Over the next two thousand years and counting, she would be renowned for her outstanding physical beauty, inspiring innumerable works of art depicting her as an alluring temptress, and spawning countless modern beauty parlours in her name.
No doubt the legend of her beauty is based in part on her famous seduction of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, both powerful Roman leaders. But what did she really look like? Is there any solid basis to the claims of unparalleled physical beauty? Let’s have a look at what the historical and archaeological evidence tells us.
Cleopatra’s reign, the Roman historian Cassius Dio describes Cleopatra as “a woman of surpassing beauty” who was “brilliant to look upon.” Yet Greek historian Plutarch, writing more than a century earlier than Dio, maintains that “her beauty… was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” As neither are contemporary accounts, there is no good reason to believe one over the other, or even to believe either of them at all.
There remain no busts that can be reliably attributed to Cleopatra, but we do have various images of her surviving on ancient coinage. In these images, she is depicted as anywhere from average-looking to hook-nosed and manly. However, it must be remembered that coins in the ancient world were a powerful piece of political propaganda. The deliberate portrayal of Cleopatra with masculine features not dissimilar to her ancestral male rulers the Ptolemies was not an attempt to capture a true likeness, but rather to help legitimise the rule of a young female queen.