Cleopatra VII: The Last Ptolemy

Cleopatra VII (47-31 BCE) is undoubtedly the most famous Ptolemy. Her legacy lives on through the ages. She was born the second eldest daughter of Ptolemy XII Neos Dyonysos ‘Auletes’ (80-58 BCE) and assumed the throne in 47 BCE with the help of the Roman general Gaius Julius Caesar. She gave birth to Caesar’s only son, Ptolemy XV Caesarion in the same year. She stayed in Rome with Caesar until he was assassinated in 44 BCE. She then returned to Alexandria. In 41 BCE when the Roman triumvir Mark Antony was stationed at Tarsus in the East, he summoned her to meet with him. She showed up in a lavish display of wealth and luxury and the two became allies and lovers. Eventually Antony’s Roman rival Octavian defeated them at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Both Antony and Cleopatra fled to Alexandria and committed suicide. After Cleopatra died, Octavian, later known as Augustus, seized control of Egypt. In 30 BCE, Egypt came under Roman rule, Caesarion was killed, and no Ptolemy would ever rule Egypt again.

But what did this famous final queen of Egypt look like? The question has plagued scholars for centuries. Some assume she must have been beautiful and exotic to have been a lover of two such powerful Romans as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Others think that her personality may have been her most alluring aspect. Our modern assumptions of her beauty are frequently based upon 19th-century Romantic exoticized paintings and portrayals of her in modern film. In reality, the only portraits of her that are confirmed to be from her lifetime are her coin portraits. Her coins provide a completely different picture of her than the modern interpretations and show that she was both true to other Ptolemaic traditions and may have incorporated Roman styles into her coins with Mark Antony.


Fig. 10 Alexandre Cabanel, Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners, 1887, Private Collection

Fig. 10 is a painting by the 19th-century French Academic painter, Alexandre Cabanel. This shows a more modern interpretation of Cleopatra. In this painting she is the exotic woman with her breasts bared reclining with a servant and a leopard. In this painting she is also a cruel queen. She watches dispassionately as the prisoners on the left die of poisoning and are carried away. In this depiction of her she is also the Egyptian queen, shown with the vulture headdress that many Pharaonic Era queens wore in art from that time period. This is exotic, modern Cleopatra, but this has nothing to do with the way in which she depicts herself on coins.  Figures 11 and 12 will provide examples of the difference between the more modern perception of her and her contemporary portraits.


Fig. 11 Cleopatra VII Philopator AE Diobol ­ 80 Drachmae. Alexandria mint, 51-30 BC. Diademed & draped bust right / Eagle standing left on thunderbolt; cornucopiae to left, P to right.

Fig. 11 is a bronze coin minted in Alexandria during the reign of Cleopatra VII. It shows her as a Ptolemaic queen in the Greek style with her hair in a style called Melonenfrisur where the hair is curled into rows that look like the sections of a melon and pulled back in the bun in the back. On this coin she wears a wide diadem that looks almost like a hairband. The reverse of the coin is the standard eagle with a cornucopia and a thunderbolt. In contrast to the modern, exotic depictions of Cleopatra, this one is very Greek. She has a Greek, curled hairstyle and a Macedonian diadem. Her eyes and nose are similar to those of the Ptolemies in their coin portraits (Fig. 4 for example), which suggests that she intended to style herself in the same manner as her Ptolemaic predecessors.

This coin is also important because it illustrates how Cleopatra VII tried to echo her Ptolemaic ancestors through the increased minting of bronze coins. When she took the throne in 47 BCE, she was left with an economy that had collapsed in the century leading up to her rule. The silver stater had been debased from 90% silver to 33% silver in the reign of her father, Ptolemy XII. Under her two immediate predecessors there had been no production at Alexandria of the bronze coins that had been so prolific under Ptolemy II Philadelphos. When Cleopatra VII assumed power, she began to mint them again, and Fig. 12 is one of those coins.



Fig. 12 silver tetradrachm of Antony and Cleopatra. 37-32 BCE. Place of production uncertain. Diademed head and bust with pearls right / head of Antony right

Fig. 12 is a silver tetradrachm minted by Mark Antony and Cleopatra with both of their portraits. This portrait of Cleopatra is much different from the Alexandrian coin in Fig. 10 and 11. The portraits of both Cleopatra and Antony are unflattering. They both have hooked, pointed noses, thick necks, and pointed chins. Now Cleopatra has the curls in her hair wound tighter, has a smaller diadem, and has added pearl earrings, a necklace, and a more elaborate dress. What made Antony and Cleopatra choose to be portrayed in this unflattering way? This coin may have been Cleopatra’s experiment in combining Greek and Roman styles into one portrait. In Republican Rome, portraits were frequently done in the veristic style, which meant that the person in the portrait was depicted “warts and all,” with wrinkles, lean faces, and features that were realistic to the point of ugliness. With this coin portrait, Cleopatra may have intended to combine Roman verism with the Greek concept of tryphe, or display of wealth, by depicting herself with a hooked nose and lean Roman features with the Greek hair and expensive pearls. This coin was also probably not minted in Egypt, and its place of production is uncertain. If Antony and Cleopatra intended this coin to be used by those who knew Roman styles of self-representation it would be even more likely that Cleopatra chose this unflattering style as an intentional and calculated association with Roman styles.

None of these portrayals of Cleopatra definitively answer the question of what she looked like in real life. Every person who studies Cleopatra or reads about her has a different concept of exactly what she looked like. But her coin portraits can tell us how she depicted herself on currency and coinage and we can have a sense of what she chose to look like on coins. She chose the Ptolemaic way in her early reign (Fig. 11), perhaps to strengthen the legitimacy of her claim to the throne. Her decision to depict herself in an unflattering style on her coin with Mark Antony (Fig. 12) may have also been calculated to associate her with contemporary Roman style. While Cleopatra’s coin portraits may not look anything like Alexandre Cabanel’s bare-breasted exotic queen, they can tell us more about how she chose to portray herself.

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