It’s one of the most famous suicidal love stories in history – after her lover Marc Antony killed himself, Cleopatra did the same by, according to legends and movies, allowing herself to be bitten by a venomous asp. Now a new study proposes that the demise of Cleopatra and the fall of Egypt to the Roman Empire was caused by volcanic ash from an eruption ten years earlier, triggering a climate change that brought on famines, plagues and societal and political problems. Was the “asp bite” the original fake news story?
“Our results demonstrate a systematic Nile flood suppression from historical eruptions using the multi-century Islamic Nilometer and earlier written records; we find this suppression consistent with theory and modeling of volcanic monsoon impacts. We further identify statistically significant associations between eruptions and the onset of hitherto poorly understood revolts in Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as the cessation dates of Ptolemaic interstate warfare with the great Near Eastern Seleukid Empire.”
Francis Ludlow, a climate historian at Trinity College Dublin, co-authored the study, published this week in Nature Communications, that puts the downfall of Antony, Cleopatra and Egypt on the down-fall of volcanic ash onto the country, causing environmental disasters, disruptions in the flooding of the Nile and subsequent agricultural catastrophes that destroyed the economy and eventually the spirit of Egyptians and their leaders. While not as strong of a movie plot as drunken, corrupt, sexually perverted rulers ruining their country and themselves, it’s probably closer to the truth … and a possible warning for today’s drunken, corrupt and sexually perverted rulers.
This new data points to Egypt falling without the help of despots. Ice core records show that spikes in sulphate levels correlate to volcanic eruptions and they indicate that one occurred somewhere on Earth in 44 BCE. The ash clouds in the stratosphere blocked sunlight, causing a reduction in oceanic evaporations and a drop in subsequent rainfall levels. The Islamic Nilometer, which has recorded Nile flooding data since 622 CE, shows a correlation between volcanic eruptions and drops in Nile flooding. The lack of annual flooding caused a drop in agricultural production, causing famines that forced Egyptians to the cities. Crowded conditions there, along with weakened health as a result of the famines, made the people susceptible to plagues. All of that led to the desperation that caused social unrest and the political problems that made Egypt ready to fall to the Romans.
Asp or no asp, Cleopatra didn’t seem to have a chance. However, Ludlow admits that not all historians agree with the new study.
“There’s a distrust among historians of attributing big historical events to an environmental influence. People don’t like to feel that what’s happening in society is beyond their control. They have preferred to explain history through what the great men of history were doing. We’re not saying ‘throw out the history books’ – we’re just saying here’s a new angle.”
A reluctance to attribute big historical events to an environmental influence isn’t a new angle. As George Santayana would say: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”