Like Helen of Troy, Cleopatra (69 – 30 b.c.), has always been one of the history’s famous beauties. But was she really beautiful? Modern historians claim to have evidence that Cleopatra wasn’t as physically striking as once believed.
Let’s have a look at the facts.
The vast majority of ancient sources regarding Cleopatra were written by Romans. Since Romans disliked Cleopatra they painted her as a debauched temptress who used her beauty as political weapon.
Plutarch (45-120 a.d), the Greek biographer of Mark Antony, writing about a century after Cleopatra’s death, mentioned that Cleopatra’s beauty was “not altogether incomparable“ but her mellifluous speaking voice and her intelligence made her so desirable.
Cassius Dio (155-255 a.d) , the Roman historian of Greek origins, described her as “a woman of surpassing beauty and, at the time, being in her prime, she was conspicuously lovely. She also had an elegant voice and she knew how to use her charms to be attractive to everyone.”
Marble bust believed to be of Cleopatra VII, Altes Museum, Berlin
There are only three head sculptures in classical style and few full-length statues in Egyptian style appearances that are also said to be of Cleopatra and to have been commissioned by her or by Egypt during her lifetime. These statues depict totally different women.
Detail of a relief showing Cleopatra and her son Caesarion making an offering to the gods. (CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Fragment of a relief of Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (“Cleopatra the Father-Loving Goddess”). image source
The image of Cleopatra on the silver denarius dated to 32 BC. Found in 1972 and displayed at Newcastle University on 14 February 2007.
Her coins minted in Egypt portrayed her as a masculine, with a hooked large nose.
Historians believe that she intentionally portrayed herself with her father’s strong jawline as a display of strength.
This coin was minted during the early years of Cleopatra’s reign. It was designed to resemble previous Ptolemaic coins (which always had a King on the front), complete with large hooked nose and dour expression.
On the left side is Cleopatra AR Tetradrachm. 36 BC ( BACIΛICCA KΛEOΠATPA ΘEA NEWTEPA), depicted with diademed draped bust, and a dress embroidered with pearls. On the reverse side (ANTWNIOC AYTOKPATWP TPITON TPIWN ANDPWN), bare head of Marc Antony. In this coin, Cleopatra’s face was made to look like Mark Antony.
As we can see every coin she minted portrayed a different woman, depending on what she needed to gain politically at the time.
For Egyptian audiences, she commissioned portraits of herself in the traditional Egyptian style.
Using images from ancient artifacts including a ring dating from Cleopatra’s reign 2,000 years ago, Cambridge University’s Sally Ann Ashton pieced together a possible likeness that shows Cleopatra as a mixed race beauty.
The image of the mixed race beauty is totally different to the image of Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren that we were used to.
Cleopatra was born in Egypt, but her ancestors were Macedonian Greek.
Her father, Ptolemy I was Alexander the Great’s general and possibly close relative of Alexander. The descent passed through six successor Ptolemies until it reached Cleopatra’s father. Cleopatra’s grandmother (the only known source of foreign blood in Cleopatra’s family) belonged to a dynasty which descended from the same Greek-Macedonian region as the Ptolemies
Like many royal houses in Egypt, members of the Ptolemaic Dynasty often married within the family to preserve the purity of their bloodline, and it’s possible that her own parents were brother and sister too. Cleopatra eventually married both of her adolescent brothers.
This fact makes me doubt about the result of the image of Cleopatra of mixed ethnicity that Sally Ann Ashton created.
Cleopatra Reconstruction from Coins and Sculpture
Cleopatra was depicted in such different ways that we can’t be sure of how she really looked like but what is indubitable is that she was one of the most powerful and intelligent women the world has ever seen and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.
She was speaking 9 languages, she involved with the two most powerful men of her time, she kept her country independent for 20 years. Her assets were so great that when the Romans pillaged Egypt after her death, they lowered taxes in Rome from 12 to 4 percent.
The Ptolemies. Image source