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cleopatra blonde

Was Cleopatra Blonde?

The color of Cleopatra’s hair does not survive in writing from antiquity. Nevertheless, modern scholars are equipped with several pieces of information which may help determine what it could have looked like. There are three undisputed facts which have given rise to debate about the color of Cleopatra’s hair:

  • Cleopatra came from a highly incestuous family (the Ptolemies) in which brother-sister marriages were the norm
  • Many of Cleopatra’s ancestors had light-colored hair ranging from blonde to strawberry blonde
  • Cleopatra’s grandmother (the only known source of foreign blood in Cleopatra’s family) belonged to a dynasty which descended from the same Greek-Macedonian region as the Ptolemies

Given this information, it appears extremely probable that Cleopatra could have been blonde. The lack of foreign blood could keep recessive traits like blonde hair and blue eyes common. But the vast majority of modern Cleopatra portrayals depict her as a brunette. Why? The image of a brunette Cleopatra stems from the hype following Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of the queen in 1963 (in which she had dark hair). But I believe it would surprise most people to know that, prior to the 1963 movie, blonde Cleopatras were just as common as brunette ones.

I have only found one book in the English language written after the Liz-Taylor-Cleopatra which features a blonde queen: William Bostock’s I, Cleopatra. Colin Falconer’s When We Were Gods also had a blonde Cleopatra, but she was changed to brunette at the publisher’s request. Today, in the Greek-Macedonian homeland of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra’s image is preserved as that of a blonde woman. Greek actresses, such as the great Aliki Vougiouklaki, portray her in film and on stage as a light haired woman.

Blonde Cleopatras are also common in paintings prior to the 20th century. The header image of this post is Benedetto the Younger Gennari’s Cleopatra though there are dozens of other examples.

A sample of authors who have written about a blonde Cleopatra:

  • Arthur Weigall
  • Adolf Stahr
  • H. Stadelmann
  • Oscar von Wertheimer
  • Emil Ludwig
  • Hans Volkmann
  • William Bostock
  • Colin Falconer (had a blonde Cleopatra in his novel, but changed her to brunette at the request of his publisher)

A sample of artists who painted a blonde Cleopatra:

  • Benedetto the Younger
  • Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
  • Pompeo Batoni
  • Jacob Jordaens
  • Johann Heinrich the elder Tischbein
  • G. Lerouisse
  • Guido Cagnacci
  • Willem Van Mieris
  • Gerard de Lairesse
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