Sunday, February 18, 2007

Was Cleopatra Ugly?

I have heard or read this question asked many times. Was Cleopatra ugly? Joan Smith of the Hamilton Spectator writes about this in A myth that proves men prefer beauty to brains.

She wrote, "Even Sarah Bernhardt, gamely playing Cleopatra on stage into her 70s, was more likely exposing her own self-delusions than acknowledging that this great figure from history was no raving beauty, as archaeologists from Newcastle University have just pointed out. This week, they put on show a silver denarius, pictured above, coined in Mark Antony's own mint to mark his victories in 32 BC, which could hardly be less flattering to the celebrated queen."

After comparing popular culture images of Cleopatra to history, Smith continued, "Anyway, it's clear that whoever wrote this week's excited headlines about the Newcastle denarius -- brought to Britain, presumably, by a Roman soldier -- was unaware of other coins bearing Cleopatra's image, of which there is at least one in the British Museum. That coin gives the queen equally masculine features, including heavy brows, a sharp chin and a beaky nose."

Smith and others writing on this topic are making a simple mistake on Cleopatra. They are using 20th and 21st century notions of beauty and applying them to the world of 2100 years ago. Has not what is beautiful for a woman changed over time and varied by culture? Was it possible that Cleopatra was indeed beautiful by the standards of her age or her culture?

Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar were very powerful men in the late stages of the Roman Republic. They both had access to many women both slave and free. Would both have become determined lovers of Cleopatra if she had been ugly? Maybe she was rich and powerful but I do not think that that alone would have snared both Roman men. She must have been beautiful for her time or I doubt either man would have spent so much time with her.

4 comments:

doughnuts said...

They say first impressions count and Cleopatra knew how to make an entrance.

She was smuggled in a carpet which was presented to Caesar and emerged, probably in luscious regalia, when it was unrolled before him.

She arrived at her first meeting with Mark Anthony on a perfumed vessel elegantly moved along the Nile by golden oars and billowing fuschia sails (the colour of power), decorated with flowers and maidens playing music.

Both men would have been suitably gob-smacked.

Then emerged this young brainy multilingual lady (9 languages), all too willing to be their vassal and have their children.

I don't think they would have even noticed a hook nose.

doughnuts said...

Author Colleen McCollough verifies that Cleopatra was ugly.

She has writen a series of books on the Roman Republic but, as you would expect from a bawdy, brilliant, rotund, uninhibited Australian septuagenarian (author of Thornbirds), they are as lusty as they are informative & have a top reputation among Ancient Rome afficionados and ancient history buffs.

Caesar, Caesar's Women, The First Man in Rome, The Grass Crown & Fortunes Favourites are among them.

Tim Agazio said...

I think I remember reading somewhere that she wasn't super attractive, but was very...how shall I say...talented. Of course who can pass judgment on that kind of reputation thats over 2000 years old and where there are no primary sources....

Tim Agazio
www.genealogyreviewsonline.typepad.com
www.agaziofamilyhistory.org

Pandabonium said...

"Would both have become determined lovers of Cleopatra if she had been ugly?"

Of course, if there was a political reason to do so.