Cleopatra did not die of snake bite: study

Ancient medical texts and cobra experts refute old story


A recent German study ruled out the classical story that last Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra the seventh died of a snake bite and found it more likely the queen committed suicide with a lethal drug cocktail.

German historian Christoph Schäfer and other experts travelled to Alexandria, where they consulted ancient medical texts and met with cobra experts. Death by a cobra bite, experts argue, could take days and causes a disfigurement of the body particularly through the appearance of spots.

Schäfer, who is also professor at the University of Trier, finds it unlikely Cleopatra had chosen to suffer such a long and painful death besides the fact that she must have wanted to die beautiful in order to make her myth eternal.

Lethal cocktail

A lethal drug blend was the more likely method Cleopatra used when she decided to commit suicide. The queen, according to Schäfer, was very knowledgeable about the various types of poison and how much time it takes each of them to start affecting the body.

The cocktail Cleopatra took, Schäfer claims, was made of opium, hemlock, and aconitum. The mixture of the three substances, he added, was known at the time to cause a rather painless death within a few hours.

Hemlock, a poisonous herb native to the Mediterranean and southern Africa, was a common ingredient in toxic potions the Greeks used a means of executing prisoners. The classical Greek philosopher Socrates was given a mixture that contained hemlock after he was tried and sentenced to death.

Dietrich Mebs, one of the poison specialists taking part in the study, said Cleopatra must have drunk the potion since there was no way to inject it into her body at the time.

In addition to the agonizing death the snake bite would have caused, Mebs argued that the cobra was a very uncertain way to die. That is why, he adds, the queen would not have risked going through all that pain and deformation without certainty of death.

Evidence that disprove that 2,000-year-old legend is to be presented Wednesday night by Schäfer and Mebs in the educational show Adventure Science, broadcast on ZDF, a public-service channel on German T.V., in a special episode entitled “Cleopatra's Death: How did the last female Pharaoh really die?”

According to the classical account, Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC, following the example of her lover the Roman leader Marc Antony who killed himself after losing the Battle of Actium.

The legacy of Cleopatra survives in countless works of art and literature, the most popular of which is William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Jules Massenet's opera Cléopâtre, and Elizabeth Taylor’s epic movie Cleopatra.

(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid).