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Cleopatra by  Jacob Abbott

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THE END OF CLEOPATRA

[286] THE case of Mark Antony affords one of the most extraordinary examples of the power of unlawful love to lead its deluded and infatuated victim into the very jaws of open and recognized destruction that history records. Cases similar in character occur by thousands in common life; but Antony's, though perhaps not more striking in itself than a great multitude of others have been, is the most conspicuous instance that has ever been held up to the observation of mankind.

In early life, Antony was remarkable, as we have already seen, for a certain savage ruggedness of character, and for a stern and indomitable recklessness of will, so great that it seemed impossible that any thing human should be able to tame him. He was under the control, too, of an ambition so lofty and aspiring that it appeared to know no bounds; and yet we find him taken possession of, in the very midst of his career, and in the height of his prosperity and [287] success, by a woman, and so subdued by her arts and fascinations as to yield himself wholly to her guidance, and allow himself to be led about by her entirely at her will. She displaces whatever there might have been that was noble and generous in his heart, and substitutes therefor her own principles of malice and cruelty. She extinguishes all the fires of his ambition, originally so magnificent in its aims that the world seemed hardly large enough to afford it scope, and instead of this lofty passion, fills his soul with a love of the lowest, vilest, and most ignoble pleasures. She leads him to betray every public trust, to alienate from himself all the affections of his countrymen, to repel most cruelly the kindness and devotedness of a beautiful and faithful wife, and, finally, to expel this wife and all of his own legitimate family from his house; and now, at last, she conducts him away in a most cowardly and ignoble flight from the field of his duty as a soldier—he knowing, all the time, that she is hurrying him to disgrace and destruction, and yet utterly without power to break from the control of his invisible chains.

The indignation which Antony's base aban- [288] donment of his fleet and army at the battle of Actium excited, over all that part of the empire which had been under his command, was extreme. There was not the slightest possible excuse for such a flight. His army, in which his greatest strength lay, remained unharmed, and even his fleet was not defeated. The ships continued the combat until night, notwithstanding the betrayal of their cause by their commander. They were at length, however, subdued. The army, also, being discouraged, and losing all motive for resistance, yielded too. In a very short time the whole country went over to Octavius's side.

In the mean time, Cleopatra and Antony, on their first return to Egypt, were completely beside themselves with terror. Cleopatra formed a plan for having all the treasures that she could save, and a certain number of galleys sufficient for the transportation of these treasures and a small company of friends, carried across the isthmus of Suez and launched upon the Red Sea, in order that she might escape in that direction, and find some remote hiding-place and safe retreat on the shores of Arabia or India, beyond the reach of Octavius's dreaded power. She actually commenced this undertaking, and [289] sent one or two of her galleys across the isthmus; but the Arabs seized them as soon as they reached their place of destination, and killed or captured the men that had them in charge, so that this desperate scheme was soon abandoned. She and Antony then finally concluded to establish themselves at Alexandria, and made preparation, as well as they could, for defending themselves against Octavius there.

Antony, when the first effects of his panic subsided, began to grow mad with vexation and resentment against all mankind. He determined that he would have nothing to do with Cleopatra or with any of her friends, but went off in a fit of sullen rage, and built a hermitage in a lonely place on the island of Pharos, where he lived for a time, cursing his folly and his wretched fate, and uttering the bitterest invectives against all who had been concerned in it. Here tidings came continually in, informing him of the defection of one after another of his armies, of the fall of his provinces in Greece and Asia Minor, and of the irresistible progress which Octavius was now making toward universal dominion. The tidings of these disasters coming incessantly upon him kept him in a continual fever of resentment and rage.

[290] At last he became tired of his misanthropic solitude, a sort of reconciliation ensued between himself and Cleopatra, and he went back again to the city. Here he joined himself once more to Cleopatra, and, collecting together what remained of their joint resources, they plunged again into a life of dissipation and vice, with the vain attempt to drown in mirth and wine the bitter regrets and the anxious forebodings which filled their souls. They joined with them a company of revelers as abandoned as themselves, and strove very hard to disguise and conceal their cares in their forced and unnatural gayety. They could not, however, accomplish this purpose. Octavius was gradually advancing in his progress, and they knew very well that the time of his dreadful reckoning with them must soon come; nor was there any place on earth in which they could look with any hope of finding a refuge in it from his vindictive hostility.

Cleopatra, warned by dreadful presentiments of what would probably at last be her fate, amused herself in studying the nature of poisons—not theoretically, but practically—making experiments with them on wretched prisoners and captives whom she compelled to take them, [291] in order that she and Antony might see the effects which they produced. She made a collection of all the poisons which she could procure, and administered portions of them all, that she might see which were sudden and which were slow in their effects, and also learn which produced the greatest distress and suffering, and which, on the other hand, only benumbed and stupified the faculties, and thus extinguished life with the least infliction of pain. These experiments were not confined to such vegetable and mineral poisons as could be mingled with the food or administered in a potion. Cleopatra took an equal interest in the effects of the bite of venomous serpents and reptiles. She procured specimens of all these animals, and tried them upon her prisoners, causing the men to be stung and bitten by them, and then watching the effects. These investigations were made, not directly with a view to any practical use which she was to make of the knowledge thus acquired, but rather as an agreeable occupation, to divert her mind, and to amuse Antony and her guests. The variety in the forms and expressions which the agony of her poisoned victims assumed—their writhings, their cries, their convulsions, and the distortions of their features [292] when struggling with death, furnished exactly the kind and degree of excitement which she needed to occupy and amuse her mind.

Antony was not entirely at ease, however, during the progress of these terrible experiments. His foolish and childish fondness for Cleopatra was mingled with jealousy, suspicion, and distrust; and he was so afraid that Cleopatra might secretly poison him, that he would never take any food or wine without requiring that she should taste it before him. At length, one day, Cleopatra caused the petals of some flowers to be poisoned, and then had the flowers woven into the chaplet which Antony was to wear at supper. In the midst of the feast, she pulled off the leaves of the flowers from her own chaplet and put them playfully into her wine, and then proposed that Antony should do the same with his chaplet, and that they should then drink the wine, tinctured, as it would be, with the color and the perfume of the flowers. Antony entered very readily into this proposal. and when he was about to drink the wine, she arrested his hand, and told him that it was poisoned. "You see now," said she, "how vain it is for you to watch against me. If it were possible for me to live without you, how easy it [293] would be for me to devise ways and means to kill you." Then, to prove that her words were true, she ordered one of the servants to drink Antony's wine. He did so, and died before their sight in dreadful agony.

The experiments which Cleopatra thus made on the nature and effects of poison were not, however, wholly without practical result. Cleopatra learned from them, it is said, that the bite of the asp was the easiest and least painful mode of death. The effect of the venom of that animal appeared to her to be the lulling of the sensorium into a lethargy or stupor, which soon ended in death, without the intervention of pain. This knowledge she seems to have laid up in her mind for future use.

The thoughts of Cleopatra appear, in fact, to have been much disposed, at this time, to flow in gloomy channels, for she occupied herself a great deal in building for herself a sepulchral monument in a certain sacred portion of the city This monument had, in fact, been commenced many years ago, in accordance with a custom prevailing among Egyptian sovereigns, of expending a portion of their revenues during their life-time in building and decorating their own tombs. Cleopatra now turned her mind [294] with new interest to her own mausoleum. She finished it, provided it with the strongest possible bolts and bars, and, in a word, seemed to be preparing it in all respects for occupation.

In the mean time, Octavius, having made himself master of all the countries which had formerly been under Antony's sway, now advanced, meeting none to oppose him, from Asia Minor into Syria, and from Syria toward Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra made one attempt, while he was thus advancing toward Alexandria, to avert the storm which was impending over them, by sending an embassage to ask for some terms of peace. Antony proposed, in this embassage, to give up every thing to his conqueror on condition that he might be permitted to retire unmolested with Cleopatra to Athens, and allowed to spend the remainder of their days there in peace; and that the kingdom of Egypt might descend to their children. Octavius replied that he could not make any terms with Antony, though he was willing to consent to any thing that was reasonable in behalf of Cleopatra. The messenger who came back from Octavius with this reply spent some time in private interviews with Cleopatra. This aroused Antony's jealousy and anger. He accordingly ordered [295] the unfortunate messenger to be scourged and then sent back to Octavius, all lacerated with wounds, with orders to say to Octavius that if it displeased him to have one of his servants thus punished, he might revenge himself by scourging a servant of Antony's, who was then, as it happened, in Octavius's power.

The news at length suddenly arrived at Alexandria that Octavius had appeared before Pelusium, and that the city had fallen into his hands. The next thing Antony and Cleopatra well knew would be, that they should see him at the gates of Alexandria. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra had any means of resisting his progress, and there was no place to which they could fly. Nothing was to be done but to await, in consternation and terror, the sure and inevitable doom which was now so near.

Cleopatra gathered together all her treasures and sent them to her tomb. These treasures consisted of great and valuable stores of gold, silver, precious stones, garments of the highest cost, and weapons, and vessels of exquisite workmanship and great value, the hereditary possessions of the Egyptian kings. She also sent to the mausoleum an immense quantity of flax, tow, torches, and other combustibles. [296] These she stored in the lower apartments of the monument, with the desperate determination of burning herself and her treasures together rather than to fall into the hands of the Romans.

In the mean time, the army of Octavius steadily continued its march across the desert from Pelusium to Alexandria. On the way, Octavius learned, through the agents in communication with him from within the city what were the arrangements which Cleopatra had made for the destruction of her treasure whenever the danger should become imminent of its falling into his hands. He was extremely unwilling that this treasure should be lost. Besides its intrinsic value, it was an object of immense importance to him to get possession of it for the purpose of carrying it to Rome as a trophy of his triumph. He accordingly sent secret messengers to Cleopatra, endeavoring to separate her from Antony, and to amuse her mind with the profession that he felt only friendship for her, and did not mean to do her any injury, being in pursuit of Antony only. These negotiations were continued from day to day while Octavius was advancing. At last the Roman army reached Alexandria, and invested it on every side.

[297] As soon as Octavius was established in his camp under the walls of the city, Antony planned a sally, and he executed it, in fact, with considerable energy and success. He issued suddenly from the gates, at the head of as strong a force as he could command, and attacked a body of Octavius's horsemen. He succeeded in driving these horsemen away from their position, but he was soon driven back in his turn, and compelled to retreat to the city, fighting as he fled, to beat back his pursuers. He was extremely elated at the success of this skirmish. He came to Cleopatra with a countenance full of animation and pleasure, took her in his arms and kissed her, all accoutered for battle as he was, and boasted greatly of the exploit which he had performed. He praised, too, in the highest terms, the valor of one of the officers who had gone out with him to the fight, and whom he had now brought to the palace to present to Cleopatra. Cleopatra rewarded the faithful captain's prowess with a magnificent suit of armor made of gold. Notwithstanding this reward, however, the man deserted Antony that very night, and went over to the enemy. Almost all of Antony's adherents were in the same state of mind. They would have gladly [298] gone over to the camp of Octavius, if they could have found an opportunity to do so.

In fact, when the final battle was fought, the fate of it was decided by a grand defection in the fleet, which went over in a body to the side of Octavius. Antony was planning the operations of the day, and reconnoitering the movements of the enemy from an eminence which he occupied at the head of a body of foot soldiers—all the land forces that now remained to him—and looking off from the eminence on which he stood toward the harbor, he observed a movement among the galleys. They were going out to meet the ships of Octavius, which were lying at anchor not very far from them. Antony supposed that his vessels were going to attack those of the enemy, and he looked to see what exploits they would perform. They advanced toward Octavius's ships, and when they met them, Antony observed, to his utter amazement, that, instead of the furious combat that he had expected to see, the ships only exchanged friendly salutations, by the use of the customary naval signals; and then his ships, passing quietly round, took their positions in the lines of the other fleet. The two fleets had thus become merged and mingled into one.

[299] Antony immediately decided that this was Cleopatra's treason. She had made peace with Octavius, he thought, and surrendered the fleet to him as one of the conditions of it. Antony ran through the city, crying out that he was betrayed, and in a phrensy of rage sought the palace. Cleopatra fled to her tomb. She took in with her one or two attendants, and bolted and barred the doors, securing the fastenings with the heavy catches and springs that she had previously made ready. She then directed her women to call out through the door that she had killed herself within the tomb.

The tidings of her death were borne to Antony. It changed his anger to grief and despair. His mind, in fact, was now wholly lost to all balance and control, and it passed from the dominion of one stormy passion to another with the most capricious facility. He cried out with the most bitter expressions of sorrow, mourning, he said, not so much Cleopatra's death, for he should soon follow and join her, as the fact that she had proved herself so superior to him in courage at last, in having thus anticipated him in the work of self-destruction.

He was at this time in one of the chambers of the palace, whither he had fled in his despair [300] and was standing by a fire, for the morning was cold. He had a favorite servant named Eros, whom he greatly trusted, and whom he had made to take an oath long before, that whenever it should become necessary for him to die, Eros should kill him. This Eros he now called to him, and telling him that the time was come, ordered him to take the sword and strike the blow.

Eros took the sword while Antony stood up before him. Eros turned his head aside as if wishing that his eyes should not see the deed which his hands were about to perform. Instead, however, of piercing his master with it, he plunged it into his own breast, fell down at Antony's feet, and died.

Antony gazed a moment at the shocking spectacle, and then said, "I thank thee for this, noble Eros. Thou hast set me an example. I must do for myself what thou couldst not do for me." So saying, he took the sword from his servant's hands, plunged it into his body, and staggering to a little bed that was near, fell over upon it to a swoon. He had received a mortal wound.

The pressure, however, which was produced by the position in which he lay upon the bed, stanched the wound a little and stopped the flow of blood. Antony came presently to himself [301] again, and then began to beg and implore those around him to take the sword and put him out of his misery. But no one would do it. He lay for a time suffering great pain, and moaning incessantly, until, at length, an officer same into the apartment and told him that the story which he had heard of Cleopatra's death was not true; that she was still alive, shut up in her monument, and that she desired to see him there. This intelligence was the source of new excitement and agitation. Antony implored the by-standers to carry him to Cleopatra, that he might see her once more before he died. They shrank from the attempt; but, after some hesitation and delay, they concluded to undertake to remove him. So, taking him in their arms, they bore him along, faint and dying, and marking their track with his blood, toward the tomb.

Cleopatra would not open the gates to let the party in. The city was all in uproar and confusion through the terror of the assault which Octavius was making upon it, and she did not know what treachery might be intended. She therefore went up to a window above, and letting down ropes and chains, she directed those below to fasten the dying body to them, that [302] she and the two women with her might draw it up. This was done. Those who witnessed it said that it was a most piteous sight to behold—Cleopatra and her women above exhausting their strength in drawing the wounded and bleeding sufferer up the wall, while he, when he approached the window, feebly raised his arms to them, that they might lift him in. The women had hardly strength sufficient to draw the body up. At one time it seemed that the attempt would have to be abandoned; but Cleopatra reached down from the window as far as she could to get hold of Antony's arms, and thus, by dint of great effort, they succeeded at last in taking him in. They bore him to a couch which was in the upper room from which the window opened, and laid him down, while Cleopatra wrung her hands, and tore her hair, and uttered the most piercing lamentations and cries. She leaned over the dying Antony, crying out incessantly with the most piteous exclamations of grief. She bathed his face, which was covered with blood, and vainly endeavored to stanch his wound.


[Illustration]

THE RAISING OF ANTONY TO THE UPPER WINDOW OF THE TOMB.

Antony urged her to be calm, and not to mourn his fate. He asked for some wine. They brought it to him, and he drank it. He then [305] entreated Cleopatra to save her life, if she possibly could do so, and to make some terms or other with Octavius, so as to continue to live. Very soon after this he expired.

In the mean time, Octavius had heard of the mortal wound which Antony had given himself; for one of the by-standers had seized the sword the moment that the deed was done, and had hastened to carry it to Octavius, and to announce to him the death of his enemy. Octavius immediately desired to get Cleopatra into his power. He sent a messenger, therefore, to the tomb, who attempted to open a parley there with her. Cleopatra talked with the messenger through the keyholes or crevices, but could not be induced to open the door. The messenger reported these facts to Octavius. Octavius then sent another man with the messenger, and while one was engaging the attention of Cleopatra and her women at the door below, the other obtained ladders, and succeeded in gaining admission into the window above. Cleopatra was warned of the success of this stratagem by the shriek of her woman, who saw the officer corning down the stairs. She looked around, and observing at a glance that she was betrayed, and that the officer was coming to seize her, [306] she drew a little dagger from her robe, and was about to plunge it into her breast, when the officer grasped her arm just in time to prevent the blow. He took the dagger from her, and then examined her clothes to see that there were no other secret weapons concealed there.

The capture of the queen being reported to Octavius, he appointed an officer to take her into close custody. This officer was charged to treat her with all possible courtesy, but to keep a close and constant watch over her, and particularly to guard against allowing her any possible means or opportunity for self-destruction.

In the mean time, Octavius took formal possession of the city, marching in at the head of his troops with the most imposing pomp and parade. A chair of state, magnificently decorated, was set up for him on a high elevation in a public square; and here he sat, with circles of guards around him, while the people of the city, assembled before him in the dress of suppliants, and kneeling upon the pavement, begged his forgiveness, and implored him to spare the city. These petitions the great conqueror graciously condescended to grant.

Many of the princes and generals who had served under Antony came next to beg the body [307] of their commander, that they might give it an honorable burial. These requests, however, Octavius would not accede to, saying that he could not take the body away from Cleopatra. He, however, gave Cleopatra leave to make such arrangements for the obsequies as she thought fit, and allowed her to appropriate such sums of money from her treasures for this purpose as she desired. Cleopatra accordingly made the necessary arrangements, and superintended the execution of them; not, however, with any degree of calmness and composure, but in a state, on the contrary, of extreme agitation and distress. In fact, she had been living now so long under the unlimited and unrestrained dominion of caprice and passion, that reason was pretty effectually dethroned, and all self-control was gone. She was now nearly forty years of age, and, though traces of her inexpressible beauty remained, her bloom was faded, and her countenance was wan with the effects of weeping, anxiety, and despair. She was, in a word, both in body and mind, only the wreck and ruin of what she once had been.

When the burial ceremonies were performed, and she found that all was over—that Antony was forever gone, and she herself hopelessly and [308] irremediably ruined—she gave herself up to a perfect phrensy of grief. She beat her breast, and scratched and tore her flesh so dreadfully, in the vain efforts which she made to kill herself, in the paroxysms of her despair, that she was soon covered with contusions and wounds, which, becoming inflamed and swelled, made her a shocking spectacle to see, and threw her into a fever. She then conceived the idea of pretending to be more sick than she was, and so refusing food and starving herself to death. She attempted to execute this design. She rejected every medical remedy that was offered her, and would not eat, and lived thus some days without food. Octavius, to whom every thing relating to his captive was minutely reported by her attendants, suspected her design. He was very unwilling that she should die, having set his heart on exhibiting her to the Roman people, on his return to the capital, in his triumphal procession. He accordingly sent her orders, requiring that she should submit to the treatment prescribed by the physician, and take her food, enforcing these his commands with a certain threat which he imagined might have some influence over her. And what threat does the reader imagine could possibly be [309] devised to reach a mind so sunk, so desperate, so wretched as hers? Every thing seemed already lost but life, and life was only an insupportable burden. What interests, then, had she still remaining upon which a threat could take hold?

Octavius, in looking for some avenue by which he could reach her, reflected that she was a mother. Cęsarion, the son of Julius Cęsar, and Alexander, Cleopatra, and Ptolemy, Antony's children, were still alive. Octavius imagined that in the secret recesses of her wrecked and ruined soul there might be some lingering principle of maternal affection remaining which he could goad into life and action. He accordingly sent word to her that, if she did not yield to the physician and take her food, he would kill every one of her children.

The threat produced its effect. The crazed and frantic patient became calm. She received her food. She submitted to the physician. Under his treatment her wounds began to heal, the fever was allayed, and at length she appeared to be gradually recovering.

When Octavius learned that Cleopatra had become composed, and seemed to be in some sense convalescent, he resolved to pay her a visit. As he entered the room where she was [310] confined, which seems to have been still the upper chamber of her tomb, he found her lying on a low and miserable bed, in a most wretched condition, and exhibiting such a spectacle of disease and wretchedness that he was shocked at beholding her. She appeared, in fact, almost wholly bereft of reason. When Octavius came in, she suddenly leaped out of the bed, half naked as she was, and covered with bruises and wounds, and crawled miserably along to her conqueror's feet in the attitude of a suppliant. Her hair was torn from her head, her limbs were swollen and disfigured, and great bandages appeared here and there, indicating that there were still worse injuries than these concealed. From the midst of all this squalidness and misery there still beamed from her sunken eyes a great portion of their former beauty, and her voice still possessed the same inexpressible charm that had characterized it so strongly in the days of her prime. Octavius made her go back to her bed again and lie down.

Cleopatra then began to talk and excuse herself for what she had done, attributing all the blame of her conduct to Antony. Octavius, however, interrupted her, and defended Antony from her criminations, saying to her that it was [311] not his fault so much as hers. She then suddenly changed her tone, and acknowledging her sins, piteously implored mercy. She begged Octavius to pardon and spare her, as if now she were afraid of death and dreaded it, instead of desiring it as a boon. In a word, her mind, the victim and the prey alternately of the most dissimilar and inconsistent passions, was now overcome by fear. To propitiate Octavius, she brought out a list of all her private treasures, and delivered it to him as a complete inventory of all that she had. One of her treasurers, however, named Zeleucus, who was standing by, said to Octavius that that list was not complete. Cleopatra had, he alleged, reserved several things of great value, which she had not put down upon it.

This assertion, thus suddenly exposing her duplicity, threw Cleopatra into a violent rage. She sprang from her bed and assaulted her secretary in a most furious manner. Octavius and the others who were there interposed, and compelled Cleopatra to lie down again, which she did, uttering all the time the most grievous complaints at the wretched degradation to which she was reduced, to be insulted thus by her own servants at such a time. If she had reserved [312] any thing, she said, of her private treasures, it was only for presents to some of her faithful friends, to induce them the more zealously to intercede with Octavius in her behalf. Octavius replied by urging her to feel no concern on the subject whatever. He freely gave her, he said, all that she had reserved, and he promised in other respects to treat her in the most honorable and courteous manner.

Octavius was much pleased at the result of this interview. It was obvious, as it appeared to him, that Cleopatra had ceased to desire to die; that she now, on the contrary, wished to live, and that he should accordingly succeed in his desire of taking her with him to grace his triumph at Rome. He accordingly made his arrangements for departure, and Cleopatra was notified that in three days she was to set out, together with her children, to go into Syria. Octavius said Syria, as he did not wish to alarm Cleopatra by speaking of Rome. She, however understood well where the journey, if once commenced, would necessarily end, and she was fully determined in her own mind that she would never go there.

She asked to be allowed to pay one parting visit to Antony's tomb. This request was [313] granted; and she went to the tomb with a few attendants, carrying with her chaplets and garlands of flowers. At the tomb her grief broke forth anew, and was as violent as ever. She bewailed her lover's death with loud cries and lamentations, uttered while she was placing the garlands upon the tomb, and offering the oblations and incense, which were customary in those days, as expressions of grief. "These," said she, as she made the offerings, "are the last tributes of affection that I can ever pay thee, my dearest, dearest lord. I can not join thee, for I am a captive and a prisoner, and they will not let me die. They watch me every hour, and are going to bear me far away, to exhibit me to thine enemies, as a badge and trophy of their triumph over thee. Oh intercede, dearest Antony, with the gods where thou art now, since those that reign here on earth have utterly forsaken me; implore them to save me from this fate, and let me die here in my native land, and be buried by thy side in this tomb."

When Cleopatra returned to her apartment again after this melancholy ceremony, she seemed to be more composed than she had been before. She went to the bath, and then she attired herself handsomely for supper. She had [314] ordered supper that night to be very sumptuously served. She was at liberty to make these arrangements, for the restrictions upon her movements, which had been imposed at first, were now removed, her appearance and demeanor having been for some time such as to lead Octavius to suppose that there was no longer any danger that she would attempt self-destruction. Her entertainment was arranged, therefore, according to her directions, in a manner corresponding with the customs of her court when she had been a queen. She had many attendants, and among them were two of her own women. These women were long-tried and faithful servants and friends.

While she was at supper, a man came to the door with a basket, and wished to enter. The guards asked him what he had in his basket. He opened it to let them see; and, lifting up some green leaves which were laid over the top, he showed the soldiers that the basket was filled with figs. He said that they were for Cleopatra's supper. The soldiers admired the appearance of the figs, saying that they were very fine and beautiful. The man asked the soldiers to take some of them. This they declined, but allowed the man to pass in. When the supper [315] was ended, Cleopatra sent all of her attendants away except the two women. They remained. After a little time, one of these women came out with a letter for Octavius, which Cleopatra had written, and which she wished to have immediately delivered. One of the soldiers from the guard stationed at the gates was accordingly dispatched to carry the letter. Octavius, when it was given to him, opened the envelope at once and read the letter, which was written, as was customary in those days, on a small tablet of metal. He found that it was a brief but urgent petition from Cleopatra, written evidently in agitation and excitement, praying that he would overlook her offense, and allow her to be buried with Antony. Octavius immediately inferred that she had destroyed herself. He sent off some messengers at once, with orders to go directly to her place of confinement and ascertain the truth, intending to follow them himself immediately.

The messengers, on their arrival at the gates, found the sentinels and soldiers quietly on guard before the door, as if all were well. On entering Cleopatra's room, however, they beheld a shocking spectacle. Cleopatra was lying dead upon a couch. One of her women was upon [316] the floor, dead too. The other, whose name was Charmion, was sitting over the body of her mistress, fondly caressing her, arranging flowers in her hair, and adorning her diadem. The messengers of Octavius, on witnessing this spectacle, were overcome with amazement, and demanded of Charmion what it could mean. "It is all right," said Charmion. "Cleopatra has acted in a manner worthy of a princess descended from so noble a line of kings." As Charmion said this, she began to sink herself, fainting, upon the bed, and almost immediately expired.

The by-standers were not only shocked at the spectacle which was thus presented before them, but they were perplexed and confounded in their attempts to discover by what means Cleopatra and her women had succeeded in effecting their design. They examined the bodies, but no marks of violence were to be discovered. They looked all around the room, but no weapons, and no indication of any means of poison, were to be found. They discovered something that appeared like the slimy track of an animal on the wall, toward a window, which they thought might have been produced by an asp;  but the animal itself was nowhere to be seen. They examined the body with great care, but no [317] marks of any bite or sting were to be found, except that there were two very slight and scarcely discernible punctures on the arm, which some persons fancied might have been so caused. The means and manner of her death seemed to be involved in impenetrable mystery.

There were various rumors on the subject subsequently in circulation both at Alexandria and at Rome, though the mystery was never fully solved. Some said that there was an asp concealed among the figs which the servant man brought in in the basket; that he brought it in that manner, by a preconcerted arrangement between him and Cleopatra, and that, when she received it, she placed the animal on her arm. Others say that she had a small steel instrument like a needle, with a poisoned point, which she had kept concealed in her hair, and that she killed herself with that, without producing any visible wound. Another story was, that she had an asp in a box somewhere in her apartment, which she had reserved for this occasion, and when the time finally game, that she pricked and teased it with a golden bodkin to make it angry, and then placed it upon her flesh and received its sting. Which of these stories, if either of them, were true, could never be known. [318] It has, however, been generally believed among mankind that Cleopatra died in some way or other by the self-inflicted sting of the asp, and paintings and sculptures without number have been made to illustrate and commemorate the scene.

This supposition in respect to the mode of her death is, in fact, confirmed by the action of Octavius himself on his return to Rome, which furnishes a strong indication of his opinion of the manner in which his captive at last eluded him. Disappointed in not being able to exhibit the queen herself in his triumphal train, he caused a golden statue representing her to be made, with an image of an asp upon the arm of it, and this sculpture he caused to be borne conspicuously before him in his grand triumphal entry into the capital, as the token and trophy of the final downfall of the unhappy Egyptian queen.


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