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Final Farewell: The Culture of Death and the Afterlife

The Spectacle of Death: Funerary Customs in Ancient Greece and Italy

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CleopatraCleopatra

One of the most renowned “death scenes” witnessed by history was that of the famous Cleopatra (ruled Egypt, 51–30 B.C.E.). Shrewd and ambitious, her alliances with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony are now as legendary as her famous death. After a final defeat by the Romans at the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra and Antony fled back to Alexandria where they are said to have both committed suicide rather than face the shame of capture. According to most Roman sources, Cleopatra’s instrument of death was not a knife for opening the veins as was customary in Roman society, but a venomous snake. Some modern historians doubt this story, however, and believe that Cleopatra drank poison and that the Romans were complicit in her death. Whatever the facts may be, the story of Cleopatra’s dramatic suicide by snakebite has captivated scores of artists.

Hans Sebald Beham
(German, 1500–1550)
Cleopatra
Etching
(66.5)

Hans Sebald Beham

Hans Sebald Beham, one of the “Little Masters” or Kleinmeister (so called because of the tiny size of the engravings they often made), studied under the famed Albrecht Dürer in Nuremberg. In addition to making engravings and etchings, Beham and his studio produced drawings for glass painters and stained-glass window artists.

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