A crushing defeat and an asp’s venom were ultimately the ones to bring the famous Cleopatra down, but her the seeds of her demise were likely planted by something beyond her control.
The Death of Cleopatra by Juan Luna
Cleopatra VII Philopator was playing a dangerous game against Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the first emperor of Rome. She was the last active ruler of Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty, before the country became a Roman province. Cleopatra and Mark Antony, her lover, had become allies in opposing Octavian, the legal heir of the betrayed and assassinated Julius Caesar. However, the pair and their combined forces were defeated by the armies of Octavian in the Battle of Actium. After suffering defeat, Mark Antony fled to Egypt and committed suicide by stabbing himself. Cleopatra, meanwhile, was said have had induced an asp to bite her after getting captured by Octavian.
While it seems obvious that her defeat at the hands of the Romans was the cause of Cleopatra’s downfall, there’s likely another, less obvious cause.
How did a volcanic eruption affect the course of history?
About 2,300 years ago, Egypt was rife with territorial disputes and revolts. Historians attributed this to the fact that the Ptolemaic dynasty were of Macedonian, not Egyptian, origin. Thus, ethnic tensions were high. However, it’s also highly possible that faraway volcanic eruptions triggered hydroclimatic shocks that had a hand in sowing social unrest.
According to a new study, a massive volcanic eruption that likely occurred far away from Egypt, beyond Cleopatra’s control, weakened her control over Egypt. Researchers analyzed the Islamic Nilometer, ice-core records, and records of social unrest from ancient Egypt to find how this distant volcano was able to influence the course of history.
Researchers first compared Islamic Nilometer records detailing the heights of the Nile River that date back to 622 AD with 2,500-year-old records of volcanic eruptions in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica. According to the findings, there was a massive volcanic eruption somewhere in the world in the year 44 BC. Data from the Islamic Nilometer showed a correlation between volcanic eruptions and significant reductions in the flooding of the Nile.
But how could a distant volcanic eruption affect the Nile? When big eruptions occur, they shoot vast amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. This blocks out sunlight and reduces evaporation from the oceans, thus reducing rainfall.
Volcanic eruptions may have interfered with the Nile, the lifeblood of ancient Egypt.
Ice core data of eruptions also coincided with wars, uprisings, famines, and the abandonment of land in Egypt. Cleopatra’s own doctor also wrote about a plague that occurred after the 44 BC volcanic eruption. A famine that triggered a large-scale migration to the cities may have caused this plague.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that volcanic eruptions were largely or significantly to blame for the fate of a dynasty. However, it does show that the environment may be a key player in the rise and fall of kings and civilizations. "There's a school of thought that what really drives history are the decision of great leaders—the kings, the emperors, the popes," says Francis Ludlow, one of the researchers. "I think part of what this paper shows is that you can't just brush off influences from the environment."
Egypt was, in a term, a mess during Cleopatra’s reign. Was she doomed from the start due to forces beyond her control or imaginings? Maybe. “People don’t like to feel that what’s happening in society is beyond their control,” says Ludlow. “They have preferred to explain history through what the great men of history were doing.” However, it may be time to consider looking at history through the lens of climatic and environmental records.
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