The Dramatic Death of Cleopatra – Was it Really Suicide?
According to accepted historical accounts, Cleopatra, the last active pharaoh of ancient Egypt who ruled after Alexander the Great’s death during the Hellenistic period, committed suicide by holding a snake to her body and allowing it to bite her, killing her with its poisonous venom. Memories of Cleopatra's life have vanished as monuments and palaces have fallen to ruins over the millennia. But the question still remains: did she really commit suicide, or was there something more sinister involved?
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 is described as fiery and strong-willed, begging the question as to whether she would really have just given up and ended it all.
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Bust of Cleopatra VII. Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany. ( Public Domain )
At the young age of 18, she inherited the throne and married her ten-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. Although it was intended for them to rule as joint monarchs, Cleopatra had no intention of sharing power with her younger sibling. However, there came a time when Ptolemy XIII challenged Cleopatra – it was not long after that he was found dead; a similar fate occurred at different times to her other siblings. It is thought that Cleopatra was responsible for 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. As it is written, 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 )
The Gedanken Thought Experiment to Test the Plausibility of Cleopatra’s Death Story
A Gedanken study is a thought experiment to test the plausibility of a hypothesis, and several such studies have been drawn up to examine the supposed facts surrounding the death of Cleopatra .
Cleopatra’s mausoleum is known to have been located close to a palace where Octavian was living in Alexandria, Egypt. As the story goes, Cleopatra was in her mausoleum when she wrote out a suicide note, which was given to a guard and delivered to Octavian. Apparently soon after that she held a snake, known as an asp, to her breast and was bitten and killed.
Is this plausible? It doesn’t seem so. The guard, who was supposedly unaware of the note’s contents, would have taken only a few minutes to walk several hundred meters to give Octavian the note and then a few minutes to return, but medically speaking, it has been suggested that it would have taken a couple of hours for the asp venom to kill Cleopatra, if it did at all. Experts have said that, on average, only fifty percent of asp venom is injected in one bite, suggesting that she would have had a high chance of survival from such a bite.
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.
A piece of information that tends to make some individuals think that Cleopatra did commit suicide (although faulty) is found in the Temple File. In the temple there is a carving of Isis surrounded by a snake. Cleopatra was thought to be the living reincarnation of Isis suggesting that her destiny was intermeshed with the snake.
Did Octavian Murder the Female Pharaoh?
One suggestion is that Octavian murdered Cleopatra as part of his plan to take over the empire. Octavian had control over the western Roman Empire, while Mark Antony had control over the east. Since Octavian wanted control over the whole empire, he used Cleopatra as a pawn and declared war.
Octavian felt that he could capture Cleopatra and humiliate her. This information comes from Octavian's own memoirs, so its accuracy must also be questioned. At the time, Cleopatra's son (Caesarion) was seen as a threat to Rome by Octavian. Several days before Octavian arrived in Alexandria, Cleopatra sent Caesarion to Ethiopia for his own protection. Nevertheless, Caesarion was found and murdered.
Some scholars suggest that it was Octavian who sent his guards to murder Cleopatra after he killed her son, allowing him to take control over the empire. Indeed, Cleopatra’s body was found alongside two of her maids, suggesting that it was foul play at work and not suicide.
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Octavian and Cleopatra by Louis Gauffier, 1787. ( Public Domain ) Was Octavian responsible for Cleopatra’s death?
More recent studies suggests that Cleopatra died from a drug cocktail and not a snake bite. According to Christoph Schaefer, a German historian and professor at the University of Trier, "ancient papyri show that the Egyptians knew about poisons, and one papyrus says Cleopatra actually tested them.”
Schaefer believes that she chose a poisonous cocktail made of opium, aconitum (wolfsbane) and hemlock. Although such a poison may have also been administered by someone else and not by her own hand.
At this point in time, it seems that Cleopatra's death cannot be resolved as only anecdotal information remains about her final hours. However, there is certainly reason enough to question whether the accepted version of her death accurately describes the events that took place nearly two millennia ago.
Top Image: ‘The Death of Cleopatra’ by Jean-André Rixens by 1874. Source: Public Domain
Updated on May 22, 2020.
Gray, M. (2010) ‘Poison, not snake, killed Cleopatra, scholar says.’ CNN. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/06/30/cleopatra.suicide/index.html
Hill, J. (2011) ‘Death of Cleopatra.’ Ancient Egypt Online. Available at: https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/cleopatra-death/
Lai, J. (2010) ‘Research says Cleopatra died of drug overdose; New Speculation emerges on King Tut’s manhood.’ National Post. Available at: https://nationalpost.com/news/new-research-says-cleopatra-died-of-a-drug-overdose
Maloney, W. (2010) ‘The Death Of Cleopatra, A Medical Analysis Of The Theory Of Suicide By Naja Haje.’ WebmedCentral TOXICOLOGY. Available at: http://www.webmedcentral.com/wmcpdf/Article_WMC00502.pdf
Meares, H. (2019) ‘Antony and Cleopatra's Legendary Love Story.’ Biography. Available at: https://www.biography.com/news/cleopatra-mark-antony-love-story-death