The Most Beautiful Women of the Ancient World

History and lore are scattered with tales of women whose striking beauty spurred men to murder, launched wars and brought potentates and artists alike to their knees in supplication. We explore, here, a few of these women, and the roles they play in stories passed down across centuries.

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Copy of Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Knidos.
Public Domain. Courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Aphrodite, the goddess who won the goddesses' beauty contest leading to the Trojan War should be counted among the all-time world-class beauties. However, this is a list of mortals, so Aphrodite (Venus) doesn't count. 

Luckily, a real-life woman of such profound beauty existed, that she was used by famed sculptor Praxiteles as the model for his statue of Aphrodite Knidos. 

So great was the purported beauty of courtesan Phryne (365–310 BCE), that it, paired with a defense by orator Hypereides, earned her an acquittal from her trial for impiety around 350 BCE.

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Helen of Troy at the Louvre. From an Attic red-figure krater from about 450-440 B.C.
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Helen of Troy's face famously launched a thousand ships. She was the bride of King Menelaus of Sparta when a smitten Prince Paris of Troy abducted her, bringing her back with him to be his own bride. The insolence enraged the prideful King Menelaus, thus launching the ten years long Trojan War.

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Neaira (and Other Courtesans)

painting from an Ancient pot
The Hetaerae Thargelia. Wikimedia Commons

Neaira (born about 400 BCE) was a famous, expensive Greek courtesan who, like other hetairai, including Thargelia and Lais of Corinth, probably owed her successful career to her good looks. 

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David and Bathsheba, by Jan Matsys, 1562. At the Louvre.
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bathsheba may or may not have been beautiful, but she was seductive enough to capture the attention of David, King of the Hebrew people during the United Monarchy (c. 1025–928 BCE). 

King David levies his covetous death blow in an ultimate act of betrayal to his faithful servant and soldier, Bathsheba's husband Uriah in II Samuel 11:15. In a letter brought by Uriah's own hand, King David directs Army Captain Joab from afar, "Put Uriah out front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die."

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Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Titian, c. 1515.
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Seductress Salome's name is another associated with an especially dark power driving men to murder.

King Herod of Galilee, having been greatly pleased by her performance of a dance at his birthday banquet, pled with her "Ask me for anything you want and I'll give it to you."

At a loss, the young Salome (born 14 CE) sought her mother Herodias' guidance, "What shall I ask for?" Herodias, embittered by John the Baptist's condemnation of her marriage replied, "The head of John the Baptist."

Determined to keep his word and not be embarrassed before his guests, King Herod complied, presenting young Salome with the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

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Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, by Noel Halle, 1779 (Musee Fabre)
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, was a model of Roman womanly virtue—she was a one-man woman, a perfect mother, wife, and daughter. 

Cornelia Scipionis Africana (~190s–115 BCE) was the daughter of Scipio Africanus and the wife of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, with whom she produced 12 children, three of whom survived to adulthood: Sempronia and her two famous brothers Tiberius and Gaius

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Berenice of Cilicia or Julia Berenice

bust of Bernice
Wikimedia Commons

Berenice (28–after 79 CE) was the daughter of King Herod Agrippa I and great grand-daughter of Herod the Great.

She was a Judaean client-queen of Rome with whom Titus Flavius Vespasianus fell in love. Despite hostility on the part of Rome, Titus lived openly with her nearly until his succession. He sent her away shortly before, but she returned to Rome in 79 CE when he succeeded his father to the throne. 

Married frequently and accused of incest with brother Herod Agrippa II, she disappeared from the historical record after being sent away by Titus prior to his ascension as Emperor of Rome.

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Bust of Queen Nefertiti. New Kingdom, 18th dynasty, Amarna era, around 1340 BC. Limestone and plaster, height 50 cm. Altes Museum. Berlin - Germany
Josefo Soriano/ age fotostock/ Getty Images

Nefertiti (~1370–~1336 BCE) was an Egyptian queen and the legendarily beautiful wife of the heretic Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaten. Mother of Tutankhamen, Nefertiti may have ruled as co-king alongside her husband as he attempted to dismantle thousands of years of history. Then, after he was dead, it is possible that she was Akhenaten's successor, under the name Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare, who oversaw the beginning of the restoration efforts and named Tutankhamen as successor.