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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 reported beauty secured her immortality and she has been played by an array of Hollywood icons over the years. Elizabeth Taylor, Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert and Vivien Leigh are among the most famous names to have played the “Queen of the Nile”. But this obsession with Cleopatra’s looks started much earlier than the 20th century.
In ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, William Shakespeare described her with the timeless words: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed but she makes hungry where most she satisfies.”
H Rider Haggard went further still in his novel ‘Cleopatra’, writing in 1889: “I looked upon the flawless Grecian features, the rounded chin, the full, rich lips, the chiselled nostrils, and the ears fashioned like delicate shells.
“I saw the forehead, low, broad, and lovely, the crisped, dark hair falling in heavy waves that sparkled in the Sun, the arched eyebrows, and the long, bent lashes.
“There before me was the grandeur of her imperial shape. There burnt the wonderful eyes, hued like the Cyprian violet.”
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But as Jeff Wallenfeldt pointed out when analysing Cleopatra’s image, historians “might do well to consider much less the fraught question of whether Cleopatra was beautiful and instead focus on the fact that she was considered charming, charismatic, and brilliant”.
Historian Sarah B Pomeroy led the charge for experts to appreciate Cleopatra more for her intelligence, learning and strategic skill rather than her looks.
As Mr Wallenfeldt points out in his Encyclopaedia Britannica essay, the image of Cleopatra as a “sultry seductress” can largely be explained by Emperor Augustus’ attempts to undermine Mark Antony’s legacy.
The first Roman Emperor, also known as Octavian, was keen to rationalise his rivalry and portrayed Antony as having been manipulated by a foreign temptress.
And, Mr Wallenfeldt claims, casting Cleopatra as an “evil beauty” in this narrative “conveniently downplayed her competence and significance as a ruler”.
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This is consistent with historic accounts. Roman historian Dio Cassius described Cleopatra as a “woman of surpassing beauty” but Greek biographer Plutarch was less complimentary.
He claimed her beauty was “not altogether incomparable” but recognised her “irresistible charm”, persuasiveness and intelligence.
This is perhaps backed up by artefacts showing Cleopatra from her era that still survive today.
In February 2007, the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne found a small coin depicting Cleopatra looking “plain” and “shrewish”.
Writing for BBC HistoryExtra, Professor Kevin Butcher recalled: “Yet for all the fanfare, there was nothing particularly unusual about the Newcastle coin.
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“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.
“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, co-author of The Metallurgy of Roman Silver Coinage: From the Reform of Nero to the Reform of Trajan, 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 historical 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.
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“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.”