The Death of Cleopatra

I always enjoy reading articles in the medical journals that deal with medical mysteries. The mainstream journals do not usually publish them thought eh venerable BMJ is one exception. Some of the speculations can be very thought provoking and some positively outlandish. Sometime ago I came across one such interesting article published in Toxicology, a Web Med Central journal.
The author, from the New York University, has speculated on the death of the famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Our image of Cleopatra is based on the film portrayal By Elizabeth Taylor when she was famously rolled out of a carpet onto to bemused presence of Julius Caesar. Allegedly he fell in love with her at first sight and the rest is history. However history apparently did not happen quite like that, this incident which was the talking point of the film, apparently never happened. But the facts are reasonably certain, that she was the queen of Egypt and she had an affair with the leader of one of the superpowers of the world in those days ( Julius Caesar) and had a child by him. Later she also enjoyed the favours of Mark Anthony who died by his own hand because he thought she had betrayed him. It is said that she subsequently committed suicide by embracing the bite of an asp which was smuggled to her in the mausoleum where she was imprisoned, in a basket of figs. This is a romantic story, but the author has tried to investigate whether it is true.
The story goes that after the bite, Cleopatra maintained her famed looks and it was not apparent to Octavius’s baffled soldiers how she died as the bite mark was not visible. This has led to endless speculation that she may have been bitten in the mouth and everybody must have seen pictures of Cleopatra kissing a snake which transfers the poison to her so that she dies a pleasant death.
The truth, however, is that it cannot have happened this way. The Asp probably refers to the Egyptian adder (Cerastes vipera). This snake would not cause a quick death and would leave considerable swelling of the body. By most accounts this did not happen. This we are left looking for a snake that would kill almost instantaneously and leave very little by the way of bite marks and leave the body relatively unscathed. The only snake in the area that meets these exacting criteria is the Egyptian cobra ( Naja haje) . This snake was part of the mythology connected with Egyptian royalty and found a place in the front of the headdress of the King. It also represented the goddess Wadjet who was the mythical mother and midwife of the king’s family. Thus it is well within the bounds of possibility that Cleopatra would use this snake for her final exit.
The cobra could be the culprit, but here another problem arises. It is a large snake and it is difficult to imagine it being smuggled in a basket of figs, unless, of course the guards were of the type that we see in the Asterix comics. And where did it go, asks the author, when the guards did rush in after the event? It was too large to have disappeared unseen, according to him. This point however is moot because snakes can and do conceal themselves very cleverly in very small patches of cover and it is quite within the bounds of possibility that the snake was hiding under some cranny unseen by its pursuers.
The authors have suggested that Octavius himself had her removed by having poison given to her and put about these stories. Very probable, but how terribly prosaic.
Whatever the truth, the original story is romantic and if we have to substitute a cobra for an asp, then so be it!
Check out the article at


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