There’s another story in the news this week about Cleopatra, Queen of ancient Egypt and archetypal femme fatale. Scientists at Newcastle University have been studying a tiny coin (a denarius, about the size of a 5p piece) that has a representation of Mark Antony on one side and Cleopatra on the other. We know that it’s them because the coin tells us so.
If you want to take a look for yourself, it will be on display in the University’s Shefton Museum from Valentine’s Day (all together now, “Ahhhh…..”) When the Great North Museum opens in 2009, it will probably be transferred there.
The university’s director of archaeological museums, apparently attempting to pre-empt cries of ‘But it doesn’t look anything like ‘em!’, has said, “The image of Cleopatra as a beautiful seductress is a … recent image”, because the Cleopatra face, even given the limitations of ancient coin-minting, is not simply unflattering. To Hollywood-biased sensibilities, it’s foul.
I find that quite refreshing.
It’s ridiculous to be disappointed. We know hardly anything about Cleopatra, so even the smallest find is incredibly important. We do know that nothing much was said about her looks in ancient texts, although even the Roman writers who hated her didn’t deny that she was seductive. (Though I suppose that being Queen of the richest country on the planet wasn’t exactly a handicap.) Bear in mind, though, that if all Julius Caesar or Mark Antony had wanted was the wealth of Egypt, all they had to do was take it. The Romans weren’t exactly behind the door when it came to that.
So the idea of Cleopatra as a seductress isn’t totally unfounded. The idea that she had to look like Elizabeth Taylor to be a seductress though, is.