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21 July 2010 / Liz Johns

News Bite: Guido Cagnacci’s Painting ‘Death of Cleopatra’ Declared a Fake

The famous artistic depiction by Cagnacci of Cleopatra committing suicide with an asp has been declared fake. No, not the painting itself, but the subject matter. German historian, Christoph Shäfer, has cleared the asp of alleged assisted suicide and revealed his belief that Cleopatra most likely took her own life using a combination of lethal poisons.

Shäfer researched historical writings to try and uncover the truth about Cleopatra and the asp. One report, written about 200 years after Cleopatra’s death, stated that Cleopatra died a quiet and peaceful death, which does not correlate with death by asp bite – a  long, painful and disfiguring way to go.

A true likeness of Cleopatra - at least according to Goscinny and Urderzo

Some of Shäfer’s other findings also point to the improbability of the Cleopatra story we all know and love. His study of ancient texts in Alexandria revealed that Egyptians knew a lot about poisons, and one papyrus reported that Cleopatra tested these poisons on herself.  He also states that Cleopatra died in the middle of an Egyptian summer, so temperatures would most likely have been too high for an asp to stay still enough to bite. [That fact sounds a bit dodgy to me though.] Working with a toxicologist, Shäfer concluded that the most likely method of death was a drug combination of opium, wolfsbane and hemlock, which was known at that time to induce a painless death.

But we’re not going to let that bit of supposition ruin a good 2000-year old story, are we now.

FACTS ABOUT ASPS

A.k.a. the Egyptian Cobra (Naja)
It is the largest of all the Naja species with a maximum length of 9.8 feet (3 meters).
Mice, rats, ground squirrels or rabbits are its main prey, but cobras may also eat amphibians, birds, lizards, other snakes and eggs.
They use their forked tongue to smell prey.
The Egyptian cobra, like other venomous snakes, is lightning fast when it strikes, but it has quite small fangs, so it may strike and chew rather than strike and release, or it may strike several times until the venom has done its job.
Need more images of Egyptian cobras? Go here.
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One Comment

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  1. rebequetzalcoatl / Dec 17 2010 1:07 pm

    …..interesting…… i feel like I’m in socials class…..

    Like

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