Cleopatra – the world’s first celebrity?
Cleopatra and Hellenistic portraiture
Cleopatra is one of the most fabled people in history. The myths surrounding her are inextricably linked to her beautiful looks and seductive abilities. But are the myths historically accurate?
The sources we have of her appearance provide us with some answers, and the historical circumstances surrounding her downfall and suicide help us further. The coin in the exhibition is among the best sources we have regarding Cleopatra’s physical appearance. It was issued during her reign 50-31 BC.
Rulers and important persons have been depicted over thousands of years. However, the earliest depictions can’t be described as being portraits. They were idealistic, and were meant as symbols of power and great feats. In the 5th century BC, sculptural representations of people and their depictions on coins became more individual, especially in Persia and Lycia. Alexander the Great (336-323 BC) was heavily influenced by oriental ruler-cults, and he cultivated an idealised image of himself as king and conqueror. After his death, the ruler-cult continued in the Hellenistic period that came to an end with Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC. The first Egyptian king, Ptolemy I Soter, began a long tradition of ruler portraiture shortly after the year 300 BC.
Cleopatra, Caesar and Mark Antony – a historical drama
Cleopatra was born during a time of major changes in the Eastern Mediterranean. The power and influence of the Romans increased rapidly, also in Egypt. Cleopatra’s father, King Ptolemy XII, died in 51 BC, and civil war and Roman intervention followed in his wake. Eventually, Cleopatra was forced to give up the throne.
Civil war also raged in Rome, where Pompey the Great and Caesar fought to gain power. Egypt became a battlefield in the conflict when Pompey the Great arrived on the Egyptian coast and was killed by Egyptian forces. Under the pretext of avenging Pompey the Great, Caesar helped Cleopatra regain the throne of Egypt. Soon after, Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar’s son, Caesarion.
In 44 BC, Cleopatra and Caesar were in Rome. Caesar was murdered on 15 March and Cleopatra returned to Alexandria. She killed her brother, King Ptolemy XIV, and reinstated herself and her son Caesarion as the rulers of Egypt.
In Rome, the alliance between the general Mark Antony and Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) had defeated the rebellion against Caesar. They divided power between themselves, Octavian in the west and Antony in the east. Antony needed military support to attack the Parthians in the east, and he entered into a close alliance with Cleopatra. Their children, Alexander, Cleopatra and Ptolemy, were given symbolic royal power over large, new areas of land in 34 BC. The Egyptian Empire became the most powerful force in the Mediterranean, only challenged by the Romans in the west.
Octavian declared war on Antony and was victorious at the famous Battle of Actium in Greece. Once again, Antony and Cleopatra sought refuge in Alexandria, this time in vain. There, both of them committed suicide when Octavian attacked just a few months later. This world-famous suicide in the year 30 BC left the door open for the Roman Empire to gain total dominance in the Mediterranean.
What did Cleopatra really look like?
The depictions we have of Cleopatra provide us with few clear answers. No large statues and very few portrait busts are known to depict her with any great certainty. A portrait bust in the Vatican is very similar to the coin portraits, while another in Berlin that is considered to be of her is quite different. Coin portraits give us the most reliable clues, but they also show large variations.
Large silver coins (tetradrachms) were among the first coins showing portraits of Cleopatra. These were issued in Ashkelon in present-day Israel in 50 BC. Although the portrait is idealised, the queen is portrayed with a distinct nasal bridge (aquiline nose), pronounced chin, wavy hair in a bun, earrings and pearl necklace. These traits are often seen in other images as well.
The coin images vary, but tetradrachms from Phoenicia and present-day Syria, small bronze coins from Alexandria and Cyprus and denarii from the eastern Roman provinces give a good, general impression of the queen. She has an oval face, pronounced cheekbones, a flat forehead, almond-shaped eyes, an aquiline nose and a round, slightly protruding chin. Her wavy hair is pulled backwards in a bun and fastened with a diadem, like a queen.
The coin portraits of the time served as depictions of rulers, divine kings and queens, and not accurate reproductions of individuals. Nevertheless, Cleopatra’s coin portraits provide us with a image of a mature woman, with clear, individual traits that few people today would call a ‘dazzling beauty’.
Why are we so fascinated by her appearance?
Normally, historians do not use descriptions of appearance to explain historical events. However, great significance is attached to Cleopatra’s appearance, in popular culture as well as by professionals, in Classical Antiquity and today. Why?
Many people were preoccupied with Cleopatra’s beautiful appearance during her time. The Roman writer Cassius Dio described the significance of her beauty when she first met Caesar in 48 BC. The historian Pliny the Elder was of the opinion that the queen used her beautiful appearance to prostitute herself in order to win power and influence over Mark Antony.
But the myth of how Cleopatra used her beauty to seduce and bewitch the mighty Romans is probably more to do with her toughest political opponent, Octavian, later to become Emperor Augustus. He wanted to tarnish the reputation of his main opponent Mark Antony and show that he did not recognise Cleopatra as the most powerful and richest ruler in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Octavian’s propaganda helped fuel the myth of the beautiful, seductive Cleopatra. It is now time to recognise Cleopatra as one of Classical Antiquity’s most powerful rulers and one of history’s most important figures, regardless of gender and appearance.
Cleopatra – the world’s first celebrity?
The image we have today of Cleopatra is largely influenced by major Hollywood film productions, where actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor, Vivian Leigh and Sophia Loren have rekindled the myth of the beautiful, seductive queen.
Poems, tv shows, books, many ballets, twenty or so computer games, thirty films, almost fifty operas and nearly a hundred plays have been devoted to Cleopatra. She appears in everything from Shakespeare’s plays, comics and documentaries, to Kim Kardashian as Cleopatra on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Soaps and perfumes, asteroids, cigarettes and lingerie adverts carry her name.
Popular culture’s image of Cleopatra is in stark contrast to what we now know about the historical person. Despite Octavian’s effective smear campaign, Cleopatra impressed the aristocracy and rulers of Rome. When she realised she was defeated, she took things into her own hands and arranged her death with a sense of pride that made an impression on the Romans. Her death ultimately brought an end to the Roman civil wars and Egypt’s independence. Almost 2000 years would pass before the country regained its independence.
Last but not least, we can say that Cleopatra was the victor. Caesar, Antony and Octavian became parts of history, Cleopatra became a legend.