CSI: Ancient Alexandria

A reexamination of the facts surrounding the death of Cleopatra VII reveals that the Egyptian queen was murdered—and not by an asp.

By | March 1, 2013

PROMETHEUS BOOKS, FEBRUARY 2013Three circumstances attend any death: the cause (specific disease or injury), the mechanism (type of physiological damage), and the manner (natural, accidental, suicide, or murder). Sometimes all three of these are obvious. Other times, we can determine none of them. Today, some 2,000 years after the famed Egyptian queen Cleopatra met her demise in Alexandria, there is no absolute proof of how or why she died. The circumstances surrounding her death are quite murky.

The closest thing we have to a firsthand account is the oft-repeated tale told by Greek historian Plutarch, who was not even alive during Cleopatra’s reign. So his story is just that—a story. He claims that while under guard in her tomb, tending to the body of Antony following the surrender of Egyptian forces to the Roman general Octavian, Cleopatra chose to end her life rather than be taken back to Rome and shown off as a spoil of war. Plutarch says she smuggled a snake into the tomb, where she and her two handmaidens used the serpent’s venomous bite to commit suicide. Yet there were no outward signs that venom had caused their deaths.

I systematically review the available evidence, and debunk this historical account of Cleopatra’s death, in my new book, The Murder of Cleopatra: History’s Greatest Cold Case.

So, we have three dead women in a room. We can eliminate natural causes as the manner of death, as it would be extremely unlikely that three healthy women would expire at the same moment in time absent an external factor. Accidental death can also be ruled out, as no injuries to their bodies were ever noted (at least none visible in unclothed areas). So we are down to suicide or homicide.

Suicide could only have been accomplished with poison or a terribly venomous viper. No poison container was found in the tomb, nor was there any obvious postmortem evidence of the women having ingested a toxic chemical. But what of the snake? Nobody saw one, but suppose it somehow slithered out unnoticed. Neither any of the guards nor the doctor who examined the victims at the scene reported noticing snakebites on the women, any swelling or bruising the might indicate bite sites, or any signs that the women vomited or convulsed.

Let’s accept that Cleopatra’s postmortem investigators were not a very observant bunch. Could an asp, which in ancient Egyptian parlance is thought to refer to the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje), have killed all three of the women? Putting aside the unlikelihood of the handmaidens being willing to grab hold of a writhing snake that had just bitten their queen who was contorted in agony on the floor, could the Egyptian cobra successfully inject enough venom into three women in a row to kill them?

An Egyptian cobra can inject 173–300 mg of venom in a single bite. That will definitely kill an adult, but “dry bites,” releasing no venom at all, occur 30 to 50 percent of the time. The odds are against all three women dying from snake bites, and even if by some rare stroke of ill luck this did actually occur, death from a cobra bite takes time—up to 5 hours until the venom’s neurotoxin takes effect on nerves controlling the respiratory muscles. Cleopatra and her handmaidens could not have accomplished their suicides in the small time frame they had (Cleopatra and one handmaiden had expired and one was almost dead by the time Octavian’s messengers, who were posted with their general just a few blocks away in Cleopatra’s palace, opened the tomb).

No, a snake likely did not kill Cleopatra, nor did poison. The manner of death then could not be suicide. With natural and accidental death also ruled out, that only leaves one possibility—homicide. And since Octavian controlled the story that eventually reached Plutarch, the only snake likely to have been involved in Cleopatra’s death was him.

Pat Brown is a nationally known criminal profiler and television commentator. She is the CEO of The Sexual Homicide Exchange (www.SHEprofilers.com) and president of The Pat Brown Criminal Profiling Agency (www.patbrownprofiling.com). She was the host and profiler for the 2004 Discovery Channel documentary, The Suspicious Death of Cleopatra. Read an excerpt from The Murder of Cleopatra: History’s Greatest Cold Case.

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Avatar of: Fred-biochem


Posts: 1

March 8, 2013

"So, we have three dead women in a room. We can eliminate natural causes as the manner of death, as it would be extremely unlikely that three healthy women would expire at the same moment in time absent an external factor."


The author concudes murder and excludes poison. But there are poisonous gasses. Would carbon monoxide poisoning necessarily be murder? I think not.


Avatar of: jeenious


Posts: 45

March 8, 2013

In the past century or so, the "science" (if we allow ourselves to call it that) of persuasion has advanced dramatically. What must be done in a court of criminal law is that an accused must be "ruled" guilty or not guilty. There seems to be an attitude on the part of some people that juries "figure out" or "ascertain" whether an accused actually committed a crime. In civil law, a legally authorized agent or arbiter, or a legally appointed body of people can "determine" a matter, and their "determination" is final. However, such legitimization of "ruling" or "determining" guilt or innocence or who did what to whom does not establish truth or certainty. It merely settles the matter in some way so that the accusation or the contest doesn't just go begging for eternity insofar as society is not eternally stumped and stymied in moving on along with all it must move along with.

There seems to be a homogeneous desire on part of some in the sciences to agonize over whether arriving at a "ruling" or a fixed "determination" of a question for which there is insufficient evidence to determine truth or certainty in its regard. Certainty, in fact, may be the rarest of all things in the human experience. Can anyone highly educated and experienced in scientific rigor not be aware of this? Some individuals who are marginally science literate seem to demand, or at least to expect, that scientists will always be able to tell them the correct answer to a question they are curious about -- as opposed to telling what each individual scientist's opinion is, or what the current consensus is among those in a given scientific field is.

What strikes me as nonsense or, more accurately, nonscience,is for one geologist, say, or one sociologist or one psychologist or one evolutionary theorist... to get all bent out of joint over another's interpretation that differs from his own -- when each is looking at the same evidence.

STANCE, now, is something that makes a lot of sense. It is adamant insistence that I, at least, perceive to be non-productive --a shouting match, as it were, over whether twiddle de dee and twiddle de dum clearly mean X, as claimed by scientist A, or clearly mean Y, as insisted upon by scientist B. Does that no tend to blur over from scientific objectivity into something akin to dogma versus dogma.

And, yes, I most assuredly do recognize the element of ego as playing a role in any kind of professional dispute. Ego is useful in some situations, a nuisance in some, and in some scenarios can lead even to violence over differing opinions or values. However, reading that geologist A feels certain that explanation X is obvious, while geologist B feels certain that Y is obvious, causes me to feel that somewhere along the line, the border between science and nonscience has become blurred.

Again, stance is useful in research. If three individual researchers perceive a different interpretation to be the most likely, and each develops one or more hypotheses to test, then that is sharing the labor of determining which new findings will lead to future findings based upon those.

As for me, thank you, when I read two different stances by two different individual researchers, or two different synthesis-seekers, I am happy to learn that everyone is not just locked in to a single possibility, that someone is persuing one possibility, and another or others, alternatives.

What I do not understand is how two or more schools of thought can turn into factions of belief, antagonistic each toward the other or others, and desciples can become polarized in support of the one or the other. And, likewise, I wonder sometimes where the the distinction between different working hypotheses, and different meta-scientific ideologies are mistaken for superior versus inferior discernment

Why is it difficult, or seemingly impossible for some individuals, in some cases, to accept "I don't know," for an answer when that is the reality.

Actually, a better, or more scientific assessment of the state of so-called scientific knowledge on an issue might be:

Here is the evidence we have;

Here are some questions we have no evidence to resolve (yet);

Here is the stance (the working hypothesis) I am persuing for now, in hopes of resolving what I perceive LOOKING FORWARD to be where time and other resources will best be spent; so,

I don't know the answer, but I'm keeping an open mind, and I'm working on it.

Is it necessary to become adamant and insistent upon where one's forward-looking results will lead?

Now this is a question that perhaps we should not leap over too quickly. Maybe it is NECESSARY that we act, or pretend to be, more on the right track than someone else in order to get financial backing for getting on with our work, or for getting published in a peer review journal, or for enticing people to read a book we have written...

Such funding issues or profit issues are not to be taken too lightly, perhaps.

And it might be food for practical thought that, in some ways marketing itself can be studied in a rigorous, scientific way.

But are marketing considerations science?

My stance, at this moment, is that being, or pretending to be, emotionally committed to what lies beyond the I-don't-know point is not science.

But my stance might turn out at some future time to be ruled out by hard evidence.

What's your stance?


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