Changing History: Cleo Snake Death Debunked?
Most of us learned about the fascinating history of the Egyptians when we were at school. Obviously we don’t know everything there is to know about the Pharaohs and pyramids, but it seems that there is still so much more to learn about them.
Some of the facts we have believed for millennia are even being debunked as you read this.
For example, there is still an air of mystery surrounding the death of the Pharaoh Cleopatra. The most widely believed story is that Cleo and two of her handmaidens were killed by a snake – an asp, as the tale goes.
Cleopatra died at the age of 39 after a 21-year-long reign of Egypt, after becoming deeply involved with the power struggles going on in the Roman Empire. She bore children from both the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, and, perhaps more famously, his general, Mark Antony.
The story is well known and documented, but there has always been some speculation as to whether the story of Cleopatra’s death is genuine, or that she died at someone’s hand by being poisoned.
As the story is told, a basket of figs was brought to Cleopatra, not only bearing the fruit but also one or more snakes that the Pharaoh could use to kill herself. This was perhaps done by holding her arm out for the creature to bite, or holding the snake to her chest – the handmaidens following suit.
But now, some 2000-odd years after their deaths, historians from Manchester in England have declared that it would have been impossible for Cleopatra and her two maids to have been killed by the hypothetical asp.
After examining the plausibility of the myth, the team believes that a snake big enough to kill all three people could not have been small enough to be concealed in the basket of fruit. Just to give you an idea of what we’re talking about, the Egyptian cobra can grow up to 8 feet long (2.4 metres)!
But even if that was managed, it’s also unlikely that three consecutive bites from the snake would all have been fatal.
Andrew Gray, one of the people responsible for this enlightening news, is Manchester Museum’s Curator of Herpetology. He explained that most snake bites don’t inject venom, and as a result, there is only a 10% chance that a person would die from one.
“That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous,” he added. “The venom causes necrosis and will certainly kill you, but quite slowly.”
He said that because of this and snakes conserving their venom to only use it in times of need, it would be impossible to use a snake to kill two or more people one after another.
Mr Gray and Dr Joyce Tyldesley have introduced these ideas in a video that is part of a new online course about ancient Egyptian history, using items from Manchester Museum’s collection.
Dr Tyldesley has her own theories, believing that the Pharaoh did indeed commit suicide, just not in the manner suggested. She explained that while suicide in ancient Egypt is practically unheard of, in the Roman world it was seen as an acceptable way of dealing with an otherwise irresolvable problem.
As we know, Mark Antony stabbed himself, and Cleopatra was reported as attempting to do the same to herself several times previously. But then, wouldn’t using a knife or dagger be an easier solution than enlisting the help of snakes that may or may not fulfil their duty?
“Alternatively, maybe she used snake venom that she had already prepared for the occasion,” Dr Tyldesley suggested. “But not a live snake – that would be very difficult.”
Criminal profiler Pat Brown, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that Cleopatra killed herself at all and has written extensively about her theory in The Murder of Cleopatra: History’s Greatest Cold Case.
Brown believes that the Cleo was killed by Roman Emperor Octavian – perhaps better known as Emperor Augustus – who is thought to have trapped Cleopatra and her handmaidens in her mausoleum after the death of Mark Antony.
Brown’s point is that if Octavian had wanted to keep Cleopatra alive then she wouldn’t have been so heavily monitored, which presents the argument that it’s more plausible for Octavian to have killed the Pharaoh.
We’ll never know for sure what happened that day; we can only speculate and base our theories on the facts presented to us. In this case, everything seems to be pointing away from a snake causing the death of Cleopatra.