Was Cleopatra beautiful?
I woke up this morning to the seven o' clock news and to the revelation (thanks to the "new" discovery of a Roman coin in a Newcastle collection) that Cleopatra was not, after all, drop-dead gorgeous. This coin - which made not it only into the Today programme, but also most national newspapers, including a full page in the Guardian - shows a nasty jowly Mark Antony on one side and a decidedly middle-aged, not to say frankly ugly, Cleopatra on the other.
Of course, Classicists live by every puff on the oxygen of publicity that they can get. So the headline billing for the first century BC cheered me up in a way. But this "exclusive" (reassuring as it might have been to most women in the land on Valentine's day) was also puzzling. That's largely because it is not a "new" discovery at all. This particular specimen of the coin might only recently have seen the light in Newcastle, but as a type it's long been very well known -- and there are loads of examples of this and other very similar coin images found across the world. The picture shows one like the Newcastle type, and you can find a whole array of others nicely illustrated in the catalogue of a British Museum "Cleopatra" exhibition, held a few years ago (edited by Susan Walker and Peter Higgs). In almost none does the queen match up to the Elizabeth Taylor image. More like Edna Everage.
When classicists get their teeth into these coins they usually have more interesting questions to ask than simply "was she really pretty or not?" . One question is how far such tiny images are life-like anyway (compare our own queen -- she never ever looked like the chocolate-box teenager which was until recently her standard coin portrait). Another is how far even full-sized Roman portraits can be taken as "drawn from life". Another is what kind of conventions were at play in the ancient world for representing the anomaly of the "powerful woman". As Susan Walker points out in the catalogue, the earliest representation of Cleopatra (in Pharaonic style) shows her as a man.
So my second, curmudgeonly, thought by ten past seven was "why waste an interesting topic with a Valentine's day laugh about Cleopatra's nose?"
But that was too severe. If Cleopatra can make it to news headlines after 2000 years, then good luck to her. And good luck to the excellent Shefton Museum in Newcastle -- which deserves to be better known, and no doubt now will be.