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[Curiosities] Cleopatra's death: did she commit suicide or was she killed by her arch enemy?


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The theory that he committed suicide was extended by Plutarch almost a century after the queen of Egypt left the underworld. How he died is, to this day, an enigma




Well no, friends. Although Hollywood movies (see the one starring Elizabeth Taylor in 1963) have put in our minds that Cleopatra VII took her own life on August 12, 30 BC, the tangible reality is that there has been no chronicle in which a witness to corroborate it. Or, at the moment, it has not been found. So, and although it hurts us to admit it (who doesn't hurt to know that what he has always believed may not be true?) We must face the reality that his death still navigates between truth and myth.

In fact, the most reliable text seems to be that of the biographer Plutarch, born about a hundred years after the queen. Regardless of whether or not his narration is sustained, the truth is that this version is the one that has passed into textbooks. The author states that, after knowing that he was surrounded by his nemesis Gaius Julius Caesar Octaviano (better known as Octavio) and learning of the death of his lover Marco Antonio, he took his life by causing an asp to inject his poison into his body: «Covered with in his best clothes […] in a perfumed room, he brought the snake close to his veins, which irritated him until he was bitten by injecting the poison that would take his life after plunging her into a slumber from which she would not wake up »


However, over the centuries this theory has been nuanced by some and disjointed by others. Where the hell did the snake bite the "harlot queen" (as Octavian's supporters described her)? Could a needle loaded with deadly liquid actually get stuck? The vivid example that the suicide of Cleopatra, the woman who captivated Caesar and Marco Antonio with her charms, harbors even darker than lighter statements made by the Ancient History professor Christoph Schaefer to CNN in 2010. In them He claimed that, according to his investigations, the monarch had put a drug-laden concoction between his chest and back. "There was no charge," he explained.


What a good part of toxicology experts do agree on is that it seems strange that the queen decided to take her own life through the bite of an asp, since this is not always fatal. Although the professor in chemistry Adela Muñoz Páez (author of "History of poison. From hemlock to polonium" -Debate, 2012-) recalls that some are lethal. Paraphrasing the 16th century doctor Andrés Launa, the expert confirms that "there are three deadly species of asp": the "chersea", the "chelidonia" and the "ptyada". «In man, the lethal dose of its venom is 25 milligrams, while the amount that one of these snakes inoculates with its bite ranges between 150 and 350 milligrams. This dose causes some [dangerous] symptoms that appear immediately, ”he reveals. So while the possibility exists, the question remains open.


Cleopatra, mordida por un áspid

Cleopatra, bitten by an asp


After the war

The death of Cleopatra VII, born in 69 BC Within the Ptolemaic dynasty, it happened in a context of war and after Octavian spread, scribes and writers through, a painful black legend that showed her as a whore capable of cajoling any man to seize power. After the naval battle of Actium (31 BC), in which Cleopatra and Mark Antony succumbed to the forces of Octavian, the paths of the two lovers parted. The general secluded himself on the island of Faros devastated by the shame of defeat (and, apparently, also by the bitterness of having been abandoned in the middle of the fight by the ships of his beloved).

For her part, the monarch returned to Alexandria and decided to continue to lead Egypt at whatever cost. Her desperation was such that, when her nemesis was within a stone's throw eager to finish her off, he sent her a letter offering her Egypt in exchange for her letting her children rule. But his fate was sealed. The Roman did not even respond and prepared to face that "fatal woman."


Despite being abandoned, love was able to Marco Antonio, who tried to gather an army to defend Cleopatra. He did not avail. Most of his men deserted and the general withdrew while blaming his fate on the queen. His end came, according to myth, when he was informed of the false death of his lover. «The general, maddened, stuck his sword at the same moment in which the queen's secretary arrived announcing that she was still alive. Marco Antonio was taken with Cleopatra and died in her arms ”, reveals Muñoz in his work. Soon after, the desperate boss learned that Octavian intended to take her to Rome and display her as a trophy, so she hatched a plan to end her life.


Plutarch, the most famous

According to Plutarch, Cleopatra sent a suicide note to her enemy after dinner, asking her to respect the lives of her children. «He took some tablets on which he wrote Octavio and sent them. He immediately called out everyone in his mausoleum, except his faithful servants Iras and Charmian, and closed the door. When the tablet reached Octavio's hands and he read the heartbreaking prayers with which Cleopatra asked him to be buried next to Antony, Octavio knew what he had done ».


After taking a bath, he requested that a slave bring a basket to the room in which he had been confined. A container in which he ordered a snake to hide. “When the guards asked him what he had in the basket, the farmer opened the lid and showed a basket full of figs. The guards admired its size and appearance and the peasant invited them to have one. His frankness and naturalness dispelled all suspicions. They let him in, "added the biographer.


Representación de la muerte de Cleopatra

Representation of the death of Cleopatra


When he received that basket, and together with his two servants, he prepared to leave this world. «Then, dressed in her best clothes, she placed herself next to Antonio's corpse, in a perfumed room, and brought the snake that irritated her veins close to making it bite him by injecting the poison that would take her life after plunging her into a torpor of the that he would not wake up ”, wrote Plutarco. According to this theory, the snake would have attacked up to three times. One to the queen and one to each slave. In turn, the suicide would have occurred shortly before Octavio arrived at the mausoleum.

Still, the theories number in the dozens. Some historians claim that the animal arrived in a large basket that also included grapes. According to others, it was actually done in a wreath intended for the monarch. The second-century biographer Suetonius, for his part, was a supporter during his life that the Roman general, eager to take her to the capital, tried to give her an antidote without success. It seems like an impossible mission to find out what happened on those walls. In fact, and always according to Muñoz, Plutarco himself confessed in his texts that he did not know exactly the cause of death.



The snake theory is the most widespread. However, it raises serious doubts. One of them is what kind was the viper that killed Cleopatra. Muñoz collects in his work -based on Laguna's research- the three most plausible possibilities. In his words, the first would be the "chersea" or "terrestrial", an animal that remains most of the year underground and that "has the color of silt leaning to ashen." The second would correspond to the «chelidonia», with a black back and a white belly. "The chelidonia has its caverns next to the banks of the rivers and is very frequent along the banks of the Nile", adds the author. The "ptyada" would be the last, characteristic for raising the neck to spit from the distance at its prey.

Although he included these three species among the possible ones, the author was not clear, already in the 15th century, which of them had been the culprit: the whole body, and finally a deep sleep followed by universal spasm and death. Of chelidonia it is written that in biting dispatches, and, thus, it is the opinion of some that Queen Cleopatra was killed with her; other authors insist that with the ptyada he perpetrated that feat ». Mention to part requires the theory that the animal bit three different people in the mausoleum, something that seems impossible to some experts.


Marco Antonio

Marco Antonio


Although it is difficult to know to what extent it is plausible that a cobra killed Cleopatra, what is undeniable is that, according to Muñoz, the venom that a snake inoculates in a human being is approximately between 150 and 350 milligrams. And the lethal amount is just 25 milligrams. So, at least from a scientific point of view, the possibility is real. However, and knowing that the toxins take hours to take effect, the expert finds it strange that Octavian (who was a few kilometers from the palace when the queen committed suicide) did not try to revive her to take her to Rome. Of the same opinion is the po[CENSORED]rizer Pedro Palao Pons who, in his book "The mysteries of poisons" (De Vecchi, 2008), affirms that the general could have saved her without any difficulty.

In Muñoz's words, the most logical thing is that, upon arriving at the mausoleum, the Egyptian woman was going through some of the phases after the poison was inoculated. “It all starts with the loss of muscle-nerve capacities, causing drooping of the eyelids, blurred vision and difficulty in breathing or speaking. They continue with headache, fainting, vertigo, eye paralysis, and general flaccid paralysis. In more advanced stages, progressive paralysis of the intercostal muscles and the diaphragm appears ”, adds the expert. Why didn't Octavio give her an antidote? Is it possible that she died in another way? Did he let her die on purpose? Today, more than two millennia later, we can only speculate what happened.


Against the official theory

The snake theory is the most widespread, indeed, but over the decades there have been dozens of experts who have considered other possibilities. One of the theses that had the most impact was that of Christoph Schaefer, a history professor at the University of Trier who believed that he probably committed suicide by means of some poison that ended his life instantly.

In her words, this thesis is plausible since, according to many papyri of the time, the monarch was an expert in making lethal concoctions and a student of them. Muñoz also considers this possibility and, in his work, reveals that Cleopatra thought of using henbane or strychninca. However, he differs from his colleague and sentence that both rejected. The first, for the terrible suffering it caused. And the second, because it would leave her corpse disfigured, and she wanted to remain beautiful until the end.

"Opium brings tranquility, with it, one can fall into a painless and deadly sleep"


Schaefer, after analyzing ancient texts and working closely with the German toxicologist Dietrich Mebs, also came to the conclusion that Cleopatra most likely used a mixture of hemlock, opium and aconite (considered one of the most poisonous plants of Europe) to kill himself with his servants. "Opium brings tranquility, with it, one can fall into a painless and deadly sleep," he revealed.

But the historian not only contributed this new theory, but also charged against the official thesis on the death of Cleopatra. As he explained to CNN, it is impossible that the queen chose to die by a snake bite because she knew that these animals are not always deadly. Besides, it is not a quick method. It is a horrible death that takes hours to occur and paralyzes various parts of the body, including the eyes, "he explained. To support this thesis, he relied on the texts of the Roman historian Dio Cassius, who claimed that the monarch had died "a quiet and painless death." Finally, he also pointed out that, in the middle of August, the snake in question would not have stayed in the mausoleum, but would have fled there to avoid the heat before attacking.


Other theses

Another of the most po[CENSORED]r hypotheses is the one that states that Cleopatra committed suicide using hemlock leaves that she extracted from a crown she wore on her head. Palao doesn't believe in it. On the contrary, he is in favor of the fact that the amount of poison that could be hidden in the headdress is miniscule.

«They calculate that adorning the queen's hair there could be about 2 milliliters of poison, insufficient quantity to die since, to cause death, it would take about 30 milliliters of concentrated solution; if, in addition, we pay attention to Plutarco, who suggests that the maids also ingested the same poison, it would have taken another 60 milliliters to kill them. The leaves that grow from the hemlock tree contain only 0.5 percent of the poison. Then one of two, or Cleopatra had a botanical garden on her head - each plant exceeds a meter in height - or the thing does not add up ».


Finally, a few years ago the Discovery Channel considered the possibility that Cleopatra had not committed suicide, but that she had been murdered by Octavio. According to the documentary produced by the chain, the Roman general would have arrived at the mausoleum in time to avoid the death of the queen. However, he preferred to let her die (or even kill her) by taking refuge in the suicide note he had received. And it is that, if he returned with the queen to Rome, he knew that a certain stir could be generated around her and Caesarion (the son she had had with Julius Caesar).




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