Cleopatra was one of the most powerful and prosperous rulers of Egypt.
Cleopatra is known for being beautiful despite people not actually knowing what she looked like.
There have been many guesses and theories as to what the Queen of the Nile looked like.
As historians and archaeologists continue searching through the remains of her civilization, they discover more and more pieces to the puzzle.
What Did Cleopatra Look Like?
Cleopatra died over 2,000 years ago, in a time well before photos or realism art had been introduced.
There are no clear answers to what Cleopatra looked like.
It is all based on speculation and what historians know for certain about Cleopatra.
One fact we do know about Cleopatra is that her father wasn’t from Egypt.
Ptolemy XII was the ruler before Cleopatra or her brother took the throne.
Ptolemy came to Egypt with Alexander the Great from Macedonia Greece.
If both of Cleopatra’s parents were from Greece, then she would have had a lighter skin tone than her subjects.
Nobody truly knows Cleopatra’s race because there is no documentation of her mother, despite her father having plenty of documentation throughout history.
There are Roman coins from 37 B.C. to 33 B.C. that depict Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s faces, but they may not be the most accurate.
Many historians have pointed out how faces on those coins were artistic depictions that were meant to help the Roman citizens accept their new rulers.
Roman citizens weren’t very pleased with the idea of having one of the highest people in power be from another country.
The Roman government tried to depict her with more Roman features, such as giving her curly hair, a jutting jaw, and a hooked nose.
Historians also believe this is where the idea of Cleopatra being so beautiful came from.
In Egyptian carvings and paintings, Cleopatra is drawn like a goddess.
It is hard to decipher any exact features from the artistic renderings of her while she was still alive.
Paintings from after her death are based on the artist’s idea of what she could have looked like or are based on one of the few physical depictions, such as the coins or carvings.
The Roman Depiction Of Cleopatra
While historians are unsure how much stylization went into the creation of the coins for Mark Antony and Cleopatra, some historians believe that the Roman depiction of Cleopatra may not be too far off from what she could have looked like.
The Roman coins that depict Cleopatra give her a large nose, thin lips, hollow eyes, sloping forehead, and a sharp chin.
Similar features can be found on the coins with Mark Antony’s face on them.
However, Mark Antony’s coins are the only ones that archeologists have found that are similar to Cleopatra’s.
Archeologists have found coins with depictions of Cleopatra’s father that are even older than hers.
Ptolemy XII is depicted with the same large nose and sloping forehead as Cleopatra.
It is highly likely that these are simply familial traits.
A major part of how Romans depicted Cleopatra wasn’t just through art, but it was also through the way they spoke about her.
Cleopatra was known for being incredibly charming.
Historians point to the Queen’s silver tongue as her salvation from the war with her brother and where the rumors of her beauty come from.
Cassius Dio had a lot to say about Cleopatra’s charm.
He once said that Cleopatra “had a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone”.
It wasn’t just Cleopatra’s looks that gave her the ability to make both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony swoon.
Charisma goes a long way, especially when you’re a leader.
Cleopatra knew how to get men in high positions of power to listen to her, which earned her the title of Queen of Kings.
After Octavius took over the Roman Empire, he began to attempt to paint Cleopatra in an extremely poor light.
His propaganda made Cleopatra out to be an evil enchantress who controlled men.
The Egyptian Depiction Of Cleopatra
In Ancient Egypt, Pharaohs would tie themselves to different gods or goddesses.
The Egyptian royalty would associate themselves with divine powers in order to prove that they were capable of maintaining peace, justice, and the normal way of life.
This made the citizens less likely to overthrow the entire hierarchy, even if some royal family members were removed from their positions.
Cleopatra identified herself with Isis, which was extremely fitting for the independent queen and single mother.
Isis was a protective goddess who represented the throne. Her crown often has a small throne on it in any of her physical depictions.
Isis was also the goddess of magic and healing.
After years of worship, Isis had become the embodiment of cosmic order.
To the ancient Egyptians, Isis controlled fate.
For Cleopatra to align herself with such a high power, she had set herself up to have incredibly high expectations to meet from her citizens.
During Cleopatra’s rule of Egypt, she guided them out of war and famine.
Her reign was one of the most fruitful periods in their history.
Through Cleopatra’s rule of her own country and her ability to work well with other countries, she was able to lead her people to such prosperity as they had never seen before.
Cleopatra took her role as the embodiment of Isis very seriously.
She was often found wearing the ceremonial robes of Isis.
She would often wear a wig with Isis’ normal throne piece in front or would wear a vulture headpiece.
Cleopatra, her father, and her son all took the Egyptian religion very seriously, despite not originally being around the culture and religion.
Their patronage of the temples and the heavy focus they kept on preserving Egyptian culture greatly improved their public image.
Cleopatra In Art
Despite no one truly knowing what Cleopatra actually looked like, she has been painted countless times.
Her depictions vary from an olive-skinned woman with straight, black hair to a pale, blonde woman who looks more like she spent her time in Northern Europe rather than Egypt.
The reason that there are so many contradicting depictions of Cleopatra in art is that people simply think of Cleopatra as the most beautiful woman who ever lived.
The painters use their imaginations and personal preferences in order to decide how to paint Cleopatra, a person they’ve never seen and have only read about.
What an artist considers beautiful is heavily based on what their society has deemed beautiful.
Throughout history, just about every feature has been a preference at one point or another.
In the 1700s, artists began painting Cleopatra in a particular pose.
The subject matter of the paintings are based on a story about Cleopatra making a competition out of holding the fanciest party with Mark Antony.
In the paintings, you can see Cleopatra in European-inspired clothing dipping a pearl into her wine and vinegar.
The Hollywood depiction of Cleopatra is based on an oil on canvas painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme.
In the painting, titled Cleopatra and Caesar, you can see Cleopatra standing seductively, looking back at Caesar.
She is wearing a long, flowing, white skirt with golden trim near the top.
It is paired with a matching top, although her top in this painting is much more revealing.
The round, thick, blue necklace made of precious stone beads is draped around her neck.
She even has a toned-down version of her iconic headpiece.
When looking at this painting, you can see the inspiration for Elizbeth Taylor’s costume in the 1963 film, Cleopatra.
Depictions Of Cleopatra In Film
Cleopatra’s undeniable charm and famed beauty have been the inspiration for many movies through the decades of film.
Cleopatra has been a star in movies for over 100 years, going as far back as 1899.
Her beauty has been portrayed by some of the most beautiful women in the history of film.
One of the first movies that featured Cleopatra was the 1899 film Cléopatre, a French silent film by George Méliès.
Méliès is created for introducing the fade-in and fade-out, along with a few other early special effects techniques.
In the movie, Cleopatra wears a long dress, a spiky crown, and has a long staff with a star on top.
In 1917, Theda Bara played the role of Cleopatra in the film named after the historical figure.
Theda Bara’s costume is elaborate, despite not even being shown in color.
Bara wears a more stereotypical crown for an Egyptian Pharaoh.
A movie based around the Romance of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra was made in 1945, starring Vivian Leigh in the role of Cleopatra.
Caesar and Cleopatra was the most expensive film ever made in England up to that point.
In the film, Cleopatra is shown as wearing a scaled wig and a falcon-like crown adorning the top of her head.
She is also sporting the extended eyeliner that Cleopatra is recognized for wearing these days.
The movie that most heavily shaped what most people believe Cleopatra looked like was Cleopatra, which was released in 1963 and starred Elizabeth Taylor.
This is the movie where the full extent of Cleopatra’s popularly known makeup comes from, which was heavily inspired by the 1960s.
Elizabeth Taylor goes through many costume changes, each being extremely elaborate and covered in gold.
This is the movie that gave people the idea that Cleopatra had black, braided hair.
Cleopatra’s Portrayal In Ballet
Before Cleopatra became the inspiration for movies, she was an inspiration for ballet and theater.
The portrayals of Cleopatra in ballet predate even the earliest film by nearly 100 years.
It is easy to understand how the stories of Cleopatra’s beauty and charm could inspire classic choreography and music.
One of the first known ballet depictions of Cleopatra is in Les amours d’Antoine et Cléopâtre by Jean-Pierre Aumer.
When creating the character of Cleopatra, Aumer leaned heavily into the belief Cleopatra was seductive.
In the ballet, her movements are fluid like running water.
For Cleopatra’s costume, the ballerina playing her wears a long, flowing skirt with slits running up the sides of the legs.
There are parts where Cleopatra wears a large, golden crown, but she doesn’t wear her crown throughout the entire show.
There have been many other ballets that were about Cleopatra that have been nearly completely lost to time, with only musical scores remaining.
Some of these ballets, including Nuit d’Egypte from 1908, have only left behind the ballets that they inspired.
The 2000 ballet, Cleopatra, took a lot of inspiration from the ballets that came before it that were inspired by the Queen of the Nile.
The ballet portrays Cleopatra as a divine beauty, which is how her citizens saw her.
The costumes for Mark Antony and Cleopatra match to give the audience a sense that they belonged together.
While there are no exact physical traits required for being cast in the role of Cleopatra, the ballet definitely accurately portrays how Cleopatra’s citizens felt about her in a way that the modern world can understand.
The music for this ballet was composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg, who also composed the music for the legendary musical, Les Misérables, another historical drama.
Cleopatra In Literature
Beauty and romance make for excellent inspiration for poetry and books.
Cleopatra and her love interests have been the subject of many different pieces of literature throughout history.
The imagery created by the authors’ well-written words has helped shape what people think of when trying to imagine what Cleopatra looked like.
Poets took inspiration from Cleopatra’s allure and mysticism, weaving poetry that could help create an image of this lost beauty in the minds of readers.
While some poems focus more on her appearance, others focus on her charm and ability to capture hearts so easily.
A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne went into great detail about the Queen of Kings and makes it clear how she was able to convince Caesar and Antony to befriend her.
Swinburne claims she has “deep lips” and “eyes of love”.
Poets were also inspired to write about the Queen of the Nile’s assumed tragic end.
While it is unknown how Cleopatra and Mark Antony killed themselves before being captured by Octavius’s forces, many people believe Cleopatra allowed herself to be bitten by an asp.
Multiple poems have been titled Cleopatra and the Asp, but one of the most notable poems of this title is by Ted Hughes.
In the poem, Cleopatra is talking to the asp before using it to commit suicide.
This somber poem goes over the joy and regrets that Cleopatra has before she ends her life.
Cleopatra’s Historical Identity
Cleopatra’s true physical looks may never be known for sure, but history and art have painted a beautiful picture of her.
Although there were people during her lifetime who tried to ruin her reputation, their attempts failed.
We may never know how beautiful Cleopatra actually was, but we do know that her charm and wit could not be resisted, even by kings.
Her strength and ability to work well with other people allowed her to become one of the biggest icons of beauty and grace, all without people ever having to see her face.