14 February 2007
A face only a Caesar or a pretender could have loved?
The Guardian and many other sources are carrying an item today about a coin which apparently gives the lie to the fabled beauty of Cleopatra. Think of Cleopatra and I am sure an image of Elizabeth Taylor hove into view (or Amanda Barrie if you are a fan of the Carry On films). However, the coin shows her as having a shrewish profile. On the reverse is an image of Mark Antony with bulging eyes, a crooked nose and a bull neck.
The coin in question is a silver denarius that was coined in Antony's own mint to mark his victories in Armenia in 32BC. "Its other distinction is that it looks as though it was minted yesterday," said Melanie Reed from Newcastle University, whose archaeology museum found the 5p-sized coin while researching a forgotten 18th century hoard left for years in a local bank. Coins showing the pair are not uncommon, but the majority are in poor condition or have more flattering images. The Newcastle find, minted at a time when Antony and Cleopatra faced internal rebellion and outside invasion, may deliberately have emphasised the reality of the pair, to deter pretenders.
The question of Cleopatra's looks has fascinated posterity. "The popular image we have of Cleopatra is that of a beautiful queen who was adored by Roman politicians and generals," said Clare Pickersgill, assistant director of archaeological museums at Newcastle University. "But the coinage bears out recent research which suggests there was much more to her than that."
The denarius profile clearly emphasises strong characteristics including a determined, pointed chin, thin lips which are often associated with a sharp nature, and in particular a long, pointed nose. The last has been famously central to discussion of what Cleopatra really looked like, with Pascal going so far as to write in his Pensées: "Cleopatra's nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed." His point was later undermined by the Romantic Movement. Ms Pickersgill said: "Orientalist artists of the 19th century and then modern Hollywood depictions, especially by Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1963 movie, built up the role of Cleopatra as a great beauty." The queen's contemporaries took a different line, according to Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of archaeological museums at Newcastle, who said that Roman and Egyptian writers had a clearer-eyed view of her talents. "The idea of Cleopatra as a beautiful seductress is much more recent," she said. "Classical age writers tell us that she was intelligent and charismatic, and that she had a seductive voice. But tellingly, they make little of her beauty."
Plutarch in the Life of Antony writes this: "For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice."
Interesting as this story is, it is hardly a shock or even hot news. Many of the surviving images of her show her to be rather plain, particularly the above coin from the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow and the bust in the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria.