The Lychnapsia and the ‘Birth of Isis’

By Robert Bauval ©2013

The most celebrated ‘suicide’ in history, and one which has fired the popular imagination for centuries, which has inspired Shakespeare, poets and authors and even Hollywood, is surely that of Queen Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemies.  In consideration of the universal notoriety of this event, it is a irony of historical that the date and time of her famous and tragic death has not been recorded in any contemporary or near contemporary record –at least none that have survived.  

In 1953 Professor Theodore C. Skeats  (1907-2003) of the British Museum, realized that this curious paradox of history and decided to investigate the matter.  Skeats wisely decided to work on one date that was known with certainty and which was related indirectly to the death of Cleopatra VII: the day of the fall of Alexandria to the armies of Octavian (later Augustus Caesar).  Octavian is known to have reached the gates of Alexandria sometime towards the end of July 30 BCE and, from records kept at the Roman Senate it is known that he took Alexandria on the 1st August of the Roman Calendar.  Skeats established that this date corresponded to the 8 of Mesore according to the Egyptian Calendar  —Mesore being the last month of the Egyptian Calendar. He then used another known day also associated to this historic event:  the 1st of Thoth, which was the coronation of Octavian as ‘pharaoh’ of Egypt. The 1st Thoth was the New Year’s Day which fell after the 5 Intercalary Days (the Epagomene) that were added to the last month of the year i.e. Mesore. Skeats also found contemporary records that allowed him to deduce that the death of Cleopatra occurred 18 days before the coronation of Octavian.  Working backwards from the coronation date, Skeats concluded that Cleopatra died on the 17th Mesore.  Converting the 17th Mesore into the Roman Calendar, this gave the 10th August as the date of Cleopatra’s death on the Roman Calendar. However, at that time the Roman Calendar was two days behind the Julian Calendar, which gave SKeats the date of 12th August (Julian).

In 1937, thus six years before Skeats groundbreaking article, professor M.S. Salem, an authority on the influence of ancient Egyptian cults in Rome, investigated the well-known Roman Feast of Lychnapsia that was celebrated in the early centuries.  This was an Isiac feast i.e. a feast of Isis, and was incorporated in the calendar of Rome by the Emperor Caligula around 39 CE, and was celebrated on the 12 August (Julian).  Knowing that the Lychnapsia was also called the ‘Feast of the Lamps’ or the ‘Feast of Light’ in honor of the Goddess Isis, M.S. Salem sought to find its source in one of the many feasts of Isis celebrated in Egypt at the time.  He first noted that the Roman Lychnapsia feast was incorporated into the Julian Calendar in 39 CE from the Egyptian Calendar. At that time the 1st of Thoth fell on the 14th August (Julian).  Salem knew that in Egypt the ‘Birth of Isis’ was celebrated on the 4th Intercalary Day of the Egyptian Calendar, thus 2 days before the 1st of Thoth i.e. the 12th August. There was little doubt that the Roman Isiac Lychnapsia feast was also regarded as the ‘Birthday of Isis’. 

Cleopatra VII close relationship with Rome and Roman affairs need no further reminding. It must also be born in mind that it was Cleopatra who, in 47 BC,  had introduced  Caesar to her court astronomer, Sosigines. It was upon Sosigenes’s advice that Julius Caesar adopted the 365 days calendar (with an extra day added every fourth or ‘leap’ year), which became known as the Julian Calendar. Cleopatra herself was well learned in matters of astronomy and the calendar and, therefore,  must have been acutely aware that now the ‘Birthday of Isis’ fell on the 12th August Julian. Cleopatra is also well known to have presented herself as the ‘New Isis’ and, in 44 BC had made a spectacular entry into Rome as such.  Also while Cleopatra was in Rome, Julius Caesar placed a golden statue of her as ‘Isis’ in the temple of Venus Genetrix in the Forum Caesaris.

The question, therefore, must arise: Did Cleopatra chose the 12th August as the day of her suicide to coincide with the ‘Birthday of Isis’ and the Lychnapsia? By doing so she would have linked her own ‘rebirth’ (death was ‘rebirth’ in Egypt) to both Egypt and Rome  —something that this very bright, very beautiful and very ambitious queen would have liked very much.


M.S. Salem, ‘The Lychnapsia Philocaliana and the Birthday of Isis’, in The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 27, Part 2, 1937, pp.165-7

T.C. Skeats, ‘The Last Days of Cleopatra: A Chronological Problem’, in The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 43, 1953, pp. 98-100

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