We might never know for sure how Cleopatra died, as the majority of the story is still a mystery.
Cleopatra VII, the Egyptian pharaoh, barricaded herself within a tomb she had constructed on the grounds of her Alexandrian palace on an August day in 30 B.C. The Queen of the Nile then sent for a poisonous serpent.
Arriving concealed in a fig basket was an Egyptian cobra, also referred to as an asp. Then, when its fangs dug into her skin, Cleopatra brought it up to her exposed breast. Cleopatra was bitten by a snake and died shortly after, or did she?
The Final Days Of Egypt’s Last Pharaoh
Cleopatra had to struggle to ascend to power despite being born into royalty in the year 70 B.C. The 18-year-old Cleopatra VII and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII shared the kingdom after the death of their father Ptolemy XII Auletes.
Egypt has been ruled by their family since 305 B.C. A general of Alexander the Great had seized control of the area during that year and assumed the name Ptolemy I. The Ptolemaic dynasty was acknowledged by native Egyptians as the line of pharaohs who had predeceased them.
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However, Egypt was still under a lot of political sway from Rome. Julius Caesar was invited to Alexandria by Ptolemy XIII while Cleopatra and her brother fought for supremacy. Cleopatra also recognized a chance to grab the upper hand.
According to mythology, Cleopatra sneaked into Caesar’s quarters while covered in a carpet. She managed to entice the Roman leader once she was inside. Julius Caesar also consented to assist Cleopatra in regaining her crown.
Cleopatra was able to overthrow Ptolemy XIII with Caesar at her side and his son Caesarion soon after. Later, her younger, humiliated brother would perish in the Nile.
Still, Cleopatra’s fate was intertwined with that of Rome. Cleopatra then sided with Mark Antony when Caeser was assassinated in 44 B.C., who shared power in Rome with Octavian, Caesar’s adoptive son and supposed successor, and a Roman general named Lepidus.
Like Caesar, Antony also developed feelings for Cleopatra. Although Antony subsequently wed Octavian’s sister in a diplomatic ceremony, it was obvious that he preferred the company of the Queen of the Nile.
However, because she was a foreigner and a strong woman, the Romans mistrusted Cleopatra. She was referred to as “a crazy queen… plotting… to demolish the Capitol and topple the [Roman] Empire” by the poet Horace in the first century B.C.
So, when Cleopatra and Antony declared Caesarion to be the real heir, Octavian made the decision to take action. He declared war on Cleopatra after claiming that she was in control of Antony.
Then, at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian engaged Antony and Cleopatra, showing no mercy to his adversaries. Following Octavian’s victory, Antony and Cleopatra fled to Alexandria, where both would eventually die.
What We Know About Cleopatra’s Death
Following the defeat of the Egyptian army by Roman forces at the Battle of Actium, Antony and Cleopatra fled to Alexandria where they observed the defection of their former allies and followers to Octavian’s side. In her 2010 biography of Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff noted that the pair disbanded their hedonistic “Society of Inimitable Livers” and established a new organization, “Companions to the Death.” On the grounds of her palace, Cleopatra ordered the construction of a two-story tomb close to a temple honoring her other self, the goddess Isis.
When Octavian’s army arrived in Alexandria at the end of July in 30 B.C., Cleopatra withdrew to her mausoleum. After learning that she had passed away, Antony stabbed himself in the chest with his own sword. He was taken to Cleopatra by his soldiers, where he passed away in her arms. Plutarch claims that on August 9 Octavian’s staff member gave Cleopatra a covert warning that the general intended to leave for Rome soon and take Cleopatra and her children with him. The next day, Cleopatra locked herself in the tomb with her two maids, Iras and Charmion, and sent Octavian a letter. Octavian was by this time in Alexandria, most likely living in the queen’s palace.
Octavian opened Cleopatra’s message and sent his troops to look into it after reading her request that she be buried next to Antony. When they were forced through the mausoleum entrance, they saw Cleopatra dead and dying next to two of her slaves on a golden sofa. At the time of her death, she was 39 years old and had governed Egypt for more than 20 years.
Octavian opened Cleopatra’s message and sent his troops to look into it after reading her request that she be buried next to Antony. She killed herself by bringing the snake to her exposed breast. When they forced their way through the mausoleum entrance, they saw Cleopatra dead and dying next to two of her slaves on a golden sofa. At the time of her death, she was 39 years old and had governed Egypt for more than 20 years.
Lingering Mysteries About Cleopatra’s Suicide
Even today, thousands of years later, it is still unclear how Cleopatra passed away. Nobody appeared to have any idea why she had died, even at the time.
Dio wrote, “No one knows clearly in what way she perished, for the only marks on her body were slight pricks on the arm. Some say she applied to herself an asp which had been brought in to her in a water jar, or perhaps hidden in some flowers.”
It’s important to remember that Plutarch and Dio were both born after Cleopatra passed away, so there was plenty of time for false tales to circulate.
However, the asp idea is not widely accepted by historians today. For starters, asps often have a length of five to eight feet. It would have been challenging to conceal such a big snake in a little fruit basket.
It is also difficult to think that a snake could have killed Cleopatra and her two maids in the short period of time it took Octavian to receive her message and dispatch his guards because not all snake bites are fatal, and those kill their victims slowly and painfully.
Assuming that Cleopatra committed suicide, some modern historians contend that she actually poisoned herself.
“It is certain that there was no cobra,” claimed Christoph Schaefer, a professor of ancient history at Trier University. He firmly believes that she took a mixture of hemlock, wolfsbane, and opium to end her life.
Was It Suicide?
Some academics insist that Cleopatra committed suicide, while others wonder if Octavian had anything to do with it. She might still have caused issues for him while she was still alive, after all. Of course, a lot of Romans would be glad to see her dead. Schiff theorizes that Octavian’s performance may have been “a farce,” despite the fact that he seemed startled to learn of her death.
Regardless of whether Octavian ordered the killing of Cleopatra and her maids or merely gave her the time and freedom to commit suicide, what followed was obvious: He ordered his guards to find and kill Caesarion, Cleopatra’s teenage son with Caesar, to end all speculation about the boy taking over the throne.
Then, with himself as emperor, Octavian declared Egypt a province of Rome; he later adopted the name Augustus. Octavian/Augustus made sure that his account of Cleopatra and her suicide—complete with snake bite—would endure for years to come in his following memoirs.
We might never know for sure how Cleopatra passed away in the end. The majority of the story is still a mystery. She and Antony were buried together as she had requested in her will, but their corpses have never been discovered.
Therefore, just as historians hid the truth of Cleopatra’s existence, the sands of Egypt obscure the details of her death.