Jan. 18, 2013 by Darius
The story of Cleopatra’s life and death has been enshrined in Western culture. Everyone from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor has offered their take on the story. But is it true? This evening I saw criminal profiler Pat Brown talk about her new book The Murder of Cleopatra: History’s Greatest Cold Case.
The title gives away Ms. Brown’s thesis. Without giving away any more, I’ll highlight a couple of the inconsistencies in the traditional myth of Cleopatra.
- There are no contemporary chronicles of Cleopatra’s death. Plutarch’s story, written from the Roman perspective about 100 years later, became the basis for future generations. On closer inspection, though, Plutarch’s tale, when taken literally, makes no sense.
- The story holds that Cleopatra committed suicide by letting an asp, a venomous snake, bite her and her two attendants. The asp was supposedly smuggled into Cleopatra’s prison in a basket of figs. Simply put, suicide by snake is stupid. Snakes frequently “drybite,” biting without actually injecting any venom, and managing to kill three women consecutively would have been a challenge. Even then, death from snakebite would have taken anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.
- Second, Cleopatra was not the type to commit suicide in the first place. She was a n consummate survivor and, according to Ms. Brown who is a criminal profiler, was most probably a narcissistic personality. She disposed of her siblings and ruled as queen of Egypt for 21 years, all the while with the Roman Empire breathing down her neck. Her relationships were based on political expediency, and she was an unlikely to commit suicide when cornered.
- There was someone with a motive and opportunity to want Cleopatra killed quietly: Octavian. According to the standard narrative, Octavian was devastated by Cleopatra’s death, because he wanted her to be the centerpiece of his triumph through Rome. But Octavian needed Egypt to continue to serve as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. By publicly humiliating the last Egyptian queen, he risked rebellions in Egypt. Instead, if Cleopatra died, Octavian could step into her place as the ruler of Egypt, which is effectively what he did. Tradition holds that Octavian is the source of the story of Cleopatra’s tragic suicide. Hmm.
Ms. Brown’s book comes out next month.