Cleopatra death painting
The Death of Cleopatra, 1662. Found in the collection of the Art History Museum, VienneGetty Images

The legend of Cleopatra's death by snake bite has been sharply refuted by Andrew Gray, curator of herpetology at Manchester Museum in the UK. Gray says the plausibility of the tale of the queen killing herself and her two maids by the asp (Egyptian cobra) sneaked in through a basket of figs is highly doubtful.

"It would be impossible to use a snake to kill two or three people one after the other. Snakes use venom to protect themselves and for hunting – so they conserve their venom and use it only in times of need," said Gray.

According to him, not only are Egyptian cobras too big (typically 5 to 6ft long) to conceal in a basket, but there's also only a 10% chance of one dying from a snake bite as most bites are dry that don't inject venom. This does not imply that venom is not dangerous as it causes necrosis which causes death but in a very slow and gradual manner.

Ancient sources, particularly the Roman ones, are in general agreement that Cleopatra, Egypt's last queen and last active pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt, killed herself by inducing an asp to bite her on 30 August, 30 BC. This is first mentioned by Strabo, who was a contemporary, and then Plutarch who agrees that she died following the bite of an asp.

Cleopatra was apparently determined that she would not be paraded through the streets of Rome before being executed in a triumphal spectacle by Octavius Ceaser and so she began to test poisons on condemned prisoners to see which one would be best. Deciding that the fast chemical poisons were too painful and the least painful were too slow she apparently turned to animal venoms and settled on the bite of an asp.