Roman paintings of Cleopatra VII of Egypt

Jan 2017
132
Virginia, USA
I actually wrote a bit about Cleopatra and her ancestry. I think you've seen it already Roma, but here it is. I came to the same conclusions as you did from looking at these contemporary and near contemporary depictions.

The Greco-Macedonian Cleopatra VII Philopator - Historum - History Forums
You're doing Zeus's work, Oda. That's an excellent genealogy and blog post you have there! Thanks for sharing. :)

Given how there is only one recorded instance of an ethnic Egyptian mistress of a Ptolemaic ruler, it's suffice to say Cleopatra was most likely entirely Macedonian Greek. Well, besides that tiny amount of Sogdian-Persian ancestry inherited from Cleopatra I Syra (who in turn was descended from Queen Apama, wife of Seleucus I Nicator). Moreover, as these Roman paintings reveal (aligning perfectly with the iconography of her coinage), she also presented herself to her subjects and to the public as a regular Hellenistic Greek monarch, so not exactly the Hollywood-style depiction of her decked out in Egyptian garb (although she undoubtedly wore this when conducting rituals at Egyptian temples dedicated to Egyptian gods instead of Greek ones). Of her Roman busts, only one has her wearing an Egyptian vulture-style headdress. The rest depict her wearing a diadem, like found in her coinage and paintings.
 
Mar 2017
873
Colorado
I actually wrote a bit about Cleopatra and her ancestry. I think you've seen it already Roma, but here it is. I came to the same conclusions as you did from looking at these contemporary and near contemporary depictions.

The Greco-Macedonian Cleopatra VII Philopator - Historum - History Forums
Strabo wrote about Ptolemy XII's children. "Only the eldest was legitimate". That would be Berenike IV, executed by her dad on his return from Rome. Arsinoe IV was no more legitimate that Cleopatra VII (their dad was illegitimate as well). While Cleopatra ruled with her oldest brother, he was completely pushed to the side (she was 18, he was 11 when they came to power). His counselors, Theodotus and Pothinus, made a grab for power when they aligned with general Achillas, and succeeded when Cleopatra ran to Syria. THEY brought in Arsinoe to "legitimize" his rule ... despite Ptolemy XII specifically stating in his will that Cleopatra and her brother would rule. My point is I think it's a little less complicated than you described. Ptolemy XIII never did rule: he was sidelined by Cleopatra, then Theodotus+Pothinus+Achillas. Ptolemy XIII drowned in his armor, escaping across the Nile at 14 (which kind of makes that portrait from Pompeii kind of questionable unless he was big for his age).

As for her appearance, I didn't see this small 18" statue in the posting:

I thought I read once that they thought this was a small-scale version of the Venus Genetrix statue ... but I can't find the reference. In addition to the 3rd uraeus, I recall it had an inscription as well ... but can't find it.

Cleopatra invented the triple Uraeus: Upper & Lower Nile, plus one more. It's not clear if it symbolized Rome or the Eastern provinces Antony gave her. She is the only ruler to ever wear it, so it's a good indication of who is represented. It's a pity we don't know the reason of the third uraeus. If it means the Eastern lands, it puts it in the last decade of her life. There's a couple of partial busts with a triple uraeus and at least one bigger-than-life statue that looks almost identical except for the cornucopia (Arsinoe I or II invented that).


If it's from Marc Antony-time, she looks pretty good for her 30's and three or four kids ... or does she?

I've looked into this a little and learned that iconography is a science in itself. There's a monumental carving of her and Ptolemy Caesar (the Caesarion) at Dendera: no one thinks she looked like that ... it's religious iconography. There's an image of her on one side of a coin and Antony on the other: it's political iconography ... at that time, Roman wives were represented to resemble their husbands. The Venus Genetrix statue that Caesar had made in Rome was also religious iconography, blending Egyptian Isis with Roman Venus ... as Cleopatra. THAT statue survived until at least 400 AD, so the Romans writing about Cleopatra 100's of years after her death had a reference ... however realistic/iconographic it might be. Lucan writes a poem about Cleopatra having a white breast: given that the statue was gilded, we can only guess he was going from Mediterranean features.

The Medieval Madonna portraits and sculptures stretch back almost to the 1st Egyptian dynasty. Isis with Horus at her breast is a repeated image through almost all of ancient Egypt. Cleopatra made a positive effort to enforce her royal image as-Isis, to the point of divinity. It's interesting to see this evolved into a Cupid. Egyptian iconography would put a babe at the breast of an Isis image. I am unfamiliar with how Romans used Cupids, but it looks like something similar the way they interpret the Pompeii and Herculaneum Cleopatras & Cupids.

-----
She's not naked, by the way. She's wearing a transparent sheath dress (look at her ankles), of which there are many Egyptian paintings. Lucan describes tiny combs being used on Chinese silk to separate out each thread. The result is transparent but shimmers. Hey! It's hot in Egypt.
 
Last edited:
Mar 2017
873
Colorado
Given how there is only one recorded instance of an ethnic Egyptian mistress of a Ptolemaic ruler, it's suffice to say Cleopatra was most likely entirely Macedonian Greek.
There's an unbroken line of Ptolemies begatting legitimate Ptolemies right up until Ptolemy XII ... mother unknown. I read *ONE* historian who suggested there was an alliance between the Memphis Temple of Ptah and the royal family (once? a couple of times? spare Ptolemy daughters were married to priests of Ptah). It went further to *SUGGEST* that Ptolemy XII's mother was a daughter of a priest of Ptah. I only read this in one place, and I haven't seen any other mention of Ptolemy daughters marrying Egyptians. Quite the reverse: I've seen references claiming that Ptolemies were rulers, Egyptians were ruled ... they made it a point not to mix. One reason Cleopatra was the first (and only) Ptolemy to speak Egyptian.

I've seen a couple of references that Cleopatra's mother might have been a Greek concubine. I have no idea what this is based on. It could be nothing more than "Greek concubines were probably around." So was every other Mediterranean ethnicity & race ... but because Ptolemies isolated themselves as rulers from the peasants, probably not from the interior of Egypt.

I found it amusing that the BBC tried to concoct some ethnicity story by doing a trivial analysis of Arsinoe's bones in Ephesus. We only know who the dad was. All four of the younger siblings could have different moms. If you read what historians wrote about Ptolemy XII, he liked to party hardy.

BBC: "Furthermore, studies of the shape of her reconstructed skull also point to African lineage which would mean, as her sister, Cleopatra was also part-African"

Despite the fact that they might not have the same mother, what does that even mean? Africa has multiple races.
 
Dec 2010
29
Fallbrook, CA
EDIT: NM, please delete. I realized I bumped an old thread.
 
Last edited:
Aug 2012
804
Washington State, USA.
You may know the real story. You may know an exaggerated one. You may know fiction.

Almost everyone knows the name "Cleopatra".

History is not perfect, but it's still history. I think the ancients can bring us the story straighter than modern Cable TV or Social Media. Their media was slow, but it lasted a long time. It could go a lot longer beofre it was twisted up unlike the media today. How long does an I-phone last before it breaks down?
 
Last edited:
Mar 2017
873
Colorado
History is not perfect, but it's still history. I think the ancients can bring us the story straighter than modern Cable TV or Social Media. Their media was slow, but it lasted a long time. It could go a lot longer beofre it was twisted up unlike the media today. How long does an I-phone last before it breaks down?
Plutarch writes about Cleopatra's activities after meeting Caesar until her death. How did he know? He wrote something around 150 yrs after her death. Strabo didn't think Cleopatra was important and wrote NOTHING personal about her (and he was likely in Alexandria sometime during her rule).

There was a medical student in the school in Alexandria at Marc Antony time (25 yrs old at the time of Cleopatra's death). He was a personal friend of Antyllus, Marc Antony's son by one of his Roman wives. He was invited to many of the fantastic parties & actually accumulated quite a bit of wealth because of it. He was a live witness. The man was named Philotas of Amphissa, was a very successful physician, and lived to be 85. That's not a typo: EIGHTY-FIVE.

Philotas used to go drinking with a man named Lamprias, and told him lots of Cleopatra stories that he had witnessed. Lamprias relayed them to Plutarch, his grandson.

How do we know this? Plutarch gives us all the connections. Three guys? Over 150 yrs? I actually did the math that makes this work.

Plutarch also corroborated some stories with a biography of Cleopatra, that was available at his time, by her personal physician Olympus ... who was probably the first physician to examine her after her death. How do we know? Plutarch says he read it.

I *LOVE* that you can do this with history. All that happened 2050 yrs ago, yet we know how it's all linked ... where the information came from, etc. We know less about some former US Presidents than we know about some ancient historic figures.
 
Jan 2017
132
Virginia, USA
Great posts here, Dios! And yes, Roman historiography is endlessly fascinating. You could spend a whole lifetime reading all of it and trying to digest everything, and even then we are still dredging up interesting things in the literature. It's also fascinating to see the personal friendships of historians like Polybius, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus, Suetonius, etc. with important figures, some of whom feature in their own written works.
 

fascinating

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,378
Yes, great post Dios. I also love classical literature, there is so much of it, though it is also painful to think of how much we have lost, things such as large parts of Pliny's encylopedia, Hadrian's autobiography, sections of Tacitus' histories etc.