The Death of Cleopatra  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Beginning with the Renaissance and continuing into later centuries individual artists, as well as artistic movements (e.g. Romanticism, Decadent movement), have demonstrated a veritable passion for and derived much inspiration from Cleopatra's suicide; among the most well known pictorial iterations of Cleopatra's suicide are Cagnacci's Death of Cleopatra (1658) and Rixens's work of the same name (1874). A work that may have inspired Rixen's painting is Gautier's story Une Nuit de Cléopâtre (1838), which includes a fantastic—and an undisguisedly fetishistic—description of the Egyptian queen's body post-mortem. Other renditions include paintings by Reginald Arthur, Augustin Hirschvogel, the aforementioned Guido Cagnacci[1], Johann Liss, John William Waterhouse and Jean-André Rixens.

List of paintings


Historiography

The ancient sources, particularly the Roman ones, are in general agreement that Cleopatra poisoned herself by inducing an asp to bite her. The oldest source is Strabo, who was alive at the time of the event, and might even have been in Alexandria. He says that there are two stories: that she applied a toxic ointment, or that she was bitten by an asp. Plutarch, writing about 130 years after the event, provides the main source of Cleopatra's death. He states that she was found dead, her handmaiden, Iras dying at her feet, and another handmaiden, Charmion, adjusting her crown before she herself falls. He then goes on to state that an asp was concealed in a basket of figs that was brought to her by a rustic, and finding it after eating a few figs, she holds out her arm for it to bite. Others stories state that it was hidden in a vase, and that she poked it with a spindle until it got angry enough to bite her on the arm. Finally, he eventually writes, in Octavian's triumphal march back in Rome, an effigy of Cleopatra that has an asp clinging to it is part of the parade. Suetonius, writing about the same time as Plutarch, also says Cleopatra died from an asp bite.

Shakespeare gave us the final part of the image that has come down to us, Cleopatra clutching the snake to her breast. Plutarch tells us of the death of Antony. When his armies desert him and join with Octavian, he cries out that Cleopatra has betrayed him. She, fearing his wrath, locks herself in her monument with only her two handmaidens and sends messengers to Antony that she is dead. Believing them, Antony stabs himself in the belly with his sword, and lies on his couch to die. Instead, the blood flow stops, and he begs any and all to finish him off.

Another messenger comes from Cleopatra with instructions to bear him to her, and he, rejoicing that Cleopatra is still alive, consents. She won't open the door, but tosses ropes out of a window. After Antony is securely trussed up, she and her handmaidens haul him up into the monument. This nearly finishes him off. After dragging him in through the window, they lay him on a couch. Cleopatra tears off her clothes and covers him with them. She raves and cries, beats her breasts and engages in self-mutilation. Antony tells her to calm down, asks for a glass of wine, and dies upon finishing it.

Cleopatra's son by Caesar, Caesarion, was proclaimed pharaoh by the Egyptians, but Octavian had already won. Caesarion was captured and executed, his fate reportedly sealed by Octavian's phrase: "Two Caesars are one too many." This ended not just the Hellenistic line of Egyptian pharaohs, but the line of all Egyptian pharaohs. The three children of Cleopatra and Antony were spared and taken back to Rome where they were taken care of by Antony's wife, Octavia Minor. The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, was married by arrangements by Octavian to Juba II of Mauritania.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Death of Cleopatra" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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