Cleopatra‘s Suicide by Snake a Myth?
April 1, 2008 — Popular lore holds that in Cleopatra‘s last moments, the distraught queen — who had just lost her kingdom and learned of her lover’s demise — smuggled a poisonous snake into her locked chamber and died, along with two ladies-in-waiting, of a self-inflicted snake bite.
Such a scenario is next to impossible, according to Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, who shatters the “snakebite suicide” myth in her new book, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, just published in Europe and slated for an upcoming U.S. release.
“It seems to me that the snake theory is just too difficult to sustain, as it leaves too many loopholes,” Tyldesley, a lecturer at the University of Manchester in England and museum fellow, told Discovery News.
She posed the following questions: Do we imagine one snake killed all three women, or were three snakes brought in? How did the snake(s) get into the room? Where did the snakes then go? Since not all snakes are poisonous, how did the women ensure their own deaths?
“Basically, I think there are better and more reliable ways of killing oneself,” she said, adding that some elements of the story are probably true.
Based on a number of historical accounts, Cleopatra did die in Alexandria at around 30 B.C., and there is no historical evidence of a prior illness. The moments leading up to her death are also plausible to Tyldesley, particularly Cleopatra’s dismissal of her servants, save for two women, Charmian and Eiras.
“The decision to die in front of her female servants made good practical sense, as even the dead (according to ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs) needed a chaperone,” she explained.
“One of the horrors of female suicide was that the body might be glimpsed partially naked, by strangers,” she added. The queen therefore safeguarded her virtue in life and in death by retaining the company of her ladies-in-waiting.
In accounts written about by the Greek historian Plutarch and the Roman historian Cassius Dio, Cleopatra had a snake smuggled into her chamber inside a jar of figs or water, but both historians expressed doubts about the scenario.
Tyldesley said the most likely snake would have been an Egyptian cobra, which, while slender, can grow up to 6 feet in length.
“An adult cobra, or three, would have needed an exceptionally large fig basket or water jar,” she wrote.
She believes instead that Cleopatra and her servants died of self-administered poison, which might have been smuggled into the room or worn on the queen in a pin or hair comb.
Cleopatra did not die from a snake bite but a lethal drug cocktail that included opium and hemlock, according to German scientists: here.
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