Why Cleopatra Probably Didn't Kill Herself With A Snake

Suicide by snake is just plain impractical.
The Suicide of Cleopatra, by Domenico Riccio (1516-1567). Today, researchers doubt the Egyptian queen could have killed herself with a snake. Cleopatra probably didn't look like this, either, but that's another issue altogether.
The Suicide of Cleopatra, by Domenico Riccio (1516-1567). Today, researchers doubt the Egyptian queen could have killed herself with a snake. Cleopatra probably didn't look like this, either, but that's another issue altogether.
De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti via Getty Images

The classic imagery of Cleopatra killing herself with a snake might be dramatic, but it probably never happened, experts say.

For years, researchers have argued that the Egyptian ruler might not actually have committed suicide via snake -- but that hasn’t really changed public perception, Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley of the University of Manchester in England told The Huffington Post.

“Death by snake remains deep within the publicly held Cleopatra myth,” said Tyldesley, noting that she discussed alternatives means of death in her 2008 book, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt.

Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 B.C., shortly after she and her lover and political ally Mark Antony suffered military defeat at the hands of Roman emperor-to-be Octavian, Tyldesley wrote for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This month, Tyldesley and Andrew Gray, curator of herpetology at the Manchester Museum, appeared together in a video explaining the impracticalities Cleopatra would have encountered if she'd actually attempted to kill herself with a venomous snake. The video, which can be seen above, is part of a free online course about ancient Egyptian history that will launch on Oct. 26.

Classical accounts say Cleopatra had an “asp” covertly transported into the palace where Octavian was holding her prisoner, inducing the snake to bite her and one or two of her maids. In the video, Gray notes that an “asp” could refer to either a viper (the European asp) or the Egyptian cobra.

A cobra would be too large for Cleopatra to sneak into the palace undetected, and even if she did manage to get a snake inside, trying to use any venomous snake for suicide would have a high failure rate, Gray says in the video.

“A lot of snake bites are dry bites,” he explains, referring to a bite in which the reptile does not inject venom. "Even with cobra bites, I’d say probably it’s about a 10 percent chance that you’re going to die from it.”

Death by snake venom would be neither quick nor painless, Gray adds. Cobra venom slowly rots a person’s flesh. This necrosis can also occur after a European asp bite, but it rarely occurs, according to a toxicology resource site managed by Australia’s University of Adelaide.

It’s even more unlikely that Cleopatra and her maids all killed themselves with one snake, Gray says, since getting a snake to bite two or more people in quick succession would be difficult.

Author and criminal profiler Pat Brown told HuffPost that she was the first to comprehensively analyze the evidence around Cleopatra's means of death and determine that a snakebite was unlikely -- evidence that she laid out in the 2004 Discovery documentary, The Mysterious Death of Cleopatra.

"No academic until after 2004 provided evidence against the cobra, not until after the documentary," Brown said.

But since then, multiple researchers have voiced support for the idea.

Christoph Schaefer, an ancient history professor at University of Trier in Germany, made similar arguments in an interview with CNN in 2010. Schaefer speculated that Cleopatra actually poisoned herself, since some records suggest she was knowledgeable about poisons.

Cleopatra wasn’t the type of person to take chances on a mode of suicide as unreliable as a snake, author Stacy Schiff wrote in her book, Cleopatra: A Life. She also believes the leader was far more likely to use poison.

But Brown doesn't merely maintain that the snakebite story is a myth -- she doesn't believe Cleopatra committed suicide at all. The criminal profiler, who wrote extensively about her theory in The Murder of Cleopatra: History's Greatest Cold Case, sees too many "red flags" surrounding the alleged suicide scene. For one thing, she finds it suspicious that Octavian wouldn't be heavily monitoring such a valuable prisoner if he wanted to keep her alive. She argues it's more plausible that Octavian killed her.

Tyldesley doesn’t buy the homicide theory though.

“I think that she did commit suicide,” she said in a statement emailed to HuffPost. “We know very little about suicide in ancient Egypt -- it is almost as if it was unheard of -- but suicide in the Hellenistic/Roman world was seen as a totally acceptable means of dealing with an otherwise insoluble problem. And Cleopatra belongs to that world.”

This story has been updated to include comments from Pat Brown.

Contact the author at Hilary.Hanson@huffingtonpost.com

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