She Wasn't Egyptian and Not Very Beautiful - What Did Cleopatra Really Look Like?

Elizabeth Taylor in her role as Cleopatra in 1963

Did the ruler of Egypt look like Elizabeth Taylor or Netflix star Adele James? It looked like neither, historians say, and we'll probably never know the truth. The new series about Cleopatra sparks debate

Cleopatra causes earthquakes again. More than 2,000 years after her death, the woman who sank the Roman Republic is causing a diplomatic stir again.

Last month, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities launched an extraordinary attack on Netflix over the new series "Queen Cleopatra". According to their statement, the series as a whole was a falsification of Egyptian history.

She Wasn't Egyptian and Not Very Beautiful - What Did Cleopatra Really Look
Modern World Reference: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1963 film

The role of the infamous queen has been played by several well-known actresses, such as British star Adele James, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, etc.

The discussion is also about Cleopatra's physical appearance. Both Netflix and the government of Egypt do not know, everything we know comes from the fantasy of writers like Plutarch, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw.

Professor of Egyptology and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Lincoln, Toby Wilkinson, says: “The actual facts we have about Cleopatra, the contemporary evidence, are quite rare. Most of what we have are other people's views on it."

Today, almost everyone remembers her as a queen of stunning, seductive beauty who killed herself with a snake. But this, according to researchers, is likely to be more fiction than historical fact. As it is said that even she was not actually Egyptian.

The Ptolemies, whose ruling dynasty she was a member of, styled themselves Egyptian on public monuments, were in fact foreign conquerors who strictly maintained the ethnic integrity of their line, down to frequent incestuous marriages.

According to biographer Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra was not ethnically Egyptian. The Ptolemies were actually from Macedonia, a powerful state on the edge of what we now call Ancient Greece. Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt in 332 BC, was born there. In the power struggle after Alexander's death, one of his most powerful generals, Ptolemy, conquered Alexandria and proclaimed himself Pharaoh. His descendants ruled there for the next three centuries, and Cleopatra was the last of this dynasty.

She Wasn't Egyptian and Not Very Beautiful - What Did Cleopatra Really Look
Cleopatra's face on a coin

Wilkinson says that based on the appearance of the Macedonians at the time, Cleopatra as depicted in modern times bears no relation to the original. It is assumed that she was white.

The perception that she was an exceptionally beautiful woman dates back to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, who is said to have been influenced by politics for this designation.

Cleopatra led a dynasty to disaster. When she took the throne, at the age of 21, she failed to hold her position properly, historians say. Her love affairs are also much discussed, like the one with Julius Caesar or Mark Anthony. But these two relationships are two indisputable facts as far as her history is concerned, since she had children with both men. It was Cleopatra's relationship with Mark Anthony that made the early historical accounts of her life so politically influenced. Cleopatra sided with Antony in the civil war between the three Triumvirs who ruled the empire after Caesar, which resulted in the death of both, the loss of Egypt to Rome, and the accession of Octavius ??Caesar as emperor in 27 BC.

She Wasn't Egyptian and Not Very Beautiful - What Did Cleopatra Really Look
Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman 1984

The Roman historians who wrote the first stories of Cleopatra were writing from the other side of history

But the more the various theses of historians are discussed, the fainter is the idea of ??its amazing beauty. Wilkinson says that looking at very old statues or coins that have her portrait, one can see a prominent nose and chin, features that were not considered beautiful in 21st century aesthetics.

She Wasn't Egyptian and Not Very Beautiful - What Did Cleopatra Really Look
Adele James as Cleopatra on Netflix

The closest contemporary written account of Cleopatra's appearance comes from the Roman historian Plutarch, who says: "Her beauty, we are told, was in itself by no means incomparable."

"She was considered powerful, and of course that made her attractive," says Wilkinson.

"Why did Julius Caesar sail the Nile with Cleopatra? Not necessarily because she was beautiful in a conventional sense, but because she held the keys to Egypt. That's what made it alluring."

He adds: “The idea that you can make a Cleopatra movie that is somehow 'accurate'… I mean, whose accuracy? Whose version of the truth are you following?” says Wilkinson.

It's a question that both Netflix and the Egyptian government would do well to ponder. Over the centuries, Cleopatra has been buffeted by competing powers, her image shaped to suit the agendas of the times. In a way, the Netflix series is just the latest in a long line of mythmakers to fuel the myth of Cleopatra – at the expense of the real-life ruler./Telegraph