Cleopatra was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt ‒ after her death in 30 BC, the country became a province of the Roman Empire. Her beauty secured her immortality ‒ and she has been a pop culture icon of Egyptomania ever since. In the 20th century, she was played by Elizabeth Taylor as Hollywood retold the story of her affair with Mark Antony, played by Richard Burton, in ‘Cleopatra’.
But despite the reputation of striking beauty, Cleopatra’s real appearance is still the subject of debate.
When the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne found a small coin of her, Professor Kevin Butcher recalled how she looked “plain”, even “shrewish”, and had a “hook-like hooter”.
He continued: “Yet for all the fanfare, there was nothing particularly unusual about the Newcastle coin.
“There are plenty of coins surviving with Cleopatra’s portrait on them, and they generally repeat the same features that seemed to astound reporters: a prominent nose, sloping forehead, sharply pointed chin and thin lips, and hollow-looking eye sockets.
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“These coin portraits, surprising though they may be to those who have grown up with a ‘Hollywood Cleopatra’, are the only certain images we have of her.”
Prof Butcher explains in his piece for BBC HistoryExtra that the depiction of Cleopatra in the coins has often been rejected as people hope for a face that “better matches our expectations”.
He adds that some claim “these unconvincing portraits were the work of unskilled artists”.
However, he has bad news for the doubters.
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Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Antony and Cleopatra
Prof Butcher adds: “There’s no reason to think these coin portraits are wrong, however.
“At the time, a warts-and-all approach to portraiture was in vogue in the Mediterranean world, and it seems that Cleopatra’s image was no exception to this trend.
“Features like large noses or determined chins may have been slightly exaggerated, but only because those features were the most recognisable attributes of the individual being portrayed. In this sense they were intended to be realistic.
“Coin portraits of Cleopatra’s father, much rarer than those of Cleopatra herself, show him with a prominent nose and sloping forehead, so these physical characteristics may well have been family traits.
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Cleopatra depicted on a coin
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“Her lovers don’t match modern popular conceptions either: Julius Caesar has a wrinkled, scrawny neck and hides his bald head with a crown, and Antony’s jutting chin and broken nose bear no resemblance to Richard Burton’s features.”
Prof Butcher, co-author of ‘The Metallurgy of Roman Silver Coinage: From the Reform of Nero to the Reform of Trajan’, points out that the coins were minted in a variety of places, too.
Antony conquered a number of eastern cities and territories in Cleopatra’s name ‒ and coins were issued in all of those places.
Most of the coins were produced when Cleopatra was in her late 30s and often she is associated with Antony, whose portrait appears on the other side.
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Prof Butcher concludes that the image of Cleopatra in the coins is most likely accurate and her portrayal today as a figure of unique beauty is merely a product of historic romanticisation.
He writes: “The modern negative reaction to the face of Cleopatra tells us more about our love of stories than anything about this most famous of Egyptian queens.
“For us, the reality of her coin portraits clashes with the much greater myth of Cleopatra, a myth so grand that it has practically consumed the person behind it.”
However, he does not blame Hollywood for this misconception.
He adds: “Hardly had Cleopatra died than the legends began to accrue.
“In 31 BC she and her lover, Antony, had been defeated by their rival Octavian, and in the following year they committed suicide in Egypt.
“Octavian had triumphed, but he was the victor in a vicious civil war that had pitted Roman against Roman.
“Cleopatra was a convenient scapegoat. Octavian claimed to have waged war against the foreign queen, not Antony.
“In this way Antony could be portrayed as a virtuous Roman who had betrayed his homeland through the machinations of an evil temptress.
“Cleopatra was cast as an irresistible and exotic femme fatale, and Roman writers picked up the theme.”