The Snake Was Framed
As the story goes, when the Egyptian empire fell, rather than face imprisonment, disgrace and death at the hands of the Romans, Cleopatra committed suicide through the fatal bite of an Egyptian cobra. However, this account has been highly studied and contested, and now, experts have collaborated to determine how plausible this really is.
Cleopatra is a bit of a mystery. No contemporary accounts of her life have survived. That doesn’t mean she has not continued to be a source of intrigue and inspiration: five ballets, eight films, 45 operas and 77 plays are based on her life. What we do know comes from the Greco-Roman scholars such as Plutarch, a biographer who was born in 46 and died around 119, more than a century after Cleopatra. He stated that her beauty was not “the sort that would astound those who saw her.” She nevertheless captured the attentions of Julius Caesar, with whom she had one child, and one of his successors Marc Antony, with whom she had three more.
When the future Roman emperor Augustus Caesar and his army entered Alexandria, Egypt, in the summer of 30 BC, Cleopatra fled the invading troops and barricaded herself in her mausoleum amid hordes of treasure. This is where the line between legend and history becomes blurred. Though most historians believe that Cleopatra committed suicide with poison at age 39, the legend of a poisonous snake bite is in many accounts of her death.
Experts in Egyptology and snakes collaborated to determine if the story of the Egyptian Cobra or asp could have killed Cleopatra and her two attendants. The first issue is that most cobras would have been too big to smuggle into a room in a basket which is part of the legend. Cobras are usually five to six feet in size but can grow to eight feet. The second issue is whether the same snake could kill three people with consecutive bites. The snake experts claim it would be very unlikely that a cobra could be induced to bite two or three people in quick succession. Snakes are capable of biting defensively without injecting venom, and in fact most bites from a cobra are dry bites when no venom is injected so the snake can conserve it for hunting and protection. In addition, it appears that cobras can control the amount of venom delivered depending on the threat they face. However, cobras do not exhaust their store of venom, even after several strikes.
Cobra bites can be fatal if not treated with anti-venom or an artificial respirator until the paralysis of the diaphragm muscle wears off. The venom includes a neurotoxin that causes problems with swallowing, vision, speaking, muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, respiratory failure, vomiting and abdominal pain. Other symptoms include necrosis of tissue in and around the bite site as well as anti-coagulation. It is a slow and very painful death if untreated, nothing like the quick and painless death the Egyptian queen would have preferred. It seems likely that William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor have framed the snake, and that the real Cleopatra committed suicide by some other means, such as poison.
Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.