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What Cleopatra Actually Looked Like

January 28, 2021 8.1k views13 items

Cleopatra is one of the most famous women from ancient antiquity. As an educated woman, Cleopatra could speak multiple languages and had a reputation for being extremely clever - attracting the attention and desire of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

The daughter of Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra was the co-ruler with her father, two younger brothers, and her son. This allowed her reign of power to span nearly three decades. Her mother was most likely Cleopatra V Tryphaena, the wife of the king, and scholars place her birth year between 70-69 BCE. There were no contemporary accounts written about the life of Cleopatra. Everything that we know about the powerful woman was written down years later after she passed.

She was an important ruler in Ancient Egypt, but what did Cleopatra look like? Many scholars debate what her physical appearance might have been. The answer is hard to discern because the sources have been manipulated throughout history. We may never really know exactly what Cleopatra looked like, but we also might ask questions about what constitutes beauty.

  • Photo: Jean-Léon Gérôme / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Julius Caesar Was Reportedly Captivated By Her Beauty

    Julius Caesar of Rome was captivated by Cleopatra’s beauty, and he helped her regain power in Egypt. Upon her father’s passing, Cleopatra inherited the throne - along with her brothers, which caused a civil war.

    Cleopatra was forced to flee, but returned to Egypt and pleaded with Julius Caesar to help her. Caesar’s army defeated Cleopatra’s brother’s army, and Caesar reinstated Cleopatra and her younger brother on the throne in Egypt. Caesar remained in Egypt for a time and Cleopatra gave birth to a son, Ptolemy Caesar.

    The Egyptian people called him "Caesarion," meaning “Little Caesar.” Soon, both Julius Caesar and Cleopatra’s brother were slain, and her young son was named co-ruler.

  • Photo: Fox Film Corporation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Historians Don’t Believe She Looked Like Our Modern Perception

    Many historians do not believe that Cleopatra was the sex symbol she's often depicted as today. Cleopatra's allure was in her intelligence and talent for politics.

    Beauty standards also vary by culture and by time period, so it might be pointless to ask whether or not Cleopatra was beautiful by today’s standards. Contemporary scholars wrote that Cleopatra had a beautiful voice and that hearing her speak was very pleasing.

  • The Romans Used Her Looks And Sexuality To Hurt Her Reputation

    Roman scholars were forced to write descriptions that tarnished Cleopatra’s reputation. Emperor Octavian (later named Augustus) did not like Cleopatra and sought to destroy her reputation.

    Octavian’s rival, Mark Antony, fell in love with her, and Octavian used this relationship to cast Cleopatra in the role of a foreign beauty who had seduced Mark Antony and, in effect, Rome. Octavian referring to her “foreign beauty” was a way to diminish her intellectual abilities.

    Roman historian Dio Cassius described Cleopatra as beautiful. In his Roman Historyhe writes:

    For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one. Being brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate every one, even a love-sated man already past his prime, she thought that it would be in keeping with her role to meet Caesar, and she reposed in her beauty all her claims to the throne. She asked therefore for admission to his presence, and on obtaining permission adorned and beautified herself so as to appear before him in the most majestic and at the same time pity-inspiring guise. When she had perfected her schemes she entered the city (for she had been living outside of it), and by night without Ptolemy's knowledge went into the palace. 

    Octavian’s propaganda campaign against Cleopatra was used to garner support for his civil war against Mark Antony. He portrayed her as an evil, power-hungry queen bent on manipulating a Roman hero.

  • Historical Portraits Of Cleopatra Are Not Accurate Depictions

    Many scholars argue that paintings and depictions of Cleopatra are more telling of the time they were created than the queen’s actual physical appearance. 

    These paintings show her meeting Mark Antony, conversing with Julius Caesar, and taking her life with a venomous snake. However, most of these paintings depict her in a very European style - with little to no basis on the era she actually lived in.