What Did Cleopatra Really Look Like?

Cleopatra's family member
Cleopatra’s family member

Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen has gained massive popularity due to various misconceptions regarding her look. If we look into her modern depiction, we see her being portrayed as a beautiful, small-nosed woman with a pale skin tone. She is also seen to be wearing low neckline gowns with heavy makeup. 

Whereas, when we dive into her ancient depiction, the image of her is almost opposite to what is shown in modern days. She is portrayed with a long-hooked nose, prominent chin, and broad forehead.

Cleopatra, originally named Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, was the last Queen of the Macedonian dynasty ruling Egypt. 

She became queen of Egypt after the death of her father in 51 BCE and ruled along with her brother, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV.

There are many movies made based on the life of Cleopatra, where she is portrayed in a different way depending on the movie. 

For instance, in the movie Cleopatra, made in 1963, she is portrayed as a white woman, full of beauty, wearing a unique hairstyle with bangs.

Other movies and shows have shown her with different hairstyles and dresses. Even her character is portrayed differently in different movies.

How is she portrayed?

Actress Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in Cleopatra (1963)
Actress Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in Cleopatra (1963)
Source: Wikimedia Common

A woman full of beauty, sensuality, and extravagance comes to everybody’s mind when talking about Cleopatra.  However, we can read some articles about her not being beautiful. 

Cleopatra was extremely intelligent with a great understanding of life and the way to live it. She spoke around nine different languages and was a well-educated woman.

With her intelligence, cleverness, and wise decisions, she managed to keep proper relations with her allies and smoothly ruled over Egypt despite the ongoing turbulent and chaotic situation in Egypt. 

Talking about her beauty, how can beauty be defined? Is it only from the shape and size of the nose? Or is it from the skin tone or the hair color? 

Cleopatra’s appearance is described by a Roman Senator, Kassios Dion, to have a striking beauty with a charming voice. 

The Roman Poet Lucan has also described her as filled with a fatal beauty.

Despite all these descriptions from ancient writers and poets, Cleopatra’s beauty is a topic of debate. She was considered not beautiful for having a large nose, prominent chin, watery eyes, broad forehead, and frizzy hair.

What was her Nationality?

Cleopatra depicted in Greek attire
Cleopatra depicted in Greek attire

Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, was not from Egypt. She belonged to the Macedonian Greek dynasty, which ruled Egypt from about 323 BCE until 30 BCE.

According to a classical author Plutarch, Cleopatra though not an Egyptian, learned the Egyptian language for political reasons, also styled herself as one of the most important ancient Egyptian goddesses, Isis.

Her nationality is a topic of National Controversy. Despite her being the ruler of Egypt, she was not its National. She belonged to the renowned Plotemaic Dynasty, and her ancestors were Makedonian Greek from the Kingdom of Makedonia located in Northern Greece.

It was a trend or, rather, say, a culture in her family that no one would marry anyone out from their dynasty. They would only marry someone belonging to Greek royal families, so her family tree is a single straight line like a ladder.

How were her love life, family, and children?

Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and Julius Caesar in one picture
Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and Julius Caesar in one picture

Cleopatra was born to Plotemaios XII Auletes, who had several wives. He has had many children from all of her wives, so it is hard to tell the actual mother of Cleopatra. 

The actual truth about Cleopatra is still not found with proof, so the fact about her actual mother is also unknown. 

However, Strabon of Amaseia, a Greek Writer has mentioned that of all the daughters of Ptolemaios XII, only the eldest daughter was legitimate. Her name was Berenike. So, if this statement is true, all other children were illegitimate, including Cleopatra.

Her love life was also a topic of controversy, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar were lovers. They fulfilled each other’s needs as Cleopatra needed Caesar’s mighty army to help her be the perfect ruler of Egpyt. On the other hand, Caesar was looking for Cleopatra’s massive wealth.

She is also believed to have married her brother after her father’s death. She became dominant over her husband and took power and started ruling Egypt. She is also considered to be responsible for the murders of her brothers.

However, her marriage to Mark Antony was a genuine one as they were both in love. They fell in love when they saw each other for the first time in Rome when she was the mistress of Julius Caesar.

Cleopatra had a son with Julius Caesar named Caesarion, and from Mark Antony, she had Ptolemy Philadelphus, Cleopatra Selene II, and Alexander Helios.

What was Cleopatra’s actual size?

Cleopatra rolled out of a carpet
Cleopatra rolled out of a carpet

There are a few speculations about how she looked and mainly about her physical size. Some movies and paintings including the movie Cleopatra ( 1963 ) have been portraying her to be with a well-built physique with a great height.

Greek biographer Ploutarchos of Chaironeia writes an incident about how Cleopatra and Julius Caesar met. The story mentioned helps us to know or assume the actual size of Cleopatra.

According to that writing, Cleopatra was hiding on a carpet when she first met Julius Caesar in around 47 BC. If this is to be true, we can say that she was not a tall woman but rather a tiny one. Otherwise, she would have fit in a rolled carpet.

What was her hair color?

Cleopatra with dark black hair - Cleopatra ( 1963 )
Cleopatra with dark black hair – Cleopatra ( 1963 )

Her physical appearance, including the color of her hair, is also an issue of debate. Few of the movies have portrayed her with dark black hair with bangs ( Cleopatra- 1963 ). Whereas some portray her hair to be blonde.

However, an old statue of her shows her with red, frizzy hair with a melon hairstyle and her signature cloth diadem on her head.

Some paintings show her with black color, and some portray her without the diadem; some images are with a very low neckline dress and bare shoulders- which is most probably not acceptable during that period.

There are some other portrayals of him, but they show her as a goddess who cannot be taken as the actual portrayal of Cleopatra.

What was Cleopatra’s skin tone?

Depiction of Cleopatra with pale skin tone
Depiction of Cleopatra with pale skin tone

Like her hair, size, and nationality, her skin tone is also one topic for debate.

If we follow the image of Cleopatra shown in movies, she is portrayed as a white woman with a very fair skin tone.

However, the assumption about her mother’s nationality shows that she must have had an African background. This would mean her skin tone would have been of the color black.

Some classical structures and sculptures have depicted Cleopatra’s skin without any pigments although it is believed that skin had pigments. 

The closest depiction could be seen in one of the houses in the Roman City of Herculaneum, which dates to the 1st Century AD. This painting of hers shows a pale skin tone. Since it is one of the oldest depictions of hers, it is considered to be the most relevant one.

Her most accurate portrayal in the movie

The character of Cleopatra in series Rome
Character of Cleopatra in series Rome

Numerous movies, television shows, and acts have been made based on the life of the famous Cleopatra. Some of the famous ones include Cleopatra ( 1963 ), A queen for Caesar (1962), Cleopatra ( 1934 ), Caesar & Cleopatra (1945), and Carry on Cleo (1964).

However, the closest a movie or a show can display the accurate portrayal of Cleopatra in Rome. The role of Cleopatra is done by the English actress Lyndsey Marshal and made by HBO. 

Unlike other movies and shows, Rome portrays Cleopatra with a large, hooked nose and a comparatively short height of about 5 feet. She is also shown putting her in melon style with a dress similar to the statue of her. 

Also, her relationship with Mark Antony is portrayed in a realistic manner where they are believed to have fallen in love at first sight. It is rather similar to the story depicted by Shakespeare.

Despite many similarities, there are quite a few differences in this show. First, one being the low neckline of the outfit she is shown wearing. They have not used the signature diadem, which symbolized Cleopatra’s position as Queen of Egypt. Lastly, she is also shown wearing a necklace that is never seen in any of her statues or ancient depictions.

Who was her actual mother?

Cleopatra's family member
Cleopatra’s family member

Kleopatra V is considered the mother of Cleopatra VII; however, there is no proof to prove it as a fact. However, the only known child was Berenike, so it is assumed that she could be Cleopatra’s mother.

Kleopatra V is the only name that is recorded out of all Plotemaios XII wives. So, Cleopatra is thought to be her child.

Recent articles on Cleopatra suggest that her mother belonged to an African family. Cleopatra’s skin color statement can be found in an article published by Nadra Nittle ( 2019 ).

It is mentioned that she is always portrayed as having white skin color but is that true? This statement points towards her mother belonging to an African family and probably being a black-colored woman.

The article was based on the remains of a woman found by archaeologists in 2009. The remains belonged to one of Cleopatra’s sisters, pointing towards the fact that their mother was an African.

However, there is another side to the story. It states that the remains were not found in 2009 but were discovered first in 1926. But, it was discovered to be Princess Arsinoe’s remain only in 1985 by Austrian Scholar Hilke Thur 

But it cannot be taken as 100 percent accurate as no name or any other evidence was proving the remains of Arsinoe.

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