Searching for the Lost Tomb of Antony and Cleopatra
Mark Antony and Cleopatra are among the most famous pairs of lovers from the ancient world. Following their defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, their final refuge from the victorious Octavian was Egypt, where Cleopatra was queen. In 30 BC, Egypt was invaded, and following the Battle of Alexandria, the two lovers lost their lives, under circumstances that most historians believe was suicide (though some maintain it was murder). Nevertheless, it seems even death could not separate them, as historic sources record that they were laid to rest together. The location of their tomb, however, has never been found. It is a historical mystery that has endured over nearly two millennia.
Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon-Gerome, 1866. (Public Domain)
The death of Mark Antony
In Suetonius’ The Lives of the Caesars: Augustus , the Roman writer records that Octavian forced Antony to commit suicide when he “tried to make terms at the eleventh hour”. Plutarch gives an alternative version of Antony’s death in The Parallel Lives: Antony . In his work, the Greek historian states that Antony committed suicide upon hearing false news that Cleopatra was dead. Upon Antony’s death, Octavian was eager to capture Cleopatra alive, as “he thought it would add greatly to the glory of his triumph if she were led in the procession”.
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Octavian and Cleopatra by Louis Gauffier, 1787 (Public Domain). Was Octavian responsible for Cleopatra’s death?
The death of Cleopatra
According to Plutarch, Cleopatra would rather die in Egypt than be taken alive to Rome, as she could not bear the thought of being separated from Antony. Plutarch relates part of the speech she made prior to her suicide:
For though in life nothing could part us from each other, in death we are likely to change places; thou, the Roman, lying buried here, while I, the hapless woman, lie in Italy, and get only so much of thy country as my portion.
The Roman historian, Cassius Dio, however, narrates that Cleopatra regarded being paraded as a captive in the streets on Rome as a “fate worse than a thousand deaths”, and this was the reason that she sought to die by her own hand instead.
As the story goes, Cleopatra was in her mausoleum when she wrote out a suicide note, which was given to a guard and delivered to Octavian. It is apparently soon after that she held a snake, known as an asp, to her breast and was bitten and killed.
However, not everyone agrees that Cleopatra committed suicide. Another popular theory is that Cleopatra was murdered by Octavian so that he could take control over the Empire.
Shortly before Octavian had arrived in Alexandria, Cleopatra sent her son Cizarian to Ethiopia for his own protection. Nevertheless, Cizarian was found and murdered. Some scholars suggest that it was Octavian who sent his guards to murder Cleopatra after he killed her son, allowing him to take control over the empire. Indeed, Cleopatra’s body was found alongside two of her maids, suggesting that it was foul play at work and not suicide.
The Death of Cleopatra by Juan Luna1881 (Public Domain)
Historical records cite a joint burial
Still, Octavian allegedly allowed Antony and Cleopatra to be buried together. According to Cassius Dio, “they were both embalmed in the same fashion and buried in the same tomb”.
In Suetonius’ account, “He allowed them both the honour of burial, and in the same tomb, giving orders that the mausoleum which they had begun should be finished”. Plutarch adds that Octavian admired Cleopatra’s “lofty spirit”, thus allowing her to be buried with Antony “in splendid and regal fashion”.
The lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra
After this, Antony and Cleopatra disappear from history. It may be possible that the tomb was not constructed as a grand monument, considering that it could be used as a rallying point against Octavian in the future. Hence, the tomb may have been regarded as insignificant, and neither the location nor a description of it was recorded for posterity.
Despite the paucity of surviving information regarding the tomb of Antony and Cleopatra, it has remained as part of the story of Antony and Cleopatra. Over the ages, people have imagined how this tomb would have looked. For instance, a 15 th century French manuscript contains a painting of the tomb of Antony and Cleopatra. In line with the ancient sources, the two lovers are buried together. Rather anachronistically, however, is the depiction of the tomb in the European Gothic style.
The search for the tomb of Antony and Cleopatra
Despite this interest, not much progress has been made in the search for this elusive tomb. Some have speculated that Cleopatra was interred in her palace, where she committed suicide. This palace is now under the sea, and the remains of the two lovers would not have survived if this was the case.
In 2009, it was announced by Zahi Hawass that the tomb of Antony and Cleopatra might have been found. The supposed site is a temple to Osiris known as Taposiris Magna (built during the reign of Ptolemy II), and is located to the west of Alexandria.
North View of Taposiris Magna Osiris Temple ( Wikimedia Commons )
The speculation that this might be the burial place of Antony and Cleopatra is based on the discovery of a damaged bust of Cleopatra, 22 coins bearing her image, and a mask supposedly belonging to Antony. Additionally, 27 tombs and 10 mummies were also discovered. Despite the sensation, doubts have been raised regarding Hawass’ claim. For instance, one archaeologist suggests that it is unlikely that Octavian allowed his vanquished enemies to be buried in such a prestigious temple.
It is likely that much more work will be needed before this ancient mystery can be satisfactorily solved.
Top image: ‘The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra’, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Photo source: Wikimedia.
Cassius Dio, Roman History [Online]
[Cary, E. (trans.), 1917. Cassius Dio’s Roman History.]
Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/home.html
Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Antony [Online]
[Perrin, B. (trans.), 1920. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives: Antony.]
Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Antony*.html
Santana, R., 2009. Cleopatra's Tomb Believed To Be At 1 Of 3 Egyptian Archaeological Sites. [Online]
Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/15/cleopatras-tomb-believed_n_187336.html
Schiff, S., 2009. Who’s Buried in Cleopatra’s Tomb?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/22/opinion/22schiff.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Augustus [Online]
[Rolfe, J.C. (trans.), 1913. Suetonius’ The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Augustus.]
Tharoor, I., 2009. The Tomb of Antony and Cleopatra?. [Online]
Available at: http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1893329,00.html
The J. Paul Getty Trust, 2015. The Tomb of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. [Online]