Cleopatra is known as the ultimate seductress. She was charming, brilliant, and cultivated. She spoke several languages, was a mesmerizing conversationalist, and she was loads of fun. As if that were not enough, she knew how to dress for impact. She had a dazzling family tree full of famous ancestors, was incredibly wealthy -and she was a queen.
All that made for a heady combination that easily seduced men. But was she beautiful?
Let’s find out if the ancient authors considered Cleopatra physically beautiful.
Was Cleopatra beautiful?
Yes. All the ancient authors agree that she was beautiful. Even the writers that dislike her call her beautiful.
How the ancients describe Cleopatra’s looks
“Being brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate every one.“
Dio, Roman History 42,34,5. Dio was a Roman historian who wrote 200 years after Cleopatra’s death.
“For she [Cleopatra] was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone.”Dio, Roman History 42,34,4
“She reposed in her beauty all her claims to the throne. She asked therefore for admission to his presence [Julius Caesar’s], and on obtaining permission adorned and beautified herself so as to appear before him in the most majestic and at the same time pity-inspiring guise.”Dio, Roman History 42,34,5-6
“Cleopatra, relying on her looks, came to him [Julius] looking sad but not crying, carefully arrayed in pretended grief, as much as was attractive, with her hair in disarray as if she had torn it.”Lucan, Pharsalia 10,82. Roman poet Lucan was born 70 years after Cleopatra’s death. He was friends with Emperor Nero, who was the great-great-grandson of both Mark Antony and Octavian. So Lucan may have been privy to insider’s anecdotes about Cleopatra.
“As much as the Spartan woman routed Argos and Troy with her baneful beauty, to the same degree, Cleopatra contributed to the furor in Italy.”Lucan, Pharsalia 10,60. Lucan compares Cleopatra to Helen of Troy.
“Cleopatra, the king’s sister, threw herself at [Julius] Caesar’s feet and asked for the restoration of part of the kingdom. He was moved by the beauty of the damsel, which was enhanced by the fact that, being so fair, she seemed to have been wronged.”Florus, Epitome 2,13,56. Florus was a Roman historian and poet.
He was born c. 100 years after Cleopatra’s death.
“She [Cleopatra] would have assailed [Julius] Caesar’s unyielding ears in vain, but her expression bolstered her entreaties and her evil beauty pleaded the case for her.”Lucan, Pharsalia 10,105
“As soon as he saw her beauty and realized the charm and subtlety of Cleopatra’s conversation, he knew at once that such a woman, so far from having anything to fear from Antony, would probably gain the strongest influence over him…”Plutarch, Antony 25,2. Plutarch was a Graeco-Roman biographer
born some 70 years after Cleopatra’s suicide.
“She prepared as many gifts and as much money and adornment to take with her as befitted her great undertaking and royal status. She placed most of her hopes, however, in herself and the charm and magic that attended her.”Plutarch, Antony 25,4
“She had already seen for herself the power of her beauty to enchant Julius Caesar and Gnaeus, the son of Pompey.”Plutarch, Antony 25,3
“Antony, struck by her intelligence as well as her appearance, was captivated by her as if he were a young lad, although he was forty years old.”Appian 5,8. Appian was a Graeco-Roman historian.
He was born in Cleopatra’s hometown, Alexandria, Egypt, 125 years after her death.
“She [Cleopatra] readied her quarters, set up a sumptuous couch, presented herself as if she did not care (for she looked stunning in her mourning clothes)…”Dio, Roman History 51,12,1
“She [Cleopatra]… sprang up as he [Octavian] entered and thew herself at his feet; her hair and face were in terrible disarray, her voice trembled, and her eyes were sunken... And yet her charm and the vigour of her beauty were still by no means extinguished…”Plutarch, Antony 83,1-2
“Her beauty was no match for the virtue of the Princeps [Octavian].”Florus 2,21
“He [Cornelius Dolabella] was by no means insensible to Cleopatra’s charms.”Plutarch, Antony 84. Dolabella was on Octavian’s side
and was, therefore, expected to be Cleopatra’s enemy.
How would the writers know if Cleopatra was beautiful?
These writers were Romans, and Romans were well-acquainted with Cleopatra. Many had met her or seen her personally.
Cleopatra lived in Rome for two years when she was in her twenties. And there, she met prominent Romans such as Cicero.
Then, Roman general Mark Antony lived in Egypt with her for years.
His Roman soldiers, officers, and friends were stationed in Egypt with him. And, literally, hundreds of Roman senators visited him.
All of these people met or saw Cleopatra. She had Roman bodyguards, the other soldiers saw her at public events, and the senators and officials dined with her.
As for the Romans that did not get to see her personally, they still knew what she looked like.
There were public, realistic paintings of her in the Roman world. And Julius Caesar had placed a gigantic statue representing her in a temple in the very city of Rome.
So when the historians wrote about the queen, they could rely on the testimony of witnesses. Also, on the writings of her contemporaries. And some of these authors saw her paintings and realistic statues themselves. They say so in their books.
So yes, Cleopatra’s contemporaries considered her beautiful. And all the ancient writers unanimously call her good-looking.