As famous as Cleopatra is, most of us do not know what she looked like. There is the idea that all her images have been lost. Yet, plenty of her coins survive. And a few of her statues survive too, as well as other ancient objects that represent her.
So let’s review these artifacts and find out what Cleopatra VII, the famous queen of Egypt, really looked like.
The coins with Cleopatra’s image
Cleopatra issued these coins herself. (See all her coins)
There are basically three groups of coins with Cleopatra’s image.
In the first group, Cleopatra appears alone. She issued these herself in Egypt and, later on, in Greece. So the image that appears in these coins is probably the most accurate. The coins pictured above belong to this group.
In the second group of coins, Cleopatra also appears alone. But they were not issued by her. They were minted abroad by people that may have never seen her.
And in the final group of coins, Cleopatra appears with her husband Mark Antony. In those, her features have been altered to resemble his. The twinning was meant to convey that they were a power couple who was in sync. (See all of Cleopatra’s coins.)
So it is the first group of coins (pictured) that can tell us more about Cleopatra’s real appearance.
- Read more about Antony’s looks: What Julius Caesar and 14 Other Famous Romans Looked Like
Cleopatra’s statues and reliefs
The Roman statues
Cleopatra’s Roman statues are the best bet to know what the queen really looked like.
During the Late Republic -when Cleopatra was alive-, the Romans liked realistic portraiture. So their statues tried to capture the individual characteristics of a person, like a modern photograph.
They even copied the person’s ‘flaws’ such as asymmetrical or disproportionate features and wrinkles.
We know, from the ancient authors, that there were plenty of busts and statues of Cleopatra floating around in the Roman world, including in Rome itself and in Egypt. But the two busts pictured above are the only two that have been found so far.
But is it really Cleopatra in these Roman busts? Most scholars -but not all- believe it is. She is even wearing the royal diadem that is a dead giveaway that the woman portrayed is a queen. The diadem is that band on her head. It was the Hellenistic version of a king’s crown.
These statues were made (c. 35 BC) when Cleopatra was in a relationship with the Roman consul Mark Antony.
The Egyptian statues
Cleopatra erected statues of herself all over Egypt; plenty of them in Egyptian style. And some of them survive.
Yet, these are not so great at showing what the queen looked like.
Egyptian art was mostly symbolic, especially when it came to representing the monarchs and gods.
The purpose of these statues was partly to show the continuity of the Kingdom of Egypt, which, astoundingly, had lasted 3,000 years at this point.
So the first and last pharaohs of Egypt are represented in the same manner. They are shown with the same body and facial features, more or less.
Thus, these sculptures do show Cleopatra VII but do not tell much about her unique physiognomy.
- Read also: Was Julius Caesar handsome?
Paintings showing Cleopatra
Cleopatra lived two years in Rome while she was in a relationship with Julius Caesar. She was in her early twenties at the time (46 – 44 BC). And her presence fueled an Egyptomania craze.
The Romans were already predisposed in favor of Egypt since the cult of Isis, an Egyptian goddess, had been spreading through Italy for a while.
And in the city of Pompeii, near Rome, the cult was strong. They even had a temple dedicated to Isis and many paintings representing the goddess.
Cleopatra identified with Isis, and she dressed like the goddess in public events in Egypt. So it is not surprising that the followers of the cult were enthusiastic about her.
Three paintings found in Pompeii are thought to represent Cleopatra.
One of the paintings seems to copy a sculpture of Cleopatra. Julius Caesar placed the gigantic statue in a temple in Rome -it was a scandal in the city. In the statue, she appeared as Venus (the Roman Isis) with a little cupid on her shoulder. Some believed the cupid represented Caesarion, the son of Caesar and Cleopatra.
And the Pompeian painting shows a woman with a face similar to Cleopatra’s. She is wearing her hairstyle (a ‘melon’ hairdo), has a cupid on her shoulder, and is coming out of what could be a temple. Plus, she wears a royal diadem. So the painting seems to be mimicking the statue.
Furthermore, Egyptian boats are depicted in the same room. And there is also a painted procession, like those that took place in Egypt. So the probability that this painting represents Cleopatra is high.
The other two paintings found at Pompeii and Herculaneum show a similar woman. But they do not have the cupid or the other props.
One of these portraits is in a house full of Egyptian motives. The woman is nearby a painted sphinx. She might be Cleopatra. Or perhaps, the owner of the house influenced by Cleopatra’s fashion sense.
These paintings would not be unique. There were public paintings that portrayed Cleopatra in the Roman world. The Greek writer Plutarch mentions seen them. He says that in the paintings, the queen was represented as the goddess Aphrodite (the Greek Isis).
Cleopatra in cameos and intaglios
These are not very helpful when it comes to picturing what Cleopatra looked like. Some of these are tiny intaglios meant to be used in a ring.
Because of the material and how small the surface is, it was difficult to create an accurate portrait. The result in these ones is a pretty generic profile.
Nevertheless, they do represent Cleopatra VII Ptolemy. And they were made during her lifetime or soon afterwards.
How the ancient writers describe Cleopatra
Annoyingly, the ancient authors do not describe Cleopatra. They only say she was beautiful and captivating. But none of them describe her physical features.
Only Lucan, in one poem, mentions a physical trait of hers; he says her skin was very white:
“…Then came legions of slaves [at Cleopatra’s banquet in Alexandria].
They varied in skin color and age;
some had the dark hair of Libya and other had hair so tawny
that Caesar denied he had ever seen such red hair
in the lands watered by the Rhine; some were dark-skinned
and had woolly hair that receded from their foreheads;…
There the monarchs reclined along with Caesar
whose power was greater; and the queen [Cleopatra],
her dangerous beauty enhanced by cosmetics,…
she wore riches on her head and neck and felt the weight of her jewelry.
Her snow-white breasts shone through diaphanous Sidonian cloth…”
Lucan, Pharsalia 10, 125-145
Lucan may have had inside information on Cleopatra since he was a good friend of Emperor Nero. And Nero was a blood-relation of Cleopatra’s children.
Nero descended from both Mark Antony and Octavian. Those men knew Cleopatra well: Antony was her husband and Octavian was her enemy.
Nero must have heard a lot of stories about Cleopatra from his stepfather, Emperor Claudius. Claudius had been raised by Octavian.
Nero must have heard even more first-hand anecdotes from his mother, Agrippina. She had been raised by Antonia. Antonia was the half-sister of Cleopatra’s children and grew up with them in the same house.
Yes, the genealogy gets crazy. It is enough to say that Nero must have grown up hearing about Cleopatra from both his mother and step-father, who knew what they were talking about. He must have heard about Cleopatra’s pros and cons, her antics, her looks, her habits. And poet Lucan, as his friend, was likely privy to them.
Furthermore, Lucan himself, like most Romans, would have known what Cleopatra looked like. Tens of thousands of Romans had seen her in person both in Rome and in Egypt a few decades before. So in Lucan’s time there was still a vivid memory of Cleopatra’s appearance. Thus, Lucan’s description of Cleopatra may be accurate.
Now to Cleopatra’s ethnicity
Two of Cleopatra’s ancestors.
When trying to picture someone, knowing their ethnicity can help.
And although we have two blank spaces in Cleopatra’s family tree, we do know part of her ethnicity.
But the other 75% of her ancestry is less clear.
Likely, it is more Eastern European and Middle Eastern blood. Yet, there is a possibility she could have also had native African blood.
Of the artifacts above, the coins and the Roman statues are the ones that more reliably portray Cleopatra.
At first, they may seem quite different from one another, but at second glance, one notices they all render the same features.
Both coins and marble busts show a woman with a straightish forehead that slants backwards slightly. Her face is somewhat long, probably oval. She has deep-set eyes, and they are probably big. Her eyebrows sit immediately above her eyes. She has a long, aquiline nose; full, shapely lips; and a rounded, strongish chin. Her neck is short and somewhat thick.