Killing a Queen


This well-preserved portrait, usually on display in Berlin’s Altes Museum, has become quite famous since it was acquired in 1976. It’s a young woman, some traces of the original paint are still visible and a smile that betrays self-confidence. Although originally there were some doubts, it is now certain that this is Cleopatra VII Philopator, the last queen of independent Egypt. Yes, that Cleopatra.

She committed suicide in 30 BC, on either August 10 or August 12. I can’t determine the source for this date, but I think I know why there’s a discrepancy: there was a problem with the Roman calendar. In 46 BC, for reasons we can only guess at, Julius Caesar inserted ninety days into the calendar and ordered the intercalation of one day every fourth year: in 42, 38, and so on. However, the Romans, who counted inclusively, misunderstood the rule and inserted leap days in 43, 40, 37…  Augustus would eventually correct this, but in 30, the calendar was still out of joint. In other words, in ancient history, a date is never just a date.

And no story is just a story. Was it really a serpent that killed the queen and two servants? Here’s the story, as told by Plutarch:

There came a man from the country carrying a basket; and when the guards asked him what he was bringing there, he opened the basket, took away the leaves, and showed them that the dish inside was full of figs. … An asp was brought with those figs and leaves and lay hidden beneath them, for thus Cleopatra had given orders … When she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said: “There it is, you see,” and baring her arm she held it out for the bite. {Plutarch, Life of Marc Antony 85.1, 86.1.}

That was Bernadotte Perrin’s translation of a story that cannot be true. Perrin appears to think that the serpent was a kind of cobra, and although cobras can kill humans, they need several hours to produce enough venom to attack again. No cobra can kill three people at once. And no basket can contain three cobras.

Worse, the Greek word rendered by Perrin as “asp”, aspis, does not refer to cobras. It usually refers to vipers, which cannot kill humans and do not live in Egypt. That aspis can also mean cobra, as the dictionary of Liddell and Scott assumes, is an unnecessary proposal, because even if it were correct, it explains only one third of the casualties (see above).

No ancient story is just a story. It may be a fabrication to cover up that Octavian’s soldiers killed the queen. This was, as far as I know, proposed for the first time in 1885 by Theodor Nöldeke (who was to become famous for establishing the chronological sequence of the suras of the Quran). Nöldeke’s proposal has the advantage that it at least is within the realm of the possible, which we cannot say of a serpent – viper or cobra – that kills three people at once.

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