Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Mysterious Death of Cleopatra - comments

The Post Mortem

Two things which struck me: (1) I think you need to know your Cleopatra as they did not go into a great deal of detail about her life or her relationships with two of Rome's most powerful men at all; (2) the background music was very annoying - at times I could not hear what they were saying; and (3) they kept highlighting certain points - repeatedly - as if trying to fill in time.

Having said all that - and spoiler alert - Pam Brown disproves the suicide theory based on: (1) the length of time between the "suicide note" reaching Octavian and the discovery of Cleopatra's body; (2) the length of time it would have taken for snake venom to work (ie: any where from a couple of hours to a couple of days) - not within a few minutes; (3) the psychology of Cleopatra herself - she was a woman who was determined to succeed, who had faced obstacles and had overcome them, who was intelligent, stubborn and resourceful; and (4) her family history - no Ptolemy had ever committed suicide - yes they often met "untimely" deaths - but usually at the hands of others.

So to the prime suspect. Yes - Octavian (later named Augustus). He had the motive, means and opportunity.

Motive: the removal of both Cleopatra and her son Caesarian. The boy was the direct offspring of Caesar whereas Octavian was a great nephew. Caesarian's claim to Rome was greater than Octavian's - he posed a direct threat to Octavian achieving his ultimate goal - restoring Rome to a dictatorship. And even though Cleopatra sent the boy away, Octavian hunted him down and killed him. And as for Cleopatra - she stood in his way of claiming Egypt for Rome. She was a thorn in his side - a woman ruling a great empire that rivaled Rome.

Means: well, he was surrounding by any number of capable lackies, willing to do any task to keep or gain Octavians favour.

Opportunity: he was there - he could easily give the order and arrive just in time to witness Cleopatra's demise.

Conclusion: the scenario of Cleopatra committing suicide was written 100 years after her death by two men who based their writings upon Octavian's own memoirs. So, to coin an old phrase - history is written by the victor. And the victor in this case was Octavian. Pam Brown believes the myth of death by snake bite was concocted by Octavian himself to not only tarnish the image of this great Queen but to cover up his murder of her. The trouble was - the myth grew - and grew!. And rather than destroy the image and reputation of Cleopatra, it only enhanced it.

So, there you have it - where fact become fiction and a woman becomes a legend.


Anonymous said...

there are numerous reasons why Pam Brown's argument isnt strong enough:
1) cleopartra was a master at poisons, there were 2 deadly asps in egypt, one that took days to die from and had a chance of being cured and one that killed very quickly. the venom of the asp brought sleepiness and heaviness without spasms of pain, which would be a good way to die.
2)yes cloeparta was very determined and resourcful. however all her resources were gone, she had a bad reputation in Rome, Mark Antony was dead, Octavian had invaded Egypt.
And Octavian was about to take her back to Rome as his captive, Cleopatra was also very proud and would rather die than be on show as a Egyptian Queen SLAVE!
3) her family history was full of murder at the hands of OTHER family members! this struggle for power is demonstated throughout her family history. But she did break some family traditions: she wanted to rule with out a husband, she ruled as a sole ruler for 3 years before she was forced to marry her brother. There is also no evidence that she had sexual relations with her brother, which was an egyptian tradition addopted by her family generations ago.
4) although Octavian had means, and opportunity the motive is lacking... yes she was standing in his way of taking Egypt, however he probably would have prefered if he could drag her back to Rome and show her as his slave.
5) Cleopatra had associated herself with the goddess Isis. The asp was symbolic and death of an asp was meant to cause imortality.
6) She had sent Caesarian away in the hope he will live, and she gave her life in the hope that Octavian would let her children live and possibly rule.

Conculsion: if you were the queen and sole ruler of Egypt and your children would together create an empire bigger than Alexander the Great's when suddenly your husband is dead, your country invaded, eldest child in hidding and all 4 were on a hit list. And the person responsible for this was preparing to take you back and present you as a slave. Would you sacrifice your life to save your children's? Would you have the last say and go out with respect? Would you die and be burried in acording with your beliefs and choices?

Melisende said...

Thanks for your comments - did you happen to see this program.

Its true Octavian could have taken Cleopatra back and paraded her in triumph - but again, keeping her alive would also provide a rallying point for Egyptians who opposed Roman domination. So, to keep such an enemy of Rome alive would be detrimental to his own position.

Yes Cleopatra did associate herself with the Goddess Isis and would certainly have been aware of the power of the asp. But to encourage the asp to not only strike herself but then her two handmaids seems rather questionable.

The mystery surrounding the final hours of Cleopatra are very similar to her British counterpart, Boudicca.

Al said...

I would say while Octavian could easily have murdered Cleopatra he had no motive to do it.
We're forgetting that had Cleopatra been taken back to Rome she would not have been kept around as some trophy. Enemy leaders were paraded in a triumph and then ritually executed by garotting in public. It was a way of demonstrating Rome's power and the futility of resistance.
Caratacus is about the only person we have a record of who was not given this fate. He was eighty years later so at the time of Cleopatra there was no precedent for clemency (not that Octavian was in the mood anyway he'd just fought a long civil war).
If the documentary said there was no contemporary record of her suicide then it is plain wrong. No less than three poets (Vergil, Horace and Sextus Propertius) wrote about her suicide within less than ten years.

Melisende said...

Thanks for all the comments - this program has certainly generated much interest in the fate of this legendary queen.

Do we know the fate of Zenobia??? I know that Aurelian did not have her executed and he had paraded her in triumph.

Anonymous said...

I just recently had the misfortune of watching the Mysterious Death of Cleopatra on the Discovery Channel. I was more than a little surprised to hear Brown's conclusions on the Egyptian queen's "apparant" suicide.

During the show they tell us Cleopatra was not the type of woman to commit suicide--she was too resourceful, too proud, had no family history of suicide, and was not the type to quit. My problem with their analysis is that they ignore the fact that her suicide was a big F--- You to Octavian. She had only two choices: 1) Allow herself to be used as a piece of political propoganda and be marched through Rome as Octavian's trophy, only to be put on a show trial and eventually be executed, or 2) kill herself and deny Octavian and the Romans the pleasure of seeing her squirm.

The show neglected to compare her to all the historical figures who had been placed in her exact predicament and the results of how those others handled it. We only need to look at the Nuremberg trials to see how Herman Goering's suicide got under the skin of the Allies. The following day the newspapers all declared that Goering had the final say, not his executioners. He, in effect, cheated the hangman's noose. Don't you think Cleopatra had similar wishes? And would you not call Adolph Hitler a survivor, a man who had never given up under any circumstance? Or what about Joseph Goebbels, or Heinrich Himmler? None of these men were the type who would appear on any psychiatrist's list as a suicide threat.

Even Napolean Bonaparte, a man of supreme confidence, when faced with defeat, drank poison in an attempt to kill himself. The only reason he did not go down in history as a suicide, is that the poison was too weak. Finally, why would Marc Antony, who literally shared Cleopatra's downfall, choose suicide and yet not have his exit strategy questioned?

Cleopatra killed herself because she had every reason to do so. Octavian had no reason to do so. It would have benefited him to bring Cleopatra back, show her off as a warning to those who go against the rule of Rome, and then have her executed. Thus, there would have been no Cleopatra for anyone to rally behind, and Octavian still would have had his parade.

George Mercurio

busman1 said...

During my studies in Rome, I was able to read the memoirs of the Greek stoic & historian,Strabo.Who was actually there at the time of these events in Alexandria. He wrote that after Cleopatra's death, her body was staged in efigy for the the triumphal procession of Caesar Augustus Victory procession. That her body was burned and her ashes dispersed before her statue in Rome. The statue was then melted down. Her daughter Cleopatra, later a queen herself, commented that neither Antony nor her mother had tombs. That they had both been burned. Which was certainly the practice of Romans of the day. I believe this, this would have allowed Octavius to keep the Queens treasure,and give the people of Rome the spectacle he wanted, to show his triumph.