"The Death of Cleopatra," painted in 1892 by Reginald Arthur. Cleopatra's suicide is often depicted in works of art the same way it has been portrayed in popular mythology -- with a poisonous snake. Getty Images
- Cleopatra died from a lethal drug cocktail instead of a snakebite, according to a new study.
- Death by snakebite is a painful and unpleasant experience. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and more.
- The last queen of Egypt more likely succumbed to a plant poison mixture.
Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, died from swallowing a lethal drug cocktail and not from a snake bite, a new study claims.
According to Christoph Schäfer, a German historian and professor at the University of Trier, the legendary beauty queen was unlikely to have committed suicide by letting an asp -- an Egyptian cobra -- sink into her flesh.
"There was no cobra in Cleopatra's death," Schäfer told Discovery News.
The author of a best-selling book in Germany, "Cleopatra," Schäfer searched historic writings for evidence to disprove the 2,000-year-old asp legend. His findings are to be featured on the German channel ZDF as part of a program on Cleopatra.
"The Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing about 200 years after Cleopatra's demise, stated that she died a quiet and pain-free death, which is not compatible with a cobra bite. Indeed, the snake's venom would have caused a painful and disfiguring death," Schäfer said.
According to German toxicologist Dietrich Mebs, a poison specialist taking part in the study, the symptoms occurring after an asp bite are very unpleasant, and include vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory failure.
"Death may occur within 45 minutes, but it may also be longer with painful edema at the bite site. At the end, the dead body does not look very nice with vomit, diarrhea, a swollen bite site," Mebs told Discovery News.
Ancient texts also record that Cleopatra's two handmaidens died with her -- something very unlikely if she had died of a snake bite, said Schäfer.
The Queen of the Nile committed suicide in August 30 B.C. at the age of 39, following the example of her lover, the Roman leader Marc Antony, who killed himself after losing the Battle of Actium.
At that time, temperatures in Egypt would have been so high that "it was almost impossible for a snake to stay still enough to bite," Schäfer said.
"The main problem with any snakebite are the unpredictable effects, because the venom of the snakes is highly variable. The amount they spent for the bite may be too low. Why taking a risk even to survive with such unpleasant symptoms?" Mebs said.
According to the researchers, who traveled to Alexandria where they consulted ancient medical texts, a plant poison mixture which is easily dosed and whose effects are very predictable could have worked much better.
"Ancient papyri show that the Egyptians knew about poisons, and one papyrus says Cleopatra actually tested them," Schaefer said.
Schaefer and Mebs believe that Cleopatra chose a drug cocktail made of opium, aconitum (also known as wolfsbane) and hemlock, a highly poisonous plant from the parsley family that is believed to have been used to poison Socrates.
The drug cocktail, Schäfer claims, was known at the time to cause a rather painless death within a few hours.
"Cleopatra reportedly carried out many toxicological experiments, an imitation of Mithradates VI. In her quest for the most peaceful and painless way to die, she would have observed the deaths of many condemned prisoners by many different poisons and combinations, including snakebite," Adrienne Mayor, author of the Mithridates biography "The Poison King," told Discovery News.
"In my opinion, Cleopatra would have taken a high dose of opium as a sedative and then succumb to a cobra bite within a half hour," Mayor said. "She would be sedated and calm, feeling no pain, as the cobra venom slows her respiration, and she breathes her last and dies."
According to Alain Touwaide, an international authority on medicinal plants of antiquity at the Smithsonian Institution and the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions in Washington , D.C., the drug cocktail would have technically worked well.
"A mixture of opium, aconitum and hemlock would have been a very intelligent combination. Opium and hemlock would have contributed to a painless death, easing the action of aconite, believed in antiquity to have deadly effects on the gastro-intestinal system. However, it wasn't common at all to mix vegetable poisons at Cleopatra's time," Touwaide told Discovery News.
"Cleopatra is a constant source of legends and theories, and is often credited with the writing of treatises on poisons, cosmetics and medicines," Touwaide said. "I believe finding her body and applying forensic methods of analysis would be the only way to solve the mystery of her death."