Did a Snake Kill Cleopatra?

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 movie. Its costs nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 movie. Its costs nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox

by Ray Setterfield


August 10, 30 AD — There are two widely held beliefs about Cleopatra, the legendary Queen of Egypt, who is said to have died on this day. First, that she was beautiful; and second, that she met her death by clutching a poisonous snake to her bosom.

Unfortunately, neither “fact” is necessarily true.

On her appearance, the ancient writer Plutarch reported that Cleopatra’s beauty was “not altogether incomparable,” and that it was instead her mellifluous speaking voice and “irresistible charm” that made her so desirable.

He might also have mentioned that she possessed a formidable intellect, spoke several languages and had mastered mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy. She was described by Egyptian sources as a ruler “who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.”

(*Unwittingly, she also provided the platform for one of the most expensive films in movie history – see below).

The assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome led to events that caused the death of Cleopatra. Her demise came came amid the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30BCE and marked the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty – a Macedonian Greek royal family that had ruled Egypt for 275 years.

When her father Ptolemy XII died in 51BCE, Cleopatra VII became co-regent of Egypt with her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII. Members of the Ptolemaic dynasty often married within the family to preserve the purity of their bloodline and Cleopatra was to marry both of her adolescent brothers, each of whom served as co-regent at different times.

Historians say it is likely that Cleopatra’s own parents were brother and sister and certainly several of her ancestors married siblings or cousins.

But Cleopatra didn’t always keep it in the family. One of her great lovers was Julius Caesar, a relationship that resulted in a never acknowledged son – Caesarion – for the Roman dictator.

After Caesar’s assassination in 44BCE his adopted son Octavian began a power struggle for the Roman leadership, principally against the politician and general Mark Antony who had been one of Caesar’s close allies.

Cleopatra was summoned to Tarsus (in modern Turkey) in 41BCE by Mark Antony and is said to have entered the city by sailing up the Cydnus River in a decorated barge with purple sails, while dressed in the robes of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Antony and Cleopatra soon became allies and lovers.

This eventually led to Octavian’s advantage as he was able to persuade the Roman Senate that Antony was a traitor under the sway of a scheming seductress, and in 32BCE Rome declared war on Cleopatra.

The conflict ended on September 2, 31BCE with the naval Battle of Actium, near Preveza in northwestern Greece. The engagement developed into a rout of Antony and Cleopatra’s combined force of 230 vessels and 50,000 sailors, and the pair were forced to flee to Egypt where they hunkered down in Alexandria.

The following year, Octavian laid siege to the city and, hopelessly outnumbered, Antony surrendered. In the honourable Roman tradition he committed suicide by falling on his sword.

Octavian then told Cleopatra that she would be taken to Rome and paraded through the streets as a trophy of his victory. It seems the prospect of such humiliation was too much for the Queen and so, on August 10, 30BCE, dressed in royal robes and reclining upon a golden couch, she ordered that an asp (Egyptian cobra), be brought to her hidden in a basket of figs.

To Egyptians, the asp was a symbol of divine royalty and Cleopatra believed that she would become immortal if she died by allowing one to bite her. However, a number of historians have cast doubt on this account of the Queen’s death, believing that she used a poisonous ointment or a vial of poison to commit suicide. As Plutarch admits: “The truth of the matter no one knows.” 

**Cleopatra has been depicted in the movies several times but most famously in 1963 when Elizabeth Taylor took on the role, playing opposite Richard Burton’s Mark Antony. The drama on and off screen would perhaps reflect the tempestuous times of the real queen.

When Taylor was asked by Twentieth Century Fox to play the role she is said to have replied: “I’ll do it for a million dollars” (equivalent to $8.5 million in 2020). And she got it. She also demanded and received ten per cent of the profits, a living allowance of $3,000 ($25,500) a week, and the studio agreed to pay her $50,000 ($425,000) a week if the production schedule ran late.

Taylor and Burton, both married, began a passionate love affair from Day One of filming, exciting tabloid journalists and the paparazzi. The Vatican denounced Taylor for “erotic vagrancy”, Congressman in New York and North Carolina claimed the affair was contributing to America’s “moral slide”, and director Joseph Mankiewicz received death threats.

Ongoing production problems meant the film’s budget soared from $2million to $44million (2020 equivalent: $17million to $374million) — including $200,000 ($1.7million) for Taylor’s costumes. In 1963 it was the most expensive movie ever made and nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox. The studio survived because of the film’s huge box office takings.

Published: December 15, 2020


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