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Was Cleopatra beautiful? The archaeological evidence

Cleopatra VII Philopator, commonly known simply as Cleopatra, ruled over Egypt during the century preceding the birth of Christ. By Robyn Antanovskii

Over the next two thousand years and counting, she would be renowned for her outstanding physical beauty, inspiring innumerable works of art depicting her as an alluring temptress, and spawning countless modern beauty parlours in her name.

No doubt the legend of her beauty is based in part on her famous seduction of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, both powerful Roman leaders. But what did she really look like? Is there any solid basis to the claims of unparalleled physical beauty? Let’s have a look at what the historical and archaeological evidence tells us.

Cleopatra VII at the Temple of Dendera : Wiki Commons

Writing another two centuries after Cleopatra’s reign, the Roman historian Cassius Dio describes Cleopatra as “a woman of surpassing beauty” who was “brilliant to look upon.” Yet Greek historian Plutarch, writing more than a century earlier than Dio, maintains that “her beauty… was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” As neither are contemporary accounts, there is no good reason to believe one over the other, or even to believe either of them at all.

There remain no busts that can be reliably attributed to Cleopatra, but we do have various images of her surviving on ancient coinage. In these images, she is depicted as anywhere from average-looking to hook-nosed and manly. However, it must be remembered that coins in the ancient world were a powerful piece of political propaganda. The deliberate portrayal of Cleopatra with masculine features not dissimilar to her ancestral male rulers the Ptolemies was not an attempt to capture a true likeness, but rather to help legitimise the rule of a young female queen.

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon-Gerome : Wiki Commons

Cleopatra by Jean-Leon-Gerome : Wiki Commons

It is also important to keep in mind that ancient ideals of beauty were quite different to those of the modern Western world. For example, ancient Greek depictions of the beautiful love goddess Aphrodite invariably show a full-bodied woman with a prominent nose; a woman who modern society would probably advise to lose weight and get a nose job! Asking whether Cleopatra was beautiful is perhaps then a fruitless question, if beauty is truly in the eyes of the culture in which it is beheld.

Or maybe all we need do is move beyond beauty as a purely physical concept. Dio also tells us that Cleopatra had ‘a most delicious voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone.” Likewise, Plutarch states that conversation with Cleopatra “had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it.” He wrote that “there was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased.”

The message is clear: Cleopatra’s allure had little to do with her physical appearance and a lot to do with her intellect, character and, apparently, the tone of her voice. When you consider how deeply involved both Caesar and Antony became with her, it is obvious that there must have been something more at play than just a sexy young body. After all, both were notorious womanisers and would surely not have fallen for Cleopatra on the basis of sex alone.

It seems likely that Cleopatra’s physical appearance was not more or less attractive than the next woman, yet through her wit, charm and daring she captivated not only two of the most powerful men of the ancient world, but the collective imagination of the entire world for all centuries that followed. That the most renowned beauty in human history was beautiful in character more so than in appearance could be an important lesson for our modern fixation on the purely physical.


Bradford, E. 1971. Cleopatra, Corgi Books.

Cassius Dio. c. 200 CE. Book XLII, Roman History, trans. H.B. Foster, 1905.

Flamarion, E. 1997. Cleopatra: From History to Legend, Thames & Hudson.

Fletcher, J. 2008. Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind The Legend, Hodder & Stoughton.

Goldsworthy, A. 2010. Antony and Cleopatra, Orion Publishing Group.

Plutarch. c. 100 CE. Life of Antony, Parallel Lives, Loeb Classical Library, 1920.

Written by Robyn Antanovskii


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Robyn Antanovskii

Robyn Antanovskii

Robyn Antanovskii is a journalist with a degree in ancient history. She keeps a number of blogs, including one on and she is on Twitter: @robynant

  • Pamela Cate

    Maybe someone can respond to my comment at my email, I can’t seem to get posts or remarks??

  • DaveCuckler

    I think that wit can be a much more alluring quality than physical beauty.

  • HeidiV

    The fact that she ruled an Empire that was very strategically placed in relation to Rome might have had something to do with it also.

  • André Luiz Carvalho

    I really like the article and the way it defines the concept of beauty as something well beyond what eyes can see.

  • Ivona

    Yes ofcourse she was a gorgeous;))Am sure about that!

  • GetReal

    In other words, she had sex appeal and charisma. If you’ve got those, it doesn’t matter what you look like.

  • kiko

    Dosent she come from a line of incestuous breeding? its hard to imagine that the entire family only suffered from hapsburgh jaw. Even king tut was revield to be feeble from inbreeding.
    It is ancient Egyptian custom to “keep it in the family” its only common sense for the truth to be exaggerated like victorious war stories.

    • hurtssogouda

      Hardly. If you are aware of Ancient Egyptian history than you are also most certainly aware of Royal incest and ‘keeping it in the family’ along with the practice of polygamy. Not all Egyptian Kings and Queens were related to one another either (eg Queen Tiye and Amenhotep III).

    • Samantha Hevia

      Actually cleopatra was most likely not to be a child born of incest. Ptolemy did marry his sister, which I think her oldest sister was born of. But he also did have six wives (around there I’m not very good at remembering numbers) but anyways cleopatras mother is most likely an Egyptian woman of high status, or one of his six wives. No one is sure since ancient Egyptians really didn’t keep tabs on the woman of ancient history.

      • kiko

        like the article, you do not consider (what we do know) in order to make an educated guess. There is no evidence, not even a tiny bit to support your ststement that she is not a product of incest. There is however more than enough facets to support that she most likely might have been. cleopatra had a deeper appreciation for the egyptian culture but she and her entire family are unmistakenly mecedonian greek. Until cleopatra v11 they did not even bother to learn the native language, retaining just enough egyptian tridition to gain legitimacy to the culutre, tridition and custom. Ancient egyptians did infact keep tabs on the women.. Especially those who were expected to produce an heir. Queen Tiye, Nefratiti, Ahanneith, Tuya, Neithikret, Sobekneferu, the list is magnanimous and because its so vast and includes even the names of chamber maids and concubines along with the time period, I am doing it little justice but again there is still proof to combat that statement as dismissive and flat out false. you can find that list of queens and ladies in waitiing on good ole wiki. Like the ancient Egyptians these Mecedonian greek men sought out to keep their blood line “pure” there is also speculation to her being nubian dcent. there were noble egyptian and nubian women at court but because of the custom that can easily be ruled out. or perhaps she was infact of no relation and therefore cut out. my point is because it is unknown we cant say things like most likely when there is more credible information available that hints towards something else being more likely.

  • Alaf

    Maybe she was the first one in history to suck dick.. Imagine how man would go complete ape shit the first time they ever experienced the concept of a bj

    • kiko

      lmfao XD I have seen a scene like that on the tudors, it was when the king went to visit france and some chamber maid used her mouth. his face was so stupid cute but anyway lmao you could be right


    How does one write an article entitled “The Archaeological Evidence”, and then not present any?

  • someguy47

    So the author claims that we can trust neither account when it comes to physical beauty because they were written long after she lived, but then bases the conclusion of the article on the same two accounts? Not very “sciencey.”