Cleopatra Queen of Egypt

Was Cleopatra as beautiful as they say?

Cleopatra and Mark Antony Coin.

Cleopatra is depicted on the silver screen as a great beauty. We hear that Cleopatra seduced the great Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and we assume that Cleopatra used her great beauty as a diplomatic aid in putting Egypt on a more favorable footing with Rome. However, we don't know whether Cleopatra was a beauty. Instead, what evidence we have seems to suggest she was not.

Unfortunately, Cleopatra, strapped by great debt incurred under the reign of her father, Ptolemy Auletes (Ptolemy the flute-player), thought it imprudent to mint gold coins, so only lesser metals were used to commemorate her reign. The imprint on gold would have survived the centuries better than baser metals. Only ten individual coins from the reign of Cleopatra have survived in very good, but not mint condition, according to Guy Weill Goudchaux, in his article "Was ​Cleopatra Beautiful?" in the British Museum's publication "Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth." This is significant because coins have provided excellent records of the faces of many monarchs. In one set of coins Cleopatra and Mark Antony look very similar. In another set, she has "an enormous neck and the features of a bird of prey."

Cleopatra may have been beautiful, ugly, or somewhere in between. Certainly, she was intelligent, a good diplomat, and queen of an area important for Rome, so it is no wonder that leaders of Rome like Caesar and Mark Antony, would fall in love with Cleopatra, while another Roman leader, Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus), would fear and revile her.

-- For a scholarly bibliography on Cleopatra, see this Cleopatra Bibliography from Diotima.