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Why Cleopatra Probably Didn’t Kill Herself With A Snake

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ImageContent(562949fce4b0aac0b8fc44c5,562949761400001b013c8ee1,Image,HectorAssetUrl(562949761400001b013c8ee1.jpeg,Some(),Some(jpeg)),De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti via Getty Images,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 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 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.

 

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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

And though some — including criminal profiler Pat Brown — believe Cleopatra was actually murdered, Tyldesley doesn’t buy the homicide theory.

 

 

“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.”

 

 

Contact the author at Hilary.Hanson@huffingtonpost.com

 

 

Also on HuffPost:

 

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