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Cleopatra’s death appears to have played out as dramatically as the life she lived.

After the Egyptian queen and her longtime lover, the Roman general Mark Antony, saw their combined forces decimated in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., they retreated to an uncertain future in Alexandria. Months later, with the Roman army of Octavian at the city’s gates, a desperate Antony fell on his sword.

Faced with the prospect of losing her kingdom, Cleopatra herself committed suicide on August 10, 30 B.C., by allowing a poisonous snake to bite her and her two handmaidens.

Or did she?

Image vs. Reality

The Death of Cleopatra, by Gerard de Lairesse

The Death of Cleopatra, painted by Gerard de Lairesse (1640-1711).

Solid historical evidence relating to Cleopatra’s death, as with much of her biography, is thin. Those who compiled the most comprehensive accounts of her life, notably the Roman writer Plutarch, lived generations after her death. Poets, playwrights and filmmakers later drew on these sources to build Cleopatra into an almost mythical figure, defined largely by her powers of seduction and her relationships with two Roman leaders, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Such fictionalized accounts of her life, and her untimely demise, created the popular image of Cleopatra as the beautiful, doomed protagonist in one of history’s most famous romantic dramas. Behind that image, however, was a real-life queen, who, regardless of her looks, was certainly a formidable leader—and one of the most powerful members of a Greek dynasty that dominated Egypt for more than three centuries.

What We Know About Cleopatra’s Death

After Roman forces crushed the Egyptian army in the Battle of Actium, Antony and Cleopatra retreated to Alexandria, where they watched as their former allies and supporters defected to Octavian’s side. As Stacy Schiff wrote in her 2010 biography of Cleopatra, the couple dissolved their debaucherous “Society of Inimitable Livers” and founded a new one, “Companions to the Death.” Cleopatra had a two-story mausoleum quickly constructed on her palace grounds, next to a temple dedicated to her alter ego, the goddess Isis.

By the end of July in 30 B.C., Octavian’s forces had reached Alexandria, and Cleopatra retreated to her mausoleum. Hearing a report that she had died, Antony stabbed himself with his own sword. His men carried him to Cleopatra, and he died in her arms. According to Plutarch, a member of Octavian’s staff secretly warned Cleopatra on August 9 that the general was planning to leave for Rome in a few days, and take Cleopatra and her children with him. The following day, Cleopatra shut herself away in the mausoleum with two maidservants, Iras and Charmion, and sent a note to Octavian, who was by then staying in Alexandria, likely in the queen’s palace.

Upon opening Cleopatra’s note, which asked that she be buried at Antony’s side, Octavian immediately sent his men to investigate. When they broke down the mausoleum door, they found Cleopatra lying lifeless on a golden couch, her two servants dead and dying beside her. She was 39 years old at the time she died, and had ruled Egypt for more than 20 years.

The Snake Bite Theory

According to the most widely repeated theory of Cleopatra’s death, she died from a venomous snake bite, inflicted either by an asp (a small viper) or an Egyptian cobra. Hers would have been a particularly poetic suicide: The asp was a symbol of royalty to the Egyptians, while the cobra was associated with Cleopatra’s favorite goddess, Isis.

There are several problems with this theory, according to modern Egyptologists. For one thing, cobras were typically at least five feet long, and could grow up to eight feet; much too large to smuggle into Cleopatra’s mausoleum in a basket of figs, as the story goes. In addition, not all snake bites are deadly, and those that are kill their victims slowly and painfully, making it hard to believe a snake was able to kill Cleopatra and her two maids in the short time it took for Octavian to receive her note and send his guards.

If Cleopatra did poison herself to death, Schiff and others argue, it’s more likely she drank an lethal herbal concoction, or applied a toxic ointment, as one ancient historian, Strabo, suggested. Either of these would have killed her (and her servants) more quickly and effectively than a snake bite. In 2010, the German historian Christoph Schaefer suggested that Cleopatra may have ingested a fatal mix of hemlock, wolfsbane and opium, based on his studies of ancient documents and his work with a toxicologist.

Was It Suicide?

The truth, however, remains elusive. With no known eyewitnesses to and no primary written accounts of Cleopatra’s death, much of what we know comes from Octavian—who some have suggested is a suspect himself. He certainly had a motive to want Cleopatra dead, as the charismatic queen (as long as she was alive) posed a potential threat to his dominance in Egypt.

Whether or not Octavian ordered the murder of Cleopatra and her maidservants, or simpy provided her the space and opportunity to kill herself, what happened next is clear: He directed his guards to hunt down and kill Caesarion, Cleopatra’s teenage son with Caesar, to remove any question of the boy’s succeeding his mother on the throne.

Octavian then made Egypt a Roman province, with himself as emperor; he later changed his name to Augustus. In his subsequent memoirs, Octavian/Augustus ensured his version of Cleopatra and her suicide—snake bite and all—would live on for centuries to come.

As for what really happened in that mausoleum, Plutarch may have said it best: “The truth of the matter no one knows.” 

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