Was Cleopatra Murdered?

02/18/2013 10:14 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2013

For 2000 years, historians and Egyptologists have written of Cleopatra VII's death in 30 BCE, repeating again and again the tale that the last pharaoh of Egypt committed suicide along with her two handmaidens soon after the conquering of her country by Rome.

There has been little dissension in the ranks; Cleopatra is believed to have taken her life to prevent the victorious Roman general Octavian from carrying her back to Rome in chains and humiliating her by displaying her in his triumph. Yet, I have taken a radically different view of this episode of history and that puts me in the rather risky position of upsetting a very beloved apple cart in a field I am not even a part of. But, I cannot back off because I believe that Cleopatra has been misunderstood and misrepresented throughout the last two millennia. I believe the evidence supports my theory that Cleopatra was murdered and that the events leading up to her death are not the ones that have been reported for centuries.

I recently gave a talk on my book at the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) in Washington DC and after I shared my theory of Cleopatra's life and death with the audience, a woman raised her hand.

"I don't mean to be rude, but why do you think your theory holds any water if none of the great minds of academia and none of the seasoned historians of the Egyptian and European past have ever come up with your conclusions? " In other words, who am I to question such authority? Do I consider myself to be smarter than all these other people?

The answer to the latter question is clearly, "No, I am not all that brilliant," and those who know me well will vouch for my IQ being quite normal; I doubt I have an invitation on the way to join Mensa in the near future. But, I do have something which many in the field of history do not; a way of looking at events from a completely different vantage point - through the eyes of a criminal profiler. I also am not beholden to any mindset or to historical tradition or to any institution. I am free to analyze Cleopatra and her life from a very new perspective, one based on evidence - forensic, behavioral, archeological, cultural, political and historical. I am free to question everything and everyone and to accept and assume nothing.

Every book I have read of Cleopatra's life and death tells (or shall I say 'retells') the same story; a rendition of a "history" written by the Greek-turned-Roman historian, Plutarch. However, Plutarch wrote his account of the queen some hundred years after she died and who knows from where he got his information. I could not find any historians who seriously questioned the veracity of what Plutarch claimed, what he said took place during the reign of Cleopatra, the final days of her life, and the circumstances of her death.

Take, for instance, the most well-known story of Cleopatra's death. We have all seen the paintings of Cleopatra sprawled half-naked and dead on a couch in her tomb, (some show a snake wrapped around her arm), one handmaiden deceased on the floor, and the other one, near death, placing a crown on Cleopatra's head. At some point right after this, the snake makes an exit out of the sealed tomb room, and Octavian's men arrive too late to prevent the queen from taking her life (she had just sent over a suicide note to the Roman general detailing her plan). Apparently, Cleopatra had managed to smuggle a snake into the tomb in a basket of figs past an incredibly stupid Roman guard (who I am sure would lose his job and his head for doing such a pitiful search of the food items) and now Octavian's prize, whom he had planned to march in his triumph back in Italy, had been snatched from him.

How did this idiotic story pass muster? It is so fanciful I would crown Plutarch the Dan Brown of his time! If Cleopatra was determined to kill herself, surely she would have used poison, rather than a cobra, to do herself in, poison being 10 times more efficient and manageable than dealing with a snake. The right poison can achieve a quicker and more pleasant death than the Naja Haje, the Egyptian cobra, which is believed to be the snake Cleopatra used in her death. It can take anywhere from thirty minutes to five or more hours to die from the bite of this cobra; Cleopatra would have suffered an agonizingly slow exit from life while the neurotoxins paralyzed her breathing muscles. Finally, she would have suffocated to death and, then, her handmaidens, having watched the horrifying state of their queen in front of them, would have to repeat her action. I have no issue with Cleopatra having the wherewithal to pull the viper from the basket and apply it to her body, but one has to wonder that her two handmaidens would be brave enough to grab the writhing beast, especially having witnessed exactly what would soon happen to them if they got anywhere near the snake. Furthermore, with the likelihood of dry bites (which happens a good portion of the time), one strike of the snake might not do the trick and one wouldn't know until some time had passed, whether any venom had been injected. If none had been released, then, the snake would have to be handled yet again and a second or third bite would have to be coaxed out of it. For all three women to be quickly successful in having the cobra fulfill its duty is quite unlikely.

Of course, this is even assuming (and I doubt Cleopatra was much of an "assumer") that there would be a guard dumb enough to allow that snake through the front door. Wouldn't you think it would be far easier to smuggle into the tomb a small amount of poison in or on one's body or, if one must smuggle it in later, inside one of the figs?

And where did that snake go after the last handmaiden dropped it? It wasn't in the sealed tomb room when Octavian's men arrived; in fact, they didn't, according to Plutarch, even bother to look around for the lethal reptile. The physician examined the women and with nary a sign of being killed by any snake, he pronounced the women's cause of death to be that of viper venom.

This testimony of Plutarch, given so many years later, would be torn apart in a court of law for it lacks logic, science, and evidence of any believable sort. And for this reason, I knew his tale was suspect. I had to dig deeper and find the evidence that would tell us what really happened to Cleopatra.

My book The Murder of Cleopatra ($20, Prometheus) is a full examination of the history of Cleopatra, her life and death, and what the evidence tells us really happened to the most famous Egyptian pharaoh, a magnificent queen who never gave up, not even at the bitter end.