Chapter 12: the End of Cleopatra
The case of Mark Antony affords one of the most extraordinary examples of the power of unlawful love to lead its deluded and infatuated victim into the very jaws of open and recognized destruction that history records. Cases similar in character occur by thousands in common life; but Antony's, though perhaps not more striking in itself than a great multitude of others have been, is the most conspicuous instance that has ever been held up to the observation of mankind.
In early life, Antony was remarkable, as we have already seen, for a certain savage ruggedness of character, and for a stern and indomitable recklessness of will, so great that it seemed impossible that any thing human should be able to tame him. He was under the control, too, of an ambition so lofty and aspiring that it appeared to know no bounds; and yet we find him taken possession of, in the very midst of his career, and in the height of his prosperity and success, by a woman, and so subdued by her arts and fascinations as to yield himself wholly to her guidance, and allow himself to be led about by her entirely at her will.
She displaces whatever there might have been that was noble and generous in his heart, and substitutes therefor her own principles of malice and cruelty. She extinguishes all the fires of his ambition, originally so magnificent in its aims that the world seemed hardly large enough to afford it scope, and instead of this lofty passion, fills his soul with a love of the lowest, vilest, and most ignoble pleasures. She leads him to betray every public trust, to alienate from himself all the affections of his countrymen, to repel most cruelly the kindness and devotedness of a beautiful and faithful wife, and, finally to expel this wife and all of his own legitimate family from his house; and now, at last, she conducts him away in a most cowardly and ignoble flight from the field of his duty as a soldier--he knowing, all the time, that she is hurrying him to disgrace and destruction, and yet utterly without power to break from the control of his invisible chains.
The indignation which Antony's base abandonment of his fleet and army at the battle of Actium excited, over all that part of the empire which had been under his command, was extreme. There was not the slightest possible excuse for such a flight. His army, in which his greatest strength lay, remained unharmed, and even his fleet was not defeated.
The ships continued the combat until night, notwithstanding the betrayal of their cause by their commander. They were at length, however, subdued. The army, also, being discouraged, and losing all motive for resistance, yielded too. In a very short time the whole country went over to Octavius's side.
In the mean time, Cleopatra and Antony, on their first return to Egypt, were completely beside themselves with terror. Cleopatra formed a plan for having all the treasures that she could save, and a certain number of galleys sufficient for the transportation of these treasures and a small company of friends, carried across the isthmus of Suez and launched upon the Red Sea, in order that she might escape in that direction, and find some remote hiding-place and safe retreat on the shores of Arabia or India, beyond the reach of Octavius's dreaded power.
She actually commenced this undertaking, and sent one or two of her galleys across the isthmus; but the Arabs seized them as soon as they reached their place of destination, and killed or captured the men that had them in charge, so that this desperate scheme was soon abandoned.
She and Antony then finally concluded to establish themselves at Alexandria, and made preparation, as well as they could, for defending themselves against Octavius there.
Antony, when the first effects of his panic subsided, began to grow mad with vexation and resentment against all mankind. He determined that he would have nothing to do with Cleopatra or with any of her friends, but went off in a fit of sullen rage, and built a hermitage in a lonely place, on the island of Pharos, where he lived for a time, cursing his folly and his wretched fate, and uttering the bitterest invectives against all who had been concerned in it. Here tidings came continually in, informing him of the defection of one after another of his armies, of the fall of his provinces in Greece and Asia Minor, and of the irresistible progress which Octavius was now making toward universal dominion. The tidings of these disasters coming incessantly upon him kept him in a continual fever of resentment and rage.
At last he became tired of his misanthropic solitude, a sort of reconciliation ensued between himself and Cleopatra, and he went back again to the city. Here he joined himself once more to Cleopatra, and, collecting together what remained of their joint resources, they plunged again into a life of dissipation and vice, with the vain attempt to drown in mirth and wine the bitter regrets and the anxious forebodings which filled their souls. They joined with them a company of revelers as abandoned as themselves, and strove very hard to disguise and conceal their cares in their forced and unnatural gayety. They could not, however, accomplish this purpose. Octavius was gradually advancing in his progress, and they knew very well that the time of his dreadful reckoning with them must soon come; nor was there any place on earth in which they could look with any hope of finding a refuge in it from his vindictive hostility.
Cleopatra, warned by dreadful presentiments of what would probably at last be her fate, amused herself in studying the nature of poisons--not theoretically, but practically--making experiments with them on wretched prisoners and captives whom she compelled to take them in order that she and Antony might see the effects which they produced. She made a collection of all the poisons which she could procure, and administered portions of them all, that she might see which were sudden and which were slow in their effects, and also learn which produced the greatest distress and suffering, and which, on the other hand, only benumbed and stupefied the faculties, and thus extinguished life with the least infliction of pain. These experiments were not confined to such vegetable and mineral poisons as could be mingled with the food or administered in a potion. Cleopatra took an equal interest in the effects of the bite of venomous serpents and reptiles. She procured specimens of all these animals, and tried them upon her prisoners, causing the men to be stung and bitten by them, and then watching the effects. These investigations were made, not directly with a view to any practical use, which she was to make of the knowledge thus acquired, but rather as an agreeable occupation, to divert her mind, and to amuse Antony and her guests. The variety in the forms and expressions which the agony of her poisoned victims assumed, --their writhings, their cries, their convulsions, and the distortions of their features when struggling with death, furnished exactly the kind and degree of excitement which she needed to occupy and amuse her mind.
Antony was not entirely at ease, however, during the progress of these terrible experiments. His foolish and childish fondness for Cleopatra was mingled with jealousy, suspicion, and distrust; and he was so afraid that Cleopatra might secretly poison him, that he would never take any food or wine without requiring that she should taste it before him. At length, one day, Cleopatra caused the petals of some flowers to be poisoned, and then had the flowers woven into the chaplet which Antony was to wear at supper. In the midst of the feast, she pulled off the leaves of the flowers from her own chaplet and put them playfully into her wine, and then proposed that Antony should do the same with his chaplet, and that they should then drink the wine, tinctured, as it would be, with the color and the perfume of the flowers. Antony entered very readily into this proposal, and when he was about to drink the wine, she arrested his hand, and told him that it was poisoned. "You see now," said she, "how vain it is for you to watch against me. If it were possible for me to live without you, how easy it would be for me to devise ways and means to kill you." Then, to prove that her words were true, she ordered one of the servants to drink Antony's wine. He did so, and died before their sight in dreadful agony.
The experiments which Cleopatra thus made on the nature and effects of poison were not, however, wholly without practical result. Cleopatra learned from them, it is said, that the bite of the asp was the easiest and least painful mode of death. The effect of the venom of that animal appeared to her to be the lulling of the sensorium into a lethargy or stupor, which soon ended in death, without the intervention of pain.
This knowledge she seems to have laid up in her mind for future use.
The thoughts of Cleopatra appear, in fact, to have been much disposed, at this time, to flow in gloomy channels, for she occupied herself a great deal in building for herself a sepulchral monument in a certain sacred portion of the city. This monument had, in fact, been commenced many years ago, in accordance with a custom prevailing among Egyptian sovereigns, of expending a portion of their revenues during their life-time in building and decorating their own tombs. Cleopatra now turned her mind with new interest to her own mausoleum. She finished it, provided it with the strongest possible bolts and bars, and, in a word, seemed to be preparing it in all respects for occupation.
In the mean time, Octavius, having made himself master of all the countries which had formerly been under Antony's sway, now advanced, meeting none to oppose him, from Asia Minor into Syria, and from Syria toward Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra made one attempt, while he was thus advancing toward Alexandria, to avert the storm which was impending over them, by sending an embassage to ask for some terms of peace. Antony proposed, in this embassage, to give up every thing to his conqueror on condition that he might be permitted to retire unmolested with Cleopatra to Athens, and allowed to spend the remainder of their days there in peace; and that the kingdom of Egypt might descend to their children.
Octavius replied that he could not make any terms with Antony, though he was willing to consent to any thing that was reasonable in behalf of Cleopatra. The messenger who came back from Octavius with this reply spent some time in private interviews with Cleopatra. This aroused Antony's jealousy and anger. He accordingly ordered the unfortunate messenger to be scourged and then sent back to Octavius, all lacerated with wounds, with orders to say to Octavius that if it displeased him to have one of his servants thus punished, he might revenge himself by scourging a servant of Antony's who was then, as it happened, in Octavius's power.
The news at length suddenly arrived at Alexandria that Octavius had appeared before Pelusium, and that the city had fallen into his hands.
The next thing Antony and Cleopatra well knew would be, that they should see him at the gates of Alexandria. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra had any means of resisting his progress, and there was no place to which they could fly. Nothing was to be done but to await, in consternation and terror, the sure and inevitable doom which was now so near.
Cleopatra gathered together all her treasures and sent them to her tomb.
These treasures consisted of great and valuable stores of gold, silver, precious stones, garments of the highest cost, and weapons, and vessels of exquisite workmanship and great value, the hereditary possessions of the Egyptian kings. She also sent to the mausoleum an immense quantity of flax, tow, torches, and other combustibles. These she stored in the lower apartments of the monument, with the desperate determination of burning herself and her treasures together rather than to fall into the hands of the Romans.
In the mean time, the army of Octavius steadily continued its march across the desert from Pelusium to Alexandria. On the way, Octavius learned, through the agents in communication with him from within the city what were the arrangements which Cleopatra had made for the destruction of her treasure whenever the danger should become imminent of its falling into his hands. He was extremely unwilling that this treasure should be lost. Besides its intrinsic value, it was an object of immense importance to him to get possession of it for the purpose of carrying it to Rome as a trophy of his triumph. He accordingly sent secret messengers to Cleopatra, endeavoring to separate her from Antony, and to infuse her mind with the profession that he felt only friendship for her, and did not mean to do her any injury, being in pursuit of Antony only. These negotiations were continued from day to day while Octavius was advancing. At last the Roman army reached Alexandria, and invested it on every side.
As soon as Octavius was established in his camp under the walls of the city, Antony planned a sally, and he executed it, in fact, with considerable energy and success. He issued suddenly from the gates, at the head of as strong a force as he could command, and attacked a body of Octavius's horsemen. He succeeded in driving these horsemen away from their position, but he was soon driven back in his turn, and compelled to retreat to the city, fighting as he fled, to beat back his pursuers.
He was extremely elated at the success of this skirmish. He came to Cleopatra with a countenance full of animation and pleasure, took her in his arms and kissed her, all accoutered for battle as he was, and boasted greatly of the exploit which he had performed. He praised, too, in the highest terms, the valor of one of the officers who had gone out with him to the fight, and whom he had now brought to the palace to present to Cleopatra. Cleopatra rewarded the faithful captain's prowess with a magnificent suit of armor made of gold. Notwithstanding this reward, however, the man deserted Antony that very night, and went over to the enemy. Almost all of Antony's adherents were in the same state of mind. They would have gladly gone over to the camp of Octavius, if they could have found an opportunity to do so.
In fact, when the final battle was fought, the fate of it was decided by a grand defection in the fleet, which went over in a body to the side of Octavius. Antony was planning the operations of the day, and reconnoitering the movements of the enemy from an eminence which he occupied at the head of a body of foot soldiers--all the land forces that now remained to him--and looking off, from the eminence on which he stood, toward the harbor, he observed a movement among the galleys. They were going out to meet the ships of Octavius, which were lying at anchor not very far from them. Antony supposed that his vessels were going to attack those of the enemy, and he looked to see what exploits they would perform. They advanced toward Octavius's ships, and when they met them, Antony observed, to his utter amazement, that, instead of the furious combat that he had expected to see, the ships only exchanged friendly salutations, by the use of the customary naval signals; and then his ships, passing quietly round, took their positions in the lines of the other fleet. The two fleets had thus become merged and mingled into one.
Antony immediately decided that this was Cleopatra's treason. She had made peace with Octavius, he thought, and surrendered the fleet to him as one of the conditions of it. Antony ran through the city, crying out that he was betrayed, and in a frensy of rage sought the palace.
Cleopatra fled to her tomb. She took in with her one or two attendants, and bolted and barred the doors, securing the fastenings with the heavy catches and springs that she had previously made ready. She then directed her women to call out through the door that she had killed herself within the tomb.
The tidings of her death were borne to Antony. It changed his anger to grief and despair. His mind, in fact, was now wholly lost to all balance and control, and it passed from the dominion of one stormy passion to another with the most capricious facility. He cried out with the most bitter expressions of sorrow, mourning, he said, not so much Cleopatra's death, for he should soon follow and join her, as the fact that she had proved herself so superior to him in courage at last, in having thus anticipated him in the work of self-destruction.
He was at this time in one of the chambers of the palace, whither he had fled in despair, and was standing by a fire, for the morning was cold.
He had a favorite servant named Eros, whom he greatly trusted, and whom he had made to take an oath long before, that whenever it should become necessary for him to die, Eros should kill him. This Eros he now called to him, and telling him that the time was come, ordered him to take the sword and strike the blow.
Eros took the sword while Antony stood up before him. Eros turned his head aside as if wishing that his eyes should not see the deed which his hands were about to perform. Instead, however, of piercing his master with it, he plunged it into his own breast, fell down at Antony's feet, and died.
Antony gazed a moment at the shocking spectacle, and then said, "I thank thee for this, noble Eros. Thou hast set me an example. I must do for myself what thou couldst not do for me." So saying, he took the sword from his servant's hands, plunged it into his body, and staggering to a little bed that was near, fell over upon it in a swoon. He had received a mortal wound.
The pressure, however, which was produced by the position in which he lay upon the bed, stanched the wound a little, and stopped the flow of blood. Antony came presently to himself again, and then began to beg and implore those around him to take the sword and put him out of his misery. But no one would do it. He lay for a time suffering great pain, and moaning incessantly, until, at length, an officer came into the apartment and told him that the story which he had heard of Cleopatra's death was not true; that she was still alive, shut up in her monument, and that she desired to see him there. This intelligence was the source of new excitement and agitation. Antony implored the by-standers to carry him to Cleopatra, that he might see her once more before he died.
They shrank from the attempt; but, after some hesitation and delay, they concluded to undertake to remove him. So, taking him in their arms, they bore him along, faint and dying, and marking their track with his blood, toward the tomb.
Cleopatra would not open the gates to let the party in. The city was all in uproar and confusion through the terror of the assault which Octavius was making upon it, and she did not know what treachery might be intended. She therefore went up to a window above, and letting down ropes and chains, she directed those below to fasten the dying body to them, that she and the two women with her might draw it up. This was done. Those who witnessed it said that it was a most piteous sight to behold, --Cleopatra and her women above exhausting their strength in drawing the wounded and bleeding sufferer up the wall, while he, when he approached the window, feebly raised his arms to them, that they might lift him in. The women had hardly strength sufficient to draw the body up. At one time it seemed that the attempt would have to be abandoned; but Cleopatra reached down from the window as far as she could to get hold of Antony's arms, and thus, by dint of great effort, they succeeded at last in taking him in. They bore him to a couch which was in the upper room from which the window opened, and laid him down, while Cleopatra wrung her hands and tore her hair, and uttered the most piercing lamentations and cries. She leaned over the dying Antony, crying out incessantly with the most piteous exclamations of grief. She bathed his face, which was covered with blood, and vainly endeavored to stanch his wound.
Antony urged her to be calm, and not to mourn his fate. He asked for some wine. They brought it to him and he drank it. He then entreated Cleopatra to save her life, if she possibly could do so, and to make some terms or other with Octavius, so as to continue to live. Very soon after this he expired.
In the mean time, Octavius had heard of the mortal wound which Antony had given himself; for one of the by-standers had seized the sword the moment that the deed was done, and had hastened to carry it to Octavius, and to announce to him the death of his enemy. Octavius immediately desired to get Cleopatra into his power. He sent a messenger, therefore, to the tomb, who attempted to open a parley there with her. Cleopatra talked with the messenger through the keyholes or crevices, but could not be induced to open the door. The messenger reported these facts to Octavius. Octavius then sent another man with the messenger, and while one was engaging the attention of Cleopatra and her women at the door below, the other obtained ladders, and succeeded in gaining admission into the window above. Cleopatra was warned of the success of this stratagem by the shrieks of her women, who saw the officer coming down the stairs. She looked around, and observing at a glance that she was betrayed, and that the officer was coming to seize her, she drew a little dagger from her robe, and was about to plunge it into her breast, when the officer grasped her arm just in time to prevent the blow. He took the dagger from her, and then examined her clothes to see that there were no other secret weapons concealed there.
The capture of the queen being reported to Octavius, he appointed an officer to take her into close custody. This officer was charged to treat her with all possible courtesy, but to keep a close and constant watch over her, and particularly to guard against allowing her any possible means or opportunity for self-destruction.