Photo in the News: Cleopatra No Beauty Queen, Coin Suggests

Cleopatra and Mark Antony coin photos
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February 15, 2007—She was the legendary queen of Egypt who seduced two of the most powerful men in the ancient world.

But a silver coin that went on display at a British university yesterday suggests Cleopatra's beauty may be Hollywood fiction.

On one side the coin shows the Egyptian ruler with a shallow forehead, long nose, narrow lips, and a sharply pointed chin (at left above). On the other, her longtime lover, the powerful Roman general and politician Mark Antony, is depicted with a large hooked nose and thick neck (right).

The unflattering images suggest that fictional accounts—from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra to the HBO TV series Rome—overplay the attractiveness of the doomed couple.

"The image on the coin is far from being that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton," said Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of archaeological museums at Newcastle University, in a statement.

"Roman writers tell us that Cleopatra was intelligent and charismatic, and that she had a seductive voice but, tellingly, they do not mention her beauty. The image of Cleopatra as a beautiful seductress is a more recent image."

However she looked in reality, Cleopatra's charm helped change the course of Roman history.

In 48 B.C. she seduced Rome's first emperor, Julius Caesar—30 years her senior—and bore him a son.

But her relationship years later with Antony, with whom she had three children, ended in tragedy.

After Antony's defeat by Octavian, Rome's soon-to-be second emperor, in 31 B.C., both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. According to legend, Cleopatra chose to perish by an asp's bite.

—Aalok Mehta

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