A number of people have been writing about Cleopatra in the past few days, spurred by the fiftieth anniversary of the marvellous Elizabeth Taylor film of the same name and by the exhibit that has just opened in Rome, where the film was shot.
One of the most magnetic topics to arise from the excitement has been a question that goes back to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and even to the writers of antiquity. Was Cleopatra beautiful? Over at Pop Classics, the blogger Juliette Harrisson puts it this way: Was Cleopatra Beautiful and Should We Care?
For my own part, I have to say that I don’t think Cleopatra’s beauty is actually the point. Ancient descriptions describe her as fascinating, not pretty, and her portraits – the strong and straightforward face of the Berlin Museum bust, and the jagged profile visible on her coins – seem to bear out the idea of her as strong and charismatic rather than lovely to look at.
But writers since antiquity have puzzled over her effect on Marc Antony: why was he willing to give up everything – his own future and that of the Roman Republic – for the sake of a woman?
In an article called ‘Insinuations of Womanly Influence‘ I argued some years ago that when ancient writers talked Cleopatra’s effect on Antony it was Antony’s character, not Cleopatra, that they were most interested in. The second-century writer Plutarch’s Life of Antony is a case in point. Plutarch is baffled by Antony’s willingness to risk everything for Cleopatra, and he makes it clear that it isn’t about physical beauty. He notes that Antony’s friends persuaded him to marry Octavia, the sister of his colleague and rival Octavian, the future Augustus. Octavia was known for her beauty, her wit and dignity – and Antony’s friends reasoned, how could he resist the ennobling charms of such a woman? The assumption seems to have been that in superficial terms, Cleopatra’s beauty was nothing set against that of Octavia.
In any case, Antony’s rapture over Cleopatra received so much attention because it was a way of accounting for the fatal flaw in his character. Cleopatra herself, by contrast, seems to have been self-possessed. We know her to have been a brilliant politician, who outlasted her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, and came to rule Egypt as sole Pharoah. If Plutarch is anything to go by, raw physical beauty would be unnecessary to such a person. Intelligence and sheer force of will were what accounted for her power to fascinate. So the question of Cleopatra’s beauty is ultimately irrelevant. And in any case, for ancient writers, it wasn’t really a question about Cleopatra in the first place.