The Truth Behind Cleopatra's Death

In act five, scene two of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the queen of the Nile grabs herself an asp, a terribly poisonous snake native to Egypt. "Oh, aspy dagger," she says, "this is thy sheath. There rust and let me die." So ended the reign of Cleopatra: dramatically, iconically, and in iambic pentameter. 

Shocking as it might be, though, it turns out that the last queen of the Ptolemaic Egyptian Kingdom may not have died in the exact way that a famously dramatic English playwright described in a millennium and a half later. The truth, it seems, is murkier, with a number of different theories holding sway, depending on who you ask.

The death of Cleopatra and history's toll

History is a murky son of a gun, but most historians agree that Cleopatra died on or around August 12th of 30 BC. It's generally accepted that she killed herself, but firsthand accounts are difficult to come by and the exact method of her demise is up for debate. The possibilities have been narrowed down, though. 

Some versions of the story state that she did, in fact, have an asp brought to her chambers, which she then applied liberally to her skin until she succumbed to a condition known in the medical community as "dying of having a bunch of snake junk inside you." Other theories state that she injected herself with poison using a needle or a hairpin, with one particularly gruesome conjecture from Roman physician Aelius Galenus (documented by Philip Wexler) saying that she bit her own arm open and introduced a poison through the resulting wound.

All of this is difficult to pin down since, much to the chagrin of the cast of CSI: 2000 Years Ago, the tomb of Cleopatra has never been found. Combine that with an astonishingly long history of dramatization and sensationalization surrounding the famous Egyptian queen, and at the end of the day, we may never know exactly what happened.

However, we can rest with ease in knowing that Cleopatra was way cooler than celebrities of today. Apparently, she once spent the equivalent of more than $10 million on a meal just to prove she could, then dissolved a fat pearl in vinegar and drank it... Get it Cleo.