FAQ

What did Cleopatra look like?

2Unlike the countless marble figures of Augustus, there are no definitive surviving statues of Cleopatra. Only two busts have been identified as Cleopatra VII to date, and only one of them is complete. That bust (right) now resides in the Altes Museum in Berlin. It portrays the Queen with hair pulled back into a bun beneath the traditional broad diadem of the Ptolemies. The same image is reproduced in profile on coins of the time.

Cleopatra was the first female ruler to mint coinage solely in her image. Their design would have been approved by her and distributed during her reign. So it’s surprising that they are not a perfect visual reference for her appearance. The trouble with coins is that they are propaganda tools. Compare the two images below. Both coins depict Cleopatra VII but in essence show two very different people.

1The top coin was minted during the early years of Cleopatra’s reign. It was designed to resemble previous Ptolemaic coins (which always had a King on the front), complete with large hooked nose and dour expression.  The bottom coin was struck with Marc Antony’s face on the reverse side. Cleopatra’s features changed drastically to make her look more like her partner. In effect, less Greek and more Roman. Every coin she minted portrayed a different woman, depending on what she needed to gain politically at the time.

The second bust to have been identified as Cleopatra VII (top) lost its nose and can no longer provide a full picture of her face. Using the Berlin model’s nose, I created a digital restoration of what it may have looked like (below). It shows a much more youthful woman, most likely during her visit to Rome from 46 – 44BCE.

Although there are countless other statues suspected to be Cleopatra VII, they cannot be identified with certainty. Many of them, such as the picture in the footer of this site, were carved after her death. Other portrayals, like the carvings on the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, were created during her lifetime but intentionally left generic to keep with tradition. They cannot be used for reference.

Until new sources are discovered, these two sculptures provide the best example of what Queen Cleopatra looked like. It’s ironic that a woman so famous for her appearance survived in more written accounts than physical media. But knowing what she looked like is very different from knowing how she appeared to others. We need to go back to the written primary sources to truly understand what her contemporaries thought of her. Check out this article to examine Cleopatra’s famous beauty.

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Coin images: phgcomancientmoney.org  Berlin bust: romancoins.info

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