What Did Cleopatra Really Look Like?
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Meanwhile, as I discuss in this article from August , the popular story about Cleopatra committing suicide by allowing an Egyptian asp to bite her on the breast is probably apocryphal and it is more likely that she actually committed suicide by drinking poison or by cutting herself and applying poison to the wound. Perhaps the greatest misconception of all about Cleopatra, though, is what she looked like. Modern people have a very clear image of what Cleopatra looked like: a beautiful, pale, small-nosed woman like Elizabeth Taylor dressed in a revealing outfit with thick makeup, straight, black hair, bangs, and braids with gold ornaments going down to her shoulders.
Unfortunately for fans of classic films, this image is inaccurate in almost every single way. She did have a large, hooked nose, a prominent chin, and curly hair that she normally wore in a bun at the back of her head. The modern image of Cleopatra in popular culture has been fundamentally shaped by the portrayal of Cleopatra by the British-American actress Elizabeth Taylor in the historical drama film Cleopatra , directed by Joseph L.
At the time when Cleopatra first met Julius Caesar in 47 BC, though, she was only about twenty-two years old about a decade younger than Taylor and, by the time of her death in August of 30 BC, she was nearly forty about a decade older than Taylor.
She surely must have aged considerably over the course of that time, but yet films rarely show this. It was Cecil B. Most people assume that, because Cleopatra ruled Egypt, she must have been a native Egyptian.
In reality, Cleopatra probably thought of herself primarily as Greek and it is unclear whether she even had a single Egyptian ancestor. We know very little about where the ancestors of most specific individuals who lived in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt came from.
Cleopatra is one of the few exceptions to this trend. Because Cleopatra was a member of the well-documented and long-lasting Ptolemaic Dynasty, we have a pretty good impression of where most of her ancestors came from, going back centuries before she was even born. The Ptolemies were one of the most notoriously inbred dynasties in the ancient world and it was customary for men in the royal family, especially kings, to marry their own sisters and cousins.
The Ptolemies rarely ever married outsiders and, when they did, they usually only married members of other Greek royal families. Both of these marriages ended badly. In addition to being of Greek ancestry, the Ptolemies were also culturally Greek. Greek was the only language that most of the Ptolemies ever learned to speak and, while they portrayed themselves as pharaohs to their Egyptian subjects, they portrayed themselves to the world—and almost certainly thought of themselves—as thoroughly Greek monarchs.
They minted Greek-style coins, sponsored Greek intellectuals, gave their offspring Greek names, commissioned portraits of themselves using Greek iconography, and traced their legitimacy to their connection with Alexander the Great. In fact, Cleopatra herself was the only member of her family who ever even learned to speak the Egyptian language and, even with her, surviving documents from her court reveal that she conducted nearly all official business in Greek.
She almost certainly would have thought of herself primarily as a Greek queen. Ptolemaios XII is known to have had several wives, all of whom are reported to have been from noble families. His primary wife was Kleopatra V Tryphaina and she is the only one of his wives whose name is recorded. The Greek writer Strabon of Amaseia lived c. This statement, however, has caused considerable controversy, since Strabon is the only ancient writer who ever even implies that Cleopatra was illegitimate.
If it were really well-established that Cleopatra was not the legitimate daughter of Ptolemaios XII and his legal wife, we would expect to see this claim reiterated and emphasized in virtually every extant Roman source. Instead, what we see is the exact opposite: total silence. There are two possible resolutions to this conundrum.
But was she? The octagonal tomb at Ephesos containing the skeleton was first discovered in , but it was initially mistaken for a victory monument. The skeleton itself was discovered in What happened in , then? Apparently, the author of the Vox article saw the year that the documentary was produced and incorrectly assumed that the skeleton had just been discovered that year. The girl whose skeleton was found in the tomb at Ephesos, on the other hand, is estimated to have been between fifteen and eighteen years old at the time of her death.
Her team was not able to conduct an accurate analysis of the DNA from the skeleton because the bones had been handled too many times since they were first uncovered in and the DNA was too corrupted to work with. It is widely accepted among modern scholars, though, that skull measurements are not a reliable way of determining race. This whole argument, then, is basically just a series of unfounded assumptions on top of unfounded assumptions.
Obviously, this is all circumstantial evidence, but, with all the evidence put together, he makes a fairly compelling case. Because Cleopatra was one of the most powerful people of her time and the ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt for twenty-one years, we have no shortage of ancient depictions of her, so we have a pretty good impression of what she really looked like—or at least how her official portrait artists portrayed her.
It dates from her own lifetime and is probably the closest any of us will ever come to seeing what Cleopatra herself looked like:. Here is another marble portrait head of Cleopatra that is currently held in the Vatican Museums. The nose on this one has, unfortunately, been broken off, but, as I discuss in this article I wrote in July , this is very common for classical marble sculptures, since the nose is a rather thin piece of marble that sticks out past the rest of the face and it therefore has a tendency to be the first part to break off if the statue is knocked over or if something is knocked into it.
We must imagine this head as having originally possessed a nose similar to the Berlin portrait shown above:. Here is a full marble statue of Cleopatra from the Vatican Museums. Like the two portrait heads shown above, it is also contemporary to her reign:. Her coin portraits, however, are of inferior artistic quality and, to me at least, look rather cartoonish. They are also somewhat less consistent in how they portray her.
In any case, here is a portrait of Cleopatra from one of her own coins minted in Egypt during her reign:. Here is another silver coin minted by Cleopatra, depicting herself on the obverse and Marcus Antonius on the reverse:.
Here is another coin, also depicting Cleopatra on the obverse and Marcus Antonius on the reverse:. In coin portraits, the degree to which her nose is hooked is emphasized, but, in sculptural portraits, it tends to be toned down.
Similarly, in coin portraits, Cleopatra seems to have a rather large, projecting chin, but this prominent feature is noticeably toned down in her sculptural portraits. Even though most people today imagine Cleopatra with bangs because of how she was portrayed in twentieth-century films, in ancient portraits, she is consistently shown without bangs.
Likewise, even though most people imagine Cleopatra with straight hair, judging from her surviving portraits, it seems her hair was actually curly , not straight at all. Although it may be an imperfect comparison, it is helpful to think of the diadem as basically the ancient Greek equivalent of a crown. The Greek biographer Ploutarchos of Chaironeia lived c.
This bag tied up with Cleopatra inside and presented to Caesar. When Caesar untied the bag, Cleopatra arose from it. In any case, the mere fact that people in ancient times thought that the young Cleopatra was able to fit inside a large sack for tying up bedclothes is a strong indication that she had a reputation for being an extremely tiny person. The fact that she had this reputation is an indication that she was probably rather small. None of the ancient artistic depictions of Cleopatra tell us what color her skin was or what color her hair was.
Although, as I talk about in this article I originally published in February , classical sculptures were originally painted to look lifelike, the original pigments on the Berlin Cleopatra and other sculptures of her have all flaked away and, as far as I am aware, no one has done examinations of them to determine what the original colors were.
Here, however, is a painting from one of the houses in the Roman city of Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. This painting dates to the first century AD and has been identified by some scholars as a posthumous portrait of Cleopatra. We know this is definitely a portrait of a Hellenistic queen, since the woman in the painting is wearing a diadem.
Because the portrait is surrounded by Egyptian motifs, we can be reasonably sure that the woman shown is specifically an Egyptian queen. If this painting does indeed depict Cleopatra and it is an accurate representation of her, that would mean Cleopatra was pale-skinned with frizzy red hair.
Of course, we cannot be completely certain that this painting really depicts Cleopatra. Even though the woman in the painting closely resembles known portraits of Cleopatra and she is shown surrounded by Egyptian motifs, the painting is still not labelled and there is no way to tell for sure if it is really Cleopatra or another Hellenistic Egyptian queen with the same hairstyle.
Many have complained about Cleopatra being portrayed by white actresses, since many have argued that this is whitewashing. If this painting from Herculaneum is indeed a reasonably accurate near-contemporary portrait of Cleopatra, though, this would mean that Hollywood may actually be correct in portraying Cleopatra as white.
We usually imagine Cleopatra wearing extremely heavy makeup. This idea is one that can be traced all the way back to antiquity. Lucan writes, as translated by H. Riley :. Her white breasts shine through the Sidonian fabric, which, wrought in close texture by the sley of the Seres [i.
Here do they place circles, cut from the snow-white teeth hi the forests of Atlas, such as not even when Juba was captured, came before the eyes of Caesar. Lucan himself certainly never saw Cleopatra in person, nor is it likely that he could he have personally met with anyone who had seen her in person.
Furthermore, Lucan was a Roman imperial propagandist who knew that Cleopatra had been the enemy of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and therefore wanted to portray Cleopatra in the absolute worst possible light. Since the Romans viewed heavy makeup as immoral and associated it with prostitution, Lucan describes Cleopatra as wearing heavy makeup specifically to make her sound like a prostitute with no modesty or sense of decency. I imagine that Cleopatra probably wore makeup at least sometimes, but how heavy it would have been is hard to say.
It is true that the ancient Egyptians often lined their eyes with kohl and it is possible that Cleopatra may have done this under some circumstances as well.
Nonetheless, we must remember that, culturally, Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian. Among the ancient Greeks, as with the Romans, heavy makeup generally seems to have been frowned up and even associated with prostitution. Indeed, even wearing makeup at all was sometimes seen in the Greek world as deceitful. The ancient Athenian writer Xenophon lived c. He berates her, telling her that, by wearing makeup, she is deceiving him and hiding her true appearance from him.
He says to her, as rendered in this translation :. Tricks like these may serve to gull outsiders, but people who live together are bound to be found out, if they try to deceive one another. For they are found out while they are dressing in the morning; they perspire and are lost; a tear convicts them; the bath reveals them as they are! For instance, here is one modern attempt to reconstruct what Cleopatra might have looked like, based on the many surviving ancient portraits of her:.
How accurate is this reconstruction? In this reconstruction, as you can tell, they clearly decided to go with giving her olive skin, which is not an unreasonable supposition. The creators of this reconstruction have noticeably omitted the cloth diadem that Cleopatra is nearly always shown wearing. Meanwhile, the outfit Cleopatra is shown wearing in this reconstruction, with its extremely low neckline and bare shoulders, is almost certainly not the kind of outfit the historical Cleopatra would have worn out in public, since Greek women—yes, even queens—were expected to dress modestly.
There are surviving nude statues of Cleopatra, but these are statues portraying her as a goddess, not accurate representations of how she really dressed. For some reason, they left out her cloth diadem and decided to anachronistically portray her with cornrows. Cornrows were definitely not a common hairstyle in the ancient Mediterranean world and there are no extant representations of Cleopatra that unambiguously depict her with this very modern hairstyle.