Will the Real Cleopatra Please Stand Up?

According to Hollywood, she was model-gorgeous, violet-eyed, and dripping in gold. But what did Cleopatra actually look like? Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer and author of the upcoming Cleopatra: A Life, offers an honest look at history’s ultimate beauty icon.

by Stacy Schiff


Cinematic sleights of hand can prove impossible to undo—Moses will forever be Charlton Heston, as Patton will live on as George C. Scott—but Cleopatra looked nothing like Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, or Vivien Leigh. And she was no Elizabeth Taylor. Despite all efforts to make her so, and with apologies to Cleopatra Jones, the last queen of Egypt was not black. Her ancestors were Macedonian Greeks; Cleopatra VII descended from an enterprising general and childhood intimate of Alexander the Great. Three centuries later, there was almost certainly a hint of Persian blood in the family. The word “honey-skinned” recurs in descriptions of Cleopatra’s relatives. It would presumably have applied to her too.

If the story of her being carried in to Julius Caesar on the shoulder of a servant is true—and it sounds to have been, as she needed to be smuggled behind enemy lines to meet Caesar—Cleopatra was relatively small. Some four or five marble busts are thought to represent her, though they collectively establish little more than that she wore her hair in tight corkscrew curls, that she appeared before her subjects with a white ribbon, or diadem, tied around her head, and that she had prominent cheekbones and a hooked nose. The coin portraits are more explicit. Even allowing for inexpert engraving and for a certain authoritative posturing, Cleopatra had a lean face, angular and alert. The chin was sharp and prominent, the eyes sunken.

A Greek woman steeped in Greek culture in a Greek-inflected city, Cleopatra wore tunics and mantles, ankle-length and artfully draped. They were lavishly colored, in an array of mauves, blues, and reds, and made of diaphanous Chinese silk or gauzy linen, occasionally shot through with golden thread. Traditionally those robes were worn belted, or held tight to the body with a brooch or ribbon under the breast. Over the tunic went a long cloak, often a transparent one, through which the folds of the brilliant bottom fabric could be seen. A shawl or short cape might be added around the shoulders. On her feet Cleopatra wore sandals of woven palm, jeweled and with fantastically patterned soles. (At dinner parties, fragrances rippled from those soles, as from jewelry and lamps.) She may have toned down the wardrobe in Rome, on every count a less colorful city than was Cleopatra’s Alexandria.

Pearls topped the extravagance scale in the first century BC. They were the diamonds of the day. Rich, profligate people were said to gulp them down, in the classical version of burning dollar bills. Cleopatra would be accused of doing so as well, without any basis in fact, though she certainly wore plenty of pearls. She coiled ropes of them around her neck and braided more into her hair. She wore others sewn into the fabric of her tunics. By the time a first century AD chronicler got his hands on her story, Cleopatra owned earrings made of the two largest pearls “in the whole of history.” He assigned each an astronomical value; it was as if Cleopatra dangled a luxurious Mediterranean villa from each ear.

There would have been a great deal of additional jewelry. Ornamentation was so much the order of the day that the walls of Cleopatra’s palace, the tumblers and goblets on her table, the couches in her receiving rooms were studded with gems. Egyptian taste ran to bright semiprecious stones—agate, lapis, amethyst, carnelian, garnet, malachite, topaz—set in gold pendants; intricately worked bracelets; long, dangling earrings. It has changed remarkably little: The cobra armlets we know today were in production in Cleopatra’s time. Of the countless beauty cures attributed to her—the asses’ milk baths, the gold facials, the mud treatments, the mint soufflé masks—we have not a shred of evidence whatsoever.

Two contradictory accounts of Cleopatra’s last days have come down to us. She met the Roman general who defeated her either groomed to perfection—superbly turned out in mourning robes, which, as the historian Cassius Dio had it, “wonderfully became her”—or frail and disheveled, clad in a simple tunic, without so much as a respectable mantle. When she died, days later, she did so majestically: in formal, sumptuous robes, meticulously made up and expertly coiffed, a diadem wound around her forehead, the traditional crook and flail of an Egyptian pharaoh tight in her hands. She was 39, and had ruled Egypt, mostly alone, from the age of 18.