On this day in 30 BC Cleopatra committed suicide. Cleopatra's response to losing Antony and Egypt to Rome was apparently well-researched: hoping for a painless death, she caused more than one unfortunate to be force-fed this or that drug or snake while she watched. As told in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, it was the Roman idea of entertainment that was to blame in the first place:
Nay, 'tis most certain, Iras: saucy lectors
Will catch at us, like strumpets; and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o' tune: the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore.
Something of this sort must have already been happening at home. Those "Alexandrian revels" were so popular that Plutarch reports Antony and Cleopatra having formed a high-living club called, in one translation, the "Association of Inimitable Livers." There was enough gossip that Mark Anthony wrote a pamphlet entitled, "On his own Drunkenness"; this has not survived, but it was apparently a self-defense. Nor has a 34BC statue which targeted him survived, but the base reads, "Antony, the Great, lover without peer," and the figure can be imagined.
Shakespeare has such a joke carried in by his clown, who delivers the suicide asps buried in a basket of figs, wishing the Queen "joy o' the worm." Cleopatra was last in the 300-year line of Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt; her final speech shows her rising regally above such snickers:
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life....
Some historians believe that Cleopatra's death was more likely a political murder, or at least an assisted suicide. The following year, Octavian had her wax image paraded through Rome, complete with wax asp. Horace, who was in his mid-thirties at this point and would have been looking on, was inspired to his "Cleopatra Ode." Here she is "that besotted queen / With her vile gang of sick polluted creatures," though to be admired because "she scorned / In triumph to be brought in galleys unqueened / Across the seas to Rome to be a show'' (David Ferry's recent translation).
Some, like Don Marquis's cockroach, Archy, believe that Cleopatra lived on not just in legend but in the body of Mehitabel the alley cat. In "the song of mehitabel" (Archy can't manage capitals), we find her fallen ("yesterday sceptres and crowns / fried oysters and velvet gowns"), but philosophical:
my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai
the things that i had not ought to
i do because i ve gotto
and i end with my favorite motto
toujours gai toujours gai