Saturday, September 03, 2011

Ugly Cleopatra

Liz Taylor as Cleo
by Caroline Lawrence
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.

Cleopatra is associated with Egypt, so many modern film-makers and book cover designers use the beautiful portrait of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti as their inspiration.

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
But what did she really look like?

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
In the 21st century, everyone wants babyish good looks, with big eyes and a button nose. Women will pay good money to have a strong nose made smaller, to fit in with modern conventions.

But at the time when Cleopatra and Anthony were struggling with Octavian for control of the entire Roman Empire (c. 37 - 30 BC) a big nose did signify strength of character and power. This marble bust, now in Berlin, is accepted as one of the few accurate depictions of Cleopatra VII. It shows that she did indeed have a strong nose, even if it wasn't the eagle's beak depicted on the coins.

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 AdonisAriadneCirceHylasNarcissus 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.

Waterhouse has shown us a woman with frizzy rather than glossy black hair. Her face is in shadow so we have to get right up close to see her features and read her expression. She has a low, heavy forehead and a monobrow. Dark, smouldering eyes, full of intelligence and ambition with a hint of regret. A strong nose, sensuous lips and a firm, rounded chin.

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 called this post "Ugly Cleopatra" to gain your attention. In fact she was the woman of her century. Brilliant, witty, charismatic, courageous, fluent in several languages and – most unusually – politically ambitious.

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.]


  1. That's fascinating Caroline, and it's a stunning picture. I think Shakespeare picked up on Plutarch too with his 'serpent of old Nile' - a woman who's powerful, ruthless, proud, and enchanting ('I have seen her/hop twenty paces in the public street')- I don't picture his Cleopatra as beautiful so much as uttely magnetic.

  2. Great post! I love Waterhouse's portrait of Cleo.

  3. Anonymous9:35 AM

    WHAT...!!?? You said that,"Cleopatra as a frizzy-haired, bull-necked hag..." It looks well done to me. What is wrong with frizzy hair? All people of African descent (and many without close African descent; such as Irish/Greek)have "frizzy" hair. I'm offended that you are portraying this trait as something unattractive. I am of many ethnicities and happen to love my curly & sometimes unruly hair. It reminds me of my ancestors and I'm proud of that. Unfortunately misconstrued modern Western societal thought has led ethnic peoples to object to and reject their true identity, seeing themselves as less than that of the Western image of "perfection" (Caucasian, light-colored, straight hair and thin/straight body type). What a disappointment.

    1. Belatedly want to second Anonymous's comment. The current preference for limp, lank, straight hair is a fairly recent development and it's by no means universal.

  4. I have frizzy hair, too, dear Anonymous! And proud of it I am. :-) xxx

  5. Anonymous12:21 AM

    It amazed me when you said she not actually Egyptian! And thank you for information for my project on Cleopatra!

    1. Anonymous12:00 PM

      If you met Caroline you would see that she's very beautiful with a mass wonderful wild curly hair. Plenty of frizz! She's clearly speaking in terms of whats generally perceived as beauty today. Consider Chers locks-Carolines are rather similar

  6. Anonymous9:40 AM

    In all honesty, I don't think she was making a pass at frizzy-haired people as much as pointing out that Cleo probably didn't portray these traditional Westernized images of "beauty". In Cleopatra's time, frizzy hair considered beautiful only becuase it was a common thing among people of Greek and African desent, so it wasn't exactly a novelty like long staright, blonde or red hair was. Then again, back then "beauty" was also being exremely pale and chubby which isn't so nice in our modern society, so I don't think you have anything to worry about :)
    xx Anonymous #2

  7. You're right on all counts. She was a plain but charismatic white lady of Macedonian Greek descent. Also, that Waterhouse pic of Cleo is perfect. He really got her. Even the Greek costume with Egyptian touches is pretty dead on.

    What amuses me, is that I told my classmates all this stuff back in '93 and '94, and it was *controversial.* People thought I was making all this up! It was like hitting my head into a wall. People couldn't even wrap their heads around the fact that Egypt was Hellenized at this point. But now, this much more historically accurate of Cleo has become way, WAY more common, which delights me.

    This is why I love the internet.

  8. My friend Juliette "Pop Classicist" has just done a fun blog post on this topic, too! Was Cleopatra Beautiful and Should We Care?

  9. Anonymous12:12 AM

    She was not all of Greek descent.

    They lived there 300 years, implying unavoidable mixing of ethnicities.

  10. Anonymous10:16 PM

    They found the skeleton of cleopatras blood sister, forensic results showed that mother was african, ancient egyptian. So they were mixed macedonian/ancient egyptian. Its on bbc even, XD

  11. Anonymous1:39 PM

    i like Cleo in his portrain. She was realy buetyfull, very atractive and original.

  12. Anonymous3:49 PM

    "These portraits showed Cleopatra as a frizzy-haired" --> You wrote this as if it was negative but in that time it was stylish to have frizzy hair! :-p Beauty standards change with time.

  13. Anonymous5:42 AM

    Really interesting read, but I wouldn't have minded viewing the sources you have used for this article.

    1. My main source was the British Museum publication "Cleopatra of Egypt: from History to Myth". There is a link in the article.

  14. Anonymous6:02 AM

    This was just great, and a good conversation piece. Very easy to believe also.... but they dnt tell you this in our history books.....

  15. Freyalyn1:45 PM

    I also love how Waterhouse's Cleo is wearing a headdress that nicely combines the Greek ribbon-like diadem with a royal cobra. Lots of details as you keep looking.