This painting, by an unknown 18th-century artist from Austria, was inspired by the tales surrounding the death of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. An impressive diplomatic maneuverer, Cleopatra tried to give her kingdom of Egypt an advantage by aligning herself to the famous Roman dictator, Julius Caesar, who had Rome in his clutches since the First Triumvirate (c. 60-53 BCE) and his victory in the subsequent Civil War against his fellow triumvir, Pompey the Great (d. 48 BCE). Cleopatra and Caesar had a child who could have potentially become the monarchal ruler of both Rome and Egypt, yet the Egyptian queen’s ambitions were soon dealt a huge blow when conspirators rose up against Julius Caesar and slew him on March 15, 44 BCE. After Ceasar’s death on the Ides of March, a new triumvirate seized power in Rome by 43 BCE. The new rulers were Octavian (later known as Augustus), Mark Antony and Lepidus, the first two being the most important and powerful of the group. Octavian, who happened to be Julius Caesar’s youthful great-nephew and adopted son, charismatically wielded diplomacy and statecraft with mastery, greatly benefiting the triumvirate and, more importantly, his own position. Mark Antony, on the other hand, was an experienced military man who had become one of Julius Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants in war and government. Faced with the choice between the young genius of statecraft and the older battle-tested veteran of war, Queen Cleopatra ultimately decided to throw in her lot with Mark Antony, joining with him politically and romantically. As the artwork gives away, her choice would not lead to a happy ending.
As ancient Roman triumvirates were wont to do, the triangle of power eventually broke down and the former allies became feuding rivals. Lepidus, always the weakest link of the three, was forced out of the partnership at about 36 BCE. Several years later, Octavian put in motion an impressive feat of political maneuvering in order to force Mark Antony’s hand. Octavian launched his masterplan in 32 BCE, when he convinced the Roman Republic to declare war against Egypt and its queen, Cleopatra. At that time, it was open knowledge that Cleopatra and Mark Antony were lovers, so the move also served as a painful test of loyalty that was carefully crafted to target Antony—would he side with Rome against Egypt, or would he side with his Egyptian queen against Rome? As Octavian had hoped, Antony sided his faction with Cleopatra’s forces, an action that could easily be labeled by Octavian’s propagandists as treason against Rome. With civil war inevitable, senators scrambled to pick a side, making their choice known by staying with Octavian in Rome, or by fleeing from the great city.
One would think, with Mark Antony being a great and experienced general, that he would have a distinct advantage in war over Octavian, who had spent far less time in the army or on the battlefield. Yet, the benefit of Mark Antony’s personal experience was made moot by the existence of other masterful tacticians, who were recruited by charismatic Octavian and given command of the young statesman’s forces in the field. Most notably, Octavian’s brilliant admiral, Marcus Agrippa, proved to be the undoing of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Marcus Agrippa outmaneuvered and outplayed Mark Antony, cornering him and Cleopatra in Alexandria by 30 BCE.
Knowing he could not win or escape, Antony took his own life and Cleopatra was captured before she could follow her lover into death. Cleopatra was subsequently put under house arrest, but she was not isolated enough to stop her from obtaining a way to end her life. The Roman historian, Cassius Dio (c. 163-235), recorded the stories about Cleopatra’s demise, writing, “She put on her finest robes, seated herself with majestic grace, took in her hands all the emblems of royalty, and so died. No one knows for certain by what means she perished, for the only marks that were found on her body were tiny pricks on the arm. Some say that she applied to herself an asp, which had been brought to her in a water jar, or perhaps covered beneath some flowers” (Cassius Dio, The Roman History, 51.13-14). Cassius Dio went on to offer other potential methods she may have used for her death, such as poisoned needles or lethally-laced hair pins. Despite the different accounts, the most famous iteration, by far, for storytellers and painters alike, was the notion that Cleopatra may have taken her life through the use of a snake. It is this scene that is re-created in the artwork above. Cleopatra can be seen being bitten by a serpent, and the painting also includes an attendant holding flowers, referencing Cassius Dio’s statement that the snake may have been smuggled in via the floral bouquet.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.