The Death of Cleopatra
Francois Retief and Louise P. Cilliers
Acta Theologica: Vol. 26:2 (2006)
The last days and death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony are reviewed. Antony died a slow death after an initially unsuccessful suicide attempt by way of a stab wound to the abdomen. It is argued that Cleopatra (and her two servants) probably committed suicide through poisoning, rather than the bite of an asp (viper) as is popularly believed. Death occurred very rapidly and the bodies showed no recognisable snake bite wounds. Fatal viper bites are characteristically associated with prominent, swollen and haemorrhagic wounds. Cobras may cause rapid death in spite of minor bite wounds, but in order to kill three adults, the snake would have to be large. Legend has it that the reptile was smuggled to Cleopatra in a small basket of figs, which would not have been possible with a large snake.
The relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony is one of the best-known love stories in history, and their double suicide in the year 30 BC has been dramatised many times through the centuries. Writers and historians have created such diverse images of Cleopatra that it is difficult to distinguish between reality and myth — the capable and beloved last Queen of Egypt versus the romanticised version of a seduc- tive, ambitious, beautiful woman manipulating all around her to her own advantage.
This article, which focuses on the last days of Cleopatra and Antony, draws much of its evidence from the writing of Plutarch, a Greek who lived roughly a century after Cleopatra and based his information on contemporary texts which are no longer extant, and on the memoirs of Cleopatra’s physician, Olympus.