From Sword to Asp

One of the ongoing problems I have with this whole ‘tomb of Cleopatra’ thing is the assumption — it appears — that not just Cleopatra but also Antony will be found in Egyptian-style sarcophagi, all mummied up. But as with Arsinoe, I’m still not sure of what the burial practices of the Ptolemies were. Consider when the young Octavian made his journey and visited the tomb of Alexander (according to Cassius Dio 51.16, via Lacus Curtius):

After this he viewed the body of Alexander and actually touched it, whereupon, it is said, a piece of the nose was broken off. But he declined to view the remains of the Ptolemies, though the Alexandrians were extremely eager to show them, remarking, “I wished to see a king, not corpses.”

See also Suetonius, Augustus 18 … Does that suggest that the Ptolemies may have been ‘on display’ in the same manner as Alexander? I honestly don’t know. I’m also bothered by the fact that all the focus seems to have been on the manner of Cleopatra’s death and relatively little attention has been paid to what happened between that time and Antony’s death (hence the title of this post), specifically as regards the corpse of Antony. As far as I am aware, the main source for such things is Plutarch’s Life of Antony (written a century or so after the events in question, of course). In chapter 82 (via Lacus Curtius) we are told:

As for Caesarion, then, he was afterwards put to death by Caesar,— after the death of Cleopatra; but as for Antony, though many generals and kings asked for his body that they might give it burial, Caesar would not take it away from Cleopatra, and it was buried by her hands in sumptuous and royal fashion, such things being granted her for the purpose as she desired.

Keeping in mind that we’re dealing with events happening in the first couple of weeks (give or take a few days) of August, 30 B.C., we clearly aren’t dealing with a mummification opportunity, even if it is done with Cleopatra’s own hands. And from the next mention of Antony a few chapters later (84), it is clear that the obsequies are pretty much complete; just prior to Octavian’s departure for Syria:

After Cleopatra had heard this, in the first place, she begged Caesar that she might be permitted to pour libations for Antony; and when the request was granted, she had herself carried to the tomb, and embracing the urn which held his ashes, in company with the women usually about her, she said: “Dear Antony, I buried thee but lately with hands still free; now, however, I pour libations for thee as a captive, and so carefully guarded that I cannot either with blows or tears disfigure this body of mine, which is a slave’s body, and closely watched that it may grace the triumph over thee. Do not expect other honours or libations; these are the last from Cleopatra the captive. 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. But if indeed there is any might or power in the gods of that country (for the gods of this country have betrayed us), do not abandon thine own wife while she lives, nor permit a triumph to be celebrated over myself in my person, but hide and bury me here with thyself, since out of all my innumerable ills not one is so great and dreadful as this short time that I have lived apart from thee.”

The next chapter opens:

After such lamentations, she wreathed and kissed the urn, and then ordered a bath to be prepared for herself.

A pretty elaborate account, to be sure, and one where the translator’s decision might make a difference in regards to how the passage is interpreted. In this case, the translator (Bernadotte Perrin) tells us that Antony’s remains are in an urn. John Dryden’s translation tells us that they’re in a tomb (as do most of the other public domain translations). If we take Perrin’s translation, we might suspect that Antony was cremated in the time-honoured Roman fashion. If we take the ‘tomb’ translation, we might not be so dogmatic. Here are the relevant Greek passages from Plutarch (hat tip to DM and DP for tracking these down for me; I’m cutting and pasting from this) … I’ve highlighted the word in question:

84.3 ἡ δ’ ἀκούσασα ταῦτα πρῶτον μὲν ἐδεήθη Καίσαρος, ὅπως αὐτὴν ἐάσῃ χοὰς ἐπενεγκεῖν Ἀντωνίῳ· καὶ συγχωρήσαντος, ἐπὶ τὸν τάφον κομισθεῖσα καὶ περιπεσοῦσα τῇ [4] σορῷ μετὰ τῶν συνήθων γυναικῶν “ὦ φίλ’ Ἀντώνιε” εἶπεν [...]

85. Τοιαῦτ’ ὀλοφυραμένη καὶ στέψασα καὶ κατασπασαμένη τὴν σορόν, ἐκέλευσεν αὑτῇ λουτρὸν γενέσθαι. λουσαμένη δὲ καὶ κατακλιθεῖσα, λαμπρὸν ἄριστον ἠρίστα.

… where we clearly see the word used is “soros”, a wonderfully ambiguous word which usually does refer to an urn for cinerary ashes (according to L&S), but there are some usages which refer generally to a tomb.

If we look to Cassius Dio’s account (51.11), the obsequies for Antony are mentioned in passing:

Following out this plan, they obtained an audience with Cleopatra, and after discussing with her some moderate proposals they suddenly seized her before any agreement was reached. 5 After this they put out of her way everything by means of which she could cause her own death and allowed her to spend some days where she was, occupied in embalming Antony’s body; then they took her to the palace, but did not remove any of her accustomed retinue or attendants, in order that she should entertain more hope than ever of accomplishing all she desired, and so should do no harm to herself. At any rate, when she expressed a desire to appear before Caesar and to have an interview with him, she gained her request; and to deceive her still more, he promised that he would come to her himself.

… and the word Dio uses for ‘embalming’ is ‘taricheuo’, which is indeed the word one uses for embalming in the Egyptian sense.

Turning to Latin sources, Suetonius merely mentions in passing that he allowed them to be buried together and for the tomb they had begun to be completed (Aug. 17 via the Latin Library).

Ambobus communem sepulturae honorem tribuit ac tumulum ab ipsis incohatum perfici iussit.

The gist of all this seems to me to suggest that, by the time Plutarch et al were recounting this, the story of Cleo’s death had become elaborated on in so many ways that no one really had any idea what the details were. The ancient sources were fascinated by that whole asp thing and seem to be making their own assumptions when it comes to the burial of both Antony and Cleopatra. What is interesting, though, is that the only suggestion that mummification might be involved comes from a passing word from the epitome of Cassius Dio …

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4 thoughts on “From Sword to Asp

  1. Frances Murray says:

    Embalming or cremation? I’m going to roll the dice and opt for embalming for two main reasons: 1) The ancient writers that tell of the deaths were all written from the Roman point of view and the Roman mindset about burials. They never considered the Egyptian views of death.To an Egyptian cremation would be horrific. They believed in an afterlife and packed their tombs with all sorts of goodies for the hereafter. This belief would be strongly adhered to by Cleopatra not only because she was a queen but she cosidered herself and Antony divine. (New Isis and New Dionysis) You simply don’t burn up gods.

  2. Elizabeth Bourne says:

    Poor Kleopatra. I wonder, if out of all the things she accomplished for her people, this is really what she would’ve chosen to be remembered for. It’s difficult for me to believe that Augustus, that practical man, would have allowed Mark Antony, his sister’s husband, to be treated as anything other than Roman. Therefore, I tend to think he was cremated Roman style and likely his ashes sent home to Rome, to his wife and children. As for the great queen herself, she was a goddess of Egypt and deeply loved by her people. As a practical man, were I in Augustus’ boots I’d have made sure she committed suicide (asp my ass, those snakes wouldn’t fit in a basket), but a good death. And bundle that corpse away, away. No place among the Ptolemies, or anywhere it could be worshiped or people could gather to foment a rebellion. She would be burned, buried in the desert, destroyed. That’s what I would do, frankly, that’s what Kleo would do had the tables been turned. Egypt was too great a prize to dream of freedom. I know, not very romantic of me.

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