What Did Cleopatra Actually Look Like?
In 48 B.C., as Cleopatra plotted to regain energy amid a civil battle together with her brother, the Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that Egypt’s final pharaoh “reposed in her magnificence all her claims to the throne.” She organized a gathering with the Roman dictator Julius Caesar — a person infamous for his affairs with noblewomen — to ask his assist. In Dio’s telling, the encounter vindicated her self-importance: Caesar was, apparently, “so fully captivated” by the younger girl that he agreed to reconcile the warring siblings.
It’s a well-known trope: the queen of the Nile, a crafty charmer, deploying her supreme loveliness like a political weapon. Certainly, it defines our notion of Cleopatra even at this time. Her portrayal in movie — epitomized by Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 efficiency — is that of a buxom, sultry femme fatale, her steamy eyes wing-tipped and her raven hair falling lushly round her shoulders. She reclines sensually in revealing robes. She greets her Roman lovers, Caesar and Mark Antony, with palpable, barely suppressed ardour.
Such characters play properly on display screen. However based mostly on the few surviving clues to Cleopatra’s precise look, trendy historians doubt she resembled this caricature. In addition they doubt she dominated solely via bodily magnificence and sexual prowess, just like the “whore queen” her Roman enemies made her out to be.
All through historical past, feminine rulers have usually been accused of utilizing their sexuality to take care of management. Historians acknowledge this because the idea of the whore queen; for instance, after Mary Stuart fell from energy within the 1500s, as she was being led to jail, a crowd of disenchanted Scots cried, “Burn the whore!” The Romans tried the same tactic with Cleopatra. Their smear marketing campaign formed a legacy, based upon her appears to be like, that also fascinates us two millennia later.
Cleopatra’s Many Faces
Students have looked for the visage behind the legend, however it’s usually unimaginable to confirm a historic determine’s picture. Cleopatra’s physique has by no means been found. Most surviving work and sculptures of her are anachronistic innovations, extra telling of their very own occasions than of the topic herself. Even modern works can deceive, says Egyptologist Robert Bianchi, overlaid as they’re “with political or ideological issues.”
In brief, Bianchi says, for Cleopatra “there may be nothing that approaches the Western idea of a portrait in both historical Egyptian or historical Greek artwork.” However there are some potential leads. Among the many most promising are cash minted throughout her reign — portrayals which can be removed from Hollywood’s glamorous visions.
No two cash are fairly alike, however in lots of, probably the most outstanding options are an aquiline nostril and a jutting chin. She wears her curly hair not in bangs however within the common melon fashion of the time, tied in a bun on the base of her cranium. Even these cash include crimson flags, although. Throughout her marriage with Mark Antony, a silver denarius coin was issued to pay his troops. Either side of the coin bears one among their faces, and hers appears exaggeratedly Romanized to match his.
A coin from Antony and Cleopatra’s alliance, dated to 37-33 B.C., and minted within the Jap Mediterranean (presumably Antioch, Syria). Cleopatra’s picture seems on the entrance of the coin, which indicators her larger significance. (CC-0 Public Area Designation/Artwork Institute of Chicago)
The one different unambiguous representations of Cleopatra are Egyptian reliefs within the pharaonic fashion — designed, maybe unrealistically, for the eyes of her topics. In these colossal stone canvases, she’s extra god than human. A number of late-Hellenic marble busts relationship to her lifetime might depict the queen, however none are inscribed together with her identify. (The hair in these matches the cash, however the nostril and chin are much less pronounced.)
Even when these sketchy sources collectively supply some thought of her look, they most likely can’t inform whether or not she was “lovely” — no matter which means. They actually can’t inform us what Caesar or Antony noticed in her. Apart from, some students argue, the entire preoccupation together with her attract is inappropriate — no totally different from overanalyzing the physique of a contemporary feminine chief. “Why are we so obsessive about speaking about whether or not she was engaging or not,” asks Egyptologist Sally-Ann Ashton, “when actually we ought to be taking a look at her as a powerful and influential ruler from 2,000 years in the past?”
A reduction depicting Cleopatra in pharaoh’s garb and presenting choices to Isis, dated to 51 BC. (Credit score: Public Area/Wikimedia Commons)
The Queen’s Shade
Cleopatra’s immense energy got here from her place in Egypt’s long-ruling Ptolemaic dynasty. The query of her look is considerably entangled with that identification. Her household hailed not from the land it ruled however from Macedonia, which has led many researchers to imagine her pores and skin was gentle — as European artwork has at all times depicted her — not darkish like that of the native Egyptians. Some, like Cleopatra biographer Michael Grant, are adamant that she had “not a drop of Egyptian blood in her veins.”
Others level to uncertainties in her household tree. The lineage of her father, Ptolemy XII, a pharaoh himself, is well-documented; her mom’s, not a lot. The truth is, nobody is bound of her mom’s identification, and even much less so of her grandparents’. Nonetheless others be aware that Macedonia, together with the remainder of the Hellenic world, was not solely white — so her European descent didn’t preclude blackness.
The ethnic uncertainty surrounding Cleopatra has made her into an unlikely proxy for at this time’s cultural debates. Most not too long ago, the casting of Israeli actress Gal Gadot because the queen in an upcoming movie met with disappointment and outrage from critics who hoped to see a lady of African heritage fill the position. However the idea of a dark-skinned Cleopatra originated a lot earlier, when the Nineteenth-century artist William Wetmore Story sculpted her with black options as an abolitionist assertion.
A marble carving of Cleopatra. (Credit score: William Wetmore Story/CC-0 Public Area/The Met)
To cultural historian Mary Hamer, it’s no surprise an historical queen stands on the middle of a contemporary battle between classicists and the Afrocentrist motion. In any case, she was maybe the worthiest adversary of a budding Roman empire, and in that means, she influenced Europe’s path to domination on the outset. When folks ask whether or not Cleopatra was black, Hamer writes, “it appears understood that to reply within the affirmative may put your complete construction of Western civilization into query.” It might imply that, at a pivotal second in European (learn: white and patriarchal) historical past, the political universe revolved round a black girl.
‘An Irresistible Appeal’
The ultimate hints within the quest for Cleopatra’s countenance come from the writings of Romans within the centuries after her demise, although some present apparent bias. Her fame was largely outlined by Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. After the republic’s civil battle, when he wanted to justify the violence he’d waged in opposition to his Roman brothers, he and his allies discovered a scapegoat in Cleopatra. Wanting the general public to imagine it was she who persuaded the virtuous Caesar and Antony to activate their very own nation, they painted her as a international temptress. One Augustan poet and propagandist, Propertius, branded her the meretrix regina, or “whore queen.”
Later classical historians carry extra impartiality and nuance, however they disagree on Cleopatra’s look. Cassius Dio, in his Roman Historical past, calls her “a lady of surpassing magnificence,” and provides that “when she was within the prime of her youth, she was most putting.” This matches the usual narrative. Plutarch, in his Lifetime of Antony, is extra restrained. “For her magnificence, as we’re advised, was in itself not altogether incomparable,” he writes, “nor resembling to strike those that noticed her.”
A probable posthumously-painted portrait of Cleopatra, from Roman Herculaneum, Italy, dated to the first century AD. (Credit score: Ángel M. Felicísimo/Public Area/Wikimedia Commons)
What Plutarch does emphasize is that “converse together with her had an irresistible attraction, and her presence … had one thing stimulating about it. There was sweetness additionally within the tones of her voice,” he writes. She spoke many languages and was proficient in all of the methods anticipated of a male ruler. In accordance with the historian Sarah Pomeroy, she “rode horseback, hunted, and was at house on the battlefield.” Plutarch attests to her cleverness and mind, and William Shakespeare, in his play Antony and Cleopatra, adopted that lead: “She is crafty previous man’s ideas,” the bard writes.
We might by no means make certain of what Cleopatra appeared like, however the primary information of her life are clear. As Ashton says, “I’d somewhat take a look at the laborious proof.” She wielded as a lot energy as practically anybody within the historical Mediterranean and dominated over one among its biggest kingdoms. Augustus might have molded her story, however this suggests he thought of her a risk grave sufficient to warrant his slander.
It appears he additionally inadvertently helped to safe her place in eternity. After 2,000 years, for no matter purpose, every era nonetheless fixates anew on the queen, recreating her to swimsuit its wants. “The calls for of the second have at all times decided Cleopatra’s picture,” Hamer writes. Because of this, her fame stretches ever deeper into her afterlife. Shakespeare, musing greater than 400 years in the past, couldn’t have identified how really he spoke: “Age can’t wither her, nor customized stale / Her infinite selection.”