Did Cleopatra Really Die by Snake Bite?
Cleopatra’s death seems to have taken place as dramatically as the life she lived.
After the Egyptian Queen and her longtime lover, Roman General Mark Antony, saw their combined forces decimated during the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, they withdrew in the uncertain future to Alexandria. Months later, with Octave’s Roman army at the gates of the city, a desperate Antoine fell on his sword.
Faced with the prospect of losing her kingdom, Cleopatra committed suicide on August 10, 30 BC, allowing a poisonous snake to bite her and her two maidservants.
Where did she do it?
Image vs reality
The solid historical evidence relating to Cleopatra’s death, as with much of her biography, is thin. Those who compiled the most complete accounts of his life, notably the Roman writer Plutarch, lived generations after his death. Poets, playwrights and filmmakers then drew on these sources to make Cleopatra an almost mythical figure, defined largely by his powers of seduction and his relationships with two Roman leaders, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
These fictionalized accounts of her life and her untimely disappearance created the popular image of Cleopatra as a beautiful protagonist condemned in one of the most famous romantic dramas in history. Behind this image, however, there was a the real queen, who, regardless of her appearance, was certainly a formidable leader – and one of the most powerful members of a Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt for more than three centuries.
What we know about Cleopatra’s death
After Roman forces crushed the Egyptian army during the Battle of Actium, Anthony and Cleopatra withdrew to Alexandria, where they saw their former allies and supporters defect on Octave’s side. As Stacy Schiff wrote in her 2010 biography of Cleopatra, the couple dissolved their debauchery “Society of Inimitable Livers” and founded a new one, “Companions to the Death”. Cleopatra quickly built a two-story mausoleum on the grounds of his palace, next to a temple dedicated to his alter ego, the goddess Isis.
By the end of July in 30 BC, Octavian’s forces had reached Alexandria and Cleopatra withdrew to his mausoleum. Upon learning that she was dead, Antony stabbed himself with his own sword. His men carried him to Cleopatra and he died in his arms. According to Plutarch, an Octavian staff member secretly warned Cleopatra on August 9 that the general planned to leave for Rome in a few days and take Cleopatra and his children with him. The next day, Cleopatra locked herself in the mausoleum with two maidservants, Iras and Charmion, and sent a note to Octave, who was then in Alexandria, probably in the palace of the queen.
Opening Cleopatra’s note, requesting that she be buried alongside Antoine, Octavian immediately dispatched his men to investigate. When they broke the door of the mausoleum, they found Cleopatra lying lifeless on a golden sofa, her two dead and dying maids beside her. She was 39 years old at the time of her death and had ruled Egypt for over 20 years.
The Snake Bite Theory
According to the most widespread theory of the death of Cleopatra, she died from a bite of venomous snake, inflicted either by an asp (a small viper) or by an Egyptian cobra. His would have been a particularly poetic suicide: the asp was a symbol of royalty for the Egyptians, while the cobra was associated with the favorite goddess of Cleopatra, Isis.
There is several problems with this theory, according to modern Egyptologists. For one thing, cobras were generally at least five feet long and could reach eight feet; far too big to smuggle into Cleopatra’s mausoleum in a basket of figs, as the story goes. In addition, not all snake bites are deadly, and those who kill their victims slowly and painfully, which makes it hard to believe that a snake could have killed Cleopatra and her two maids in the short time that it took Octavian to receive his note and send his guards.
If Cleopatra got poisoned to death, according to Schiff and others, it is more likely that she drank a deadly herbal concoction or applied a toxic ointment, as suggested by an ancient historian, Strabo. Either could have killed her (and her minions) faster and more effectively than a snake bite. In 2010, the German historian Christoph Schaefer suggested that Cleopatra may have ingested a deadly mixture of hemlock, wolf plague and opium, based on her studies of ancient documents and her work with a toxicologist.
Was it suicide?
The truth, however, remains elusive. In the absence of known eyewitnesses and primary written accounts of Cleopatra’s death, much of what we know comes from Octave – whom some have suggested is a suspect himself. He certainly had a motive for wanting the death of Cleopatra, as the charismatic queen (as long as she was alive) posed a potential threat to her rule in Egypt.
Whether or not Octave ordered the murder of Cleopatra and her maids, or whether Simpy provided him with the space and opportunity to kill himself, what happened next is clear: he ordered his guards to track down and kill Caesarion, Cleopatra’s teenage son with Caesar, to remove him. any question of the boy’s succession to his mother on the throne.
Octave then made Egypt a Roman province, with himself as emperor; he later changed his name to Augustus. In his later memoirs, Octavian / Augustus assured that his version of Cleopatra and his suicide – snake bite and everything – would continue to live for centuries.
As for what really happened in this mausoleum, Plutarch may have says best: “The truth about the matter, no one knows.”