The Enigma of Cleopatra’s Death: Was it Suicide or Murder?

March 26, 2024

Accepted historical accounts claim that Cleopatra, the last active pharaoh of ancient Egypt, committed suicide. Cleopatra assumed the throne of Egypt after the demise of Alexander the Great during the Hellenistic period, but facing capture and humiliation at the hands of Octavian after the Battle of Actium, it has been recorded that held a snake to her body and allowed 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?

The Enigma of Cleopatra's Death: Was it Suicide or Murder?

The bust of Cleopatra VII at the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany. (Public domain)

From Powerful Ruler to Tragic Demise: Cleopatra’s Life and Death

Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra lived and perished in Alexandria. Hailing from the Macedonian Greek dynasty, her lineage reigned over Egypt for over three centuries. Cleopatra received a comprehensive education. Fluent in seven languages, she excelled in politics, literature, and philosophy. Her sharp intellect and astute mind were instrumental in her strategic abilities and diplomatic skills, and she has even been described as one of the great intellectuals of her era.

While there is no history of suicide within Cleopatra’s family, there was a great deal of violence and murder. Cleopatra’s fiery and strong-willed nature raises doubts about the story of her surrendering and taking her own life. Her tenacity and determination cast a shadow of uncertainty on the notion of her demise by self-inflicted means.

Inheriting the throne at just 18, Cleopatra wed her ten-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. But despite plans for them to rule as joint monarchs, Cleopatra had no intention of sharing power with her younger sibling. Shortly thereafter, Ptolemy XIII met an untimely end, a fate that befell some of Cleopatra’s other siblings as well. Many point to her involvement in the demise of two out of five siblings, implying Cleopatra’s ruthless nature driven by her pursuit of power.

Fearing accusations of murder, Cleopatra sought alliances with the Roman Empire. History recounts her passionate affair with Julius Caesar, resulting in the birth of a son. Cleopatra was afraid that she would be accused of a murder plot so she began to court the powers of the Roman Empire. As it is written, she was a lover of Julius Caesar and bore him a son. However, after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, she aligned with Mark Antony, who assumed control during the power vacuum, opposing Caesar’s legal heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian).

Historical accounts indicate that following their defeat in the Battle of Actium against Octavian’s forces, Mark Antony chose to end his own life. Cleopatra supposedly met the same fate, unable to bear the aftermath of the battle. Subsequently, Octavian transformed Egypt into a Roman province and became its first emperor, adopting the name Augustus.

The Enigma of Cleopatra's Death: Was it Suicide or Murder?

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon-Gerome, 1866. (Public domain)

Testing Cleopatra’s Death Story: A Gedanken Thought Experiment

A Gedanken study is an influential thought experiment method renowned for its capacity to probe the plausibility of a hypothesis and it has been employed extensively to investigate the veracity of the events surrounding Cleopatra’s death. Numerous Gedanken studies have explored the purported facts, illuminating the truth behind this enigmatic historical event. These hypothetical scenarios shed light on the circumstances surrounding Cleopatra’s fate, guiding scholars towards a deeper understanding of her final moments.

Cleopatra’s mausoleum is known to have been located close to a palace where Octavian was living in Alexandria, Egypt. As the story goes, Cleopatra penned her farewell in a suicide note within its somber confines, before entrusted it to a guard who presented it to Octavian. Soon after that, she apparently clasped an asp – a venomous snake – to her bosom, meeting her tragic end when bitten by its venomous fangs. This dramatic scene unfolds amidst the historical backdrop of ancient Alexandria, forever cementing Cleopatra’s fate as a figure of intrigue and sorrow.

But, is this tale really plausible? It doesn’t seem so. The guard, unaware of the note’s contents, would have taken only a few minutes to traverse several hundred meters to deliver it to Octavian and return. However, medically speaking, experts suggest that it would have required a couple of hours for the asp venom to take effect, if it was lethal at all, and kill Cleopatra. Moreover, studies indicate that, on average, only fifty percent of asp venom is injected in one bite suggesting that she would have had a high chance of survival.

A piece of information that tends to make some individuals think that Cleopatra’s death was caused by suicide can be found in the Temple File. For within the temple there exists a carving depicting Isis surrounded by a snake. As Cleopatra was thought to be the living reincarnation of Isis, this carving suggests that her death was intermeshed with the snake of the legendary death story.

The Enigma of Cleopatra's Death: Was it Suicide or Murder?

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. According to historical accounts, Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing an asp snake bite her. (Public domain)

Theories Surrounding Octavian’s Involvement in Cleopatra’s Death

One theory posits that Octavian orchestrated Cleopatra’s murder as a strategic maneuver to solidify his dominance over the Roman Empire. With Octavian governing the western regions and Mark Antony overseeing the east, Octavian sought to consolidate his power by leveraging Cleopatra as a pawn in his political game, leading to a declaration of war. This narrative suggests a calculated plot by Octavian to eliminate Cleopatra and fulfill his ambitions of empire-wide control.

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Historical accounts suggest that Octavian harbored a desire to capture and humiliate Cleopatra. These claims stem from Octavian’s own memoirs, which raise questions about their reliability. At the time, Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, posed a perceived threat to Rome’s interests, prompting Cleopatra to send him to Ethiopia for his safety days before Octavian’s arrival in Alexandria. Tragically, Caesarion was discovered and murdered at the hands of Octavian’s forces.

The Enigma of Cleopatra's Death: Was it Suicide or Murder?

Octavian and Cleopatra by Louis Gauffier, 1787. Was Octavian responsible for Cleopatra’s death? (Public domain)

Some scholars suggest that it was Octavian who sent his guards to murder Cleopatra after he killed her son, allowing him to take control over the empire. Indeed, Cleopatra’s body was found alongside two of her maids, suggesting that it was foul play at work and not suicide.

Nevertheless, more recent studies have suggested that Cleopatra died from a drug cocktail and not a snake bite. According to Christoph Schaefer, a German historian and professor at the University of Trier, “ancient papyri show that the Egyptians knew about poisons, and one papyrus says Cleopatra actually tested them.” Schaefer has expressed the belief that Cleopatra chose a poisonous cocktail made of opium, aconitum (wolfsbane) and hemlock. Although such a poison may have also been administered by someone else and not by her own hand.

Historians continue to debate the circumstances around Cleopatra’s death, but it remains shrouded in uncertainty. With only anecdotal accounts surviving about her final hours it appears that we may never know the truth. While many have questioned the accuracy of the accepted narrative surrounding the demise of one of the most memorable leaders in history, it becomes increasingly challenging to definitively ascertain the truth behind Cleopatra’s untimely demise over two thousand years ago.