• One of the continuing fascinations of the Queen Cleopatra VII story is the endgame: her death by suicide, supposedly abetted by one snake (or two), an asp (or a cobra), dressed in her royal best (or naked as a jaybird).
• I thought it might be interesting and fruitful to do an interview with Vicky Alvear Shecter on the topic, since she’s written several much-praised nonfiction works for older kids, including one published in 2010 called Cleopatra Rules! Vicky also works as a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta and is a superb researcher on Cleopatra and the Ptolemaic period. Thirdly, she’s an word prankster after my own heart, as you’ll soon see.
• So, Vicki to Vicky, welcome! And let’s get down to it. First, do you believe that Cleopatra took her own life, and did she do it with a serpent’s help? And if so, why serpents?
VAS: I’d like to start by saying I’m a big fang of the snake theory… I absolutely believe Cleopatra did herself in, and with snakes too. Remember, no one actually knows; we’re all guessing. Here’s why I vote snakes:
• Plutarch (circa 46 – 120 AD) says so: although Mr. P. worked extra hard to make Antony and Cleopatra look bad for political purposes, his Life of Antony is as close as we get to a primary source.
• The heroic ideal: in the ancient world, it was considered honorable to kill yourself rather than be taken by your enemies. In fact, this was the only action taken by Cleopatra that the Romans respected and thought heroic. Horace, in his so-called Cleopatra Ode (1.37) calls the queen “proud” and “serene” in her self-inflicted death—a huge contrast to the insults he’d hissed in previous stanzas.
• Octavian/Augustus may have killed her: A viable alternative;
I believe he was certainly capable of it, but Augustus was a smart guy. No matter how much the Romans hated Cleopatra, he knew that killing a woman who’d already surrendered was just bad form. Imagine the PR headaches!
• Plutarch takes the trouble to describe the actual method/s: He wrote that the snakes arrived in a basket of figs. Or in a jar of water. And then, being a man who covered all bases, he also said she may have died from pricking herself with a poisoned pin. By the way, he also claimed he got the scoop from the Mauritanian King, Juba II, who married Cleo’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene, in 25 BC.
• Octavian believe she died by the snake: According to Plutarch, in his triumph (victory parade) Ocatvian Augustus had Cleopatra depicted in her death throes with a snake attached. So the first emperor of Rome believed in her serpenticide.
• Snakes had great symbolic power: The uraeus or snake crown was associated with Egypt and royalty. Image-savvy Cleopatra VII often upped the ante and wore a crown with three snakes on her brow.
• In earlier dynasties, pharoahs had ritually killed themselves with snakes when they were no longer capable of ruling: Death by snake conferred eternal life for the pharoah. Cleopatra understood the ancient power of snakes and would have likely appropriated the symbol for herself.
VL: These are pretty awesome points you’ve made.
VAS: Well, some still ‘re-coil’ at the thought of her death-by-snake. This summer, in fact, one scientist claimed that Cleopatra offed herself with a cocktail of hemlock, opium, and aconite (he was bold enough to make this claim despite the fact that we lack her body to do toxicological testing).
VL: Vicky with a “Y,” you’ve explored most of the whys about Cleo’s demise. I’d like to add a few thoughts. As you know, it wasn’t just the Egyptians who had positive feelings about snakes. So did the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks saw them as wisdom, as resurrection. Both cultures viewed snakes as totemic animals–even as sidekicks to various gods and goddesses. The way that snakes annually shed their skins made them a common symbol for eternal rebirth—and of renewed health. That’s why serpents were encouraged to roam freely in various temples, including the famous Greek healing centers of Asclepius and the Roman precinct of the Bona Dea goddess. Even your average Greek or Roman housewife welcomed snakes inside the home.
• On the other hand, when Christianity took hold, adherents were more apt to see serpents as evil tempters than as beneficial creatures or symbols of good.
VAS: It seems we never tire of making asps of ourselves over this question. I consider myself “Team Snake.” After all, that kind of death has way more poison-ality!
VL: I’m with you! Please join us next blogpost for a delicious postmortem of Cleopatran portraiture.