Articles and Features

The Suicide of Cleopatra

August 30, 30 B.C.

Week of August 30, 1998

I used to hate Elizabeth Taylor. Of course I blamed Hollywood, but I still condemned her white skin while playing the part of Cleopatra. That milky white skin and those violet eyes (always looked blue to me anyway) just didn't belong on the Queen of Egypt. I imagined Cleopatra with dark Nubian skin and a long lean figure. I blamed Hollywood's infatuation with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for a white Cleopatra. I scoffed at the television every time I surfed past her Egyptian-clad face. Of course, that was all before.

Egypt has a history longer than I can comprehend. I feel pride at the thought that the country I live in has survived for over 200 years. I feel pride that the blood that courses through my veins belonged to the Roman Empire, which lasted well over 600 years. I cannot imagine, however, the thought of a civilization that has survived for over 6000 years. My mind boggles at the idea that Egypt has and always will be a force on Earth.

With a civilization this old, there were many rulers, some of indigenous origin, and others were invading kings. There were the Nubian pharaohs, the Persian princes, and the Greek pharaohs. Cleopatra was a Greek pharaoh, the first to actually become fully Egyptian. She spoke the language as her own, she worshipped their gods as her own and she ruled as only an Egyptian could. Her blood may have been Greek, her skin may have been milky white (probably not considering the sun, but anyway), but her heart was entirely Egyptian.

Considering her power, one would think that many quotations would be recorded. At least her dying words as she lay the asp on her neck. Maybe the words she uttered into Antony's ear, convincing him to betray the Roman Empire would have been saved. Yet, once again, history has been written by the victors and the words of this woman are unrecorded.

Looking at the film now, Cleopatra could have looked like Elizabeth Taylor (unlikely, but it's a little more palatable now). Looking at Egypt now, I wonder if history 2000 years from now will look at our era as a time when Egypt was under Muslim rule, after which, the old priests revived the original religion of the gods and returned to the practice of embalming the dead. The pharaohs of Egypt may once again rule all of the known world, and our time was merely a 2000 year footnote listed on the Egyptian tablets.

Introduction and quote compilation by Laura S. Moncur, Staff Writer.

"Some report that this aspic [asp] was brought unto her in the basket with figs and that she had commanded them to hide it under the fig leaves, so that when she should think to take out the figs the aspic should bite her before she should see her; howbeit, that when she would have taken away the leaves for the figs she perceived it and said: 'Art thou here then?' And so, her arm being naked, she put it to the aspic to be bitten. Others say again that she kept it in a box and that she did prick and thrust it with a spindle of gold, so that the aspic being angered withal, leaped out with great fury, and bit her in the arm. Howbeit, few can tell the truth. For they report also that she had hidden poison in a hollow razor which she carried in the hair of her head. And yet was there no mark seen on her body or any sign discerned that she was poisoned, neither also did they find this serpent in her tomb. But it was reported only that there were seen certain fresh steps or tracks where it had gone, on the tomb side toward the sea, and specially by little pretty bitings in her arm, scant to be discerned, the which it seemed Caesar [Augustus Caesar] himself gave credit unto, because in his triumph he carried Cleopatra's image with an asp biting her arm. And thus goeth the report of her death."
Plutarch, "Life of Marcus Antonius", A.D. 46-120
"Men willingly believe what they wish."
Julius Caesar, "De Bello Gallico", III, 18
"Well done is quickly done."
Augustus Caesar, from SUETONIUS, "Augustus", sec. 25
"History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity."
Marcus Tullius Cicero 106-43 B.C., "Pro Publio Sestio", II, 36
"For just as some women are said to be handsome though without adornment, so this subtle manner of speech, though lacking in artificial graces, delights us."
Marcus Tullius Cicero 106-43 B.C., "Orator", 4
"Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm."
Publilius Syrus (first century B.C.), Maxim 358
"I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble."
Augustus Caesar, from SUETONIUS, "Augustus", sec. 28
But how did he find Egypt, and in what state was it left?
Featured Books
The following books and tapes are available through
  • Anthony and Cleopatra Paperback by William Shakespeare - The famous play by Shakespeare (sequel to Julius Caesar). Much of the play was taken directly from Plutarch's "Life of Marcus Antonius."
  • Caesar and Cleopatra : A History Paperback by George Bernard Shaw - A history of the epic of the Queen of Egypt by the famous George Bernard Shaw.
  • The Memoirs of Cleopatra : A Novel Paperback by Margaret George - A historical novel that transports you back to the life of the Queen of Egypt. Technically fiction, but researched nearly to the point of fact. This book was rated highly by book readers.
  • Cleopatra Paperback by Diane Stanley, Peter Vennema - A history book with a twist. Lots of lavish pictures and the in-depth discussion of why Plutarch might not have been the best source for the facts concerning her life.
For more information about Cleopatra, try these links:
  • Cleopatra: The Last of the Ptolemies - The best site for Cleopatra links, but this comes with a warning. It is a Geocities site, so prepare for the advert. Also, there are a lot of graphics, so prepare for a wait to download. Other than that, this site is great for links page to other Cleopatra pages.
  • Tour Egypt: The Ptolemies - The brief description of Cleopatra's reign (and the reign of her father) as given by Tour Egypt.
  • Cleopatra VII - Another brief history of Cleopatra's reign (more about her than her father this time). The author uses a dating system I am unfamiliar with, but everything else looks great.
Previous: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) Next: Dr. Laurence J. Peter