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.

Mar 1, 2013
Pat Brown

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.