Cleopatra and a thousand other ways to die poisoned

Cleopatra and a thousand other ways to die poisoned

Each era has characteristics that make it unique: its leaders, its inventions, its wars, its works of art... But there is another point that is repeated as a fixed pattern: poisons. Sometimes used in a positive way, as medicines or to eliminate pests, but also, of course, they have been used, and a lot, for opposite purposes: criminals and suicides. "Each age has had its poison"says the doctor of Medicine and Surgery Roberto Pelta in a book that is qualified in its pages of "disturbing" and "disturbing": «It keeps a large part of the knowledge accumulated throughout history about the most lethal substances obtained from nature or in the laboratory. A detailed compendium of ways to kill, sometimes discreetly; others indiscriminately and massively; always causing pain and terrible suffering”, presents the author of pure poison (The Sphere of Books).

shelling pelta the use that homicidal minds have given to poisons, from gaining a kingdom to achieving an inheritance; for revenge or lack of love, power or jealousy. Practices documented since Antiquity, and whose use has not stopped to this day. They were a constant during the 20th century: not to forget how the Third Reich used toxins as a purely murderous instrument in the concentration camps (Josef Mengele and his experiments with hexobarbital on children in Auschwitz, for example); or the hypotheses that the doctor raises about the death of Marilyn Monroewhich has always been accompanied by the "conspiracy plot" - he comments - of a suicide by barbiturates in the face of an autopsy that "found that the highest concentrations of these sedatives were located in the rectal mucosa."

But its presence has not disappeared in today's technologicalwhere the poisonings of Russian dissidents, mainly, have once again put its political-criminal relevance on the table.

And it is that this is "older than the black thread." Greece, Rome and Egypt did not skimp on poisons and the Renaissance made poisons an art: «The golden age without a doubt», points out the doctor from a period in which alchemy boomed under the influential work of Paracelsus and the introduction of substances from the New World. "Poisons became enormously popular," writes Francisco López-Muñoz, professor of Pharmacology, in the prologue. Although this type of substance was not a monopoly of the criminal organizations of the common people, but was part of the uses and customs of the elites. Just remember the virtuosity that the poisoning industry for political purposes took at that time: "Think of Italy subjugated to the Borgia papacy and the Florentine cardinals, who even developed their own poisons"; or in the French court of Catherine de' Medici (also noted by Simon Sebag Montefiore in his new work The world). «Poisons became a power tool to dispense with enemies and adversaries»Above all, for two aspects: accessibility and cleanliness of work. He did not ignore Victor Hugo the situation and thus described it in Lucrezia Borgia (1833): «The Borgia have poisons that kill in a day, a month or a year, as they want».

Paracelsus already said thatall things are poisons. Only the dose makes a thing not constitute a poison”; or, getting more chauvinistic, Escohotado also touched on the subject in book of poisons: «The toxic or poisonous of a thing are certain proportions of it according to a measure».

Animals are not lacking in Pelta's book either. Toads, spiders and snakes They have remained in the human unconscious for a reason and historical legends such as Cleopatra's asp confirm fears. The author wonders who killed the Egyptian queen and dives into all the voices that have gone through her end, which are not few. A death that is the consequence of the fantasy love with Marco Antonio. Condensing the plot: Octavio was able to with the military's army and she, upon receiving the news, locked herself in the mausoleum that he had had built with two of his maids, Eira and Carmion. She caused the rumor that he had committed suicide to reach the ears of his lover, before which he did not hesitate to pierce his stomach with his own sword, as was the norm for defeated Roman generals. Although Cleopatra wanted nothing more than to gain time in search of a more dignified exit for Egypt.

Octavio's troops ran to the palace to pick up the myth (to which Montefiore also points out in his monumental essay) and turn it into a trophy for the enjoyment of Rome, an impossibility for a Cleopatra who chose to die with honor when she learned of Marco Antonio's suicide. Without it, the Ptolemaic dynasty disappeared and the country became a new province of the Roman Empire. It is then that the speculations about the death of the queen-pharaoh begin: «It cannot be ruled out that Cleopatra was an expert poisoner (...) nor that to ensure power he had no qualms about getting his enemies out of the way. And there has been much speculation about the method used to commit suicide, since Marco Antonio's messengers found his corpse without any sign of violence, "signature Pelta.

For William Shakespeare, as he wrote in Antony and Cleopatra, died from the bite of two asps on his chest; and, according to the Roman biographer and historian Suetonius, when Octavian reached his inert body, he used various antidotes and sent for the psylli (North African tribe of snake charmers whose saliva was thought to have poison-neutralizing properties) to suck the poison in a vain attempt to revive her. "He wanted to keep her alive to take her to Rome," says the author.

Plutarch assured that Octavio entered the room when the maidens were finishing arranging their clothes before dying, and asked them: "Was this the work of your lady?" One of the servants, dying, answered him: «It was his impeccable work, as befits the descendant of so many kings», exposed the philosopher, who also maintained that the snake arrived hidden in a basket of figs and grapes to guarantee death by snake bite and, with it, immortality. Other authors, like Claudio Aeliano (History of Animals), have argued that the asp had hidden in a bouquet of flowers: «Cleopatra discovered that the bite of the asp was very soft (...) and her death was sweet».

However, Ben Hubbard tells, in poisons, how a recent study has rejected the idea of ​​death by cobra bite because it is not always fatal, "but when it is, death is long and painful." In the same line, José Luis Vila-San Juan (historical lies) maintains that the two meters of an asp could hardly be hidden in a basket, based on the opinion of the writer Néstor Luján: «There remains the possibility of poisoning by a plant poison. He could hide the poison inside the gold hairpin that he always wore in his hair, according to Plutarch, and he could pour it into a cup or apply it to a wound. He could also have had himself introduced, with the complicity of his doctor, some poisoned figs or he could have possessed the poison hidden among his cosmetics ». Vila-San Juan concludes: «That the fatuous Octavio included a figure of Cleopatra with a snake coiled around her arm, in his triumphant parade in Rome, is something else. This was precisely the origin of this historical falsehood». The Greek geographer and historian did not disagree too much Strabonwho lived in his time, speculates on the possibility of a poisonous ointment applied to the skin or to an asp bite.

Adela Muñozin history of poison, rules out the use of black henbane and strychnine by the queen, since the former causes great suffering to the victim before causing death, like the strychnine contained in the seeds of the Strychnos nux vomica plant, which causes violent convulsions that they could have disfigured his corpse«what would have been a serious attack on her legendary beauty», recalls Pelta.

And Muñoz also considers another way out: the possibility that Cleopatra's death could have occurred by inhalation of carbon monoxide from burning coal to perform a funeral ceremony. It is thus based on the opinion of Professor Viaud Grand Marais: «When we have before our eyes the final scene of this drama, we cannot avoid thinking of the chamber carefully closed by the queen herself and of those three women, the first stretched out, dead , on his bed; the second lying at her feet and equally inanimate, and the third, whose head rests on a higher level, preserves, although mortally wounded, a remainder of life that allows her to answer a few words to Caesar's envoys. This all sounds a lot like carbon monoxide poisoning. The queen, who had studied so many poisons, could not ignore the action of the gases released from the combustion of coal.

«The different versions about the death of Cleopatra form part of the legend, since it is hardly credible that a cobra could kill three people. Probably another poison was chosen, since Cleopatra had a garden with poisonous plants that she tested on death row inmates », closes the doctor.