Questionable History: Was Cleopatra actually beautiful?


Coins minted during Cleopatra’s reign show her as a Plain Jane.

Was Cleopatra actually beautiful?

There are many myths about the last pharaoh of Egypt. To start with, she was Greek not Egyptian and there had been six previous queens with the same name. It is not clear that she committed suicide with an asp as her Roman enemy Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) was battering down her palace gates. Certainly no contemporary source credited her with taking her own life and she might well have been murdered on Octavian’s orders. He had good reason to get rid of her.

Hollywood movies have taught us that Cleopatra was a beauty who seduced two Roman power-brokers. She had a son by Julius Caesar and turned her attentions to Mark Antony after the assassination in the Senate house. The best-known movie portrayal of Cleopatra was by Elizabeth Taylor whose lines included, “My breasts are full of love and life, whilst my hips are rounded and well-apart.” Mind you, the movie went millions of dollars over budget.

A less famous movie portrayal was that of the attractive Rhonda Fleming in Serpent of the Nile, an el cheapo production which used most of the sets left over from the earlier movie Salome. Although the movie is subtitled “the loves of Cleopatra” she is a serial monogamist who sleeps only with Mark Antony. Incidentally, he was played by the fully gay Raymond Burr. Throughout the movie, Rhonda wears those bras in the bullet-proof style popular in the 1950s.

The ancient sources are by no means unanimous that Cleopatra was a beauty. The Greek writer Dio Cassius says so, but Plutarch is non-committal and Pliny the Elder calls her the harlot queen. Some of the alleged statues of her that have survived are known to be modern forgeries, including some still on display in a Berlin museum. The coins minted during her reign are nearer the mark and show her as a Plain Jane with the beginnings of a hooked nose. Many modern writers see Cleopatra as a well-educated monarch with a great personality who charmed a couple of influential Romans into bed. You did not need to be a beauty queen to do that.