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She Still Enthralls Men and Nations

A British Museum exhibition attempts to determine whether the mysterious Cleopatra was truly a Venus on Earth.


LONDON — Cleopatra's name is synonymous with beauty, an ideal carved into the Western imagination. The story of the last queen of Egypt--her wealth, power, sexuality and, above all, her death--proved irresistible to generations of artists from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Not to mention Elizabeth Taylor.

But, like beauty, Cleopatra is in the eye of the beholder.

In its newest exhibit, "Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth," running through Aug. 26, the British Museum seeks to shed light on the legendary 2,000-year-old queen. Sculptures, coins, jewelry, ceramics and mosaics, including some Roman caricatures of the queen, are used to depict her life and times. In fact, what emerges is how little we know about the lover and ally of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony who was brought down by the Roman ruler Octavian.

As it is the victors who write history, the predominant view of Cleopatra is one put forth by the Romans--a portrait of the vanquished seductress that was meant to diminish her, according to curators of the exhibition. Renaissance artists painted Cleopatra as a tragic heroine, and Hollywood made her into a beautiful, if bimbo-esque, femme fatale.

From the coins she had minted in her day and newly identified Egyptian statues, on display together for the first time in the exhibition, we see the powerful image that Cleopatra crafted of herself as queen and goddess.

And yet, we still don't know what Cleopatra looked like. Were great men and humble subjects drawn to her wealth and power, charisma, intelligence or to her physical beauty?

"We know nothing about what her body was like, and we only know her face as she chose to present it," said Peter Higgs, co-curator of the exhibition.


The queen of Egypt was not Egyptian. Born in 69 BC to King Ptolemy XII Auletes, Cleopatra VII descended from a long line of Macedonian Greek rulers of Egypt stretching back to Alexander the Great and ending with her.

She did the sort of thing clever rulers of her day would do for power--married her brothers, one at a time, because a male was needed to access the throne. Then she killed them off when they were no longer useful, along with a rival sister. Like her father before her, she threw in her lot with the Romans, in order to maintain her rule over a vast Mediterranean empire based in Alexandria.

Cleopatra made strategic alliances with the two most powerful men in the world at the time. She seduced Julius Caesar with her cunning, having herself smuggled to him in a bedroll, and conquered Mark Antony with an exotic show, meeting him in a golden boat with crimson sails. They each gained a mistress with riches and an army of her own, an important base in the East to fend off their enemies.

And still it is asked: "What did she look like?"

The London Sunday Times magazine posed that question and more in a cover story last month. "Did her lovers have to hold their breath, close their eyes and think of Rome? Or was she, as legend insists, the most potent loin-stirrer in the entire history of human reproduction?"

The Roman orator Cicero didn't like Cleopatra when he met her and described her arrogance--but said nothing of her looks. A century after her death, Plutarch wrote that "her beauty was not in and for itself incomparable" but that "her conversation had an irresistible charm," and her character "was utterly spellbinding. The sound of her voice was sweet when she talked."

The Cleopatra on the coins--of which there are a handful in the exhibit--is hardly sexy. They show an austere woman with an aquiline nose, "the kind of sad disfigurement that keeps Californian cosmetic surgeons in marble swimming pools," according to Steve Caplin, the author of the magazine article.

But also the kind of nose that symbolized a strength of character in ancient Egypt. As the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted, "If Cleopatra's nose were shorter, the shape of the world would have been different."

The coins aren't all alike, because the queen wanted to appear in different ways to different people, but they all depict a powerful and idealized woman.

"She changed her image enormously during her reign, depending on political instability," said Susan Walker, co-curator of the exhibition. "It is difficult to sort out the images we see in the coins, [which have] exaggerated features, from reality. It is a bit like looking at the Queen [Elizabeth II] on a stamp and the woman we see on television."


The exhibition brings together sculptures from the United States, Europe and the Middle East, including several in the Egyptian style that were identified as Cleopatra in the course of the research for this exhibition. One of the tip-offs was that she wears the triple cobra figure, or uraeus, thought to signify Cleopatra's rule over Lower and Upper Egypt and Syria. It illustrates her determination to present herself to her subjects as an Egyptian queen and a goddess.

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