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Cleopatra poisons herself in a suicide pact with Antony and her hand maidens



A superb depiction of Cleopatra taking her own life, unlikely to have been by the handling of a snake, but could well have been by an asp in a basket of fruit. Most probably with a concoction of drugs to ease the pain.






More than 2,000 years after her death in 30 BCE, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra still looms large in the popular imagination. 


While the search continues for the resting place of Cleopatra, her long lost missing tomb, the other question on everyone's mind is what the Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Queen may have looked like. Especially now that Netflix have commissioned a docu-drama claiming that she was African. Was she the ravishing beauty depicted by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, or was she African, as depicted by Adele James in 2023? Nobody seems to be able to say for sure, despite mounds of evidence in the form of carvings and coins.











Despite what is known of her brilliance and charm, in mass media depictions what often comes to the forefront is Cleopatra as a ravishingly seductive proto-femme fatale. Are the Halloween costumes and Hollywood glamour accurate depictions of her? What did she really look like? And how do we know?

Today many historians subscribe to the theory that Cleopatra’s looks - however pleasing they might have been - were ancillary to her considerable intelligence, learning, foresight, and strategic skills. The image of her as a sultry seductress likely stems from a narrative originally pushed by Octavian (Augustus) to rationalize his rivalry and conflict with fellow Roman Marc Antony, who was portrayed as having been manipulated by a foreign temptress. What’s more, casting Cleopatra as an evil beauty conveniently downplayed her competence and significance as a ruler.












While Roman historian Dio Cassius described Cleopatra as “a woman of surpassing beauty,” a number of modern historians have characterized her as less than exceptionally attractive. Nevertheless, they have noted that her beauty was heralded and that her appearance was seductive. Hardly surprising, given that she is said to have walked bare breasted. Perhaps, the window dressing was to take attention from her less than attractive facial features. Or, simply to frame the visage, topped with a stunning headdress, to (again) draw attention away from her face. A sort of visual-sexual balancing act.


Greek biographer Plutarch, writing about a century after Cleopatra’s death, presented a less flattering picture: "For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” Plutarch, however, was quick to note Cleopatra’s “irresistible charm,” sweet voice, persuasiveness, and stimulating presence.















Cleopatra VII Philopator was (for sure) the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes (80-52BC), Pharaoh of Egypt and (quite likely) Cleopatra V Tryphaena. There is a marked difference in facial features between the busts and temple relief's. The one thing the Egyptian carvings have in common, are the bare breasts. The signature tune of Egypt's last Pharaoh Queen.






Though few in number, there are artifacts that attest to Cleopatra’s appearance. One of the most prominent is a marble bust dating to the third quarter of the 1st century BCE, housed in the Old (Altes) Museum in Germany. The so-named 'Berlin Cleopatra' depicts her wearing a royal diadem (headband like crown). Her face is framed by ringlets of curly hair (that may have been red-giner), and the rest of her hair is arranged in a “melon” style (divided into segments that run like the ribs of a melon from the forehead back) and gathered into a bun behind her head.


Her eyes are almond-shaped. Although her nose is prominent, her features are softly modulated and have been described as reflecting her intelligence and charm. Cleopatra’s hair is styled similarly on another marble bust, this one found in a villa on the Appian Way in 1784 and now displayed at the Vatican’s Gregoriano Profano Museum. On this bust too, her features are generally soft and her lips full. Her nose is missing, but its “footprint” on the face suggests that it was large.

An aquiline nose is the most prominent feature of the profiles of Cleopatra on contemporary coins (issued by Cleopatra or in her name) that are widely held to give the best representation of her appearance. On some of the coins, her nose is less hooked, her cheeks are full, and her chin is small, as on the marble busts. On other coins (especially those minted by Marc Antony, with his likeness on one side and hers on the other), her nose hooks dramatically, her forehead slopes broadly, her chin is pointy, and her face is more masculine.








In Hollywood movies, Cleopatra has been played by an array of stunning actresses. Elizabeth Taylor, who was put under the “gaze” as the “Queen of the Nile” in the best-known film version of the ruler’s story to date, Cleopatra (1963), is a mainstay on short lists of moviedom’s most attractive leading ladies. One of cinema’s first sex symbols, Theda Bara, invested her Cleopatra with dark sensuality in the lost silent classic Cleopatra (1917). Before the Production Code reined in sexual suggestiveness, a scantily clad Claudette Colbert caused a sensation in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Cleopatra (1934), and Vivian Leigh was the beguiling queen in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). In 2023, Gal Gadot is limbering up to play the part.


So, how did this image of Cleopatra come to be?

The obsession with Cleopatra as a stunner started much earlier than movies: it started in literature and drama. In his play Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare indelibly etched the queen’s portrait with these 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."

In his novel Cleopatra (1889), H. Rider Haggard was more direct in his description of the queen, who is a “Thing of Flame”:

"Then I looked upon…that face which seduced Caesar….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."

If you were writing a historical drama, you'd probably want to describe the heroine as attractive, or suffer a loss, since few would pay to watch a hag perform.


Those contemplating depicting the famous Egyptian icon, might do well to judge not the colour of her skin, or the question of beauty, and instead focus on her charm and brilliance. Give time to researching the subject more completely, leaving no stone unturned - in the quest for truth.









Bare breasted and distinctly Egyptian looking, though likely to have been the official Egyptianised interpretation, to fit in with other carved depictions.







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Cleopatra - The Mummy - A John Storm adventure with the Elizabeth Swann



The rights of Jameson Hunter and Cleaner Ocean Foundation to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. This website and the Cleopatra artwork is Copyright © 2024 Cleaner Ocean Foundation and Jameson Hunter.