What did Queen Cleopatra really look like?

Everyone knows Cleopatra, from books and archeology to Liz Taylor's best role. But have you ever wondered, what did she look like, really?

What did Queen Cleopatra really look like?
© Getty Images
What did Queen Cleopatra really look like?

She was famous for her ambiguous relationship with two Roman conquerors, Julius Caesar and Marc Antoine. But she who reigned over Egypt from 52 to 30 BC was, above all, a sovereign attached to bringing back the splendour of the Pharaohs.

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Her late legend made of Cleopatra a woman of exceptional beauty, no doubt because of her sulphurous reputation. But this reputation has less to do with reality than with the advantageous physique of the stars who have embodied her on the silver screen, such as Elizabeth Taylor or Monica Bellucci. What did she really look like? To answer this question properly, Maurice Sartre, professor emeritus at the University of Tours, specialised in Antiquity and the Eastern Roman world, talked with GEO.

Q: Do we know what Cleopatra looked like?

Maurice Sartre: The literature says practically nothing about her physical aspect. Her exceptional beauty is a modern invention. She was pretty, but no more than other young women, and it was her whole person that was the appeal. According to the writings of Plutarch and Dion Cassius, what made her charm was her voice and her conversation.

'Cleopatra had a rather prominent nose, arching a little. The chin was pointed, the neck fairly long, a detail that can be found on later coins, the hair gathered up in a bun worn pretty low on the neck,' writes Maurice Sartre. British Museum / Wikimedia Commons

Coins are a reliable form of archaeological record, even if the portrait itself may be completely fictitious. Some coins, for example, show the queen as Isis or Aphrodite without the actual face of the queen. On the other hand, some may be called faithful representations, such as on bronzes minted in Alexandria, but also on silver tetradrachmas (ancient coins which were worth 4 drachmas), the most beautiful being Ascalon's (see above). There is such consistency in these portrayals that they are considered realistic.

On the left: the bust kept in the Vatican. On the right, the sculpture kept in Berlin shows even features, including the hair parted into bands, describes Maurice Sartre.  Altes Museum Berlin / Wikimedia Commons

Finally, we have two busts very similar to each other, which we are quite sure represent Cleopatra. There is one in Berlin, at the Altes Museum, and another in the Vatican, whose nose is broken. Note also that no text mentions her nose.

What would you say about the controversy raised by the choice of Gal Gadot to play Cleopatra in an upcoming American blockbuster, the Israeli actress being called 'too white?'

Those who fuel this controversy are clearly unaware that Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian. She was the last representative of the Ptolemaic dynasty who reigned over Egypt since the death of Alexander the Great. From the second king on, the dynasty was so concerned with preserving ethnic purity that they were married off between siblings. It is not impossible that the kings of Alexandria fooled around here and there, that they had lots of bastards. We have no proof of this. But as for the legitimate or illegitimate royal children brought up to reign, the strictest endogamy was observed (marrying within a group). So to imagine that Cleopatra had Egyptian blood is utter nonsense.

Did she have tanned skin? Was she bronzing in Alexandria? Who knows. I would add that on the documents we do have, there is nothing that can be considered African.

This American blockbuster, I won't go see it. I would add that I really like the film with Elizabeth Taylor, even if it is far from the facts. It is as if there was two queens: a historical Cleopatra, and a whole universe of novels, films and comics which are inspired by Cleopatra, but which have nothing to do with history.

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