What Did Cleopatra Really Look Like?

Painting From The Movie Cleopatra
Painting from the movie "Cleopatra". Camerique / Getty Images

The famous Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII) ruled Egypt during the final years, not only of Egypt's independence, but, in a sense, Rome's. A single ruler we call the emperor would soon rule both. The man who would become the first Roman emperor, Octavian, later Augustus, took control of Egypt when Cleopatra died.

Cleopatra descended from the line of Ptolemies. A Macedonian, Ptolemy, follower of Alexander the Great, started a Macedonian line of pharaohs of Egypt. The Ptolemies were responsible for creating the wonderful museum and library at Alexandria, which was the training grounds for many renowned ancient Greek scientists. [See Scholars at the Library of Alexandria.] It is the same library that features prominently in the story of the pagan woman philosopher Hypatia, who was destroyed viciously under the auspices of the Christian bishop Cyril of Alexandria about four centuries after our Egyptian queen.

Statue of Cleopatra

Statue of Cleopatra
Statue of Cleopatra. CC Flickr User Jon Callas

Not too many monuments of Cleopatra remain because, although she captured the heart or at least the fancy of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, it was Octavian (Augustus) who became the first emperor of Rome following the assassination of Caesar and the suicide of Mark Antony. It was Augustus who sealed the fate of Cleopatra, destroyed her reputation, and took control of Ptolemaic Egypt. Cleopatra did get the last laugh, however, when she managed to commit suicide, instead of letting Augustus lead her as a prisoner through the streets of Rome in a victory parade.

Egyptian Stone Workers' Images of Cleopatra

Pictures of the Ptolemies
Pictures of the Ptolemies.

This series of pictures of Cleopatra show her as the popular imagination and Egyptian stone workers have portrayed her. This particular picture shows the heads of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian rulers of Egypt following the death of the empire-building Alexander the Great. Ptolemy had been a general and possibly close relative of Alexander. After he died, his empire was split, with Ptolemy taking control of Egypt. As rulers, the Ptolemies remained distinctly Hellenistic (Greek/Macedonian), but adopted Egyptian customs, including the marriage between royal brothers and sisters. Cleopatra, who had married her brothers, as well as consorting with the Roman heads of state, was the last of the ruling Ptolemies.

Theda Bara Playing Cleopatra

On the set of 'Cleopatra'
Theda Bara as Cleopatra. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

In the movies, Theda Bara (Theodosia Burr Goodman), a cinematic sex symbol of the silent film era, played a glamorous, alluring Cleopatra.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Marc Antony (Richard Burton) declares his love for Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In the 1960s, the glamorous Elizabeth Taylor and her sometime husband Richard Burton played the love story of Antony and Cleopatra in a production that won four Academy Awards.

Carving of Cleopatra

Carved Egyptian picture of Cleopatra
Carved Egyptian picture of Cleopatra.

An Egyptian carving (relief) showing Cleopatra with a solar disk on her head (left).

Julius Caesar Before Cleopatra

48 BCE Cleopatra and Caesar meet for the first time. H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Getty Images

Julius Caesar meets Cleopatra for the first time in this illustration. Cleopatra is often portrayed as a seductress, a characterization which ignores her acute political skills.

Augustus and Cleopatra

Augustus and Cleopatra
Augustus and Cleopatra. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Augustus (Octavian), Julius Caesar's heir, was Cleopatra's Roman nemesis. Rather than be paraded as a conquered enemy through Rome by a triumphant Augustus, Cleopatra chose suicide rather than be so humiliated.

Cleopatra and the Asp

Cleopatra And Asp
Engraving by W Unger (pub. 1883) after a painting by H Makart. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

When Cleopatra decided to commit suicide rather than surrender to Augustus, she chose the dramatic method of putting an asp to her chest — at least according to legend. Here is an artist's rendering of this bold and defiant act.

Historian Christop Schaefer made news in 2010 with his claims that Cleopatra didn't die from the bite of an asp but from using poison. This isn't really news, but people tend to forget, preferring to embrace the more courageous image of the queen clasping an asp or cobra, rather than drinking a cup of opiates and hemlock.

The Daily Mail's "Cleopatra was killed by a cocktail of drugs — not a snake" detailed the German historian's analysis.

Coin of Cleopatra and Mark Antony

This coin shows Cleopatra and the Roman Mark Antony. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, who had been Cleopatra's lover, Cleopatra and Mark Antony had an affair and then marriage with children. Since Mark Antony had been married to Octavian's sister, this caused problems in Rome. Eventually, when it was clear that Octavian had more power than Mark Antony, Antony and Cleopatra (separately) committed suicide after the Battle of Actium in September 31 BCE.

Bust of Cleopatra

Cleopatra Bust from Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany.
Cleopatra Bust from Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany. Courtesy of Wikipedia

This photo shows a bust of a woman thought to be Cleopatra that is in the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Bas Relief of Cleopatra

Bas relief fragment portraying Cleopatra

This elegant Bas relief fragment portraying Cleopatra resides in Paris' Louvre Museum and dates to 3rd-1st century BCE.

Death of Cleopatra Statue

Marble statue of Cleopatra from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington D.C.
Marble Cleopatra Statue - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. CC Flickr User Kyle Rush

Edmonia Lewis' white marble statue of the death of Cleopatra was created from 1874-76. Cleopatra is still after the asp has done its deadly work.