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Reputation Redeemed – Asp Cleared of Responsibility for Cleopatra’s Death

Egyptian CobraA 2,000 year-old-legend holds that Cleopatra, famed last Queen of Egypt, committed suicide by allowing an Asp, or Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje), to bite her.  A recent study at Germany’s University of Trier, however, has now called this story into question.

Plant Poison or Snake Toxin?

By analyzing ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls and a Roman historian’s account of Cleopatra’s demise, German toxicologists have concluded that a lethal mixture of plant poisons, and not a venomous snake bite, was the more likely suicide agent. 

Research revealed that Cleopatra was probably well-schooled in the use of plant poisons, and had even observed their use in prisoner executions during her search for a painless suicide method.  Written descriptions of her passing as being “peaceful and painless” also point away from a cobra bite, which usually induces vomiting, respiratory failure and a great deal of pain.

One of the ingredients in Cleopatra’s toxic cocktail is believed to have been Hemlock, which has also been implicated in Socrates’ death.

Poison Hemlock

Future Possibilities…

Egypt’s last queen is said to have expired in 30 BC, following the example of her partner Marc Anthony, who committed suicide after losing the Battle of Actium.  If her remains are ever found, forensic studies may finally put an end to centuries of speculation.

Until then, stay away from Asps…and Hemlock-based beverages!

Further Reading

Information on the natural history of the Asp and Egypt’s other 105 species of reptiles and amphibians may be found here.

My brush with escaped Spitting Cobras: Recovering Snakes in Zoos and Homes.


Detail from Death of Cleopatra referenced from wikipedia and originally painted by Guido Cagnacci

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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