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Asps: cobras or vipers?

Cleopatra committed suicide by inducing an asp to bite her-an effective method and in keeping with her times. What type of snake was this asp? This historical episode is well known because it appears in William Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, based on Plutarch's Parallel Lives. The scene is so poetic that when the barren Cleopatra puts the asp to her breast she exclaims:

"Peace! Peace! Dost thou not see my baby at my breast that sucks the nurse asleep?"

The shrewd, charming, and no doubt beautiful Cleopatra VII (69- 30 B.C.)-best known simply as Cleopatra-ruled Egypt with her brother, Ptolemy XIII, from 51-48 B.C., when she was dethroned by him. She was restored to the throne the following year with the help of Julius Caesar and went to Rome. Cleopatra returned to Egypt after the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C. She then fell in love with Mark Anthony, who left his wife, Octavia, for her. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony were defeated by Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, in the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., which led the queen to commit suicide. This act marked the end of thousands of years of the Pharaonic dynasties.

What sort of snake killed Cleopatra? Nowadays, the term asp is applied to both the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) and the Saharan horned viper (Cerastes cerastes). Thus, the asp that Cleopatra applied to her breast after having "pursued conclusions infinite of easy ways to die" could have been either of these species or perhaps even the common sand viper (C. vipera) of northern Africa. It will never be known for sure, but historians continue to speculate. After Cleopatra's death in the play Anthony and Cleopatra, one of Octavian's guards says, "This is an aspic's trail: and these fig leaves have slime upon them, such as the aspic leaves upon the caves of Nile."

Here Shakespeare makes an error common in his time, thinking that snakes are slimy; but a cave appears to be a more suitable habitat for a cobra than for a desert snake. The best way to identify the snake whose bite caused the death of one of the most fascinating characters in world history is to study the effects of the poisons produced by different snakes.

One of the liveliest debates in late seventeenth-century European science was over the nature of the viper's bite. According to the famous Italian naturalist Francisco Redi, its dangerous effects were caused by the yellowish fluid that flowed from the fangs, but Moyse Charas, a French chemist of the time, attributed it to the "enraged spirits" of the snake. This point of view was very popular, and this is perhaps why, in the last scene of Shakespeare's play, Cleopatra says to the asp: "With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate of life at once untie: poor venomous fool, be angry and dispatch...."

Redi's opinion finally prevailed, based on a scientific experiment, but Charas was not totally wrong, as normally an enraged snake injects more venom than one that is not aroused. At roughly the same time, English poet Edmund Spenser wrote of "the stings of aspes that kill with smart."

Snake venoms used to be classified into two main groups. The venom of vipers (family Viperidae) was thought to attack the blood system, while that of cobras and their relatives (family Elapidae) was thought to act basically on the nervous system. But this is an oversimplification. Neurotoxins may also act on the blood system, while blood poisons may have side effects on the nervous system. Furthermore, the venoms of most snakes contain several toxins of both types, though the action of one or the other is dominant.

The bites of vipers and rattlesnakes are followed by intense pain and swelling in the area of the bite. Bloodstained serum may ooze from the fang marks into the subcutaneous tissue and cause discoloration of the skin. Blood clotting is inhibited, and hemorrhaging may occur in the lungs or intestine; the victim may spit blood or pass blood through the rectum. Small purple patches often appear under the skin, where blood has leaked from damaged blood vessels. Later, zones of tissue may become gangrenous and be sloughed away. Death is normally due to heart or respiratory failure. In many cases, the patient appears to show signs of recovery, but suddenly-hours or even days later-will die.

Though cobra poison often also causes severe local damage followed by the sloughing off of large areas of dead tissue, the area of the bite does not hurt much, and normally the neurotoxic and cardiotoxic effects predominate. Characteristic symptoms include muscle weakness and depressed breathing and heartbeat, but death normally occurs much sooner than after poisoning by a viper.

As the venom of the cobra is much less painful, Cleopatra probably chose a cobra and not a viper if she really did commit suicide in this way. Furthermore, the Egyptian cobra is much larger and produces more venom than the horned viper, and thus its bite is a more reliable means of death. Finally, in ancient Egypt, the cobra was a symbol of royalty, and during the Greco-Roman period it was used to execute favored criminals. Who could have been more distinguished than the last queen of Egypt?
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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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