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Maybe Cleopatra Didn’t Commit Suicide

Her murder, one author thinks, was covered up behind a veil of propaganda and lies put forth by the Roman Empire

Photo: Kyle Rush

The famous story of Cleopatra’s suicide gets points for drama and crowd appeal: Her lover, Mark Antony, had been defeated in battle by Octavian and, hearing that Cleopatra had been killed, had stabbed himself in the stomach. Very much alive, after witnessing his death, the beautiful last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt pressed a deadly asp to her breast, taking her own life as well.

But what if Cleopatra didn’t commit suicide at all?

Pat Brown, author of the new book, The Murder of Cleopatra: History’s Greatest Cold Case, argues that the “Queen of Kings” did not take her own life. Rather, she was murdered, and her perpetrators managed to spin a story that has endured for more than 2,000 years.

Brown, writing for The Scientist, says she decided to treat Cleopatra’s story as any typical crime scene.

I was shocked at the number of red flags that popped up from the pages of the historical accounts of the Egyptian queen’s final day. How was it that Cleopatra managed to smuggle a cobra into the tomb in a basket of figs? Why would the guards allow this food in and why would they be so careless in examining them? Why would Octavian, supposedly so adamant about taking Cleopatra to Rome for his triumph, be so lax about her imprisonment? Why would Cleopatra think it easier to hide a writhing snake in a basket of figs rather than slip poison inside one of the many figs? How did all three women end up dead from the venom? Wasn’t it unlikely that the snake cooper­ated in striking all three, releasing sufficient venom to kill each of them? Why was the snake no longer present at the crime scene? Was a brand-new tomb so poorly built that holes remained in the walls of the building? Why did the guards not look for the snake once they thought it had killed the women? Why were the wounds from the fangs of the snake not obvious? Why did the women not exhibit the symptoms of death by snake venom or even by poison? Why did the guards not see any of the women convulsing, vomiting, or holding their abdomens in agony? Why didn’t they see any swelling or paral­ysis of face or limbs or any foaming at the mouth?

Brown began pursuing these answers through historical texts and more recent scholarly works. She spoke with Egyptologists, poison experts, archeologists and historians of the ancient world, slowly forming her own version of what really took place August 12, 30 BC.

With each step back in time from the end of Cleopatra’s life to the beginning, I discovered more and more evidence pointing to a radically different explanation of history than the ancients and Octavian wanted us to believe.

In this story, Cleopatra never loved Antony or Julius Caesar. Antony was murdered, and Cleopatra was tortured and strangled to death.

I believed Cleopatra may have been one of the most brilliant, cold-blooded, iron-willed rulers in history and the truth about what really happened was hidden behind a veil of propaganda and lies set in motion by her murderer, Octavian, and the agenda of the Roman Empire.

This book, Brown hopes, will set the record straight.

*This post has been updated.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Who Was Cleopatra? 
Rehabilitating Cleopatra 

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