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Was Cleopatra Beautiful?
13.04.2021 Branko van Oppen
History
Cleopatra

The idea that Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE), the famous last queen of ancient Egypt, owed her powerful position to her beauty persists. “The nose of Cleopatra: if it had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 CE) ruminated (Pensées, 162). While for Pascal this thought illustrated how something small can change the course of history, the statement is also based on the belief that Cleopatra owed her powerful position at that important juncture of history to her physique alone. This idea pervades our modern perception – in serious scholarship, Asterix comics and Hollywood cinema. Historians do not normally address matters of physical appearance, except to paint a portrait of a biographic subject, but not to answers questions about a person's historical significance of political power. So, was Cleopatra really attractive, and why does it matter what she looked like?

For Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), Cleopatra was no more than a “harlot queen (regina meretrix)” (Nat. Hist. 9.58.1), implying she owed her position of wealth and power to prostituting herself to Mark Antony (83-30 BCE) with her wanton physique. Similar ideas are echoed by Cassius Dio, who, writing in the 3rd century CE, claims that when Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) first met Cleopatra, “she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at the time [48 BCE], when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most stunning” (42.34.4); and when she offered Mark Antony his royal funeral in Alexandria, “even in mourning garments she was wonderfully stunning” (51.12.1).

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