Cleopatra is always newsworthy. So when in February 2007 a small coin in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle was said to have changed our understanding of her, it made headlines around the world.
Journalists reacted with shock. Cleopatra was no beauty queen, said the reports. The face on the coin was nothing like that of Elizabeth Taylor. Instead she looked “plain”, even “shrewish”, and had a “hook-like hooter”. This was announced as a revelation.
Yet for all the fanfare, there was nothing particularly unusual about the Newcastle coin. There are plenty of coins surviving with Cleopatra’s portrait on them, and they generally repeat the same features that seemed to astound reporters: a prominent nose, sloping forehead, sharply pointed chin and thin lips, and hollow-looking eye sockets.
Where was Cleopatra from?
Born c69 BC, Cleopatra was the third of a possible six children, all of whom shared a common father, Ptolemy XII. The Ptolemaic dynasty, a Macedonian-Greek royal family that had ties to Alexander the Great, had ruled Egypt since 305 BC. Traditionally male rulers took the name Ptolemy, while Ptolemaic Queens were usually named Cleopatra, Arsinoë or Berenice.
These coin portraits, surprising though they may be to those who have grown up with a ‘Hollywood Cleopatra’, are the only certain images we have of her. That hasn’t stopped people from attempting to dismiss them as inaccurate and overly stylised – hoping against hope that there could have been another face of Cleopatra, a hidden one whose face would better match our expectations. Perhaps, they suggest, these unconvincing portraits were the work of unskilled artists.
There’s no reason to think these coin portraits are wrong, however. At the time, a warts-and-all approach to portraiture was in vogue in the Mediterranean world, and it seems that Cleopatra’s image was no exception to this trend. Features like large noses or determined chins may have been slightly exaggerated, but only because those features were the most recognisable attributes of the individual being portrayed. In this sense they were intended to be realistic.
Coin portraits of Cleopatra’s father, much rarer than those of Cleopatra herself, show him with a prominent nose and sloping forehead, so these physical characteristics may well have been family traits. Her lovers don’t match modern popular conceptions either: Julius Caesar has a wrinkled, scrawny neck and hides his bald head with a crown, and Antony’s jutting chin and broken nose bear no resemblance to Richard Burton’s features.
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The coins were minted in a variety of places in the eastern Mediterranean, from Alexandria in Egypt to the port of Patras in Greece. Mark Antony bestowed on Cleopatra a number of eastern cities and territories, and coins were issued in those places in the name of the new ruler. Though the portraits found on the coins vary in style from artist to artist, they are generally consistent in detail, which suggests that the artists were following guidelines when they engraved the dies to strike the coins. It’s likely that they were copying an official image that the queen herself had approved – nose and chin included.
Despite her legendary fondness for dressing up, the portraits are rather modest. Cleopatra wears the cloth diadem of a Hellenistic ruler around her head. Her hair is drawn back in braids and coiled in a bun at the base of her skull. Over her shoulders she wears a mantle, covering her gown. A discreet earring hangs from her earlobe, and around her neck is a string of pearls – the only hint of the riches described by the Roman poet Lucan, who pictures a dissolute Cleopatra as decked out “on neck and hair with all the Red Sea spoils”. On some coins her mantle seems to be held in place by a clasp that includes more strings of pearls – a treasure that perhaps held great significance at the time (a gift from Caesar or Antony?)
Most of the coin portraits date to the mid to late 30s BC, when Cleopatra herself was in her mid to late thirties. Often she is associated with Mark Antony, whose portrait appears on the other side (and occasionally on the same side, next to hers), but she is always described as a queen in her own right, and not just Antony’s consort: “Queen Cleopatra, the New Goddess”; “For Cleopatra, Queen of Kings and of children who are kings”. On some coins depicting her by herself there is no name attached at all – those distinctive features told people who they were looking at.
The modern negative reaction to the face of Cleopatra tells us more about our love of stories than anything about this most famous of Egyptian queens, who ruled from 51 to 30 BC. For us, the reality of her coin portraits clashes with the much greater myth of Cleopatra, a myth so grand that it has practically consumed the person behind it
Hollywood did not invent the tradition of the beautiful seductress; that we can believe so says much about its influence in our world. Instead it simply followed a longstanding convention. Hardly had Cleopatra died (allegedly from an asp bite) than the legends began to accrue. In 31 BC she and her lover, Mark Antony, had been defeated by their rival Octavian, and in the following year they committed suicide in Egypt. Octavian had triumphed, but he was the victor in a vicious civil war that had pitted Roman against Roman.
Cleopatra was a convenient scapegoat. Octavian claimed to have waged war against the foreign queen, not Antony. In this way Antony could be portrayed as a virtuous Roman who had betrayed his homeland through the machinations of an evil temptress. Cleopatra was cast as an irresistible and exotic femme fatale, and Roman writers picked up the theme. The poet Horace declared her a “deadly monster”, and Propertius, with even less delicacy, called the queen a “whore”. Yet she needed more exceptional qualities to have conquered both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony: according to the Roman historian Cassius Dio she was “a woman of surpassing beauty… with the power to subjugate everyone”.
But not all were taken in by this. The Greek biographer Plutarch, writing about a century after Cleopatra’s death, had his doubts about her unparalleled physical qualities. “Her beauty was in itself not altogether incomparable’”, he wrote, “nor such as to strike those who saw her”, but he nonetheless credits her with an “irresistible charm”. Intelligent and talented, Cleopatra had a gift for making people feel they were the focus of her attention – and that quality, rather than her looks, was her winning trait with Caesar and Antony. Even Cassius Dio conceded that Cleopatra “had a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone”. This is perhaps the closest we can get to the real Cleopatra and the character behind the face on the coins.
The beautiful and scheming seductress was a creation of Octavian’s propaganda, and unwittingly he created history’s greatest love story. But the coins present us with another kind of story – of two ambitious political figures weaving a future together: Antony the Roman triumvir and Cleopatra the queen of kings. Not as romantic, but possibly a face of Cleopatra that the queen herself would have recognised, and of which she would have approved.
Professor Kevin Butcher from the University of Warwick is the co-author of The Metallurgy of Roman Silver Coinage: From the Reform of Nero to the Reform of Trajan, (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Prof Butcher’s research interests include Greek and Roman coinage, particularly the civic and provincial coinages of the Roman empire, and the Hellenistic and Roman Near East, particularly coastal Syria and Lebanon.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016