What Did Cleopatra REALLY Look Like?
"For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it."
--- Plutarch, Life of Antonius, 27:2
Plutarch wrote around 100 years after Cleopatra's death. How did he know? PROBABLY, by a recollection from Philotas of Amphissa passed on to Plutarch's grandfather Lamprias. Philotas was from Greece, studying medicine in Alexandria. In the 1st century BC, this would be a Greek's ideal of womanly beauty.
What Philotas PROBABLY means is that Cleopatra didn't look like these. Maybe a different nose, different chin ... maybe a little less zoftig, if Egyptian art can be used as a guideline (just sayin' ...). It's worth pointing out that in the 18th and early 19th century (AD), a large nose indicated dominance and strength of character: there's just no accounting for taste.
"For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one."
--- Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book XLII, 34:4
Cassius Dio wrote about 250 years after Cleopatra's death. How did HE know? First of all, this is Cassius Dio (more on him in the historians section): he just invents stuff out of thin air to push his opinions, but he did have a model (see More about).
"Antony was amazed at her wit as well as her good looks, and became her captive as though he were a young man, although he was forty years of age."
--- Appian, The Civil War, Book V, 8
Appian only wrote about 150 years later. Still, how did HE know?
Though she was an icon in her own lifetime and a legend after her death, there is very little artistic evidence to provide a clear picture of what Cleopatra VII looked like. Few contemporary images of her survive.
--- Time Magazine
~NOT SO MUCH ~
THIS is Cleopatra VII
... and so is this
... and this
... and this
Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum
... and this
... but NOT this
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Why do we think these are Cleopatra VII?
The Dendera reliefs have her name carved on them.
Four have the triple uraeus. Cleopatra VII is the only Ptolemaic queen to ever wear it
(earlier Egyptian queens, some Kushites and other queens from the interior of the continent
wore it, but not Ptolemaic queens).
They're not identical. Except for the Dendera reliefs and the Rosicrucian statue (good going, San Jose), they're miniatures ... there's only so much that can be done on that scale, as well as most of them being weathered and damaged, but they all show a broad, round face, with a nose that current Western sensibilities would not find unpleasing. They also show a span of 24 years. The Hermitage image looks quite young, possibly soon after the birth of her first child, Ptolemy Caesar. The Dendera and Rosicrucian faces look more mature (IMHO), probably about the time of her visit to Rome ... possibly from Marc Antony time. The Louvre statuette is VERY damaged, but still useful for comparison. The Met item is iconically correct, but has a lot of problems (see More about below).
Of the Dendera reliefs, one spent 2000 years in desert winds, the other was protected inside. Dendera is a significant place because Cleopatra's father started rebuilding the Temple of Hathor when she was 15 years old, and she spent the next 24 years decorating it. There are plenty of Cleopatras there: the ones on the outside have two filled cartouches (birth name and Horus name). Cleopatras on the inside have one or two cartouches, sometimes filled, sometimes blank (this goes for Ptolemies as well). Ptolemies X and XI contributed (covering a span of Cleopatras III-VII) to the Dendera complex, and like any practical pharaoh, Ptolemy XII "repurposed" some of their building materials. This is probably why Pepi appears in the interior. Some context is needed since the Cleopatra birth name is identical in each cartouche of her ancestors, but the Horus name cartouches are different.
It's an odd thing for an authoritarian to do, but I swear she's smiling in three of the images.
What's this? There are "crypts" in the walls and underneath the Temple of Hathor. Visitors are so anxious to get to the "ancient electric lamps" they zoom past yet another Cleopatra: she's in the lower left (one blank cartouche) behind her father (two blank cartouches). It could be that the single cartouche is appropriate for when she was co-regent with her father, before becoming queen.
"Count the Cleopatras" should be a Dendera sport: Egyptian "Where's Waldo?"
What about the coins?
Glad you asked. All of these coins are positively identified to be Cleopatra VII. If they don't say "Cleopatra" either spelled out or abbreviated, then they use some other regnal insignia that works the same. They ARE all women. The same one?
I see Audrey Hepburn, Martha Washington, and Malcom McDowell.
There's some iconography going on with a woman in the Greco-Roman world only being taken seriously as a matron/dowager. IMHO, I don't find these coins consistent enough to form an appearance opinion.
We know what Marc Antony looked like
(an argument could be made for "charicature")
This guy disagrees with me 100%. Judge for yourself.
What about the busts?
Altes Museum, Berlin
British Museum, London
Vatican Museum, Rome
Do they look like the same person to you? The hallmark seems to be the bun hairstyle and "diadem" (the strip holding back the hair). Note that the British Museum bust is missing both. I feel obligated to mention that the Vatican one is NOT wearing a reverse baseball cap (it's the diadem & bun). None of them has any identifying inscription, and they're all clearly Roman styled.
The logic appears to be:
1) diadem means Greek royalty
2) probably from 1st century BCE (or thereabouts)
3) must be Cleopatra
"Greek queen 1st century" ... who else could it possibly be? It wasn't like there were many of them. Oh wait!
Pythodorida of Pontus Mithridates of Pergamon had five (sequentially):
Cleopatra of Armenia Laodice
Athenais of Cappadocia Monime
Laodice of Cappadocia Berenike
Dynamis of the Bosporan Kingdom Stratonice
Cleopatra Selene of Mauretania Hypsicratea
Salome Alexandra of Judaea
Shaqilat of Nabatea
Gamilat of Nabatea
That took me 10 minutes. Every "client kingdom" the size of Luxembourg had a queen in Greek-style headgear. If those museums really needed a Cleopatra bust in their collection, I guess one of them could be. There's a pretty big field of competitors. Google "ancient women coins".
Museo Capitolini, Rome
Again, there is no inscription on this bust. It was found on the grounds of the Temple of Isis ... in Rome. It's youthful ... Cleopatra was in Rome as the guest of Julius Caesar when she was 25 yrs old. She did identify herself with Isis. Of course, this could just be a generic, youthful Isis statue off the religious assembly line, and it's clearly Roman. Isis normally has a uraeus, so the mounting hole doesn't indicate anything. The eye-bags are something new (Cicero did mention wild parties).
It would make good political sense. Isis was very popular with Romans several centuries into ACE.
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
No inscription ... but this was retrieved from the underwater ruins of palaces in the harbor of Alexandria. It is absolutely a young Ptolemaic queen/co-regent. Maybe a little more "endowed" than other Cleopatras, with a little narrower face. I really don't have a problem with it. Because of the single uraeus, she would be younger than the other statues ... if it's Cleopatra.