Was Cleopatra beautiful?

The idea that Cleopatra, the famous last queen of ancient Egypt, owed her powerful position to her beauty persist, but why does her appearance really matter?

Written by Branko van Oppen on

“The nose of Cleopatra: if it had been a shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) ruminated (Pensées 162). While for Pascal this thought illustrated how something small can change the course of history, the statement is also based on the belief that Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC) owed her powerful position at that important juncture of history to her physique alone.

This idea pervades our modern perception – in serious scholarship, Asterix comics and Hollywood cinema. Historians do not normally address matters of physical appearance, except to paint a portrait of a biographic subject, not to answers questions about historical significance of political power. So, was Cleopatra really attractive and why does it matter what she looked like?

On the basis of portrait coins struck by Cleopatra, philosophers such as Blaise Pascal assumed that the queen’s prominent nose was an element of the physical attraction with which she seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony – and thus changed the course of world history. Silver hemiobol struck in Patrae, Achaea (Greece) with the diademed portrait of Queen Cleopatra (Heritage 3015, 7-12 September 2011, lot 23278; photo courtesy of David S. Michaels, Heritage Auctions); posthumous portrait of Blaise Pascal by François Quesnel II (1637-1699; oil painting, ca. 1662, coll. Musée d’Art Roger-Quilliot).

Cleopatra in Roman literature

For Pliny the Elder, Cleopatra was no more than a “harlot queen (regina meretrix)” (Nat. Hist. 9.58.1), implying she owed her position of wealth and power because she prostituted herself to Mark Antony (83-30 BC) with her wanton physique.

Similar ideas are echoed by Cassius Dio, who claims that when Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) first met Cleopatra, “she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at the time [48 BC], when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most stunning” (42.34.4); and when she offered Mark Antony his royal funeral in Alexandria, “even in mourning garments she was wonderfully stunning” (51.12.1).

What we read in Roman literature here are the reverberations of the slander campaign against Antony and Cleopatra preceding the final conflict led by Octavian (63 BC-14 AD), the later emperor Augustus. It was in Octavian’s best interest to present the civil war against his colleague, Antony, a respected Roman statesman, rather as a foreign conflict with the Egyptian queen. Painting Cleopatra as a beauty who had sexually seduced Antony and a witch who had cast a magic spell over him, was not only meant to emasculate Antony or demean Cleopatra, nor did it simply cast her in the role of the frightening foreigner. Octavian’s propaganda consciously refused to acknowledge her as the wealthiest and most powerful female sovereign of the Hellenistic Mediterranean.

The Greek moral philosopher Plutarch, offers a more nuanced picture. He explains that “those who had seen Cleopatra knew that neither in youthfulness nor in beauty was she superior to Octavia,” the sister of Octavian and reluctant wife of Antony (Ant. 57.3); “for indeed her own beauty, as they say, was in itself not altogether incomparable, or such as to strike those who saw her” (ibid. 27.2).

This is not to say that Cleopatra was unattractive, but she did not owe her relationships to Julius Caesar or Mark Antony to her youthful beauty. Indeed, Plutarch continues that her charm rested in her irresistible presence, her persuasive character, and her stimulating discourse, because she was highly educated and spoke many foreign languages.

In the comic Asterix and Cleopatra, Caesar exclaims, “She is kind, but the spices that easily go up her nose… she is pretty, too, though!” The joke (translated in the English edition as “only her nose is so easily put out of joint”) not only puns on the size of Cleopatra’s nose, but also plays on a French expression meaning someone is easily agitated, and then continues to perpetuate the idea that she was attractive. Also notice that the opening words quote Pascal verbatim. From: René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, Astérix et Cléopâtre (1965), p. 5.

Even while modern historians, including Grace Macurdy (1932), Michael Grant (1972), and Stanley Burstein (2004), acknowledge that Cleopatra was not exceptionally attractive (whether by ancient or modern standards), they tend to insist that she was admired for her beauty and seduced men with her physical appearance.

Still, as Guy Weill Goudchaux (2001) rightly emphasizes, to say that Cleopatra’s beauty was “not altogether incomparable” does not imply that she was unattractive – let alone ugly. Nevertheless, it has been mostly due to the insistence of Sarah Pomeroy (1976, 1984) that scholars have come to accept that Cleopatra forged her powerful position with her intellectual capacities, strategic talent and formidable wealth.

Cleopatra’s Hellenistic portraiture

When trying to determine what Cleopatra may have actually looked like, we are confronted by a lack of conformity in the ancient portraiture. No life-sized statues or busts survive that can be incontrovertibly identified as portraying her. Only the extant coins issued by Cleopatra or in the queen’s name give any impression of how she wished to be presented. None of the issues struck at Alexandria, however, are of high value gold or silver.

After his conquest of Armenia (34 BC), Mark Antony had silver denarii minted with his own portrait and that of Cleopatra on either side (NAC 106, no. 524). His Herculean, muscular head can hardly be described as naturalistic. Hers in a sense reflects his, though less muscular, but similarly not naturalistic. Her features include an aquiline nose and pointed chin. She wears a royal fillet (diadēma) in her wavy hear (which is tied into a bun), a globular ear pendant, a pearl necklace, and a draped garment. Before her bust is a cornucopia – the horn of plenty that symbolizes the wealth of the Ptolemaic kingdom. Around her head, the legend reads Cleopatrae reginae regum filiurum regum (“Of Cleopatra, Queen of Kings and Sons of Kings”) – an assertive expression of her position of power that is derived from her Lagid descent as well as her successive relations with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

A silver hemiobol, struck shortly before the Battle of Actium (31 BC), shows a more delicate diademed portrait with a rounder, though still prominent nose and otherwise fairly generic features (Heritage 3015, no. 23278).

Ancient portrait of Cleopatra depict her assertive, but certainly not unattractive features. The wide royal headband (diadēma) and traditional wavy coiffure express her sovereignty based on her Lagid descent. Silver tetradrachm struck in Ascalon, Phoenicia, with the diademed portrait of Queen Cleopatra (British Museum, London, reg. no. 1875,1102.3; seal impression with a similar portrait, Edfu, Upper Egypt (Allard Pierson Museum 8177.056); sculptural portrait identified as Cleopatra (Altes Museum, Antikensammlung Berlin, inv. no. 1976.10); background relief scene depicting Cleopatra and her son Ptolemy Caesarion before the gods of Dendera, Upper Egypt.

A more naturalistic portrait of Cleopatra is found on her best-preserved bronze coins (minted in Alexandria and Nea-Paphos, Cyprus; BM 1875,1102.3 and Triton V, no. 574). Here the portrait presents Cleopatra with an oval face, flat cheek with marked cheekbone and flat forehead, a curved brow that falls straight over the bridge of the nose, wide and pointed almond-shaped eye with heavy incised upper lid passing over thin lower lid at the outer corner of the eye, a prominent nose with a large, flaring nostril, a small nasal-labial plane, fairly full lips with a downturned corner of the mouth, a small round and projecting chin, and a smooth neck – her hair in a melon coiffure, bound by a broad fillet (diadēma) and tied into a round bun.

The only sculptural portrait that compares favourably to Cleopatra’s representation on her coins is a marble head found along the Via Appia in 1784 and since on display in the Vatican Museums (VMGP 38511). Despite the missing nose, it can hardly be described as unattractive. Whether she would be considered “pretty” (whatever that may mean), however, remains very much in the eye of the beholder.

Another sculptural portrait that is often attributed to Cleopatra is a marble head that may also have been found along the Via Appia (ca. 1786-97) and is now in the Antiken Museum of the Berlin State Museums (BSM 1976.10). According to Flemming Johansen (2003) this portrait “suggests great physical beauty,” which in his mind “contrasts sharply with the rather unflattering coin portraits.” The same author, however, considers the Berlin head “neither to be Cleopatra nor ancient.” Johansen, however, has few followers who like him believe the portrait head is a modern forgery.

Cleopatra’s image also appears on coins of Patrae (RPC 1245), a port where Antony wintered before the battle of Actium (32/1 BC). The coin displays the bust of Cleopatra on the obverse, with the crown of Isis on the reverse. Her numismatic presence is a testament to Cleopatra’s central role in this period.

The iconic cinematic performance of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963) left a lasting impression of the Egyptian queen’s supposed beauty. Despite its emphatic opulence, the movie still implies that Cleopatra could only maintain her relationships with Caesar and Antony due to her physical appearance. (“My breasts are full of love and life. My hips are rounded and well apart.”) Still of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, dir. by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (20th Century Fox, 1963).

Cleopatra in ancient history

Few ancient names are as famous as that of Cleopatra – and even fewer women can match her fame in ancient history: perhaps Nefertiti, the wife of Achnaton, and Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, come close. Cleopatra VII was nonetheless the last in a long line of powerful queens, from Arsinoe II and Berenice II to the Cleopatras of the second half of the Hellenistic period.

She was born at a momentous juncture of history, when Roman power expanded farther into the eastern Mediterranean. Her father Ptolemy XII had to rely on the assistance of Pompey to regain his throne (in 55 BC, after an absence of nearly three years). Among the Roman forces that reinstalled the Ptolemaic king was a young cavalry commander by the name Mark Antony.

After her father’s death (51 BC), Cleopatra ascended to the throne and immediately engaged her eldest brother Ptolemy XIII (61-47 BC) in a succession conflict that turned into a civil war. While she marched from Palestina against the Ptolemaic royal army to regain power, the Roman Civil War (49-48 BC) between Pompey and Julius Caesar literally landed on the Egyptian coast.

Pompey was promptly killed on the orders of the king’s advisors. Caesar suddenly arrived in Alexandria to avenge Pompey’s murder. He reinstalled Cleopatra and was immediately beleaguered in the palace quarters in a prolonged military engagement known as the Alexandrian War (48-47 BC). In the end, Ptolemy XIV (59-44 BC) was installed beside Cleopatra, who was now pregnant with Caesar’s child – his only son, known as Caesarion, but officially styled Ptolemy Caesar (47-30 BC).

After the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in Rome (44 BC), when she was in fact staying near the city, Cleopatra returned to Alexandria, had her brother killed and installed Caesarion beside her as joint ruler. In the ensuing conflict between Antony and Octavian (the great-nephew of Caesar, and the later emperor Augustus), Cleopatra allied herself with Antony. Three children issued from their relationship, called Alexander, Cleopatra and Ptolemy.

Marriages to foreigner women were not acknowledged at Rome. In Alexandria, Antony was never proclaimed king, but in 34 BC all of Cleopatra’s children were ceremoniously assigned kingdoms beyond Egypt. Cleopatra was thus able to expand the Ptolemaic empire well beyond the largest sphere of influence her predecessors had ever been able to acquire. Egypt had always been one of the richest lands in the ancient world; it had now become the most powerful empire, rivalled only by the increasingly aggressive Roman state.

Coin portraits in particular show how Cleopatra wanted to be presented. Though varied in their facial features, her portraits emphasize her position of power as Ptolemaic queen. Sculptural portrait attributed to Cleopatra (Gregorian Profane Museum, Vatican Museums, Rome, inv. no. 38511); Silver denarius with the diademed portrait of Cleopatra “Queen of Kings, and Sons of Kings” (Numismatica Ars Classica 106, 9-10 May 2018, lot 524); bronze 80-drachmae, struck in Alexandria (Triton V, 15 Jan 2002, lot 574).

With Civil War looming, Antony and Cleopatra gathered forces and advanced from Alexandria, through the Levant and Asia Minor, to Greece. At Patrae in Achaea they struck silver coins with her diademed portrait proclaiming her sovereignty with the legend Basilissa Kleopatra (“Queen Cleopatra”; in the nominative, rather than the usual genitive).

At the Battle of Actium (31 BC), the strategic genius of Octavian’s naval commander Agrippa claimed victory. Antony and Cleopatra, though defeated, regrouped in Alexandria – they were unable to prevent their doom as Octavian’s forces approached. Antony killed himself, and after giving him a royal funeral, Cleopatra followed suit (30 BC). With her, the Hellenistic era came to an end.

The important question is not whether or not Cleopatra was beautiful. Rather, it is important to understand the significance of her role in history, at this momentous juncture from the Hellenistic age to the Roman Imperial period. Permitted to engage in some counterfactual speculation, historians have asked what would have happened if Antony and Cleopatra had won the Battle of Actium, had defeated the Roman naval and military force, and eliminate their opponent Octavian. Perhaps the growing enmity between East and West would have dissipated as the Mediterranean might have been ruled from Alexandria instead of Rome. Imagine for a moment Western history without its Roman legacy.

Cleopatra was one of the few women in world history to rule in her own right (although always with a nominal male ruler beside her on the throne). She was queen in one of the richest countries of the ancient world, and as such the most powerful woman of her time. She offered her allegiance to two of the most powerful Roman statesmen, who desperately needed her military and financial support in civil wars of their own. Cleopatra was in other words one of the most assertive rulers of antiquity – and her physical appearance had little to do with her historical significance.

This article’s featured image shows that French orientalist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) imagined Cleopatra’s first encounter with the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, wreathed with golden laurels, as a romantic affair – Nubian slave in attendance – inside an Egyptian setting (based on the small temple at Deir el Medina). Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cléopatre et César (preparatory oil-painting study, ca. 1866; art gallery Jean-François Heim, Basel, Switzerland).

Further reading

The modern bibliography on Cleopatra is vast. The list below is merely a small suggestion of selected literature.

  • Stanley M. Burstein, The Reign of Cleopatra (2004).
  • Linda T. Fitz, Linda T. “Egyptian queens and male reviewers: sexist attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra criticism,” Shakespeare Quarterly 28:3 (1977), pp. 297-316.
  • Michael Grant, Cleopatra (1972).
  • Flemming Johansen, “Portraits of Cleopatra – do they exist?”, in: Susan Walker and Sally-Ann Ashton (eds), Cleopatra Reassessed (2003), pp. 75-77.
  • Grace H. Macurdy, Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman-Power in Macedonia, Seleucid, Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt (1932).
  • Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1976; 2nd ed. 1994).
  • Sarah B. Pomery, Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra (1984.).
  • Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life (2010).
  • Guy Weill Goudchaux, “Was Cleopatra beautiful? The conflicting answers of numismatics”, in: Susan Walker and Sally-Ann Ashton (eds), Cleopatra Reassessed (2003), pp. 210-214.

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