Picture the scene: It's summer in Egypt, and Cleopatra, the kingdom's infamous ruler, knows Augustus, her mortal enemy, is in Alexandria ready to dethrone her with his legion of Roman soldiers. Cleopatra senses the end is imminent - not just for her, but for her long-time partner, the Roman general Mark Antony.
While historians debate the particular events that transpired that August in 30 BC, it's certain that, by the end of the month, Cleopatra and Antony were no more. Over the centuries, the legend of Cleopatra's death has overshadowed the true history of this often misrepresented, self-proclaimed goddess's final days. However, the truth is sometimes more unbelievable than fiction, and no one proves this better than Cleopatra herself.
After The Battle Of Actium, She Created A Goth-Sounding Secret Society
In 31 BC, a year prior to her demise, Cleopatra watched as the combined naval fleets of Egypt and Mark Antony were decimated by Augustus's forces at the Battle of Actium. While Augustus consolidated power in Rome, the ill-fated lovers retreated back to Alexandria to bide their time before Augustus's next move.
In the year following the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra and Antony put their exorbitant wealth toward one lavish party after another. They also dissolved their drinking club, "The Society of Inimitable Livers," and formed a new one: "Companions to the Death."
Cleopatra took this macabre obsession with her demise to the next level, erecting her own mausoleum in Alexandria. In her defense, most of her Roman allies abandoned her. The queen knew her reign was coming to an end.
Believing Cleopatra Had Perished, Mark Antony Attempted To Do The Same
It all came to a head around August 1, 30 BC. Antony and Augustus battled on the outskirts of Alexandria, but Antony's army was no match for his opponent's. Antony's men, knowing they were doomed, deserted him and joined Augustus. Antony had no choice but to surrender.
When word of this reached Cleopatra, she fled to her mausoleum. She decided to fake her death by sending a note to Antony, believing he would follow suit. Some historians think Cleopatra was secretly negotiating with Augustus, and she knew Antony was doomed no matter what.
Whatever her motivation, when the letter about Cleopatra's demise reached Antony, he was devastated. As the Greek historian Plutarch tells it, Antony spoke these words:
O Cleopatra, I am not distressed to have lost you, for I shall straightaway join you; but I am grieved that a commander as great as I should be found to be inferior to a woman in courage.
Antony then stabbed himself in the stomach with his own sword.
A Fatally Wounded Antony Was Carried To Cleopatra's Tomb
The self-inflicted wound did not end Antony's life. When word of his condition made it to Cleopatra, she had her injured lover brought to the mausoleum. Soon after, Antony expired in Cleopatra's arms.
Without her companion, Cleopatra likely worked many angles to win Augustus's favor. It's clear the would-be Roman emperor only cared about one thing: obtaining Cleopatra's wealth, which she stockpiled in the mausoleum.
Plutarch wrote that Augustus "was fearful about the treasures in her funeral pyre, and he thought it would add greatly to the glory of his triumph if she were led in the procession" of victory back home in Rome.
If there's anything Cleopatra refused to be, it was a trophy.
Augustus Apparently Allowed Her To Give Antony A Proper Burial
Nearly two weeks transpired between the passings of Antony and Cleopatra. While popular lore often excludes this detail, Augustus granted Cleopatra permission to tend to Antony's body. Antony was either embalmed, inhumed, or cremated according to Egyptian customs.
This funerary ritual may have filled Cleopatra with a sense of foreboding and dread, as she was well aware that a similar destiny awaited her.