Sometimes people just can’t a good legend alone. Take the story of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, the last ruler of the Egyptian civilization. After she and her lover Marc Antony made a number of tactical blunders against Octavian of Rome, they were trapped in Alexandria, while Roman soldiers slew many of the Egyptian troops.
Cleopatra took shelter in a nearby temple and refused to come out, sending servant girls for her her food and necessities. When it became apparent that Octavian meant to capture Cleopatra and parade her, vanquished, through the streets of Rome, she decided on suicide.
The legend is that she had servant girls sneak in poisonous snakes, hidden in a basket of figs. When two servants allowed themselves to be bitten by the so-called asp (out of loyalty to their queen), then Cleopatra took the snake to her chest and it gave her the killing bite.
Well, according to Dr. Andrew Gray, curator of herpetology at Manchester Museum, the local poisonous snakes around Egypt would have been much too big to have hidden in a basket of figs. The snake in question had to either be a cobra or a viper (“asp” is an old word for a viper or cobra), and both tend to be about four to five feet long. Also, there is only a 10 percent chance that the poisonous snake’s bite would be deadly because often they give “dry bites” (non-venomous) just to keep annoying creatures, like humans, away. They need to conserve their venom, Dr. Gray told Phys.org, because they rely on it for hunting for food.
The idea that the cobra or viper would bite two serving girls first before finally chomping on Cleopatra is most unlikely, he said.
“It just wouldn’t happen,” he said. “That’s not to say they (cobras) aren’t dangerous: the venom causes necrosis and will certainly kill you, but quite slowly.” It also would be a quite painful death and not the quick suicide of the Cleopatra legend. In the old story, Octavian became suspicious when no one came in and out of the temple, so he sent in soldiers, who found Cleopatra on a bed, with an asp on her chest.
Hard to say what really happened, since archaeologists still haven’t found the tomb of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, thus her body or mummy cannot be examined. Meanwhile, the royal city of Alexandra remained a major city in Egypt for many decades until it was so riven with earthquakes and storms that much of the populace moved inland and founded Cairo. Cleopatra’s palace and her pleasure island were recently discovered by divers, who say that most of the buildings showed signs of earthquake damage.
Did Cleopatra commit suicide at all or did Octavian just kill her? Most likely she did commit suicide as she was a proud woman and the last of her line. She did not want to be mocked at the hands of the Romans. Her son by Julius Caesar had already been killed by Roman troops, and with her radiant youth and sex appeal fading, she probably found no further reason to go on living.
Cleopatra will always be strongly associated with snakes, in any case. She kept hundreds of non-poisonous royal pythons in her palace and wore a crown with a snake on it. She was also considered the living embodiment of the goddess Isis, who could take on the shape of a snake.