The 'true' face of Cleopatra?

Dec 16 2008 Published by under Science news

Via The Huffington Post, I found this fascinating article in The Daily Mail about recent efforts to reconstruct an image of the legendary Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.  Cleopatra (69 BC - 30 BC) was the last Pharaoh of a (nearly) independent ancient Egypt, and her seduction of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony is a story of legend.   There has been some debate as to her appearance, however, with some authors claiming she was a woman of immense beauty, while others suggesting she was short, frumpy and plain. A variety of images of Cleopatra exist in sculpture, but there is no definitive picture of the doomed queen.

For over a year, Egyptologist Sally Ann Ashton (who wrote a book on Cleopatra which came out in May) has been developing a computer-regenerated image of Cleopatra based on the collection of contemporary artwork.  The result is an image of a lovely woman of apparent mixed ethnicity:

How accurate are such images?  I often wonder at the authenticity of such reconstruction techniques; after all, we have no real way of comparing ancient Egyptian artwork to the real-life person.  It is still a fascinating bit of work, and the resulting image looks oddly similar to my friend cairochemist, who occasionally posts on this blog!

4 responses so far

  • Cairochemist says:

    Hey, wasn't Cleopatra Greek and not Egyptian anyway?

  • pareanom says:

    Cleopatra was an Egyptian, but that says almost as little about her physical appearance as identifying Barack Obama only as an "American" tells us anything about how he looks.

    Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Macedonian origin. This family often followed the Egyptian custom of royal incest (thus not intermarrying with other Macedonians much less with Egyptians), which means that the specific way they most assimilated Egyptian culture was precisely the means which prevented them from looking "Egyptian."

    • pareanom: I believe cairochemist was roughly referring to ethnic origin, not country of origin; being an Egyptian working in the U.S. married to a European, she's well aware of the difference!

      I was certainly aware of the tradition of incest in the royal Egyptian families; what is surprising about the 'reconstruction' of Cleopatra is that it suggests that she was not of pure Macedonian origin. With some reflection, this isn't necessarily surprising: it is almost inconceivable that rulers weren't 'playing the field', and presumably some of those couplings resulted in kids.