Two British experts are claiming that the long held belief that Cleopatra the Queen of Egypt died as a result of an asp or cobra is pure fantasy.They say an asp is too small to have been the killer and a cobra too big.
Most historical experts agree that the 39 year old Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC by prompting a cobra, or an asp, to bite her after she received news that her lover Mark Antony had been killed at the Battle of Actium by the forces of rival Roman Octavian, who later became Emperor Augustus.
The most quoted "evidence" of the suicide is that of Plutarch who 130 years after the event, wrote the suspect serpent was smuggled to Cleopatra hidden in a basket of figs, when she was a prisoner of Octavian. The snake bit Cleopatra and two of her servants, killing them all, wrote Plutarch.
Now Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley and herpetologist Andrew Gray say the snake could not have been a cobra because the species is too large to hide in a basket of figs. A cobra can grow to be 8ft long.
Gray says even sticking the cobra in a really big basket of figs isn't credible because "there's just a 10% chance you would die from a snake bite: most bites are dry bites that don't inject venom. That's not to say they aren't dangerous: the venom causes necrosis and will certainly kill you, but quite slowly. So it would be impossible to use a snake to kill two or three people one after the other. Snakes use venom to protect themselves and for hunting - so they conserve their venom and use it in times of need."
If Gray and Tyldesley are to be believed, that leaves the question of what did kill Cleopatra? The two experts say the most likely answer was that she poisoned herself. But how? Greek historian Strabo, who was around at the time of her death, said an asp or a poisoned ointment. Plutarch later wrote the two puncture marks on Cleopatra's arm could really have been been caused by a hollow comb used to administer poison. Other historians claim a poisoned hair pin or deadly puncture applied to a self-inflicted bite wound.
But however she died, experts agree the Romans at the time wanted to portray Cleopatra as a coward who would rather kill herself than face up to her new Roman rulers.