Cleopatra probably did not die of snakebite to her breast, Egyptologist claims
According to accepted historical accounts, Cleopatra, the last active pharaoh of ancient Egypt, committed suicide by holding a snake to her breast and allowing it to bite her, killing her with its poisonous venom. However, an Egyptologist now claims that although she is said to have liked snakes so much that she slept with them, Cleopatra was probably not killed by a venomous snake. That said, it is “fairly certain” the ancient queen did commit suicide, he said.
“Cleopatra is very, very strongly associated with snakes, particularly her death,” said Joyce Tyldesly, a lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester in England, in a video about the possibility of a snakebite killing her. “But also snakes are strongly associated with queens and kings in Egypt. Kings and queens wear the uraeus or the snake on their head. And snakes are also strongly associated with the goddess Isis, and Cleopatra herself thought that she was the living embodiment of the Goddess Isis. And snakes were also assumed to be good mothers. … When she died, it seems fairly certain that she committed suicide, although there are some people who think that she was murdered by Octavian.”
Cleopatra was born in 69 BC and lived and died in Alexandria. She was a member of the Macedonian Greek royalty and her family ruled Egypt for more than three centuries. She was well educated and fluent in seven languages. Although there was no history of suicide in her family, there were cases of murder in every direction.
Cleopatra’s death as depicted by Benedetto Gennari in 1675 (Wikimedia Commons)
At the young age of 18, she inherited the throne and married her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. Although it was intended for them to rule as joint monarchs, Cleopatra had no intention of sharing power. But Ptolemy XIII challenged Cleopatra, and not long after that he was found dead; a similar fate occurred at different times to her other siblings. Scholars believe Cleopatra was responsible for at least two out of five of her sibling’s deaths.
Cleopatra was afraid that she would be accused of a murder plot so she began to court the powers of the Roman Empire. She was a lover of Julius Caesar and bore him a son. However, after Caesar's assassination in 44 BC, she aligned with Mark Antony, who ruled Rome in the power vacuum following Caesar's death, and was in opposition to Caesar's legal heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian). According to historical accounts, after losing the Battle of Actium to Octavian's forces, Mark Antony committed suicide and Cleopatra followed suit. Octavian then made Egypt a Roman province and became its first emperor, changing his name to Augustus.
Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon-Gerome, 1866. (Public Domain)
In the video from the University of Manchester, Dr. Tyldesly asked Andrew Grey, curator of herpetology at the Manchester Museum, about the possibility of Cleopatra having died of snakebite.
“Would it be easy to do that? Because some of the accounts say that she had the snakes in a basket of figs from the countryside. But some accounts say that she used it to kill not just herself but to kill one or two serving maids as well. And I just wondered about the practicalities of this,” Dr. Tyldesly asked Dr. Grey.
In the video, Dr. Grey says there are two types of venomous snakes in Africa—cobras and vipers. He holds up an African boa constrictor, which are non-venomous, easily tamed and which Cleopatra liked a lot. In fact, he said, the species he showed is called the royal python because Cleopatra liked them so much. Accounts say she would send her servants out to look for royal pythons and filled her palace with them and even slept with some.
But it would be difficult to get a venomous cobra into the palace, he said, because they are 5 to 8 feet long and very deadly. Also, he said in many snakebites the snake doesn’t inject venom. He said: “The other thing about using venomous snakes to potentially kill people would be the fact that you’re not guaranteed it’s going to kill them, basically, because a lot of snakebites are dry bites, even with cobra bites, I’d say probably it’s about 10 percent chance you’re going to die if you get bitten by a cobra.
An Egyptian cobra (Photo by John Walker/Wikimedia Commons)
“They’re obviously very, very dangerous and cobras are highly venomous. … It would be a horrible death if you did die. And even up to that, it’s very, very painful, because the venom that they use, it would almost rot the arm. If you got bitten on the hand, you get what’s called necrosis, where the venom actually affects the arm, and it is really, really painful. But it doesn’t always cause death. It certainly wouldn’t be a quick death.”
He added that “it would not happen” that the snake could be induced to bite two or three people in quick succession.
An ancient Egyptian temple relief of Isis, whom Cleopatra thought she was. Note the ureaus or snake symbol on her head. (Photo by Karen Green/Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Tyldesly said ancient Egyptians strongly believed snakes were protective, and that is why kings and queens wore the uraeus on the forehead, to represent a protective goddess. They also believed snakes were good mothers, she said.
“Within the snake world, there’s very, very few that have the maternal instinct or paternal care over their young,” Dr. Grey said. “But one of the exceptions is the cobra because cobras, when they lay their eggs, they actually form almost like a nest or they’ll draw in leaves and they will actually sit on the nest, protecting the nest of eggs until they hatch. Once they hatch, the young will then disappear, and they’re on their own. But until then, the actual snakes themselves will heavily protect those eggs.”
The snake bite theory of Cleopatra’s death has come under increasing scrutiny in the last decade, with more recent studies suggesting she may have died from a drug cocktail. If this was the case, whether it was self-administered or given to her by someone else may never be known.
Featured image: The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. (Public Domain). According to historical accounts, Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing a snake known as an asp to bite her.
By: Mark Miller