What Did Cleopatra Really Look Like?

It depends on whom you ask, but artifacts give clues

Cleopatra
Painting from the movie "Cleopatra". Camerique / Getty Images

While Cleopatra is depicted on the silver screen as a great beauty who seduced the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, historians don't really know what Cleopatra looked like.

Only 10 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 point is significant because coins have provided excellent records of the faces of many monarchs.

Though the answer to the question "What did Cleopatra look like?" is a mystery, historical artifacts, works of art, and other clues may shed light on the Egyptian queen.

Statue of Cleopatra

Cleopatra
Statue of Cleopatra. CC Flickr User Jon Callas

Few monuments of Cleopatra remain because, although she captured the heart of Caesar and Antony, it was Octavian (Augustus) who became the first emperor of Rome following the assassination of Caesar and the suicide of Antony. Augustus 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.

This black basalt statue of Cleopatra, housed at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, may give a clue as to what she looked like. 

Pictures of the Ptolemies
Pictures of the Ptolemies.

A series of pictures of Cleopatra show her as popular culture imagines 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 Alexander the Great. 

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.

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 twice-husband, Richard Burton, portrayed the love story of Antony and Cleopatra in a production that won four Academy Awards.

Carved Egyptian picture of Cleopatra
Carved Egyptian picture of Cleopatra.

An Egyptian relief carving shows Cleopatra with a solar disk on her head. The carving, located on left side of a wall at a temple at Dendera on the west bank of the Nile River in Egypt, is one of the few images that bear her name, according to National Geographic:

"She is shown fulfilling her role as pharaoh by making offerings to the gods. The appearance...of her son by Julius Caesar is propaganda aimed at strengthening his position as her heir. He was captured and executed shortly after her demise."

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

Julius Caesar met Cleopatra for the first time in 48 B.C., as depicted in this illustration. Cleopatra arranged to meet Caesar "under intimate terms" by having herself rolled up in a carpet that was delivered to his quarters, according to San Jose State University, which adds:

"When the carpet was unrolled a vivacious 21-year-old Egyptian queen emerge[d]....Cleopatra captivated (Caesar) but it was probably not (due to) her youth and beauty...(but) the audacity of Cleopatra's ploy amused him....She was said to have a thousand ways of flattering."

 

Augustus and Cleopatra
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Augustus (Octavian), Julius Caesar's heir, was Cleopatra's Roman nemesis. This 1784 image, called "The Interview of Augustus and Cleopatra," is housed at the British Museum, which describes the scene:

"In a room decorated in classical and Egyptian styles, Augustus sits on the left, (with his) left hand raised, in lively discussion with Cleopatra, who reclines on the right, gesturing to Augustus with her right arm up in the air."

Behind Cleopatra stand two attendants, while on the far right is a table with an ornate box as well as a classical statue on the left.

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.

This etching, created between 1861 and 1879, and also housed at the British Museum, shows Cleopatra on her bed, holding a snake and about to commit suicide, the museum website notes. A dead slave is pictured on the floor in the foreground, and a weeping servant is in the background to the right.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony on Coins
Clipart.com

This coin shows Cleopatra and Mark Antony. As noted, only about 10 coins have survived in good condition from Cleopatra's era. On this coin, Cleopatra and Mark Antony look very similar to each other, which has caused historians to question whether the image of the queen is really a true likeness.

Bust of Cleopatra

 Altes Museum Berlin (Berliner Museumsinsel)

This image of Cleopatra, displayed at Antiken Museum in Berlin, shows a bust of a woman thought to be Cleopatra. You can even buy a replica of the queen's bust from the Museum Company.

Bas Relief of Cleopatra

Cleopatra
Bas relief fragment portraying Cleopatra. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

This bas-relief fragment portraying Cleopatra, once displayed in Paris' Louvre Museum, dates to between the third to the first centuries B.C.

Death of Cleopatra Statue

Cleopatra
Marble Cleopatra Statue - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. CC Flickr User Kyle Rush

Artist Edmonia Lewis worked from 1874 to 1876 to create this white marble statue depicting the death of Cleopatra. Cleopatra is still after the asp has done its deadly work.