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 all 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.
Other nations issued these coins in Cleopatra’s honor.
Therefore, her likeness is less accurate in these.
In these coins, Cleopatra appears with Mark Antony. Her features have been adjusted to resemble his. So these are not great to figure out what the Egyptian queen really looked like.
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.
In the second group of coins, Cleopatra also appears alone. But they were not issued by her. They were minted abroad.
The Roman consul Mark Antony gave Cleopatra territories in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and other places. So these territories struck coins honoring their new queen. But it was more difficult for them to know what the queen looked like. So they probably had to rely on some of her statues to make the coins. Some may look like her, but others end up being off the mark.
In the final group of coins, Cleopatra appears with her husband, Mark Antony. In most of these, Cleopatra’s profile looks like Antony’s. She has acquired his forehead, nose, mouth, chin, and in some coins, even his very thick neck. She ends up looking quite manly. (See all of Cleopatra’s coins here.)
This was not new. Antony liked to twin with his wives. In earlier coins, he appeared with Octavia, his previous wife. And Octavia’s profile was also adjusted to look somewhat like his. It was meant to convey that they were a power couple who was in sync.
But because of this romantic alteration, Cleopatra’s likeness in these coins is less reliable.
The first group of coins can tell us more about Cleopatra’s real appearance.
Read more about Antony’s looks: What Julius Caesar, Antony, and 13 Other Famous Romans Looked Like – Their Statues, Coins, and Descriptions
Cleopatra’s statues and reliefs
The Egyptian statues
Cleopatra erected statues of herself all over Egypt. And some of them survive.
Yet, Egyptian art was mostly symbolic, especially when it came to representing the monarchs and gods. So a real likeness cannot be expected from these statues. That was not their purpose.
Their purpose was partly to show the continuity of the Kingdom of Egypt, which, astoundingly, had lasted 3,000 years at this point.
The first and last pharaohs of Egypt are represented in the same manner. And they have, more or less, the same body and facial features.
This is even more evident when Cleopatra is sculpted as a male pharaoh in some reliefs.
In some rituals with the gods, the pharaoh was always represented in the same manner -as a male. He wore specific clothes and stood in a specific way. If the pharaoh was a woman, she was still represented standing in the same way, with a male’s body and male clothes.
So these sculptures do show Cleopatra VII but do not tell much about her physiognomy.
The Roman statues
When it comes to Cleopatra’s looks, a lot more information can be gained from her Roman statues.
During this period, the Romans liked realistic portraiture. 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.
But is it Cleopatra in these Roman busts? Almost certainly, it is. She is even wearing the royal diadem that is a dead giveaway that she is a Hellenistic 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.
Read also: Was Julius Caesar handsome?
Paintings of Cleopatra
Cleopatra lived two years in Rome while she was in a relationship with Julius Caesar. She was in her early twenties (46 – 44 BC). And her presence fueled an Egyptomania craze.
The Romans were predisposed in favor of Egypt. The cult of Isis, an Egyptian goddess, had already spread through Italy.
In the city of Pompeii, near Rome, the cult was strong. They 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 Alexandria. So it is not surprising that three paintings found in Pompeii are thought to represent Cleopatra.
One of the paintings seems to copy a gigantic sculpture of Cleopatra. Julius Caesar had placed it 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.
And the Pompeian painting shows a woman with a profile like Cleopatra’s. She is wearing her hairstyle, 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, less likely, 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 Rome or other cities. The Greek writer Plutarch mentions seen them. He says that in them, the queen was dressed like the goddess Aphrodite (the Greek Isis).
Artistic convention: skin tone
In Roman paintings, skin tone is not to be taken too seriously. The artists were not necessarily trying to match the skin tone of the person painted.
That is due to an artistic convention: men were represented with dark skin and women with white.
Italy has a strong sun most of the year. And Roman men were supposed to be outdoors, exercising or taking part in military campaigns. Thus, they were expected to be quite tanned. A tan was manly.
Meanwhile, virtuous Roman women were supposed to be inside the house. So their skin was expected to be white. White was feminine.
Other beings considered unmanly, like children and slaves, were also painted with white skin.
This artistic convention was prevalent in the Mediterranean World at the time.
So Cleopatra’s frescoes in Pompeii do not necessarily represent her true skin tone. Maybe it is accurate, maybe it is not. In Roman paintings, the only women who were depicted with darker skin were those from Sub-Saharan Africa.
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. Zero mention of the shape of her face or eyes.
Only Lucan, in one poem, mentions a physical trait of hers:
“…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,
which had been woven tightly by the Oriental shuttle
and then loosened by the Egyptian needle that relaxes the threads in the taut 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’s family was quite intertwined with Cleopatra. Nero was actually a blood-relation of Cleopatra’s children.
Nero was the great-great-grandson of Mark Antony and Octavian. Both men knew Cleopatra well. Antony was her husband, and Octavian was her enemy.
And after Cleopatra died, Octavian’s sister raised her children. So they actually grew up in Rome as part of Octavian’s family.
That Nero was Octavian’s great-great-grandson makes it sound like they lived ages apart, but they did not. People had children when they were in their teens back then. Octavian raised Emperor Claudius, who in turn raised Nero. So Nero must have heard a lot of stories about Cleopatra.
He must have heard even more first-hand anecdotes from his mother, Agrippina. Agrippina had been raised by her grandmother Antonia. And Antonia’s half-siblings were… Cleopatra’s children.
Yes, the genealogy gets crazy. If you did not follow all that, do not worry. It is enough to say that Nero must have grown up hearing about Cleopatra, her pros and cons, her antics, her looks, her habits. And that poet Lucan, as his friend, may have been 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, and many more had seen her paintings and statues. So Lucan’s description of Cleopatra may be accurate.
When trying to picture someone, knowing their ethnicity can help.
And although we have two lagoons in Cleopatra’s family tree, we do know part of her ethnicity.
But the other 75% of her ancestry is less clear. It is not certain who Cleopatra’s paternal grandmother was. She could have been one of the queens, who had more Macedonian and Iranian blood. Or, more likely, she could have been a concubine. This means she could have been from Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa.
The same goes for Cleopatra’s mother. In this case, she probably was the queen, who, again, was Macedonian/Iranian. But, it is not an unquestionable fact. It is possible, although unlikely, that Cleopatra’s mother was a concubine.
To sum it up: Cleopatra could have been 100% Caucasian, or she could have been Caucasian + African.
Of the artifacts reviewed, the first group of coins and the Roman statues are the ones that more reliably portray Cleopatra.
Although they may seem quite different from one another, 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. She has deep-set eyes, and they were 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.