It is 14 years after the assassination of Julius Caesar and three decades before the birth of Christ and the Greek queen of Egypt is about to die. The 39-year-old Cleopatra VII is the mother of four children by two fathers, both now dead. This much everyone seems to agree on. What happens next is romantic fairy tale, or conjecture, or cynical posturing — or all three.
The most widely believed version, used by Shakespeare in his tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, has the queen, fearing to be taken captive to Rome by the conquering Octavian, has a basket of figs delivered to her, with a smuggled asp hidden under the fruit. She takes the venomous snake and applies it to her tender bosom and expires from the poison.
The problem is that there are conflicting stories told by the ancient writers.
The two rebellious lovers, having been conquered by the young Octavian were at odds over what to do. Cleopatra had a false message sent to Antony that she is dead. Antony ran himself into his sword, but botched his suicide and was brought to Cleopatra, where he then expired. Cleopatra mourned and locked herself in her mausoleum. And then, according to Plutarch:
“Having made these lamentations, crowning the tomb with garlands and kissing it, she gave orders to prepare her a bath, and, coming out of the bath, she lay down and made a sumptuous meal.”
An old man came with a basket. The guards Octavian had sent to keep Cleopatra in check stopped him to examine the contents.
“The fellow put the leaves which lay uppermost aside, and showed them it was full of figs; and on their admiring the largeness and beauty of the figs, he laughed, and invited them to take some, which they refused, and, suspecting nothing, bade him carry them in.”
The queen then sent a letter to Octavian describing her intent to kill herself and locked herself in the monument with her two servants, Charmion and Eras. When Octavian got the note, which asked that she be buried next to Antony, he sent messengers to stop her from killing herself. But they found her already dead, “lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments.”
Eras lay dying at her feet and Charmion, just ready to fall, barely able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress’s crown. And when the soldier that came in said angrily, “Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?”
“Extremely well,” she answered, “and as became the descendant of so many kings”; and as she said this, she fell down dead by the bedside.
“Some relate that an asp was brought in amongst those figs and covered with the leaves, and that Cleopatra had arranged that it might settle on her before she knew, but, when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said, ‘So here it is,’ and held out her bare arm to be bitten. Others say that it was kept in a vase, and that she vexed and pricked it with a golden spindle till it seized her arm. But what really took place is known to no one.
“Since it was also said that she carried poison in a hollow hairpin, about which she wound her hair; yet there was not so much as a spot found, or any symptom of poison upon her body, nor was the asp seen within the monument; only something like the trail of it was said to have been noticed on the sand by the sea, on the part towards which the building faced and where the windows were. Some relate that two faint puncture-marks were found on Cleopatra’s arm, and to this account Caesar seems to have given credit; for in his triumph there was carried a figure of Cleopatra, with an asp clinging to her.
“Such are the various accounts. But Caesar, though much disappointed by her death, yet could not but admire the greatness of her spirit, and gave order that her body should he buried by Antony with royal splendor and magnificence. Her women, also, received honorable burial by his directions.
“Cleopatra had lived nine and thirty years, during twenty-two of which she had reigned as queen, and for fourteen had been Antony’s partner in his empire. Antony, according to some authorities, was fifty-three, according to others, fifty-six years old. His statues were all thrown down, but those of Cleopatra were left untouched.”
While Plutarch’s story has been repeated many times, it must be remembered that it was written 120 years after the events. Other historians and poets also told stories of Cleopatra’s death: Strabo, Velleius, Florus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius and Galen, Virgil, Horace and Propertius.
Of the historians, the only one who was alive at the time of Cleopatra’s death was Strabo, who wrote: “(Octavian) took the city at the first onset, and compelled Antony to put himself to death, but Cleopatra to surrender herself alive. A short time afterwards, however, she also put an end to her life secretly, in prison, by the bite of an asp, or (for there are two accounts) by the application of a poisonous ointment.”
Strabo was about 34 years old when Cleopatra died, but his account was written at least 10 years after that. It is thought he might have been in Alexandria at the time of the queen’s death.
The poet Horace wrote his ode, “Nunc est bibendum,” within a year or two of the queen’s death and mentioned it near the end of the poem: “Caesar came back to put the deadly monster in chains, but she, wanting to die more nobly had no feminine dread of the sword, and finding no way out of the situation, went to her palace lying in ruins and with a tranquil face was brave enough to handle vicious serpents and drink their black venom into her body. Having chosen death, she was fiercer still, unwilling to be taken back to Rome and led in a humiliating victory parade.”
The physician Galen (AD 130-200) wrote in De Theriaca ad Pisonem that “The queen had bit her arm and then rubbed the wound with poison.”
Virgil in the Aeneid says she died of “two fatal asps.”
Modern commentators tend to suspect that all the stories of Cleopatra’s suicide may very well be spin concocted by Octavian (by then Augustus Caesar) to cover up her murder at his orders. We know he had Cleopatra’s oldest son killed. Caesarion was the natural son of Julius Caesar and was 17 when Caesar’s adopted son had him quietly eliminated. “Too many Caesars is not a good idea,” he supposedly said.
So, Cleopatra either killed herself by taking poison, or by rubbing herself with poison ointment, or by stabbing herself with a sharp comb laced with poison, or held an asp to her arm to bite her, or scratched her arm up and rubbed it with venom from the smuggled asp, or — and the list goes on — it probably wasn’t an asp, since there are no actual asps in Egypt and if there were, their venom causes a very slow and painful death, and would more likely have been an Egyptian cobra, which is the sacred snake of the Egyptian pharaohs. Or she was killed by Caesar.
As Plutarch admits: “What really took place is known to no one.”
Among other accounts, Cleopatra tested various poisons on her slaves before picking the one that would cause her the least suffering. A good deal of the gloss on Cleo comes from the Romans, who had a vested interest in presenting her in the least flattering light. She was, after all, an enemy of Rome — at least after the disputed empire fell from the likely rule of Antony into the sure hand of Octavian.
Denouement: In addition to Caesarion, born to Julius Caesar, she had three children by Mark Antony. A son named for the sun and a daughter named for the moon survived her. Ptolemy Philadelphus was the youngest. Octavius spared them but gave them to his sister, the legal wife of Antony, to raise. The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, eventually married King Juba II of Numidia in north Africa. The son, Alexander Helios, is lost to history along with his brother.
Of course, you will have noticed that in none of the ancient stories of her death does Cleopatra apply the serpent to her firm but supple breast. That version comes later, especially as painters attempted to give us the version not so much of Plutarch as of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. There is a Cecil B. DeMille quality to most of the historical paintings of Cleopatra, who ranks second only to Eve as a ripe subject for images of naked women with snakes.
Not that they are the only two: There are paintings and sculptures of the Roman goddess Hygea, goddess of health, which show her feeding a snake — the snake being the sacred animal of Asclepius, the god of medicine.
Lord Leighton, the English painter, gave us a grand tondo of the Hesperides, the home of the golden apples Hercules was to gather, which was protected by a serpent.
And there is the story of Harmonia and Cadmus. Cadmus, king of Illyria, had killed a serpent and the gods then turned Cadmus into a snake. His wife, Harmonia, stripped herself naked and begged Cadmus to come to her. As she embraced the snake the gods turned her also into a snake.
There is an obviously salacious element in these stories, especially as they are told, painted and sculpted by artists in the Victorian age, where they could be hypocritically sanctimonious about expressing the moral uplift of the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece while at the same time thinking “Look at the boobies on that one,” and, as the French say, “L.H.O.O.Q.”
But the crown of this Orientalizing prurience must be in Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbo — his followup to the scandalous Madame Bovary. It is the tale of the daughter of a Carthaginian general, set shortly after the first Punic War (264-241 BC). The plot is silly enough for an opera or a Hollywood epic. But there are scenes of sex and lasciviousness, not the least when the priestess Salammbo enters the enemy camp to retrieve the MacGuffin and encounters a prophetic snake. It is hard to avoid the Freudian undertones. They can hardly be called undertones.
“The moon rose; then the cithara and the flute began to play together.
“Salammbo unfastened her earrings, her necklace, her bracelets, and her long white simar; she unknotted the band in her hair, shaking the latter for a few minutes softly over her shoulders to cool herself by thus scattering it. The music went on outside; it consisted of three notes ever the same, hurried and frenzied; the strings grated, the flute blew; Taanach kept time by striking her hands; Salammbo, with a swaying of her whole body, chanted prayers, and her garments fell one after another around her.
“The heavy tapestry trembled, and the python’s head appeared above the cord that supported it. The serpent descended slowly like a drop of water flowing along a wall, crawled among the scattered stuffs, and then, gluing its tail to the ground, rose perfectly erect; and his eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, darted upon Salammbo.
“A horror of cold, or perhaps a feeling of shame, at first made her hesitate. But she recalled Schahabarim’s orders and advanced; the python turned downwards, and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbo rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth, and half shutting her eyes, threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon. The white light seemed to envelop her in a silver mist, the prints of her humid steps shone upon the flag-stones, stars quivered in the depth of the water; it tightened upon her its black rings that were spotted with scales of gold.
“Salammbo panted beneath the excessive weight, her loins yielded, she felt herself dying, and with the tip of its tail the serpent gently beat her thigh; then the music becoming still it fell off again.”
Yes, Flaubert; Mr. Mot Juste. More like Mot Jeaux, i.e. mojo.
We’re not done yet with naked women and snakes. More anon.
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