If Hollywood epics have taught us anything about the ancient world, it’s that Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt was drop-dead gorgeous. The original femme fatale has only been played by sultry screen goddesses — Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor. But just how beautiful was she? According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, men were hypnotized not by Cleopatra’s looks but by her wit and charm: Her beauty was “not of the incomparable kind that would astonish everyone who saw her,” he wrote, “but her conversation was irresistibly fascinating, and her character utterly mesmerizing.” She certainly knew how to make a memorable entrance: To meet Mark Anthony on the modern-day coast of Turkey, she arrived in a luxurious gondola dressed as Aphrodite and reclining on a gold bed as naked slaves fanned her with feathers. (The ancients did not share our sense of privacy; the minions would have kept fanning while the couple made love). She also had a sense of humor, apparently switching with ease from erudite bon mots to the dirty barracks-room jokes favored by her soldier beaus. And she knew how to dress for any occasion: She and her raucous lover Mark Anthony were rumored to have had a riotous time slumming in disguise around the waterfront bars of Alexandria.
So what did Miss Personality look like? The problem is that, after her defeat and suicide by cobra-bite, the Romans destroyed almost all statues of her. Cleopatra’s profile on many surviving coins, which were minted in Egypt during her lifetime, is downright ugly: Most depict her with a long, hooked nose that today would make her an advertisement for cosmetic surgery. Combined with a scrawny neck, she has what one curator has called “the features of a bird of prey.” But these coins cannot be taken as serious portraits: Minted during Rome’s civil wars, they were deliberately stylized to show the queen as a fierce and terrifying conqueror-goddess, not a pin-up girl.
Luckily, we do have a single marble bust that is definitely accepted to be of Cleopatra, although the nose is missing. Displayed in the Vatican Museums of Rome, it shows her as a “young, fresh, willful woman” (as one historian eagerly puts it), with large eyes that would have been accentuated with lavish applications of kohl, and full sensual lips with the hint of a smile. Her hair is pulled back into a bun and tied with a headband or diadem. She is not as Egyptian-looking as Hollywood likes to depict — Cleopatra was of Greek ancestry, the last of a dynasty begun by one of Alexander the Great’s generals — but it bears out Plutarch’s verdict that she was attractive without being Venus de Milo.
And Cleopatra’s nose? Throughout most of Western history, a regal schnoz has been regarded as a sign of strong character; it may actually have been exaggerated on coins to show her imposing nature. In the 16th century, the mathematician Pascal would remark: “Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” But he was actually admiring the queen’s forceful personality and intelligence, much as people might colloquially refer to impressive cojones today. • 8 March 2010
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Goudchaux, Guy Weill, “Was Cleopatra beautiful?” in Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth, ed. Walker, Susan and Higgs, Peter, (London, 2001).