Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cleopatra - The Obsession With Beauty


Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy c2010

Of all the women of ancient history, Cleopatra is the best known. Who has not heard of the Queen of the Nile?
Most people “know” she was, perhaps with the exception of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, but was she? Putting aside the vagaries of just what constitutes beauty, what did this most famous of queens look like?
It is difficult to depict charm, or intelligence, or quickness of wit in sculpture, and Temple paintings are so highly stylized as to be useless as a guide to physical appearance.


The historian Plutarch tells us:
In itself her beauty was not absolutely without parallel, not the kind to
astonish those who saw her; but her presence exerted an inevitable
fascination, and her physical attraction, combined with the persuasive
charm of her conversation and the aura she somehow projected around
herself in company, did have a certain ability to stimulate others.

Writing one hundred years later, the historian Dio comments that Cleopatra “was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone.”
Is it any wonder then that the brightest stars in the Hollywood firmament have sought to play this fabled queen who combined both brains and beauty in a most powerful combination. Vivien Leigh, Claudette Colbert, Elizabeth Taylor, and Kim Cattrall are but a few who have assayed the role, and even now a new film is being readied for Angelina Jolie to star in as Cleopatra.

No doubt Cleopatra would be flattered to have such beauties portray her on stage and screen.
However…

Allow me to quote at length from the new book, Antony And Cleopatra by Goldsworthy:

Absolutely nothing is certain. Cleopatra may have had black, brown, blonde or even red hair, and her eyes could have been brown, grey, green or blue. Almost any combination of these is possible. Similarly, she may have been very light skinned or had a darker more Mediterranean complexion. Fairer skin is probably marginally more likely given her ancestry. Greek art traditionally represented women and goddesses as very pale, and fair skin seems to have been part of the ideal of beauty. Roman propaganda never suggested that Cleopatra was dark-skinned, although this may simply mean that she was not exceptionally dark or simply that the color of her skin was not important to her critics.
At no point will we need to consider Antony’s appearance at similar length and this should remind us that the obsession with Cleopatra’s looks is unusual, and not entirely healthy. Not only is there no good evidence, but also there is something disturbing about the desire to base our understanding of her first and foremost on her appearance. Cleopatra was not another Helen of Troy, a mythical figure about whom the most important thing was her beauty. She was no mere object of desire, but a very active political player in her own kingdom and beyond.
Cleopatra was born and raised in the real and very dangerous world of the Ptolemaic court in the first century BC. When her father died in 51 BC, she became queen. Auletes had planned for his son and daughter to rule jointly. Cleopatra had other ideas.
-from Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010 pp.128-129

Goldsworthy has hit on the crux of the problem, and like the historian Michael Grant, reaffirms for us just how little we know for certain, and, more importantly, how little it really matters.

As it often the case, what a person does matters far more than what they look like. In the end, Dr. King put is most succinctly and eloquenty: we must judge a person by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. And when it comes to character, Cleopatra is one of the most fascinating characters not only of her time, but of anytime in human history.

For more about Cleopatra and the world in which she lived, see:
Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010 ISBN: 978-0-300-16534-0