Theory of Cleopatra's Death

Theory of Cleopatra's Death


According to the most widely repeated theory of Cleopatra's death, she died from a venomous snake bite, inflicted either by an asp (a small viper) or an Egyptian cobra.


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Hers 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; much too large 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 that are kill their victims slowly and painfully, making it hard to believe a snake was able to kill Cleopatra and her two maids in the short time it took for Octavian to receive her note and send his guards.

If Cleopatra did poison herself to death, Schiff and others argue, it's more likely she drank an lethal herbal concoction, or applied a toxic ointment, as one ancient historian, Strabo, suggested. Either of these would have killed her (and her servants) more quickly and effectively than a snake bite. In 2010, the German historian Christoph Schaefer suggested that Cleopatra may have ingested a fatal mix of hemlock, wolfsbane and opium, based on his studies of ancient documents and his work with a toxicologist.


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