According to accepted historical accounts, Cleopatra, the last active pharaoh of ancient Egypt who ruled after Alexander the Great’s death during the Hellenistic period, committed suicide by holding a snake to her body and allowing it to bite her, killing her with its poisonous venom. Memories of Cleopatra’s life have vanished as monuments and palaces have fallen to ruins over the millennia. But the question still remains: did she really commit suicide, or was there something more sinister involved? 

Cleopatra was born in 69 BC and lived and died in Alexandria. She was a member of the Macedonian Greek royalty and her family ruled Egypt for more than three centuries. She was well educated and fluent in seven languages. Although there was no history of suicide in her family, there were cases of murder in every direction. Cleopatra is described as fiery and strong-willed, begging the question was to whether she would really have just given up and ended it all.

Academics at The University of Manchester have dismissed the long-held argument that the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra was killed by a snake bite.

Andrew Gray, curator of herpetology at Manchester Museum, says venomous snakes in Egypt—cobras or vipers—would have been too large to get unseen into the queen’s palace.


The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. (Public Domain). According to historical accounts, Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing a snake known as an asp to bite her.
He was speaking to Egyptologist Dr Joyce Tyldesley in a new video which is part of a new online course introducing ancient Egyptian history, using six items from the Museum’s collection.

According to Dr Tyldesley, the ancient accounts say a snake hid in a basket of figs brought in from the countryside, and was also used to kill one or two of her serving maids.  According to Andrew Gray, cobras are typically five to six feet long but can grow up to eight feet—too big to hide very easily.

There would also be too little time to kill two or three people- because snake venom kills you slowly- with in any case only a 10 per cent chance of death.

  He said: “Not only are cobras too big, but there’s just a 10 percent chance you would die from a snake bite”  Most bites are dry bites that don’t inject venom.

That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous: the venom causes necrosis and will certainly kill you, but quite slowly.

“So it would be impossible to use a snake to kill two or three people one after the other. Snakes use venom to protect themselves and for hunting – so they conserve their venom and use it in times of need.”

Cleopatra is strongly associated with snakes, like many ancient Egyptian kings and queens of Egypt. In addition, Cleopatra also believed she was the embodiment of the Goddess Isis, who can take on the form of a snake.

Dr Tyldesley, whose book “Cleopatra: Egypt’s Last Queen” was a BBC Radio 4 book of the week, says one aspect of the accounts has proved to be correct. The ancient Egyptians believed snakes were good mothers.

“Very few snakes have a maternal instinct. However, the cobra is an exception: They sit on the nest and protect them until they hatch. So in this case, it seems the Egyptians were right,” agrees Dr Gray.


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