The riddle of history: Did Cleopatra really die from a snake bite?

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Cleopatra, queen of Egypt and lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, allegedly took her own life after the defeat of her forces against Octavian, the future first emperor of Rome.

Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

The solid historical evidence related to the death of Cleopatraas with much of his biography, is scant.

Those who compiled the most complete accounts of his life, notably the Roman writer Plutarch, lived for generations after his death. Subsequently, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers drew on these sources to make Cleopatra an almost mythical figure, defined largely by her powers of seduction and her relationships with two Roman leaders, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

These fictionalized accounts of her life and untimely death created the popular image of Cleopatra as the beautiful, doomed protagonist of one of the most famous romantic dramas in history. Behind that image, however, there was a real life queen who, regardless of her appearance, was undoubtedly a formidable leader and one of the most powerful members of a Greek dynasty who ruled Egypt for more than three centuries.

Egyptian obelisk of Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC), known as “Cleopatra’s Needle,” along the Thames River embankment in London on July 23, 2022. (AMIR MAKAR/AFP via Getty Images)MOREHIDE

What we know about Cleopatra’s death

After Roman forces crushed the Egyptian army at the Battle of Actium, Antony and Cleopatra retreated to Alexandria, where they watched as their former allies and supporters defected to Octavian’s side.

At the end of July 30 a. C., the forces of Octavio had arrived at Alexandria and Cleopatra retired to her mausoleum. Hearing a report that she had died, Antony stabbed himself with his own sword.

When they broke down the mausoleum door, they found Cleopatra lying lifeless on a golden bed, with her two servants dead and dying at her side. He was 39 years old when he died and had ruled Egypt for more than 20 years.

The snake bite theory

According to the most widely repeated theory of Cleopatra’s death, she died from a venomous snake bite, inflicted by an asp (a small viper) or an Egyptian cobra. His would have been a particularly poetic suicide: the asp was a symbol of royalty to the Egyptians, while the cobra was associated with Cleopatra’s favorite goddess, Isis.

There are several problems with this theory, according to modern Egyptologists. For one thing, cobras were typically at least five feet long and could grow up to eight feet; too big to be smuggled into Cleopatra’s mausoleum in a basket of figs, so the story goes.

Also, not all snakebites are fatal, and those that are kill their victims slowly and painfully, so it’s hard to believe that a snake could kill Cleopatra and her two maids in the short time it took for Octavian to receive his note and dispatch his guards.

If Cleopatra poisoned herself to death, argue Schiff and others, it is more likely that he drank a lethal herbal concoction or applied a toxic ointmentas suggested by an ancient historian, Strabo.

Was it suicide?

The truth, however, remains elusive. With no known eyewitnesses and no primary written accounts of Cleopatra’s death, much of what we know comes from Octavian, who some have suggested he is a suspect.

Whether or not Octavian ordered the murder of Cleopatra and her handmaidens, or simply provided her with the space and opportunity to kill herself, what happened next is clear: ordered his guards to hunt down and kill Caesarion, Cleopatra’s teenage son with Caesar, to eliminate him.

Octavian then made Egypt a Roman province, with himself as emperor; he later took the name Augustus. In later memoirs of him, Octavian/Augustus ensured that his version of Cleopatra and her suicide (snake bite and all) would live on for centuries to come.

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