Category Archives: Ancient Times
Born Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (now commonly referred to simply as Octavian) he became the first in a long line of superpowers in Rome. As adopted son and heir to Julius Caesar, he conquered Egypt and was granted the title of Augustus (Latin for “venerable” or “the majestic”) by the Senate. Augustus’ reign lasted for forty years before his death in 14 AD at the age of seventy-five. His last words were said to be either “How did you like the performance?” or “Have I played the part well?”
As some of you may be aware, news broke several weeks ago of a possible hidden chamber within the tomb of Tutankhamun (commonly known as King Tut) which people are saying may contain the burial of Nefertiti. I wanted to share what I know of both these royals, both some of the last members of the Amarna Family, as well as the amazing story of how Tut’s tomb was discovered, shocking the whole world.
Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty came to a close in 1292 BC with the rule of Horemheb, an esteemed general, but not a man of royal blood. At this time, the royal family bloodline had ended when Tutankhamun died at the age of nineteen. Tut had been part of a long line of warrior kings, but his father, Akhenaten, had not been one of them. Nefertiti’s husband was considered a heretic, stripping away the old religion and allowing the worship of only one god, which he called Aten. Aten was the god of the sun, replacing both the most powerful Egyptian gods Amun and Ra, which upset the people of Egypt. Akhenaten ruled for seventeen years and had several wives, including the beautiful Nefertiti, whose origins are up for debate.
Nefertiti is estimated to have been in her mid thirties when she died. Sculptures from the time show her to be a stunningly beautiful woman, though some question the authenticity of the likeness. It is commonly accepted that she was the daughter of a high ranking politician who was said to have been the true power behind the throne of Egypt. This man, Ay, would become Tutankhamun’s top adviser during his reign and even take power for himself once the boy king was dead in 1327 BC. By Nefertiti, Akhenaten fathered six daughters but no sons. One by one, each died until the last one left alive was the third child, Ankhesenamun. Although w do not know the identity of Tut’s mother, we do know that Ankhesenamun was his half-sister and would later become his wife.
This may shock us today, inbreeding was very common among ancient royalty, especially in Egypt. This meant that the bloodline of the royal family was kept pure. For the young Tut to be married off to his sister was nothing unusual, however it unknowingly brought along the end of the family he was trying to preserve. The product of inbreeding himself (it was confirmed through DNA testing a few years ago that Tut’s father and mother were brother and sister) the Pharaoh was already suffering from a deformed left foot, which meant that he required the use of a cane in order to walk – in fact his tomb contained over 130 canes for him to use! Little is known of Ankhesenamun, as her body has not been identified with certainty. Either way, close intermarriage is seen as the reason the couple failed to produce living heirs. The mummied of two fetuses were found in Tut’s tomb, both his children, but neither left the womb alive. Tut died after nine years on the throne, Ay took the crown for himself when he married the widowed Ankhesenamun, who disappeared from the historical record. Ay died two years later only to be succeeded by a non-royal general named Horemheb, and his heir Paramese would rule as Ramses I.
Fast forward to the early twentieth century, the British Earl of Carnarvon, was financing en expedition in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, where Pharaohs were buried after the age of the pyramids. His leading man and head of the research team was Howard Carter (I use the term “archaeologist” loosely with Carter, mostly because of the way the man handled the tomb’s excavation process and the fact that he had no doctorate or degrees, among other things) Carter had already found a few tombs in the Valley, but nothing truly noteworthy. He had a hunch that at least one intact royal tomb could still be found in the Valley, and with Carnarvon’s fanancial backing, he searched for what would be known as Tomb 62. Three years of excavating led them to a set of stairs that led down into the earth only to lead to a sealed doorway, behind which was a treasure trove the likes of which can only be found in stories. Carter, with Carnarvon beside him, drilled a small hole in the plaster door and held up a candle to the darkness only to freeze up, his eyes wide in the soft fireglow. Imatiently, Carnarvon asked him, “Can you see anything?” Breathlessly, Carter replied, “Yes. Wonderful things.”
When the entryway was officially opened, it was found that nearly every object inside was made of gold, which glinted off of almost every surface. Carter spent several years cataloging every artifact and seeing to its safe removal from the tomb. His business partner Carnarvon had just died from blood poisoning brought on by an infected mosquito bite that he nicked while shaving, which meant that Carter alone saw to the tiresome task of emptying four rooms of their contents and examining the mummy itself.
The mummy of Tutankhamun was nestled within a room that barely left room to move around in. The entirety of the chamber was painted, though this could not be seen due to the large golden shrine that filled the room. Inside were three more shrines housing a red granite sarcophagus containing three coffins, the last of solid gold, three inches thick and containing the remains of a badly preserved nineteen-year-old boy. Oils used in the embalming process had turned the flesh black and frail, the body’s wrappings stuck to the inside of the coffin like superglue, forcing Carter to use hot knives to free him. In doing so, Tutankhamun’s body was cut into pieces and put back together before it could be examined for the first time.
After examining the body, it was determined that Tut stood at five feet and eleven inches with a slight build, cleft palate, and a large overbite. His knee was broken, his head damaged during the embalming process. Almost a century later, it was discovered that he had contracted a deadly form of tropical malaria that may have been the cause of death.
Now Tut is in the news again because of this new “discovery”. If there is indeed another chamber within Tut’s tomb, I have extreme doubts that Nefertiti is buried there. Several members of Tut’s immediate family have not been found, but of all of them, the one most likely to be buried by his side is his wife and sister, Ankhesenamun. If there is a second burial in Tomb 62, I believe it belongs to her. Even if no one else is buried with him, I look forward to the upcoming investigations and will also share any information I find out once it has been confirmed.
A bitter defeat in a decisive naval battle in Egypt, on 1 August 30 BC, Mark Antony escaped to Alexandria while his rival Octavian (later Roman Emperor Augustus) invaded the country. Having received false word that his lover, Cleopatra VII of Egypt, had already done so, Antony committed suicide by falling on his own sword. He lingered on in agony just long enough to die in Cleopatra’s arms, and moments later, she was taken prisoner by Octavian. With Antony’s death, Octavian became uncontested ruler of Rome with only the Queen of Egypt and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion (literally “little Caesar”), standing in his way. When twelve days later, the captive queen committed suicide, traditionally by allowing a poisonous snake to bite her, Octavian had the seventeen-year-old Caesarion murdered and Egypt at last fell under the full control of the Roman Empire, thus ending the Age of the Pharaohs forever.
In life, Mark Antony was a great general and politician who fell under the spell of Egypt’s “grand seductress”. Perhaps not a true love match, his union with Cleopatra was one of sex, power, and intense rivalry, both often trying to outdo each other in terms of thrift and splendor. They had three children together (Selene, Alexander, and Ptolemy) and he even rejected his fourth wife (Octavian’s own sister) in order to remain in power by Cleopatra’s side. Even 2000 years after their deaths, their romance is the stuff of legend, portrayed by the likes of William Shakespeare in his play Antony and Cleopatra and of course Richard Burton in the 1963 film Cleopatra alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rex Harrison. The above depiction of his death was painted by French artist Bernard Duvivier in 1759.
In 323 BC, Alexander the Great fell ill following a banquet held in Babylon (modern day Iraq) at his conquered palace. Ten days later, he was dead just a month short of his thirty-third birthday. His death has been suspicious for over two thousand years and even the sources of the time differ greatly. What actually happened to the great king?
Alexander‘s body has not been identified, so it is impossible to know for certain what caused his early death, but here is what we know: in the ten days before he succumbed to death’s embrace, he suffered from agonizing stomach pains, chills, sweats, exhaustion, and a high fever. According to an ancient source called the Macedonian Royal Diaries, the ailment started as a fever, which he apparently already had ten days before his death. Although Alexander was still drinking wine and eating at this time, he was in a weakened state and as the days went by he grew even weaker and ate less. When it became clear that he king was dying, his generals gathered at his bedside and prayed, but it was no use. He breathed his last on the 10th of June.
In 1998, David W. Oldach, an infectious disease expert at the University of Maryland Medical Center, was stated in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine stated the most likely cause of death to be typhoid fever, which is brought on when someone drinks or comes into contact with contaminated water. Exploring this possibility, there are similarities to the disease that match Alexander’s symptoms well, however, the problem I see with this is that typhoid fever is highly contagious, so why was no one else affected? There are no records of anyone else in Alexander’s close circle or his army falling ill, which begs the question of why only the king was affected.
Malaria has also been put forward as a likely cause of death and this is most commonly accepted by historians. Malaria is an infection caused by a bite from an infected mosquito bite. The disease was rampant at the time, and has even been stated as having brought down King Tut a thousand years earlier (this is even said to have been the real Curse of the Pharaohs). It can remain dormant in the body for several weeks after a person is bitten, so if this is the case, Alexander could have already been sick for a long time before he died. The symptoms fit, but there are holes in the diagnosis. Does it account for the stomach pains that had him all-but screaming in distress? Perhaps not. Severe cases of malaria also include convulsions and gas buildup in the lungs, often leading to cardiac arrest, and these are not mentioned in the Diaries. And again, why was Alexander the only one affected? It may not be a contagious disease, but surely there would have been other fatalities among the Macedonian army at the time, and none were reported.
Now comes the drama that everyone seems to jump to in a case like this: murder. In this case, poison.
The Macedonians were a people prone to violence, much like Alexander himself, so poison seems a bit unlikely to be used as a weapon to kill someone, even a king. In fact, thirteen years before, Alexander’s father Philip II was assassinated in broad daylight while attending a wedding. Despite his title of Megas Alexandros (literally The Great Alexander in ancient Greek) the king was not well liked. Particularly towards the last few years of his reign, he seems to have become increasingly paranoid, executing those he believed to have been plotting against him, including the nephew of his old tutor Aristotle. After the death of his best friend and lover Hephaestion, his paranoia grew worse and he slipped into a depression.
My belief is that Alexander died due to poisoning, whether accidental or intentional. If he was poisoned, it certainly was not by use of anything common such as arsenic or cyanide. The most common suggestion put forward is Hellebore, specifically white hellebore. Though the root of this plant is highly toxic, it was sometimes used in ancient medicine, often to treat ailments such as depression, gout, epilepsy, tremors, and even demonic possession. Perhaps Alexander was prescribed white hellebore as a treatment for his own depression following Hephaistion’s death. What bothers me, however, is that when taking the plant medicinally, patients where strongly cautioned not to drink wine for at least three days leading up to treatment. As stated earlier, Alexander was drinking in excess just before collapsing with stomach pains. This leads me to believe that if hellebore was used, it was slipped into his wine at the banquet where he fell ill. It would not have taken much to affect him. Maybe he was given even more hellebore in order to cure him and his doctors unknowingly overdosed him. This is the theory I used for a short story I wrote in college for a historical project called Killing Alexander.
Whatever the case may be, Alexander the Great died in Babylon on 10 June 323 BC and his lengthy empire, which stretched thousands of miles from Europe deep into Asia, was split into pieces. The king had left no heirs, only his pregnant wife Roxana and an unstable half brother named Philip Arrhidaeus. When at last Roxana gave birth to a son, Alexander was already cold in his tomb in Alexandria, Egypt, where his general Ptolemy has buried him and established a dynasty in Egypt that would later end with Cleopatra. Philip Arrhidaeus was murdered on orders of Alexander’s power-hungry mother Olympias, who was later executed, and before he could exercise full power over the empire, Alexander’s son was murdered by another of his father’s generals, Cassander, along with Roxana. This time period is called the War of the Successors, which resulted in the vast territory being cut into pieces as the generals fought each other for full control over a former empire that would later be overtaken by Rome. Alexander’s tomb became a popular destination for pilgrims who sought to kneel at his coffin and pray, including Octavian Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. Later, the tomb was lost and part of the city of Alexandra was lost to the sea, leaving no trace of the last resting place of the man once known as the greatest conqueror in the ancient world.