Cleopatra! When this name is spoken almost immediately one conjures the image of a beautiful femme fatale, sailing down the Nile with her snakes, her lovers, her perfumes and her wiles. “The most beautiful woman to live, right?”
However, many modern ideals of Cleopatra have stated that she was actually ugly. What’s the truth here?
The truth is we may never actually know. After Cleopatra’s suicide and Octavian’s defeat of Egypt in 30 BC, most, if not all, of Cleopatra’s portraits were destroyed by Octavian, along with accounts of her life written by her supporters. Many statues have been found, along with coins of her, but none have been proven to be authentic with the exception of a coin minted in 34 B.C. Since these coins were made of bronze,and have decayed significantly since 2050 years ago, they create a profile of the queen that is not, to modern eyes, pleasing
However, therein lies the ideal. Modern ideas of beauty are vastly different from ancient ones. In the 20th century, Cleopatra was portrayed by Liz Taylor and Vivien Leigh, Hollywood bombshells. However, in the ancient and medieval world, ideals of beauty were quite different. Both ancient and medieval men preferred wives who were plumper than today’s standards, since this showed that they were wealthy and also showed that the wife could bear children.
The modern idea Cleopatra was ugly is not borne out by ancient historians. Again, however, we must also use caution here since the historians writing about Cleopatra were writing about a hundred years after her death and not only had not witnessed the events, but were also patronized by the Romans, Cleopatra’s conquerors.
Plutarch, one of the most famous writers of antiquity, stated that ‘her real beauty was not in and of itself comparable…’ however, he noted that her voice was pleasant. She cannot have been hideous if she were to have caused Caesar and Antony to have fallen in love with her. However, it’s said that by her thirties she had developed a goiter on her chin.
Cleopatra’s death at 39 also seems young and tragic to us, a snake to her breast, dead before middle age. However, Cleopatra would have been considered an old woman at this time. In biblical times, which are not too far removed from our Cleopatra, for example, wives married at 13 and husbands at 14. Wives were often dead in their early to mid 20s from unsafe childbirth and repeated bearings of children, as well as poor nutrition. The men of the ancient world did not often fare much better, often dead by their 30s from warfare and disease as well.
A few years back, the tomb of Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoe, was found in Ephesus, and DNA samples were taken of her which proved what she may have looked like. However, while Cleopatra’s tomb has been found, no such reconstructions of her exist. She was a Macedonian Greek, but even this cannot tell us much. The Greeks can be very light in skin tone to very dark and swarthy looking. The modern ideal of lighter skinned people being the ruling class had no bearing in the ancient world, at least not in Egypt , Africa, or the ancient Middle East.
For now it seems that Cleopatra’s appearance shall remain, for the most part, answerless. The few portraits and coins of her that survive were not meant to be accurate portrayals, but rather, political representations to show her either as the queen of her people or a captured trophy, and the obsession with Cleopatra’s ‘good looks’, as opposed to focus on her true accomplishments as a leader, tells us far more about us than it ever could about her.