Mary Beard tries to uncover the truth about Cleopatra, starting from the end:
Cleopatra’s last public appearance in the city of Rome was in the form of a wax model, complete with model asp, carried in the victory parade of Octavian in 29BC. Octavian — a bloodthirsty ideologue in the civil wars — was by then well on his way to reinventing himself as Rome’s benevolent autocrat, its first (and almost only) ‘good’ Emperor, Augustus. Three days of triumphal procession through the streets of the capital — to mark his victories over an assortment of Northern barbarians, over Mark Antony’s forces at the battle of Actium and finally over Egypt itself — were to draw a line under civil war and inaugurate the new regime. Along with the wagonloads of booty, the placards blazoning the names of massacred tribes and annihilated cities, the hordes of bedraggled, defeated troops, the prize exhibit in the procession — walking in chains just in front of the triumphant general’s chariot — was to have been Queen Cleopatra herself.
Cleopatra had other ideas, however. She had presumably witnessed Roman triumphs during her stay in Rome as Julius Caesar’s amant en titre and well understood their techniques of humiliation. She would also have known that the most dangerous and distinguished of Rome’s victims never reached the end of the procession: they were put to death in the Forum, just as the general began his ascent of the Capitoline Hill to offer sacrifice at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. She pre-empted the humiliation by suicide — either by means of her trademark asp (which, as the symbol of Egyptian monarchy, turned her death into a defiant assertion of her royal power) or, as some ancient writers thought, thanks to some more mundane poison. “I will not be triumphed over,” Livy has her declare.