The Snake Was Framed

By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog, Medical Discovery News

As the story goes, when the Egyptian empire fell, rather than face imprisonment, disgrace and death at the hands of the Romans, Cleopatra committed suicide through the fatal bite of an Egyptian cobra. However, this account has been highly studied and contested, and now, experts have collaborated to determine how plausible this really is.

Cleopatra is a bit of a mystery. No contemporary accounts of her life have survived. That doesn’t mean she has not continued to be a source of intrigue and inspiration: five ballets, eight films, 45 operas and 77 plays are based on her life. What we do know comes from the Greco-Roman scholars such as Plutarch, a biographer who was born in 46 and died around 119, more than a century after Cleopatra. He stated that her beauty was not “the sort that would astound those who saw her.” She nevertheless captured the attentions of Julius Caesar, with whom she had one child, and one of his successors Marc Antony, with whom she had three more.

When the future Roman emperor Augustus Caesar and his army entered Alexandria, Egypt, in the summer of 30 BC, Cleopatra fled the invading troops and barricaded herself in her mausoleum amid hordes of treasure. This is where the line between legend and history becomes blurred. Though most historians believe that Cleopatra committed suicide with poison at age 39, the legend of a poisonous snake bite is in many accounts of her death.

Experts in Egyptology and snakes collaborated to determine if the story of the Egyptian Cobra or asp could have killed Cleopatra and her two attendants. The first issue is that most cobras would have been too big to —> Read More