Was Cleopatra Beautiful?

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Cleopatra is often depicted as an exceedingly beautiful woman, perhaps in part because she was able to successfully ensnare both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Dio stated that she was “a woman of surpassing beauty”, yet contemporary chronicles and art works suggest that she was actually rather plain looking with a prominent nose. Cicero rather unkindly states “Her figure is anything other than voluptuous, and her face is marred not merely by the inbred Ptolemy hooked nose, but by a strong chin and hard features which detract from the sweetness and gentleness we prize in our women” (but he clearly hated her).

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Cleopatra, John Waterhouse
Cleopatra, John Waterhouse

Plutarch somewhat contradictorily refers to the “effect of her beauty” on Caesar but then notes that while her beauty “was in itself not altogether incomparable…the character that attended all she said or did was something bewitching”. Of course beauty is very much in they eye of the beholder and to apply modern restrictive standards of beauty to Queen Cleopatra does her a disservice.

Cleopatra and the peasant, Delacroix
Cleopatra and the peasant, Delacroix

Dio notes that Cleopatra “beautified herself so as to appear before him in the most majestic and at the same time pity-inspiring guise” when she first met Caesar and he was clearly captivated by her while Appian comments that Mark Antony fell in love with Cleopatra “the moment he saw her”. She must have been a charming and charismatic person confident in her own intelligence and power, and that can be a powerful aphrodisiac. Pascal remarked “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole fate of the world would have been changed” (in the seventeenth century prominent noses were taken as a sign of dominance).

Bibliography

Classical Texts

  • Cassius Dio (155 or 163 – post 229 AD) Roman History
  • Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus aka Plutarch (c46 – 120 AD) Life of Antony
  • Strabo (64 or 63 BC – AD 24) The Geography
  • Flavius Josephus (c37 – 100 AD) Antiquities of the Jews
  • Marcus Annaeus Lucanus aka Lucan (39 – 65 AD) Civil WarAppian (95 – 165 AD) Civil War

Modern Texts

  • Joann Fletcher (2011) Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend
  • Prudence J. Jones (2006) Cleopatra: a sourcebook
  • Duane Roller (2011) Cleopatra: a biography

copyright J Hill 2011