Cleopatra and the Asp

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Image retrieved from on November 9th, 2013.

Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic line of pharaohs that traced itself back to Alexander's general Ptolemy. Her world was an exotic combination of Egyptian and Hellenistic influences, alien to the Romans who had come to dominate the Mediterranean world, but all the more appealing for it. A woman now believed to have been more striking that beautiful, she was immensely attractive as well as sophisticated, charming, intelligent, and highly educated. Having secured the favors of Julius Caesar—and borne him a son, Caesarian—she subsequently became the lover and ally of Mark Anthony.
Anthony had been Caesar's right-hand man, and after Caesar's assassination in 44 BCE had joined forces with the dictator's adopted son, Octavian—later Augustus. But once the empire had been secured, the two, almost inevitably, became enemies and engaged in a civil war that raged across the Eastern Mediterranean. Octavian's fleet overcame Antony and Cleopatra's combined navies at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE, and the pair returned to Alexandria, dispirited. Anthony's forces began to desert and by the time Octavian arrived in Egypt their final defeat was assured.
Cleopatra, fearing capture, fled to her mausoleum and sealed herself inside. When it was reported to Anthony that Cleopatra had committed suicide, he killed himself; but in fact she was very much alive and may even have sent the message herself to tick him into committing suicide in an attempt to curry favour with Octavian. Cleopatra posed a problem for Octavian as the focus of opposition to his rule over Egypt; while for her part, Cleopatra feared being paraded in humiliation through Rome. However, Octavian worried that such a procession might simply evoke pity, and must also have been mindful that she had at one time been the consort of his adopted father, the source of his legitimacy. In other words she promised to cause Octavian trouble weather he let her live or had her killed.

A beautiful Death

Against this complex background Cleopatra was given the opportunity to arrange things to her design. Although, by a ruse, she had been taken captive by Octavian's forces, she was allowed to stay in chambers in her own palace, with guards posted outside. On August 12, 30 BCE, she sent away all but two of her maidservants—and a eunuch, according to some of the sources—and arrayed herself in her finery. Her Hellenistic tradition meant that suicide was an honorable option, and she meant to carry it off in style.
When Octavian's messengers, alerted by a final note penned by the queen, opened the doors to her chamber they found her already dead. Graeco Roman historian Plutarch described the scene:

”they saw her stone-dead, lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments. Iras, one of her women, lay dying at her feet, and Charmion, just ready to fall, scarce able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress's diadem. And when one that came in said angrily, 'Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?' 'Extremely well,' she answered, 'and as became the descendant of so many kings.'”

But exactly how did she die? Ancient sources are contradictory and some modern historians feel the traditional account does not add up. Cassius Dio recounts that the only marks on the queen were pricks on the arm, but what made them? Plutarch and Dio both repeat the story of a snake being smuggled to Cleopatra hidden in a jar of figs or water, although both were skeptical. The Greek Strabo, who may have been in Alexandria at the time, writes that her death was caused “by the bite of an asp or (for two accounts are given)by applying a poisonous ointment,” and other options suggested include poison applied by biting her arm. It's interesting to note that the popular image of Cleopatra being bitten on the breast seems to have been created by Shakespeare for dramatic purposes.
But why would Cleopatra choose snake poison at all? Supposedly having tested a range of poisons on slaves, prisoners, and animals, she dismissed a host of better-known poisons in favour of the bite of the asp, which brought a sleepy, painless death without disfigurement or contortion.
In practice this seems highly unlikely. The symptoms simply don't fit, and it is hard to be sure that the snake would inject a sufficient dose. One solution, suggested by several Classical writers, is that two snakes were used, but as we have already seen the ancient sources themselves suggest such alternatives as hairpins and hollow combs.
however, there is another possibility; one which points the finger at Octavian. Certainly he was keep to promote the asp of legend—including in his triumphal procession back in Rome an effigy of Cleopatra on her couch with a snake attached, In practice, the person who benefited most from this neat and tidy suicide was Octavian himself, and one simple solution of the mystery of how she died is that the future Augustus had her killed and covered up his deed with propaganda. Could the most famous suicide of all have been a murder?

pp. 175-178 Poison an Illustrated History by Joel Levy (2011)

cleopatra, poison, asp, mark anthony, Augustus, Caesar,