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Cleopatra no beauty? Judge for yourself

Feb. 14, 2007
Courtesy Newcastle University
and World Science staff

An­to­ny and Cle­o­pat­ra weren’t the hand­some gen­er­al and his beau­ti­ful queen that Hol­ly­wood has pre­sented, claim arch­ae­o­log­ists at New­cas­tle Uni­ver­si­ty, U.K. They’ve been stu­dy­ing a de­pic­tion of one of his­to­ry’s most trag­ic cou­ples, on what they said is a con­tem­p­o­rary Ro­man coin.

Above, Cleopatra; below, Antony. (Courtesy Newcastle University)


The Mark An­to­ny and Cle­o­pat­ra piece was found in a col­lec­tion from the So­ci­e­ty of An­ti­quar­ies of New­cas­tle up­on Tyne, U.K., dur­ing re­search as part of the de­ve­l­op­ment of a new mu­se­um.

The doomed cou­ple are shown on ei­ther side of the sil­ver coin, which is about 18 mm wide—the size of a mod­ern Brit­ish five pence piece. 

The im­age “is far from be­ing that of Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor and Rich­ard Bur­ton!” said Lind­say Al­la­son-Jones, di­rec­tor of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mu­se­ums at the uni­ver­si­ty. The re­search­ers said the coin de­picts Cle­o­pat­ra with a shal­low fore­head, long, poin­t­ed nose, nar­row lips and poin­ty chin; and Mark An­to­ny with bulg­ing eyes, big hooked nose and thick neck.

“The pop­u­lar im­age we have of Cle­o­pat­ra is that of a beau­ti­ful queen who was adored by Ro­man politi­cians and gen­er­als,” said Clare Pick­ers­gill, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mu­se­ums at the uni­ver­si­ty.

“The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Mark An­to­ny and Cle­o­pat­ra has long been ro­man­ticised by writ­ers, artists and film-makers. Shake­speare wrote his trag­e­dy An­to­ny and Cle­o­pat­ra in 1608,” she con­ti­nued. “The Ori­en­tal­ist artists of the 19th cen­tu­ry and the mod­ern Hol­ly­wood de­pic­tions, such as that of Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor and Rich­ard Bur­ton in the 1963 film, have added to the idea that Cle­o­pat­ra was a great beau­ty. Re­cent re­search would seem to dis­a­gree.”

“Ro­man writ­ers tell us that Cle­o­pat­ra was in­tel­li­gent and char­is­mat­ic,” said Allason-Jones, “and that she had a se­duc­tive voice. But, tell­ing­ly, they do not men­tion her beau­ty. The im­age of Cle­o­pat­ra as a beau­ti­ful se­duc­tress is a more re­cent” con­struc­tion.

The coin is a de­nar­i­us dat­ed to 32 BC, and would have been is­sued by An­to­ny’s own mint, the re­search­ers said. One side shows his head, with the cap­tion An­toni Ar­me­nia de­vic­ta mean­ing “For An­to­ny, Ar­me­nia hav­ing been van­quished.” Cle­o­pat­ra ap­pears with the words Cle­o­pat­ra Regi­nae re­g­um fil­io­rum­que re­g­um. This means “For Cle­o­pat­ra, Queen of kings and of the chil­d­ren of kings,” or pos­si­bly “Queen of kings and of her chil­dren who are kings,” the re­search­ers said.

The coin is not enor­mous­ly rare; it has been owned by the So­ci­e­ty of An­ti­quar­ies of New­cas­tle up­on Tyne since the 1920s, and kept in a bank, they added. Its find came amid prepa­ra­tions for the new ex­hi­bi­tion hall, the Great North Mu­se­um, un­der de­vel­op­ment in New­cas­tle up­on Tyne. The piece went on dis­play in the uni­ver­si­ty’s Shefton Mu­se­um start­ing Valen­tines Day, Feb. 14.

Cle­o­pat­ra VII was, from age 17, the last rul­er of Egypt be­fore its con­quest by the Ro­man lead­er Oc­ta­vi­an in 30BC. She was al­so Egypt’s last rul­er of the Ptol­e­ma­ic line, which lasted al­most three cen­turies. An­to­ny was a Ro­man gen­er­al and pol­i­ti­cian who had sup­ported the dic­ta­tor Jul­ius Cae­sar. Af­ter Cae­sar’s as­sas­si­na­tion he joined with Oc­ta­vi­an and Lep­i­dus to form a short-lived body of three rul­ers of Rome. 

An­to­ny, known for a love of wine, wom­en and song, had been in­ter­est­ed in Cle­o­pat­ra’s sup­port for his wars in Ar­me­nia, Par­thia and Mes­o­po­ta­mia. Up­on their meet­ing Cle­o­pat­ra put on a show that dis­played her wealth, and left An­to­ny in awe. A li­ai­son fol­lowed, though An­to­ny was mar­ried. Cle­o­pat­ra, who had a child from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship with Cae­sar, bore An­to­ny three more.

In 31 BC An­to­ny and Cle­o­pat­ra fought Oc­ta­vi­an in the bat­tle of Ac­ti­um, off the Greek coast. They lost and fled back to Egypt. The next year, An­to­ny killed him­self. Cle­o­pat­ra soon fol­lowed suit, ap­par­ent­ly by let­ting co­bras bite her. Oc­ta­vi­an—lat­er Rome’s first em­per­or, Au­gus­tus—then ap­pro­pri­ated Egypt. 

Af­ter the su­i­cides, ru­mors cir­cu­lat­ed in Rome por­tray­ing Cle­o­pat­ra as drunk, dec­a­dent and re­spon­si­ble for en­snar­ing An­to­ny. But many saw her su­i­cide as no­ble; in Egypt she con­tin­ued to be viewed as a pa­tri­ot­ic rul­er. Her su­i­cide, of­ten seen as a re­sult of her love for An­to­ny—but more like­ly be­cause she did­n’t want to be dragged to Rome as part of Oc­ta­vi­an’s vic­to­ry pa­rade—has con­tri­but­ed to the ro­man­tic im­age of to­day, ac­cord­ing to Pick­ers­gill and col­leagues.


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Antony and Cleopatra weren’t the handsome General and his beautiful queen that Hollywood has presented, claim experts at Newcastle University, U.K. The researchers have been studying the depiction of the one of history’s most tragic romantic couples found on a little Roman coin. The silver coin of Mark Antony and Cleopatra was found in a collection from the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., under research as part of preparations for a new museum. The doomed couple are shown on either side of the silver coin, which is about 18 mm wide—the size of a modern British five pence piece. The image “is far from being that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton!” said Lindsay Allason-Jones, Director of Archaeo logical Museums at Newcastle University. The researchers said the coin depicts Cleopatra with a shallow forehead, long, pointed nose, narrow lips and a sharply pointed chin; and Mark Antony with bulging eyes, a large hooked nose and thick neck. “The popular image we have of Cleopatra is that of a beautiful queen who was adored by Roman politicians and generals,” said Clare Pickersgill, Assistant Director of Archaeo logical Museums at the university. “The relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra has long been romanticised by writers, artists and film-makers. Shakespeare wrote his tragedy ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ in 1608, while the Orientalist artists of the nineteenth century and the modern Hollywood depictions, such as that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1963 film have added to the idea that Cleopatra was a great beauty. Recent research would seem to disagree with this portrayal.” “Roman writers tell us that Cleopatra was intelligent and charismatic, and that she had a seductive voice but, tellingly, they do not mention her beauty. The image of Cleopatra as a beautiful seductress is a more recent” construction, said Allason-Jones. The coin is a silver denarius of Mark Antony and Cleopatra dated to 32 BC, which would have been issued by Mark Antony’s mint, the researchers said. One side shows the head of Mark Antony, with the caption “Antoni Armenia devicta” meaning “For Antony, Armenia having been vanquished.” Cleopatra appears with the inscription “Cleopatra Reginae regum filiorumque regum.” This means “For Cleopatra, Queen of kings and of the children of kings,” or possibly “Queen of kings and of her children who are kings,” the researchers said. The coin is not enormously rare; it has been owned by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne since the 1920s, and kept in a bank, they added. Its find came amid preparations for the new exhibition hall, the Great North Museum, under development in Newcastle upon Tyne. It went on display in the university’s Shefton Museum starting Valentines Day, Feb. 14. Cleopatra VII was the last ruler of Egypt before its conquest by the Roman leader Octavian in 30BC. She was also Egypt’s last ruler of the Ptolemaic line, which lasted almost three centuries. She became queen at age 17. Antony was a Roman general and politician who had supported the dictator Julius Caesar. After Caesar’s assassination he joined with Octavian and Lepidus to form a short-lived body of three rulers of Rome. Antony, known for his fondness of wine, women and song, had been interested in Cleopatra’s support for his wars in Armenia, Parthia and Mesopotamia. Upon their meeting Cleopatra put on a show that displayed her wealth and which left Antony in awe. A liaison followed, though Antony was married. Cleopatra, who had a child from her previous relationship with Caesar, had three more with Antony. In 31 BC Antony and Cleopatra fought Octavian in the battle of Actium, off the Greek coast. They lost and fled back to Egypt. The next year, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra soon followed suit, apparently by letting cobras bite her. Octavian, who later became the first Roman emperor Augustus, then took control of Egypt. After the suicides, rumors circulated in Rome portraying Cleopatra as drunk, decadent and responsible for ensnaring Antony. But many saw her suicide as a noble deed; in Egypt she continued to be viewed as a patriotic ruler. Her suicide, often seen as a result of her love for Antony—but more likely because she didn’t want to be dragged to Rome as part of Octavian’s victory parade—has contributed to the romantic image of today, according to Pickersgill and colleagues.