How Did Cleopatra Really Die?

The story of Cleopatra’s death, as handed down to us by her conqueror, is that she killed herself by means of a poisonous snake. According to Suetonius, the stunned Octavian summoned snake charming Psylli to suck the poison from puncture wounds found on her arm. Later, she was depicted in a wax effigy during Octavian’s triumph with an asp clutched to her breast and contemporary poets like Virgil also alluded to the snake as the instrument of her death.

It could be that they were all wrong. As Plutarch eventually admits, no one knows the truth of how Cleopatra died. Strabo may have actually been in in Alexandria at the time of her death, and he suggests that she may have put poison at the end of a needle. But none of the ancients seem to have favored the idea that she gulped down a poisonous mixture in the form of a drink, so modern claims that there was no cobra and that she drank a poison concoction must be eyed with at least a little healthy skepticism.

It’s become fashionable to challenge the manner in which Cleopatra died and also to suggest that she may have been murdered or forced to suicide. It’s even theorized that Octavian sent Dolabella to the queen with an elaborate story about how she’d be dragged through the streets of Rome for the express purpose of convincing her that killing herself was the only way to preserve her dignity.

Adherents to these theories point out that Octavian was a master propagandist who wanted to be rid of the queen and was willing to lie about how she died so as to ensure that he’d be held blameless. However, it seems that historians ought to base their conclusions upon more than a belief that Octavian was a liar.

It may well be true that a living Cleopatra was an enormous inconvenience to Octavian. He was undoubtedly better off with her dead than alive. However, it’s equally true that there isn’t a single ancient source that accuses Octavian of having killed the queen or having encouraged her to kill herself. In fact, Plutarch tells us that Cleopatra was researching painless forms of suicide long before Octavian stepped foot in Alexandria and his information may have come from Cleopatra’s only living daughter, through Juba II. Moreover, we’re presented by an undisputed claim that when Cleopatra was first captured, she was already trying to kill herself with a knife. Even after she was disarmed by Gaius Proculeius, the queen thereupon stopped eating and allowed herself to succumb to illness until Octavian threatened her children. All of this happened before the much ballyhooed talk with Dolabella, and establishes a pattern of suicidal behavior.

Finally, there is the matter of Octavian trying to revive her. Certainly, Octavian was not above play-acting, but this would seem to fit the pattern of historical sources that tell us the queen’s death came as a surprise to him.

Like Plutarch, I’ll admit that no one knows the truth of how Cleopatra died. But the preponderance of the evidence still seems to be that she took her fate into her hands and ended her own life…quite possibly with the help of a venomous snake. And for purposes of a historical novelist, suicide by snake was good enough for Margaret George, so it’s good enough for me!

Comments (51)

  • I have read most of Margaret George’s book and really enjoyed it. I am dying to see how you approach it.

  • Lea

    Well through all my research she died of a poisonous snake bite.But she let the snake bite her after she realized that someone had killed themselves over her.Therefore she killed herself because she couldn’t deal with her guiltiness.

    • Thanks for your remarks! It’s possible that her suicide was prompted by feelings of remorse about Mark Antony–who, in some stories, killed himself because he thought Cleopatra was already dead. I think it’s more likely, however, that she didn’t want to be a political prisoner and that she hoped her suicide would secure a better future for her children.

    • wrong answwer Lea a Queen taking her own life at the time of her era,i don’t think so.she was most surely murdered suicide was a terrible act for an egyption and a queen at the to pass into the land of everlasting life and taking all your precious things with you was belived impossible.

      • Kevin McGovern

        “Oy”, in a word. I don’t know of any contemporary male who can understand the modern woman’s thought processes and there are so many currently spouting the “The Truth” about Cleopatra’s death that it’s ridiculous. About as sane as seeing paintings of Cleopatra dressed in 19th Century hoop skirts!

        Consider: Cleopatra was of a time of 2100 or so years ago. While the Human Condition has not radically changed, the individual’s daily outlook is beyond current comprehension. Cleopatra was born into an inbred family, raised in unusual political circumstances, was very intelligent for her age and environment. She had a lifetime of triumph and trama, was known to be ruthless and possibly meglomaniacal. All this talk of how she would act as a mother, queen, historical figure–nothing but opinion!

        In a general sense, history can give us some ideas of motivation and one can really only speculate based on their own theories, short of remains being positively identified and analyzed. She may have suffered from lead or other natural toxins during her lifetime, which could alter her emotional states. Certainly not having direct information about her day-to-day life, we wouldn’t know much about her thought processes: we only have historical hearsay. We know many of her historical actions but even then, nothing from her own writing.

        I tend myself to believe a cobra was involved as it was symbolic of Isis with whom Cleopatra was said to strongly identify. And heads of state have a long history of suicide in the face of defeat. Could Octavian had her killed, then put out the asp story? Sure, the victors get to write the history. Could he have compelled Cleopatra to “do the honorabble thing”–possibly with the false promise of safety for her children? Might be: I personally lean in that direction.

        But in the end, as Plutarch noted, we’ll probably never know for certain. Like many questions, we sometimes need to let that be the answer short of some new find.

        Now as to the question of who really killed JFK… ;)

  • Hey Stephanie! I realize this is an old discussion but I was sent to this link by a newer post, the interview about Cleopatra Confesses. I’ve always believed what they say in the books – that she killed herself. However, now that I have a son, I find myself finding this hard to believe. I can’t imagine that if some conquering hero (I use this term loosely regarding Octavian.) was coming to get myself and my children, that I would kill myself and leave my children to defend themselves. It just seems like the most selfish possible solution.

    • Lindsey, thanks so much for stopping by and adding your perspectives. Here are some thoughts on why Cleopatra might have killed herself and left her children to fend for themselves. One theory is that she was, in fact, very selfish, and that Ptolemies didn’t exactly form very close family bonds. They were notorious for killing one another. However, this has never seemed very credible to me in Cleopatra’s case as her power flowed from her children and she presented herself as the incarnation of Mother Goddess, Isis. Moreover, all the negotiation in her final days was on behalf of her children. Finally, if she was a terrible mother, I doubt that Cleopatra Selene would have honored Cleopatra’s memory on coins, as she later did, at risk of the emperor’s enmity.

      Another theory is one presented in Michelle Moran’s novel, Cleopatra’s Daughter, in which Octavian used Cleopatra’s children as hostages to force her to commit suicide. Certainly possible, but not textually supported by the ancient writers.

      Yet another theory is that Cleopatra knew, or had cause to suspect, that Caesarion was dead or soon would be and that all her children were going to be murdered, in which case, better to join them in the afterworld.

      My theory is a little different, however. I believe that she knew Octavian meant to humiliate her. She probably also knew that Roman rage, directed at her in person, might spill over to her children. By contrast, if they were brought to Rome as poor orphans, they might fare better. (She knew, of course, about the fate of Juba II who was spared because he was a pitiable child of a dead enemy.) I suspect she thought their chances were much better if she were out of the picture, and she was probably right.

      • Now that you’ve brought up Juba’s treatment as an orphan, it does make a little more sense. Cleopatra, believing or portraying herself to be the Mother Goddess was another reason I just never bought that she killed herself. You make a good point though, that as orphans, they would be treated well. There’s almost no way Octavia would have taken them in had Cleopatra still been alive. With Cleopatra dead, Octavia was able to see them as Antony’s poor children, not Cleopatra’s heirs.

  • Hailey

    Through all of my research and through school I found out that Cleopatra died to to a poisoness King Cobra to be exact. She had an older and younger brother. They both died and she attempted and succeded suicide. Although first she slept with Ceaser.

  • Hi
    I read somewhere that
    1) Romans were keen on triumphs (i.e. celebratory parades through Rome after a momentous victory.
    2) Important captives were paraded through the streets.
    3) The culminating moment of a triumph would be the ceremonial strangulation of said important captives.
    Such being the case (our knowledge of Romans suggests that this practice was common) it is hard not to see a motive for Cleopatra’s suicide and Octavian’s desire to avert this.

    • I agree with you, but acknowledge that doubters argue that she may have made a seriously inconvenient political prisoner both because she still had supporters in Rome and because she had been beloved of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. And if he couldn’t kill her, then what could be done with her?

  • Michelle

    Although captives were paraded in rome the romans didnt execute women nor can i find any record that augustus did so and i doubt anyone political would be willing to help cleopatra by that point she had lost everything i suspect she would have been kept alive in rome as the ultimate status symbol of augustus’s reign

    • While I agree with you that it’s very likely he would not have killed Cleopatra (and argue as much in my books), we will have to agree to disagree on whether or not she would have allies in Rome or nearby. Cleopatra had defenders then and now–and was rather resourceful when it came to making new friends ;)

  • Michelle

    im sorry i havent read your books and i agree cleopatra was a resourceful woman im drawing on the example of queen zenobia who was spared after a triumph and i agree she had allies but i think outside of rome augustus would have kept her close to make sure there was no chance of egypt rebelling oh have you heard of empress julia dommna it was said she was related to cleopatra although it might be unlikely it would give me no end of pleasure that augustus would be turning in his urn at the thought of cleopatras desendents ruling rome.

  • Michelle

    sorry about the spelling great reader terrible speller what do you think about my theory that selene may have been raised by augustus and livia drusilla and not octavia its just im finding more connetions between augustus livia and julia and selene than i am to octavia and the two antonias it also explain selene provactive coins if she felt confident enough to defy augustus he let his own daughter get away with much to a point.

    • The source material tells us that Cleopatra Selene was raised by Octavia, along with the other orphans she collected. However, it’s kind of a moot point as they all resided in close quarters as Augustus turned the Palatine into an imperial complex. I presume a very intimate relationship between Selene and Augustus existed, not to mention a kinship between Selene and Julia ;)

  • Michelle

    maybe someday someone will wright an alternate universe were cleopatrs suscide was prevented shes taken captive to rome and schemes to get back id love to see cleopatra and livia against eachother oh have you read queen of kings i like the authors theory at the end that augustus may have had his grandsons killed because with the discovery of julias adultery he couldnt be sure whether they were the sons of agrippa or iullus the son of his rival mark antony.

  • Michelle

    My mind is in overdrive! The legend of the asp in the basket of figs or she ate a poisened fig but there is an interesting connection between this and Augustus’s death in the story he was said to have ate a poisened fig given to him by his wife livia modern scholars seem to think it was self sucide. This story might be a later invention but its interesting to think that Cleopatra’s death had such an impact on him he would want to go the same way.

    • That’s an interesting connection, Michelle. I’ll have to do some more research into that. If I end up using the idea in book Three, I’ll be sure to give you credit for it!

  • Michelle

    I think it was tacitus or dio that mentioned livia poisoned Augustus with figs,although i dont think livia poisoned anyone in suetonius Augustus is asked a question of how he would like to die and he said euthanasia. By the way what is your theory if Cleopatras sucide had been prevented what do you think may have happened to her. Ah, the wonder of having to much time on your hands!

  • she was murdered stone cold simple as that sorry linda brown.

  • licinia

    I don’t know if they loved eatch other, probably not in the beginning because their marriage was decided by Augustus/Octavian, but maybe after. Juba seem to have been influenced by Selene, maybe because he loved her, or maybe he was just influencable. And for her, maybe she didn\’t loved him but she seem to have a true respect and esteem for him. I don\’t know why, but i imagine it like that. i am a french who had accidentaly saw your book on amazon and loved the cover! so i searched a little and found this blog. (any chance the book be translated in french?). i love history and Cleopatra time! i loved the summary of the two books! but i do more reserch and see the two brothers of Selene, Alexander and Ptolemy seem to live long whereas it\’s more likely they are dead but we don\’t know when or how. (but i prefer they lives so it\’s fine whith me, even if they must dead later!). i also see (thank to the reviews!) that there is a little romance between augustus sister Octavia and Agrippa, i wonder if it\’s completly invented (like in the show rome)? I hope the books about Cleopatra Selene will be traducted in french! appologies if my english wasn’t very good.

  • licinia

    sorry, my comment was on the Juba/Selene page but i had a problem on my computer and accidentally selected that page instead of the first one. my apologies!

  • Zara

    hello stephani!

    I just wanted to ask where can I find the whole story of Cleopatra from her childhood to death??

  • Nate

    I’ve always know that cleopatra died from a snake called an usp was the reason of her death. I’ve heared that the snake bit her that and that it’s poison is so strong that it can kill a human in an instant.

  • Watching the Liz Taylor Cleopatra film right now 2am…. Just Got into a Whole Rome/Roman thing at the moment due to watching Starz Spartacus….. So I thought I look up Are Cleo and came to your site. ….Enjoyed Reading your stuff and the coments Thanks..

  • I’TS INTERESTING READING OTHER PEOPLE’S THEORIES AS TO HOW AND IF CLEOPATRA DIED. BUT I THINK MORE AS TO WHY WOULD SOMEONE WHOM HAS CHANGED THE LIVE’S AND DESTINY OF SO MANY PEOPLE WANT TO LIVE AT AN ERA THEN WOMAN WERE TREATED AS A SECOND CLASS CITIZEN’S SPECIALY WHEN IT APPEARS A CONFLICT OF INTREST BETWEEN OCTAVIAN AND CLEOPATRA’S SON AS TO WHOM IS THE RIGHTFULL RULER, FURTHER MORE WHAT CHOISE DOES A QUEEN HAVE WHEN EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE SHE LOVED WAS EITHER KILLED,OR KILLED THEMSELVES.I BELIEVE THAT IF YOU LOVE SOMEONE , THEN THE CHANCES ARE MORE LIKELY TO THINK AS ONE, JUST AS MARK ANTHONY HAD DONE .

  • DUH! She had many pet pythons everybody knows that one uf her pets killed her cuz she didnt feed it well so the python decided to take a bite out of cleopatra.

  • Chris

    To jump on the “How Did She Die?” bandwagon…. I read that, after capture, she killed herself with poison on a hairpin (thus providing the two bite-like “pricks.” And the reasoning is probably as many have already mentioned, politically motivated rather than heartbreak. Fun to read what others throw out here, too!

  • michelle

    There needs to be more understanding of the ancient view of sucide. So many people don’t like Kleopatra because she took in their view the coward’s way out but we have to understand that remaining alive for your enemy to humiliate you was viewed by the Ancients as cowardly wheras taking your own life was viewed as manly and the right way to go. In a documentary about whether Kleopatra was murdered or not they said there was no history of sucide in the family. I think they forgot Ptolemy of Cyprus, Kleopatra’s uncle who took poison after Cyprus was annexed by Rome. We are so uneasy about it todoy but our Ancient ancestor’s took a very diffirent view about it.

    • H. H.

      It´s true that the ancients viewed suicide differently than us, but I have to add that the Romans were the ones who held the (cultural) view that suicide was a heroic thing to do (even admirable), but other (contemporary) cultures, like that of the Egyptians (I include the Ptolemaic dynasty as “naturalized” Egyptians, even though their ancestors were once of Greek-Macedonian descent, rather like the English royals of today whose ancestors were partly German and so on…) didn´t view suicide in the same “rosy” glasses as the Romans. For a short summary of the Egyptian view on suicide, check out the following link:

      http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/people/suicide.

      As for the main topic, regarding Cleopatra´s death, I do believe that Octavian did some cover-up of the basic facts around her demise, whether he killed her or not, but he certainly manipulated the actual remaining facts around the whole story as we have come to know about it – the Roman PR in full damage control. As others have stated: The victors write the history (it was true then; it´s true now)!

  • Alicia Switalski

    Hey were you really there when she died. If not then you really donot know all the main details

  • Cleopatra did not kill her self by a poisonous snake. A basket was brought into her chambers and when she opened it she was bit. She didn’t know what was in it. After she was bit, she made her servants get bit as well.

  • Jin

    I heard she stabbed herself with a poisoned hairpin with two sharp ends, so with two puncture holes it would have looked like a snake bite.

  • The history of Cleopatra is so interesting. I could read about her all day. I wonder what would have happened if she didn’t kill her self…….. I quess well never know

  • adrian

    i like ancient histry

  • Aby A

    This sucks she died on my b-day.

  • Wow you really helped me with my homework for world book day I am Cleopatra

  • Wow you really helped me with my homework for world book day I am Cleopatra thanks

  • well um no one really nos how she died well some people do but it is a sad thing that she killed her self she was the last queen of eygpt

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