Cleopatra’s Final Exit

Posted by Barry Strauss under on August 2, 2023

When we leave a job, many of us just head for the exit – fast. Others think about their legacy. They want to leave under circumstances that cement that legacy and leave a good impression behind. CEO’s, founders, presidents, and kings and queens fall under the latter category. Cleopatra offers a classic example of what might be called a “legacy exit.” It wasn’t an easy operation to carry out, as the engraving above suggests.

The engraving is the work of an anonymous Italian artist in the late 16th or early 17th century (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and it shows Cleopatra’s last act. She is committing suicide. The infamous asp – a generic word for snake – is visible. Cupid is covering his eyes, unwilling to see so sad a sight.

The ancient sources tell us that Cleopatra committed suicide in Alexandria. She chose her exit carefully and after due planning.

Suicide is a horrendous, dreadful act. It’s something that no one, I hope, will ever consider. But if it serves as a symbol of defiance, and of leaving with dignity rather than disgrace, then, Cleopatra’s final exit may have something to teach us.

“If they are good at their game, politicians care more about fame, power, and money than they do about love.”

Cleopatra preferred suicide to humiliation. That, she feared, awaited her at the hands of Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. The time was August, 30 B.C. About a year earlier, on September 2, 31 B.C. Octavian’s fleet defeated Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium off the coast of Greece. The two had hoped to conquer and so to dominate the Roman empire. Instead, Octavian won an overwhelming victory, destroying or capturing most of the enemy fleet; the army soon surrendered. Antony and Cleopatra escaped with a few ships and returned to Egypt. Although the two wanted to fight on, it was hopeless. Their remaining forces deserted them.

Antony and Cleopatra are one of history’s most famous couples. Their romance (it’s unclear if they were formally married) produced three children. If they were in love is unknown and unimportant. If they are good at their game, politicians care more about fame, power, and money than they do about love. What matters is that Cleopatra and Antony were the closest of allies. Which means that they let no distance appear between them except when it was politically necessary. After Actium it was necessary.

At Actium, Cleopatra looked out for herself and her kingdom. Her escape from the battle, which her side was losing, with her squadron of sixty Egyptian ships, is infamous. Shakespeare accuses her of betraying Antony, but that is not true. Rather, she carried out a pre-planned maneuver to save her ships, herself, her man, and not least, her treasury. She carried that with her, and it was an enormous number of jewels, coins, and precious metal. Nor did she leave the scene of the battle before Antony had a chance to transfer from his ship to hers. The two escaped together.

In Alexandria, things were different. Cleopatra concluded that she had to sacrifice Antony to save her children, three of whom were also his children. She hoped to save her skin and her throne as well, but a realist like her surely understood. So, she negotiated with Octavian, but to no avail. He took the city without a fight. Antony committed suicide and died in Cleopatra’s arms.

That left Cleopatra to face the victor alone. She and Octavian met alone in her palace. It must surely have been one of history’s more remarkable encounters. The Egyptian queen and the future first emperor of Rome matched each other in cunning and ambition. We will never know just what was said. Octavian supposedly wanted to bring Cleopatra back to Rome to march in his triumph. Cleopatra abhorred the thought of the indignity. In truth, Octavian might not have looked forward to the prospect either. The chances were good that public opinion would force him to leave the queen alive, and a living Cleopatra was a dangerous Cleopatra.

I suspect that the two made a deal. Octavian would agree to let her children live. In return, Cleopatra would commit suicide. There is no proof of this theory, but it does less violence to the evidence than an alternate theory that Octavian had Cleopatra murdered but spread the false report that she had killed herself.

The sources state clearly that Cleopatra committed suicide. They are not sure if she smuggled in the famous asp – more likely a cobra – or took poison. Our best sources, Plutarch and Cassius Dio, knew well the cunning ways of ancient politicians and the propaganda they put out. Yet they betray not the slightest suspicion of a put-up job by Octavian.

Cleopatra’s still-warm body was discovered on her throne, dressed in her royal robe. With her were her two most trusted servants, who were also dying. Cleopatra had chosen to go out like a queen. The cobra was a symbol of Egypt’s monarchy. If Cleopatra did arrange to die by a cobra’s bite, she added to the royal power of her last act.

Octavian professed to be horrified, but he might have been relieved. If he had promised to spare Cleopatra’s children, he kept his word – or most of it. He brought her two sons and one daughter by Antony back with him to Rome. But he had Caesarion, her son (allegedly) by Julius Caesar, executed. Octavian claimed his great-uncle Caesar as his adoptive father; he did not want the competition of a birth son. “Too many Caesars is a bad thing,” said one of Octavian’s advisors in a wicked witticism.

“If forced to go, go out with your head held high.”

As for Cleopatra, Octavian had her buried beside Antony in a tomb at Alexandria. It was a political gesture, not a nod to romance. He wanted Antony remembered as an Egyptian, not a Roman. He wanted Cleopatra remembered as an Egyptian who pledged herself to a Roman. Symbolically, it paved the way for Rome’s takeover of Egypt, which Octavian now declared a province of the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra lost her man, her kingdom, and her life, but she kept her family alive – at least part of it. Her two surviving sons never reached adulthood, victims either of childhood mortality, so common before modern times, or Roman perfidy. Her daughter had a bright future. She became queen of Numidia (roughly, Algeria), where she created a glittering court reminiscent of her mother’s glamour in Alexandria. She named her son Ptolemy, in memory of Cleopatra’s dynasty.

Cleopatra kept one other thing: her dignity. No march in chains before jeering crowds in the streets of Rome. Instead, she left the world like royalty.

What lessons for leaders does Cleopatra’s final exit provide?

  • Suicide should not be an option for anyone. Leaving a job with dignity, however, is important.
  • If forced to go, go out with your head held high.
  • Choose your own exit: don’t let others choose it for you.
  • Negotiate the best terms you can get in return for your voluntary departure. If I am right, Cleopatra did just that, and managed to keep her legacy alive.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my posts on Cleopatra, as I have enjoyed writing them. Although she failed in the end, the Queen of Egypt almost brought the Roman Empire to its knees.

I’m going to take some time off to prepare for teaching in the fall semester, which is almost upon us. I’ll be back after Labor Day. See you in September!

Barry Strauss © 2024