Cleopatra: the Dramatic End of a Legendary Life

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queen cleopatra's death mystery

Cleopatra was a ruler of Egypt’s Ptolemaic Kingdom and was also considered to be a Pharaoh. She was born on early 69 BC at Alexandria and ruled for 21 years from 51 BC to 30 BC. She used to speak in the Koine Greek language and her legacy can be found mostly in the Roman historiography and Latin poetry and she has been a subject of different works in Renaissance and Baroque Art.

One of the most famous topics of discussion among historians has been the mystery behind the death of Cleopatra. Cleopatra died at the age of 39 during 30 BC but there are different stories and accounts found about the actual reasons behind her death. One of them has been her suicide. A large number of Greek and Roman historians say that she intentionally made an Egyptian cobra called asp to bite her and some are of the opinion that she poisoned herself with a toxic ointment.

The debate of her suicide has been a topic among the scholars from decades. Some academics have said that Octavian who was the political rival of Cleopatra forced her and her husband, Mark Antony to commit suicide by stabbing themselves with a sword and both of them were buried together. However, apart from all these, Olympus, who was the personal physician of Cleopatra completely disagree with the fact that an Egyptian cobra led to her death and on the opposite, Plutarch says that the cobra was in a basket of figs and Cleopatra used a hairpin to scratch open her skin and inject the toxin into her body. Roman physician Galen is of the opinion that the snake venom was brought in a container and she bit her arm to introduce the toxin in her body. The artistic depictions in various historical sites clearly shows small snakes biting her and this clearly doesn’t prove the accuracy of the story.

death of cleopatra
Image credit: Gourmet Witch

William Maloney, who is a Clinical Associate Professor at New York University has said that though the weight of Egyptian cobra is very less, its venom is too powerful to kill a human being. Another professor named Robert A. Gurval has said that although 15 – 20 mg of neurotoxin is harmful for human beings, the bite of an Egyptian cobra is not powerful enough to kill someone in a few seconds and normally, a human being can survive up to a few hours in such cases.

Two other professors, namely, Gregory Tsoucalas and Markos Sgantzos claim that the poisoning of Cleopatra was ordered by Octavian himself and its details were covered up by the Roman authorities. Some of them are also of the opinion that maybe Octavian gave Cleopatra a choice of how she would like to die and this led to her suicide. François Peter Retief says that the snake was not small enough to fit into a basket of figs.

cleopatra in archaeology
Image credit: HeritageDaily

Cleopatra had planned an exile for her son Caesarion to Nubia, Ethiopia or India during her final days though he was executed on Octavian’s orders following the advice of Alexandrian Greek philosopher Arius Didymus. Her death ended the war between Antony and Octavian and was also one of the main reasons behind the decline of Ptolemaic rule thereby leading to the beginning of Roman Empire. Egypt became a province of Roman Empire and Octavian, who was renamed Augustus became the first Roman Emperor. Cleopatra’s three children were spared and sent to Rome. The accounts of Caesarion reigning for a small period of time was used as an element of fiction to explain the gap between the death of Cleopatra and the crowning of Octavian as the Pharaoh.

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