Accessible Art History
Art History Mystery: Where is Cleopatra's Tomb?
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m digging into another Art History Mystery! Cleopatra, aside from Pharaoh Tutankhamun, is the most famous ruler of Ancient Egypt. Her beauty and intelligence captivated two of the world’s most powerful men: Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony. But, even without these men by her side, Cleopatra was an extremely capable ruler. She was the first (and technically) last of her line to speak the native Egyptian language and fought for her right to rule. But, alas, the Roman Empire was too strong and she chose suicide over being paraded around in triumph.
But, since that fateful day, the world has had no idea what happened to Cleopatra’s body or where her final resting place is! There have been some clues over the years, including a breakthrough in November 2022. So, to learn more about this mystery, keep on reading!
Cleopatra’s Final Days
In 31 BCE, things were looking bleak for Anthony and Cleopatra. A year earlier, Anthony had officially divorced his wife, Octavia. She was the sister of the powerful Octavian and the grand niece of Julius Caesar. This was a huge, embarrassing blow to Octavian, so he forced the Vestal Virgins to reveal Anthony’s will. Though this breach was illegal and against religious practices, it ended up being a coup de grace. In his will, Anthony stated that he was to be buried with Cleopatra, that the couple’s move to declare their children rulers of territories was legal, and that he intended to make Alexandria the new capital of the empire. This enraged citizens and Octavian declared war on Cleopatra when he was elected consul.
On September 2, 31 BCE, the fleets of Cleopatra clashed with Octavian’s ships at Actium. Although her fleet was larger, the sailors were not as well trained. When it became clear that Rome was winning, Cleopatra and Anthony fled the battle and headed for Tainaron. Eventually, they split up, with Anthony going to Greece to raise more troops, and Cleopatra going to the capital. She intended to negotiate with Octavian and install her son Caesarion as the next pharaoh.
However, things went south. On August 1, 30 BCE, Anthony’s forces surrendered to Octavian. Cleopatra fled to her tomb and sent word to her lover that she had committed suicide. In despair, he stabbed himself. He was brought to Cleopatra, who had not, in fact, killed herself. However, she would soon follow. After Octavian captured her three youngest children, twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and her youngest son, Ptolemy Philadelphus, Cleopatra knew that only one fate awaited her: being paraded in triumph and a symbol of victory for Rome. Bravely, she declared "I will not be led in triumph.
Back in her tomb, Cleopatra committed suicide. Tradition states that she coaxed a highly poisonous asp to bite her, but historians aren’t 100% positive that is the case. Regardless of her manner of death, the location of Cleopatra’s tomb was lost to history.
Due to her reputation as a femme fatale and powerful ruler, Cleopatra has captured the public’s imagination for centuries. Archaeologists have searched for her tomb, knowing that it could not only help understand her final moments, but it could possibly rewrite history! Firstly, because her tomb remains undiscovered, there is a good chance that its treasures are intact! This could potentially unlock knowledge about Ptolemaic Egypt!
In addition, the majority of what we know about Cleopatra’s life comes from Greek and Roman sources. Although they are primary, most of them are biased against her. Cleopatra’s tomb could contain Egyptian/Ptolemaic sources, which could grant a new perspective on this extraordinary woman!
Uncovering the location of Cleopatra’s tomb, however, has proven tricky. One of the biggest hurdles is the fact that, in the two thousand years since Cleopatra’s reign, the coast line of Alexandria has gradually eroded into the Mediterranean sea. This includes the area where the Ptolemaic palace and royal grounds were located. So, if Cleopatra’s tomb was near her residence, it is highly likely that it has crumbled into the sea.
In November 2022, lawyer and archaeologist Dr. Kathleen Martinez announced that she and her team had discovered a 1305 meter long tunnel at a site known as Taposiris Magna. Martinez claims that this tunnel could be the key to finding Cleopatra’s tomb! This is one of a long line of discoveries at the site that point to it being the queen’s final resting place.
Firstly, there is a temple to Isis. Cleopatra, like other rulers before her, associated herself with the goddess. Hundreds of mummies have been uncovered, all facing the temple. Additionally, coins and small sculptures dating from the reign of Cleopatra have also been discovered around Taposiris Magna. Martinez is confident that she is close to discovering the lost tomb of Cleopatra.
Cleopatra is one of the most extraordinary figures in history! Hopefully, someday, we are able to uncover her tomb and learn even more about her!
Images and Sources
Bust of Cleopatra, c. 1st century BCE, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Marc Anthony, c. 1st century CE, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Octavian, 30 BCE, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Osiris temple at Taposiris Magna, Ptolemaic period, CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons