A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, August 1, 2013

What Did Cleopatra Really Look Like? Her Image (and "Infinite Variety") Through the Ages

I'm on vacation. As I've done in recent years, I've prepared a number of posts on topics of historical and cultural interest ahead of time, posts unlikely to be overtaken by events. There will be one or more of these per day, and I may drop in to comment on current developments as required.

"Cleopatra's nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed."
Blaise Pascal, Pensées 180

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; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
For two millennia, artists have been fascinated by the last Pharaoh of Egypt, the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII Philopater, or as she is known to most people, just Cleopatra. She has been portrayed in coins, statuary, paintings, and film in many different ways, usually glamorously; she captivated two of the greatest figures in Roman history, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, bearing a child to one and bringing disaster to the other.

A month or so back I ran across this piece, which raises the question of Cleopatra's real looks, and is better than most such pieces. Far too many start from the assumption that Cleopatra is much overrated for her beauty. Many begin with an illustration of one of her coins, such as the one at left, which shows a woman with a beaked nose that does not conform to modern standards of beauty nor, based on what we know of Roman statuary, to Roman standards either (though they did have a higher appreciation of aquiline noses than many today). But is this coin a representation of what Cleopatra really looked like, or some sort of standardization in numismatic art, making her look rather masculine, or even just a die-maker with poor artistic skills? Let's look at a selection of Cleo's other coinage:
Do these even look like the same woman? Certainly they do not give us a consistent image,let alone explain how this woman won both Caesar and Antony. The gentlemanly verdict would seem to be that the Ptolemies had not mastered the numismatic arts.

But Cleopatra ruled Egypt as the last Pharaoh, either as co-ruler or sole ruler, for 21 years from 51 BC to 30 BC, beginning at the age of 18. There was plenty of time for contemporary depiction (even the Rosetta Stone was a decree from her era). But the stylistic conventions of Egyptian art intrude. She is portrayed as a goddess, with a voluptuous body but also because Pharaoh was traditionally male, sometimes but not always with masculine facial features.

Roman depictions are somewhat more consistent. but may not be done by artists who had ever seen her. And they, too, may be conventionalized.

Egyptian and Roman artists, and even Ptolemaic coin designers, may have actually seen, or spoken to those who had seen, the Egyptian Queen. Later artists faced no such constraints. She could be blonde or brunette as they preferred (either is possible; her ancestry was almost entirely Macedonian, despite some modern Afrocentrist efforts to claim her as African). And there were also preferences for how to portray her, usually either her first meeting with Caesar (according to legend arriving wrapped in a carpet) or her suicide (supposedly by a poisonous asp). The latter was a particularly popular theme, since she is said to have held the asp to her breast, allowing the artist to portray her naked or nearly so.

In the Renaissance, Piero di Cosimo painted Simonetta Vespucci, allegedly the most beautiful woman in Florence (married to a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci and also believed by many to have been the model for Botticelli's Venus). as Cleopatra, with the asp around her neck. The asp became a standard part of artistic representation.

Guido Cagnacci, 1658
The Renaissance and later painters soon standardized on a Cleopatra who was frequently blonde and usually rather underdressed. The death scene, with or without the asp, soon became a standard part of the iconography.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866
Needless to say, later artists continued the tradition, including 19th-century artists in the Orientalist tradition like Jean-Léon Gérôme, known for his harem scenes, who in 1866 depicted Cleopatra's meeting with Caesar, looking a bit like a harem girl.

Mose Biamce, 1865
Jean-Andre Rixens, 1874
Other romantic artists followed suit. The Orientalist era seems to have been particularly rich in these themes, with an emphasis on nudity.

Theda Bara, Cleopatra,  1917
And then came the movies. Cleopatra has been a major theme of cinema from its very beginnings. In fact, the first film about the Egyptian queen, 1917's silent Cleopatra starring Theda Bara, may have been the most daring of all; unfortunately, only stills and a few brief clips survive, since after the introduction of the Hays Code in 1930 it was banned as obscene, and the only surviving copies were destroyed in a fire. Stills like the one at left suggest it was more suggestive than its more modern successors, at least until recently.

Claudette Colbert, Cleopatra,, 1934
Claudette Colbert's  1934 interpretation in Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra (right) was a lot less daring than Theda Bara's,

Liz Taylor, 1963
Lindsey Marshal, HBO's Rome, 2005-2007
The definitive Cleopatra for those of us of the Baby Boomer generation was 1963's Joseph Mankiewicz's Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, and Richard Burton; it was hugely expensive for its era and remembered for that and for the beginning of the Taylor-Burton romance.

Vivien Leigh
UPDATE: A commenter notes  that I left out Vivien Leigh, who played Cleopatra in 1945's Caesar and Cleopatra. I hadn't realized she'd played the role. Either she didn't come up in a Google image search, or else I didn't recognize her because she wasn't dressed like Scarlett O'Hara. So for the sake of completeness, I add her.

These are just the Anglo-American film interpretations, of course; other cultures have filmed the queen, and the story continues to be told. The queen remains a fascinating character, and each country and generation interprets her in its own way and through its own eyes. Cleopatra remains a popular brand in Egypt as well, where it has been applied to cigarettes, wine, hotels and much besides.

It would appear that Shakespeare, as usual, got it right:
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 ...


Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention Vivien Leigh, she played Cleopatra in the motion picture Caesar and Cleopatra from 1945.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

I hadn't realized she'd played the role. Either she didn't come up in a Google image search, or else I didn't recognize her because she wasn't dressed like Scarlett O'Hara.

Sweedie-The-Cat said...

Interesting article. I wonder if their coin making technology was not up to the task of portraying noses properly. Recall, coins must be stamped. Some details may have been exaggerated for some reason?

For another take, and another actress portraying Cleo, go see here:

Cleopatra ("Fergilicious" by Fergie)
To see/hear 50+ other wonderful videos, go here:
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Unknown said...

She couldn't have been that hot. She was a product of incest