The challenge in answering a question about beauty is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Criticizing Cleopatra’s appearance has become very popular in recent years, so I shouldn’t be surprised that this question gets asked a lot. But the debate is especially challenging because, more often than not, people judge images of Cleopatra that may not portray her actual appearance. So was Cleopatra beautiful? This post deals solely with Cleopatra’s appearance as perceived by others. To discover more information about her physical appearance, please refer to my What did Cleopatra look like? post.
There seem to be two schools of thought concerning Cleopatra’s appearance. The first is that she was rather beautiful and used her sexual appeal for political gain. This idea was very popular, even among historians, until the mid-20th century. The second vision of Cleopatra, and the one which is more popular right now, is that she was rather plain or unattractive but a brilliant strategist.
I find it a little funny (and more than a little sexist) to assume that she couldn’t be both beautiful and intelligent. I understand why people are curious about her attractiveness. Like Helen of Troy, she has always been one history’s famous beauties. Stories, paintings, operas, movies, and countless other media have been inspired by her famous good looks. But we encounter too many obstacles with this question today. Standards of beauty differ from culture to culture and change over time. Many of the people who were considered “most beautiful” and “most handsome” 50 years ago wouldn’t even be able to compete today. That’s only a 50-year difference. Imagine what a 2,000-year difference can do. Likewise, traits considered attractive are different throughout the world. Women of the Kayan tribe in Thailand, for example, start to stretch out their necks at a young age while the Karo tribe in Kenya brand their bodies to decorate them with scars.
Although the vast majority of ancient sources regarding Cleopatra were written by Romans attempting to portray her in a negative light, almost all of the documents mention that her beauty and personality were something to be admired. Cassius Dio wrote about her meeting with Caesar and described her as “a woman of surpassing beauty and, at the time, being in her prime, she was conspicuously lovely. She also had an elegant voice and she knew how to use her charms to be attractive to everyone.”1 Even Plutarch, who stated that her beauty was average in one passage, admitted that she was “at the age at which women are at the height of their attractiveness and at the peak of their intellectual powers”2 during her trip to Tarsus. Like Cassius Dio, he added that “she had a particularly sweet voice and her tongue was like a many-stringed instrument: she could turn it easily to whichever language she wished.”
Other ancient historians, particularly those who hated Cleopatra such as Propertius and Lucan, used her beauty against her. They implied that her physical attractiveness was responsible for the Roman civil wars and that it was more of a curse than a blessing. However, even these harsh critics never disputed the fact that she was beautiful.3
Unlike historians today, ancient historians would have had more statues and busts of Cleopatra to use as reference (they were not destroyed following her defeat). Likewise, their standards of beauty would have been similar to those of Cleopatra’s time. They lived 100-300 years after Cleopatra’s death. This gives ancient sources a much more accurate portrayal of Cleopatra with regard to her physical attractiveness. Whether or not her beauty withstood the test of time is anyone’s opinion. As far as fact goes, the ancients considered her to be both beautiful and intelligent.
2 Plutarch, Life of Antony, 25.
3 Propertius, Poems (III.11.39) & Lucan, Pharsalia (59)
Header Image: Egisto Sani Post Images: Vivien Leigh in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)