On this day in history, August 12th, two thousand and forty six years ago, Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of Ancient Egypt, committed suicide.
Eleven days previously, her husband Marc Antony had already done the same. The couple had been engaged in a civil war against Octavian, the great nephew of Julius Caesar who had been declared his legal heir. During the final battle in Alexandria, Antony suffered serious desertions among his troops and lost the fight. Upon his return, he falsely heard Cleopatra had killed herself and fell on his sword.
After Antony’s death, Octavian arrived in Egypt and effectively took Cleopatra and her children by Antony prisoner. She had sent her eldest son Caesarion, her only living child with Caesar, away for his own safety. She knew that Octavian planned for her to march in chains behind his chariot during his triumph parade, and would very likely have her killed afterwards. Rather than suffer such humiliations and indignity, she chose to take her own life.
Popular history and mythology leads us to believe that she was killed by inducing an asp to bite her, after having locked herself in her mausoleum with her two handmaidens. However, many modern scholars believe that she instead took a mixture of poisons, since the venom of an asp does not cause a quick or painless death. Octavian and his men found her too late to do anything, Cleopatra was already dead and one handmaiden, Iras, was nearly dead on the floor. The second, Charmian, was straightening the Queen’s diadem. According to legend, one of the men asked if this was well done of her mistress, and she shot back “Very well done, as befitting the descendant of so many noble Kings.”
Upon her death, Octavian honoured her wish to be buried in her mausoleum at Antony’s side. He took her children with Antony, the twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, along with their younger brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus, to Rome with him as prisoners of sorts. They were fated to march in his triumph parade in their mother’s place, the chains so heavy they could hardly walk. After this they were given to Octavian’s sister Octavia, who had been Antony’s third wife, to look after.
Cleopatra’s son with Caesar, Caesarion, was nominally sole ruler of Egypt after his mother’s death. Eleven days after her suicide, he was found after being lured back to Alexandria under false pretenses of being allowed to rule in his mother’s place. Octavian ordered his murder, on advice that “Two Caesar were too many.”
With Cleopatra’s death, and Caesarion’s subsequent murder, the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty came to an end and Egypt became a mere Roman Province.