Why do Some Call Cleopatra Ugly? Was She?

Cleopatra had a reputation for being beautiful. So much has been said about how seductive she was, that sometimes people stumble upon an unflattering coin of hers and are appalled. The contrast between what they had imagined and the unfavorable coin is too much. And they take it to mean that she was hideous.

But it is like a photographer who takes 100 pictures of a gorgeous model. In 40 pictures she might look great, in some so-so, and 30 pictures might be unflattering. So if one only focuses on those 30 unflattering photos, one might conclude that the model is ugly. The same happens if one focuses on Cleopatra’s most unflattering coins.

So let’s examine the misinterpreted quotes about her, plus her unfortunate looking coins and statues. And let’s find out if Cleopatra, queen of Egypt and ultimate seductress, was actually not good-looking.

Quotes out of context

All ancient authors that write about Cleopatra talk about her mesmerizing beauty.

Yet, some lines here or there are less adoring. And these are the quotes that are sometimes taken out of context.

That happens with three quotes in particular.

Quote 1: More than a pretty face
Oil painting. Cleopatra is reclined inside a barge with her retinue. Mark Antony and his retinue are in a barge next to hers. He is about to board her barge.
According to Plutarch, Cleopatra was beautiful, but not breathtakingly so. ‘The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, 41 B.C.‘ imagined and painted by L. Alma Tadema, 19th century. (Photo: Sotheby’s/Public domain)

The first quote is:

“For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.”

This one is taken out of context a lot. It is usually interpreted to mean that she was not beautiful at all.

But Plutarch, the author, may be making a rhetorical point. He is using one of those contrasts that the Greeks liked so much -and that modern readers easily misinterpret.

Plutarch is saying that she was not drop-dead gorgeous. She was pretty. But so were so many other women. What really made her stand out were her intelligence and personality, according to Plutarch.

Immediately after that quote, Plutarch adds:

“The charm of her presence was irresistible and there was an attraction in her person and her talk, together with a peculiar force of character which pervaded her every word and action, and laid all who associated with her under its spell. It was a delight merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another…”

Plutarch, Antony 27,1
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That is Plutarch’s quote with more context. He is making a point about what was truly unrivaled about Cleopatra.

Plutarch mentions Cleopatra’s looks many other times in this same book. And in most other quotes, he writes that she was, indeed, beautiful:

“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

“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

“To a woman [Cleopatra] who was conscious of her personal beauty and intensely proud of it.”

Plutarch, Antony 73,1

“Her hair and face [Cleopatra’s] 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

It seems like Plutarch was far from thinking Cleopatra was unfortunate-looking.

Appian, Dio, Florus, Lucan, and Propertius are other ancient authors that call her outright beautiful. (Read their quotes here: Was Cleopatra Beautiful? The Ancient Authors Weigh In)

Quote 2: Someone is prettier
White cast of a bust. It is a pretty young woman. She has symmetric features. Her face is between square and oval. She has a wide, medium-sized forehead, curved eyebrows, big eyes, a pretty nose; a pretty, well-shaped medium-sized mouth; and a rounded chin.
Octavia was Mark Antony’s Roman wife. Copy of a bust of Octavia from c. 1 BC. Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, Italy. (Photo: G.dallorto/Wikimedia)

The other quote by the same Plutarch that can be misinterpreted is:

Those who had seen Cleopatra and knew that neither in youthfulness nor beauty was she superior to Octavia.

The translation is ambiguous. Maybe they were both equally beautiful. Or maybe Octavia was prettier.

It is possible that Octavia was stunning. Plutarch does say elsewhere that Octavia had “great beauty.” And her brother, Octavian, was known to be very handsome.

But that Octavia was prettier does not mean that Cleopatra was not pretty herself.

Furthermore, Plutarch is defending Octavia, whom he likes much better than Cleopatra.

Octavia and Mark Antony were married. And by all accounts, she was a wonderful person. Antony ill-treated her and divorced her to marry Cleopatra.

Here is Plutarch’s quote again, this time with more context:

“To Rome, however, he [Antony] sent men who had orders to eject Octavia from his house. And we are told that she left it taking all his children with her…; she was in tears of distress that she herself would be regarded as one of the causes of the war. But the Romans felt pity for Antony, not for her, and especially those who had seen Cleopatra and knew that neither in youthfulness nor beauty was she superior to Octavia.”

Plutarch, Antony 57,1

Plutarch may even be saying that although Cleopatra was beautiful, Octavia could hold her own.

Both of Plutarch’s quotes may point to the same thing: Cleopatra was not the most gorgeous woman in the world. But as he, himself, also writes, she did have beauty.

Quote 3: Octavian won’t be seduced
Oil painting. Two characters, a man and a woman. He is wearing Roman clothes complete with a helmet. She is wearing an elaborate dress from the Renaissance and a crown. They are holding hands. He is standing, she is sitting. She is showing him a bust of Julius Caesar. He is looking attentively at it. It is a somewhat intimate scene.
Octavian and Cleopatra’s meeting in Egypt imagined by Italian painter Pompeo Batoni. 18th century. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

This takes us to a third quote that can be misinterpreted: “Her beauty was no match for the virtue of the Princeps [Octavian].”

It is, for the third time, one of those contrasting sentences.

Author Florus is saying that despite Cleopatra’s beauty, Octavian did not allow her to seduce him.

Roman senator Cassius Dio does hint that he was tempted, though:

“Now Augustus was not insensible to the ardour of her speech and the appeal to his passions, but he pretended to be; and letting his eyes rest upon the ground…”

Dio, Roman History 51,12,5

So according to Dio, Octavian had to stop looking at Cleopatra to keep his cool.

Both authors are relating a meeting that Cleopatra and Octavian had in Egypt. The duo had been ferocious enemies for about 10 years. They had gone to war, and Cleopatra had lost.

When they met, defeated Cleopatra was trying to get into Octavian’s good graces.

But Octavian was the type of person that thinks things through. And he had already seen his great-uncle Caesar and his frenemy Antony fall for her. It had not ended well for them.

Cool-headed Octavian was not going to make that mistake -no matter how tempting she was.

Read also: What 15 Famous Romans Looked Like – Caesar, Octavian, Octavia, Mark Antony…

Statues and coins: cherry-picking the unflattering ones

Some of Cleopatra’s most unflattering coins. And so she is not alone, some unflattering coins of two Roman men known for their beauty: Pompey and Sulla.

Others that say she was not beautiful may have seen her (worst) coins or statues.

Coin. A beautiful woman. The coin is very well-made, it has lots of details. Her hair is pulled back and she wears a royal diadem. Her forehead is almost straight and slightly slants backwards, her nose is long and slightly aquiline, she has full lips and a defined chin. Her eyes are big, beautiful, and expressive.
Cleopatra on one of her better coins. Cleopatra issued this silver coin in Alexandria, Egypt, in 47-46 BC. British Museum.

It is true that in many of her coins she does not look pretty. Coins were made manually. And even the coins that were made in the same batch are slightly different one from the other. In some she looks better, in some worse. That happened to everyone that appeared on a coin in ancient times.

Some of the coins in which she looks unattractive were issued by people from other countries, who had never met her.

Also, in many coins she appears with her husband Mark Antony, and her features have been adjusted to look like his. Politically, it was to show that they were a power couple in sync. But aesthetically, the result is that Cleopatra ends up looking quite manly in those. (See more of Cleopatra’s coins)

And when it comes to her marble statues, the same argument can be made as with the quotes: she had a pretty face but was not stunning.

So those who have pictured her as the most spectacular show-stopping beauty, may be disappointed when they see her busts.

So yes, if one goes looking for the most unflattering coins and statues of Cleopatra, one will find them.

But those that look at more of her coins will find that many show a good-looking woman. And some show a beautiful one.

And her two surviving Roman statues show an attractive, alluring girl. Not a stunner, but a pretty girl.

It is also worth considering, that the coins and statues do not show the real Cleopatra. It is an artist’s take on how she looked. Sometimes his lack of skill does not do her justice, like in some coins.

Cleopatra was considered beautiful by those who saw her. All the ancient historians, even Plutarch and Florus, agree that she was beautiful. And even her many enemies ‘charged’ her with bewitching men with her beauty.

Read next: What did Cleopatra Look Like? Her Statues and Coins

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2020-12-30
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