In 48 BC, like Cleopatra conceived to regain power during a civil war with her brother, the Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that Egypt's last Pharaoh “ rested all her claims to the throne in her beauty & # 39; & # 39 ;. She arranged to meet with the Roman dictator Julius Caesar – a man notorious for his affairs with noblewomen – to ask for his help. In Dio & # 39; s story, the encounter justified her vanity: Caesar was apparently "so completely captivated" by the young woman that he agreed to reconcile the warring siblings.
It is a well-known trope: the Queen of the Nile, a cunning charmer, who uses her supreme beauty as a political weapon. It shapes our perception of Cleopatra even today. Her portrayal in film – epitomized by Elizabeth Taylor's 1963 performance – is that of a plump, sultry femme fatale, her steamy wingtip eyes and her raven hair that falls lavishly around her shoulders. She leans back sensually in revealing robes. She greets her Roman lovers, Caesar and Mark Antony, with palpable, barely suppressed passion.
Such characters play well on the screen. But, based on the few remaining clues to Cleopatra & # 39; s actual appearance, modern historians doubt she resembled this caricature. They also doubt that she ruled solely through physical beauty and sexual prowess, like the & # 39; whore queen & # 39; who made her Roman enemies of her.
Throughout history, female rulers have often been accused of using their sexuality to maintain control. Historians recognize this as the concept of the whore queen; for example, after Mary Stuart fell from power in the 16th century while being led to prison, a crowd of disaffected Scots shouted, "Burn the whore!" The Romans tried a similar tactic with Cleopatra. Their smear campaign was a legacy, based on her appearance, that still fascinates us two millennia later.
Cleopatra & # 39; s Many Faces
Scientists have searched for the face behind the legend, but it is often impossible to verify the image of a historical figure. Cleopatra & # 39; s body has never been discovered. Most of her surviving paintings and sculptures are anachronistic inventions, telling more about their own time than the subject itself. Even contemporary works can be deceiving, Egyptologist Robert Bianchi says, while “covered with political or ideological considerations”.
In short, says Bianchi, for Cleopatra "there is nothing that comes close to the Western concept of a portrait in ancient Egyptian or ancient Greek art." But there are some potential leads. One of the most promising coins minted during her reign – portraits that are far from the glamorous visions of Hollywood.
No two coins are the same, but in many coins, the most prominent features are an eagle's nose and a protruding chin. She does not wear her curly hair in bangs, but in the popular melon style of the time, tied in a bun at the base of her skull. However, even these coins have red flags. During her marriage to Mark Antony, a silver denarius was issued to pay for his troops. Each side of the coin bears one of their faces, and hers seems overly romanized to match his.
A coin of the alliance of Antony and Cleopatra, dated 37-33 BC, and minted in the Eastern Mediterranean (possibly Antioch, Syria). Cleopatra & # 39; s image appears on the face of the coin, indicating her greater importance. (CC-0 Public Domain Designation / Art Institute of Chicago)
The only other unambiguous representations of Cleopatra are Egyptian reliefs in the pharaonic style – designed, perhaps unrealistic, in front of her subjects. In these colossal stone cloths, she is more god than human. A few late Hellenic marble busts dating from her life may depict the queen, but none are inscribed with her name. (The hair in this one matches the coins, but the nose and chin are less pronounced.)
Even if these sketchy sources put together a sense of her appearance, they probably can't tell if she's 'beautiful'. was – whatever that means. They certainly cannot tell us what Caesar or Antony saw in her. Moreover, some scientists argue, the whole preoccupation with her allure is inappropriate – nothing but an over-analysis of the physique of a modern female leader. "Why are we so obsessed with talking about whether she was attractive or not," asks Egyptologist Sally-Ann Ashton, "when we should really consider her to be a strong and influential ruler from 2,000 years ago?"
A relief showing Cleopatra in Pharaoh's attire and offering offerings to Isis, dated to 51 BC. (Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)
The color of the queen
Cleopatra's immense power came from her position in Egypt's long-standing government Ptolemaic Dynasty. The issue of her appearance is somewhat intertwined with that identity. Her family was not from the country it ruled, but Macedonia, leading many researchers to believe that her skin was light – as European art has always depicted her – not as dark as that of the native Egyptians. Some, like Cleopatra biographer Michael Grant, are adamant that she "didn't have a drop of Egyptian blood in her veins."
Others point to uncertainties in her family tree. The lineage of her father, Ptolemy XII, himself a pharaoh, is well documented; her mother's, not so much. In fact, no one is sure of her mother's identity, much less that of her grandparents. Still others note that Macedonia, along with the rest of the Hellenic world, was not exclusively white – so its European ancestry did not rule out blackness.
The ethnic uncertainty surrounding Cleopatra has made her an unlikely proxy for today's cultural debates. Recently, the cast of Israeli actress Gal Gadot met as the Queen in an upcoming movie disappointment and indignation from critics who hoped a woman of African descent would fill the role. But the concept of a dark Cleopatra originated much earlier, when 19th-century artist William Wetmore Story told her with black markings like a abolitionist statement.
A marble carving of Cleopatra. (Credit: William Wetmore Story / CC-0 Public Domain / The Met)
To cultural historian Mary Hamer, it is no wonder that an old queen is at the center of a modern struggle between classicists and the Afrocentrist movement. After all, she was arguably the most worthy adversary of an emerging Roman empire, and in that way she had influenced Europe's path to domination from the start. When people ask if Cleopatra was black, Hamer writes"It seems to have understood that an affirmative answer could call into question the whole fabric of Western civilization." It would mean that at a pivotal moment in European (read: white and patriarchal) history, the political universe revolved around a black woman.
& # 39; An irresistible charm & # 39;
The latest hints in the quest for Cleopatra's face come from the writings of Romans in the centuries after her death, although some show obvious bias. Her reputation was largely determined by Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. After the republic's civil war, when he had to justify the violence he had waged against his Roman brothers, he and his allies found a scapegoat in Cleopatra. Wanting the public to believe that it was she who persuaded the virtuous Caesar and Antony to turn against their own country, they painted her as a foreign temptress. An Augustinian poet and propagandist, Propertius, called it her mere matrix regina, or "Queen of whores."
Later classical historians bring more impartiality and nuance, but they disagree on Cleopatra & # 39; s appearance. Cassius Dio, in his Roman History, calls her & # 39; a woman of unsurpassed beauty & # 39; and adds that & # 39; she was most notable when she was still in the prime of her youth & # 39 ;. This fits the standard story. Plutarch, in his The life of Antony, is more reserved. "For her beauty, as we are told, was not wholly incomparable in itself," he writes, "nor so as to strike those who saw her."
A probably posthumously painted portrait of Cleopatra, from Roman Herculaneum, Italy, dated to the 1st century AD. (Credit: Ángel M. Felicísimo / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)
What Plutarch does emphasize is that 'conversing with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence … had something stimulating. There was also sweetness in the notes of her voice, ”he writes. She spoke many languages and was talented in all the ways expected of a male ruler. According to the historian Sarah Pomeroy, she "rode on horseback, hunted, and was at home on the battlefield." Plutarch testifies in his play to her cleverness and intellect, and William Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra, followed that lead"She is cunning to the man's thoughts," writes the Bard.
We may never know for sure what Cleopatra looked like, but the basic facts of her life are clear. As Ashton says, "I'd rather look at the hard evidence." She wielded as much power as almost everyone else in the ancient Mediterranean and ruled one of the greatest kingdoms. Augustus may have shaped her story, but this implies that he viewed her as a threat serious enough to warrant his slander.
It seems he also inadvertently helped secure her place in eternity. After 2,000 years, for whatever reason, each generation is still fixating on the queen again, re-creating her to meet her needs. "The demands of the moment have always determined Cleopatra's image," Hamer writes. As a result, her fame extends deeper and deeper into her afterlife. Shakespeare, who mused more than 400 years ago, could not have known how he really spoke, "Age cannot wither her, nor habit stale / Her infinite variety."