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Cleopatra died on this day. 31 BCE. Still caring about it?

August 12, 2015


Sometimes I think Cleopatra, whether immortalised  by the transcendent Amanda Barrie or rendered in coarser strokes by lesser known thespians such as Vivien Leigh or Elizabeth Taylor, has never been played with sufficient, how shall we say, “rusticity”.  Given that these Egypto-Macedonians didn’t exactly enjoy an Olympic sized gene pool, it’s a wonder Cleo wasn’t adept at playing the banjo.

Parental decisions within that family operated within a fairly tight orbit.

“If it’s a girl we’ll call it Cleopatra.  And if it’s a boy, we’ll call it Ptolemy.  After its father, brothers, uncles, cousins, grandparents, great grandparents and all over-lapping variants thereof.”  Their family tree must have resembled a flow chart.

But all the sources agree, that despite all the in-breeding she was a consummate artist.  Perhaps her death anniversary is more significant than her birthday – whenever that was, assuming we could ever find out when that was.  If Plutarch and Shakespeare are to be believed, Mark Antony botched his own suicide quite badly and had to make his last gaspy speeches all over again in considerable discomfort.  Cleopatra was an early advocate of death with dignity and responsible end of life decision making.  The record shows.  She took the blows.  And did it her way.

We were all of us Cleopatra in a previous life.  I mean, if you’re into the “previous life” thing at all. The whole point is to self identify with someone who lived and died stylishly.   There’s hardly any point in being anything else.  Trouble is, nobody seems to have been a landless peasant in a previous – life – we were all of us Cleopatra, making for a somewhat cacophonous and congested identity.  Perhaps I should do the decent thing and not have been Cleopatra in a previous life – freeing up a bit more elbow room for everyone else.

But we want to have been her because she loses.  Winners are vulgar.  Winners lack closure and a proper story arc. Nobody dreams of having been Augustus Caesar, the last man standing how initiated four and a half centuries of western emperors (and, indirectly nearly fifteen centuries eastern emperors).

Oddly enough, one of the few people whose death scene competes with Cleopatra’s for sheer elegance, was the man who might claim to have been the very last representative of the empire that had overwhelmed her – Constantine “You’ll Never Take Me Alive” XI Palaiologus.  With the Turks poised to overwhelm Constantinople in 1453 and with no hope of salvation, he stripped off his imperial insignia and publicly announced his refusal to be ransomed.  He would no more be a prisoner of the triumphant Mehmet II than Cleopatra would be the prisoner of Augustus.  Then the doors were opened and he and his pals rushed out swords waving shouting “aaaaargh”.

That’s a way to go out.  Fighting and shouting “aaaargh”.  That or something involving snakes.  Snakes are cool.


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