That's not to say we can't rely on the images we do have. Some of them probably do reflect Cleopatra's actual appearance. The problem is figuring out which ones.
|Marble head believed to be Cleopatra|
One of these images is a marble bust of Cleopatra as a young woman, perhaps around the time she ascended to the throne in her late teens. The bust depicts a well-fed but not fat young woman with large eyes and a Greek melon hairstyle. She has a prominent nose and a slight smile hovers on the full-lipped mouth.
We don't know for sure that this bust is of Cleopatra, but it does resemble some of the coin images of her. At the time, monarchs had profiles of themselves stamped on their coins. The Syrian coin below is one of the kinder coin pictures we have of Cleopatra. She wears a similar melon hairstyle as the bust and has the same large eyes. Her prominent nose is hooked and she has a strong jutting chin and thick neck.
|Syrian coin with the head of Cleopatra|
On most other coins, Cleopatra doesn't fare as well. On a number of them she looks like a very fierce man in drag. Many have looked at these coins and concluded that Cleopatra was an ugly woman and not the luscious nymphomaniac of Roman propaganda and later legend.
The problem is that coin images were also propaganda, propaganda of the monarchs they represented. The vast majority of Cleopatra's coins were used in regions of her empire that were outside Egypt proper. These coins tell us that Cleopatra wanted to be seen by these people as a) a Hellenist; and b) a strong and fearsome ruler.
There may be another reason Cleopatra's coins show her as fierce and manly. Cleopatra was the only important female leader in the Mediterranean world, and one of the few female leaders in the history of the world to that point. Like the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, who depicted herself as a man, Cleopatra may have felt that it would be wise to portray herself as much like a man as possible. The non-Egyptians who saw these coins would have been impressed by this image of a strong, masculine ruler.
One thing is certain: the vast majority of Cleopatra's Egyptian subjects would not have recognized the mannish queen on the coins. Few if any of them would have even seen the coins. From the beginning Egyptian commerce relied on a set system of barter, and this was still the case in Cleopatra's day. For the majority of Egyptians, Cleopatra was their beautiful goddess-pharaoh, the Mistress of the Two Lands and the incarnation of the great goddess Isis.
|Cleopatra and Caesarion as Egyptian monarchs, Dendera Temple|
The relief above, from the Temple of Dendera in Egypt, shows us how Cleopatra wanted her Egyptian subjects to see her. The relief depicts Cleopatra with her and Julius Caesar's son Caesarion. They both wear the elaborate clothing and headdresses of Egyptian royalty. Cleopatra is slim and wears the linen sheath dress favored by goddesses. Her crown, perched atop her braided Egyptian wig, is a combination of royal and divine headdresses. She is every inch the divine Egyptian pharaoh, as is her son.
Just like her coins, however, Cleopatra's Egyptian reliefs are propaganda. They are designed to reassure the people that she is their pharaoh, their goddess, and an Egyptian just like them.
Is it possible that Cleopatra was actually Egyptian? Her father was Ptolemy XII Auletes, a direct descendant of the first Ptolemy, a Macedonian general of Alexander the Great. The Ptolemaic rulers kept it in the family and frequently married and had children with their siblings. Cleopatra was the product of this family.
On the other hand, the Ptolemies also had mistresses and concubines who were not royal, and several times the illegitimate children of these unions inherited the throne. Auletes was one of these children. We don't know who his mother was. She may have been Egyptian.
Auletes' wife was his relative, Cleopatra Tryphaena.* Tryphaena was probably either a sister or a cousin. In the past the popular theory was that Cleopatra's mother was this woman. However, in his Geography Greek writer Strabo states that only the eldest of Auletes' three daughters was legitimate. This eldest daughter was Berenike IV. The other two daughters were Cleopatra VII and Arsinoe IV. Cleopatra could not have been the daughter of Tryphaena.
If her mother was not Tryphaena, then who was she? In his book Cleopatra: A Biography, historian Duane W. Roller makes a very convincing case for identifying Cleopatra's mother with the unnamed daughter or granddaughter of Psenptais II, the Egyptian high priest of Ptah. He points out that on his funerary stela, Psenptais' son Petubastes states that Auletes had several wives. Cleopatra's daughter Selene honored this priestly family of Ptah in her royal city of Caesarea in Mauretania. Selene's celebration of this family makes sense if they were her relatives.
Cleopatra was the only Ptolemy who knew Egyptian, the language of the people she ruled. This is another indication that her mother may have been a native Egyptian.
A few years ago Egyptologist Sally-Ann Ashton used the most reliable contemporary images of Cleopatra to create a 3D composite of what the teen queen probably looked like early in her reign. Ashton's Cleopatra is an ethnically mixed girl with olive skin, dark hair, and big dark eyes. Her nose is large but pleasant, and overall she is quite lovely. Not the seductive sex kitten of Roman propaganda, nor the fat, ugly woman with bad teeth of some modern thinkers. Just a pretty and highly intelligent young Macedonian-Egyptian woman.
Macrae, Fiona. "Sorry Liz, but THIS Is the Real Face of Cleopatra." Mail Online. The Daily Mail, 16 Dec. 2008. Web. 26 March 2010.
Roller, Duane W. Cleopatra: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Strabo. Geography. Trans. H.L. Jones. LacusCurtius. The University of Chicago. Web. 26 March 2011.