Alexandria, 30BC. When Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt, is forced to surrender to Octavian, she decides she’d rather die than fall in enemy hands. She locks herself in the temple, and manages to deceive her Roman captors: by inducing an Egyptian cobra to bite her on the arm, she kills herself. A quiet and painless death. Or so the story goes. 2,000 years after the famous suicide, German historian Christoph Schaefer is challenging this ‘suicide-by-snake’ theory, claiming the Queen used a mixture of hemlock, wolfsbane and opium to poison herself.
Ruling out Death by Snake
After studying historical texts and consulting with toxicologists, Christoph Schaefer came to the conclusion that an asp bite believed to be that of an Egyptian cobra could not have caused a slow and painless death. The viper’s venom would have paralysed Cleopatra’s body, whilefully conscious,causing agonizing pains. An particularly awkward, excruciating death, unsuitable for a queen and incompatible with the quiet and pain-free death described by the ancient Roman historians.
But didn’t Shakespeare fantasise.. err.. introduce she caressed the venomous snake to her breast? Professor Dietrich Mebs, toxicologist from Frankfurt University: This would be highly impractical, because this particular area has a large amount of fat tissue, slowing down the progress of the poison in the body. It takes it the longer until the effect of the snake venom occurs.
Schaefer points out that even if the queen was willing to face the pain, death-by-snake is quite unpredictable: although the Egyptian cobra’s venom is a potent neurotoxin, and just a few milligrams are enough to kill an adult human, the bite itself is not always lethal.
When defending itself, a snake is capable of biting without injecting venom into its victim. The so-called ‘dry bite’, allowing the serpent to avoid wasting venom on a creature too large for it to eat, would be,although obnoxious, far from lethal. Would the queen take this risk?
Then How Did Queen Cleopatra Die?
Then how did Cleopatra commit suicide, assuming she wasn’t murdered by Octavian’s men and death-by-snake is no option? Four-hundred years beforeEgypt’s queen heard about her lover’s death, the philosopher Socrates was sentenced (for corrupting the youth and impiety, if you’re curious) to execution by drinking a potion containing hemlock, one of nature’s most powerful toxins. That the Egyptians had an extensive knowledge of plant medicine is well documented in ancient Egypt’s most famous medical papyrus. The’Ebers Papyrus‘ reveals that Queen Cleopatra’s physicians must have known about plant toxins, describing amongst others aconite and mandrake.
Drug Overdose:Hemlock, Opium and Aconite
Professor Mebs suggests that Cleopatra took a poisonous cocktail to escape her hopeless situation. The main ingredient of this concoction would have been hemlock (which paralyses the nervous system until you die from respiratory failure), which the queen would have combined with a pinch of aconite (or monkshood), just to be on the safe side, and opium. The opium, a powerful painkiller that with a large enough dose would have put Egypt’s last queen into a gentle sleep, rendering her oblivious to her death by suffocation. All’s well that ends well?
The researchers will present their full findings on Adventure Science, screened by German TV channel ZDF today at 10.15pm. The full documentary ‘Kleopatras Tod’ is available on the network’s website here. (It also contains some nice underwater footage from the excavations by Goddio, subject of the current exhibition ‘Cleopatra: the search for the Last Queen of Egypt‘.)
The Myth of a Serpent
But then why did the myth of suicide-by-snake become history?What does the snake symbolize? The documentarysuggeststhe Egyptian queen staged it all, a case of deliberate misinformation. After all, Cleopatra was constantly identified with snakes throughout her life: the snake was the emblem of the royal house of Egypt, as well as associated with the goddess Isis. A snake swallowing its own tail is a symbol of immortality, yet because of its poison is is also an omen of death. Quite appropriate a symbolic way to die, then?
Adding a sexual side to the Queen’s ‘brave’ suicide scene (and escape from capture) must have benefit Octavian as well: Cleopatra, the promiscuous queen, Egypt’s sex kitten, defeated by Octavian, restorer of Roman virtue. Contemporous historians must have decided Cleopatra was a serpent, of sinful nature, destroying two great Roman men, hypnotizing, poisoning and smothering them?
Nowadays, Cleopatra putting the viper to her breast just mainly makes for good TV and high viewing ratings. So, what’s your guess for the upcoming Cleopatra film? Will we see Angelina Jolie die by a toxic potion, by the hand of a vicious Roman or by snake? And if by snake (my guess), arm or breast? !