The Death Of Cleopatra  

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Female heads of state are few and far between throughout history, but when a woman rises to power, she leaves her mark. Cleopatra, arguably the most famous woman of the ancient world, was Queen of Egypt and lived from 70 or 69 B.C.E. to 30 B.C.E. Her legacy extends through history and legend, and she remains firmly entrenched as an icon of brilliance, seduction, and tragedy.

It is her tragic death that has mesmerized historians and inspired artists through the ages. Supposedly by inflicting the bite of an asp or cobra, Cleopatra committed suicide after the death of her last lover Mark Antony of Rome and the defeat of their armies. The dramatic image of the beautiful queen withering beneath the fangs of a snake has long symbolized the anguish of total defeat after losing a bid for power.

The stakes had always been high for Cleopatra. She was a daughter of the long established Ptolemy Dynasty that had ruled Egypt since the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. The Ptolemies were Macedonian Greeks, and Cleopatra would have described herself as Greek. Despite being an Egyptian Queen, she was not of Egyptian blood.

Cleopatra ruled during a time when Rome was the ultimate force of power in the Mediterranean world, but the three-thousand-year-old Egyptian civilization, although waning, remained wealthy and significant. Through diplomacy and her long affair with Julius Caesar, Cleopatra worked to maintain a measure of independence for Egypt and power for herself and her dynasty. After the death of Caesar, her romantic alliance switched to his supporter Mark Antony. Together, Cleopatra and Antony challenged Rome, now under the leadership of Octavian, for control of the eastern Mediterranean. Their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Actium sent them retreating to Egypt to await the final wrath of Octavian as he pursued his rivals.

Ironically, the victories of mighty Rome had left its treasuries spent, and Octavian had disgruntled armies on his hands. A ruler of Rome needs his armies on his side if he wishes to remain in power, and Octavian quite desperately needed to finish off Cleopatra and Antony and seize the treasure of the Egyptian monarchy. Cleopatra possessed the last great treasure outside of Roman control. The wealth of the Dynasty of the Ptolemies was described by the historian Plutarch as consisting of gold, silver, emeralds, pearls, ebony, ivory, and cinnamon. With Octavian's armies restless, Cleopatra hoped to eventually prevail if she could hold out long enough for Octavian to be undermined by his unpaid military. Trying to play time to her advantage, Cleopatra attempted to avoid Octavian with various diplomatic overtures and plots of escaping to the east, but everything failed. Octavian's determined forces eventually arrived at Alexandria and Mark Antony's forces surrendered or deserted in despair on the first of August 30 B.C.E. Antony's death soon followed, and Cleopatra barricaded herself in her mausoleum with her treasure that was surrounded by firewood and kindling. Octavian, terribly worried that she would destroy most of the badly needed treasure with fire, managed to get people in the mausoleum through an upper window. Cleopatra was taken captive and her treasure seized by Rome.

With her lover and ally Antony defeated and dead, Cleopatra was bereft of authority and Egypt's wealth was plundered. She died on August 12th of poison. Cleopatra was described as being in her royal robes upon a golden couch with a diadem on her brow. Two loyal servants shared in her death. The exact nature of how she poisoned herself is not known. The story of how she put a poisonous snake to her breast won out over other versions. Such a death allowed for a stunning and romantic conclusion to a remarkable life, and it corresponded with the Goddess Isis with whom Cleopatra associated herself. Isis is often depicted with a snake coiled around her divine arm.

The politically savvy Cleopatra outmaneuvered the full grasp of Rome as long as she could, but her struggle has charmed historians ever since. Cleopatra will always be known as an ancient queen who played upon a chessboard with mighty men. She did not win, but millions of people even thousands of years later still speak her name - an honor many Pharaohs would envy.

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This entry was posted on 26 June 2009 at Friday, June 26, 2009 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the .