|Liz Taylor as Cleo
author of the Roman Mysteries
Contrary to what we would love to believe, Cleopatra VII (i.e. the famous one) was probably not a stunning beauty like Elizabeth Taylor.
This portrait bust of Nefertiti, who lived around 1350 BC, was probably idealised (i.e. made to look nicer than the real woman).
But even if Egyptian Nefertiti was that beautiful, remember Cleopatra was not Egyptian. She was a Macedonian Greek, a descendant of Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's commanders.
When I was researching the 14th book in my Roman Mysteries series, The Beggar of Volubilis, I was shocked to see contemporary depictions of Cleopatra on coins. These portraits showed Cleopatra as a frizzy-haired, bull-necked hag with a hooked nose and jutting chin. And a man's Adam's apple! She looks like a transvestite, for goodness sake.
Scholars tell us she had herself shown like this because the "masculine" features reminded people of her power and lineage. In other words, it was a kind of political propaganda.
|BM exhibition catalogue
A 20th century French writer named André Malraux said this: "Nefertiti is a face without a queen, Cleopatra is a queen without a face." What he meant was that we have a perfect idea of what Nefertiti looked like, but we know almost nothing about her. Whereas we know tons about Cleopatra but nobody can agree what she looked like.
In the glossy catalogue accompanying a 2001 British Museum exhibition about Cleopatra, scholar Guy Weill Goudchaux suggests that Cleopatra was probably slender. Why? Because she had to be light enough for one man to carry her rolled up in a sleeping mat along corridors of the palace and into Caesar's presence. But she probably wasn't too petite or she wouldn't have been able give birth to four children with no problems.
OK. She was slender and not too tall. But what did her face look like?
There are two other famous quotes about Cleopatra that relate to her looks.
The first one is by Plutarch, a Greek historian who was born around AD 45, about 75 years after she died. In his biography of Mark Anthony he writes this about Cleopatra (and I paraphrase): "Her beauty was not exceptional enough to instantly affect those who saw her, but she had a charming way of conversing, and an invigorating presence. Her sweet voice was as well-modulated as a lyre, and she could speak whichever language she pleased."
So she was melodic, intelligent, charming and charismatic. But not a jaw-dropping beauty, like Elizabeth Taylor up above.
The other famous quote is by a French philosopher named Blaise Pascal who lived in the 1600s. He had a big nose himself and was certainly familiar with the startling coins showing big-nosed Cleo. He wrote this: "If Cleopatra's nose had been shorter, the whole face of the world might have been changed."
This statement has intrigued generations of scholars since, and even the creators of Asterisk refer to it in their own witty way.
|witty nose reference by Julius Caesar in Asterix and Cleopatra
But Monsieur Pascal knew that in the ancient world – and many periods since – a strong nose showed strength of character. If her nose had been weaker, maybe her character would have been weaker, too. Maybe her strong nose was one of the things that attracted Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, two of the most powerful men in the world, to fall in love with her and marry her.
|bust of Cleopatra in Berlin
To my mind, the most inspired portrait ever done of Cleopatra is the one painted in 1888 by J.W. Waterhouse. I am going through a bit of a Waterhouse phase, and have blogged about his fabulous paintings of Adonis, Ariadne, Circe, Hylas, Narcissus and Orpheus. Waterhouse was famous for painting dewy-eyed nymphs and nubile girls.
His Cleopatra is quite a departure from his usual type.
But what a departure. He shows a woman sitting on a throne, with her head down. This reminds me of a phrase from the Iliad: hypodra idon, looking out from beneath her eyebrows. The phrase is usually applied to the great warrior Achilles.
|Cleopatra by J.W. Waterhouse (1888) sadly in a private collection
Her posture speaks volumes, too. She is seated on a throne to represent power. One arm akimbo, a gesture of authority often seen in parents, teachers and police when enforcing their rules. Her left arm rests on a lioness arm-rest of her throne, another symbol of power. But one of her mannish fingers is almost gouging out the lioness's eye. This reminds us that she was ruthless when she had to be.
What Waterhouse has done is to combine the two contrasting personae of Cleopatra: the slender charismatic charmer who held men in her thrall and the power-craving, ruthless ruler who was not afraid to have herself portrayed as a man in drag.
|a Waterhouse nymph
I think Waterhouse totally got Cleopatra.
Compare his soft, watery nymphs to the smouldering, tortured despot above and I think you will agree that in her own way Cleo is just as beautiful as any of them.
Only a hell of a lot scarier!
P.S. In April 2016, I attended Les Grands Jeux Romains at the ancient Roman arena at Nîmes. Over four hundred re-enactors restaged the (sea) battle of Actium with Cleopatra playing a major part. The attention to detail was superb and I was delighted to see Waterhouse's influence in Cleopatra's throne with its lion-head arms. (photo of Cleopatra by Christelle Champ)
[Two of my Roman Mysteries feature references to Cleopatra VII, the famous one. In The Beggar of Volubilis a plain, frizzy-haired, big-nosed girl claims to be her great, great granddaughter. In The Scribes from Alexandria Cleo makes a "guest appearance" on the beach at Canopus. The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans, Greeks or Egyptians as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]