Cleopatra chose to die the same way she lived: dramatically. She and Marc Antony were defeated by Octavian, the leader of western Rome, during a naval battle in Greece during the summer of 31 BCE. The pair was forced to flee back to Egypt. Octavian reached Alexandria at the end of the following summer. Although Antony managed to raise another army to meet him in battle, most of Antony’s soldiers defected before any fighting began. Ashamed, Antony stabbed himself with his sword. This was a traditional and honorable way of committing suicide among Roman soldiers. Unfortunately, the wound did not kill instantly. Antony remained alive until he was brought to Cleopatra’s tomb. He died in her arms on August 1, 30 BCE.
Cleopatra had locked herself in the mausoleum with the intent to commit suicide before being captured. However, one of Octavian’s men snuck inside though an unfinished window on the 2nd story of the building. He was able to hold Cleopatra down before she could harm herself. Cleopatra was then locked up under heavy guard in the palace. She proceeded to starve herself as an act of defiance. Her younger sister Arsinoe, who was defeated 18 years earlier by Julius Caesar, was forced to march as a trophy in Caesar’s triumph parade. Cleopatra was certain that the same fate awaited her.
When Octavian found out about Cleopatra’s hunger strike, he threatened to kill her children unless she began to eat again. The threat worked. She finally met with Octavian several days after her capture. The sources tell us that she prostrated herself as a supplicant and asked Octavian to take her as a trophy, but to leave her children on the throne of Egypt. Cleopatra most likely sensed that Egypt would not remain free, but a province or Rome. Nevertheless, Octavian believed Cleopatra still saw a way out with this request and he didn’t deny it flat out. She also asked to perform a funerary rite for Antony in their mausoleum prior to her departure for Rome. Octavian agreed. He thought he convinced her to stay alive with the possibility of her dynasty’s continuation. She, on the other hand, convinced him that she wanted to stay alive when she was already plotting her death.
The ceremony took place on August 12, 30 BCE, 11 days after Octavian’s conquest of Alexandria. Cleopatra and her two handmaidens, Charmion and Iras, dressed regally for the occasion and proceeded to have a funerary feast for Antony in the mausoleum. They asked to be left alone for the event. Cleopatra sent a message to Octavian asking to be buried at the site of Antony. By the time the message reached him, Cleopatra and her servants were already dead. Octavian was among the first to see them after death. Cleopatra wore her finest dress and a crown upon her head, preferring to die as a queen.
Snakebite is the most widely supported theory to Cleopatra’s death. Octavian had access to her shortly after her suicide and he would have been able to determine the cause. Since the queen could no longer march in his triumph parade, he created a statue of Cleopatra to take her place. The statue had snakes attached to her arms. This was also the most common cause of death cited by ancient historians. Additionally, Cleopatra lived for pageantry. Death by snakebite is exactly the kind of dramatic end which would have appealed to her, as snakes were sacred to Egyptians because of their association to the pharaohs. Although the type of snake used is uncertain, she most likely had some of them smuggled into the tomb prior to her arrival. In one of the most popular stories of her death, the snakes were hidden in a basket of figs.