queen thrust a dagger into her chest, but the wound was not fatal and Proculeius managed to disarm her quickly.
Cleopatra was then transferred to the Palace of Alexandria, where she was placed in the custody of a trusted eunuch of Octavian and under close surveillance.
It seems that the queen fell ill with grief and stopped eating, in an attempt to hasten her death; Octavian could only convince her to feed herself by threatening to kill her children.
A few days later, Cleopatra requested an interview with Octavian. The sources differ greatly on what happened on that occasion.
According to Plutarch, Octavian saw an emaciated Cleopatra who implored him for her life and that of her children, while trying to rid herself of all guilt.
Cassius Dio, on the other hand, portrays a dignified and mourning queen, still of irresistible beauty, who tried to seduce Octavian as she had done before with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.
However it was, the result would be the same. Cleopatra knew that Octavian’s design was to take her and her children to Rome for the greater glory and triumph of the future Augustus; then they would put her in a dungeon, where she would go mad or commit suicide, as had happened to other Hellenistic monarchs.
It was an unbearable prospect for the proud livid queen, who preferred to kill herself.
Two days later, after having done a last visit to the remains of her beloved Mark Anthony, the last queen of Egypt returned to her rooms, took a bath and dined.
At the same time, she delivered a sealed message for Octavian – in which she perhaps consigned her last wish to be buried next to Anthony – and she stayed with her two trusted maids.
There are authors who collect the last and pathetic words of Cleopatra dedicated to her beloved Anthony or the mysterious scene of her suicide.
But what happened in the queen’s private chamber is more than history and is part of the Cleopatra myth.
As for Octavian, the death of the queen deprived him of a more famous triumph – he could only parade his effigy through Rome – and gave him total control over Hellenistic Egypt, which had become a Roman province.