Monday, November 8, 2010

Cleopatra: Do We Need Her to be Beautiful in Order to Matter?

Cleopatra is all the rage right now. A new biography was just published about her, Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff (a good book apparently, albeit without any new revelations) and a traveling exhibition on the Egyptian Queen is currently making its world premiere in my neck of the woods, at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

While reading reviews of Ms. Schiff’s book and scanning through info on the last pharaoh of Egypt, it occurred to me: Cleopatra is always portrayed in photos and dramatizations and movies and artwork as being outrageously beautiful.

I think this might be a lie.

From what I know, while she was far from ugly, Cleopatra wasn’t exactly a stunner, either. She was…well, rather average looking.

And it got me thinking: Was Cleopatra really a gorgeous specimen of femininity, or did popular culture make her that way in order to make her matter more in the eyes of history?

Let’s start here, with this “classical” image of Cleopatra, as portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in the famous 1963 movie of the same name:

Let’s face it: we all love a pretty face. Pop culture, especially, loves attractive people. Why else use models to sell everything from underwear to soft drinks? Because as a marketing tool, good-looking people get the job done. Sex sells. Always has, always will. I don’t profess to know all the stats out there about this, but suffice to say it’s a trend that’s still in use for a reason. As humans, we’re just hardwired to want to hang around with and look at—and buy stuff from--attractive people. Marketing executives and advertisers know this, and use it to their advantage. (Full disclosure: As a marketing executive, I’m guilty of this myself.)

I guess we could blame the makers of the Cleopatra film, who cast a comely Taylor in the titular role, for the perpetuation of Cleopatra’s beauty. Maybe, however, they were just playing along with the pop culture Cleopatra-as-sexy status quo. I mean, let’s face it: Hollywood almost demands their queens and goddesses to be not just powerful, but powerful and beautiful. The producers had a movie to sell, after all.

But portrayals of a beautiful, seductive, powerful Cleopatra goddess pre-date this film by about…oh, two millennia. Look at this piece of artwork:

This is a basalt statue of Cleopatra that dates to the second half of the first century B.C., around the time she was ruling Egypt. Va-Va-Voom, right? The artist was clearly trying to send a message: not only was Cleopatra an influential pharaoh from a powerful bloodline of Egyptian rulers, she was also smokin’ hot.

Cassius Dio, a member of the Roman consul and noted historian in the first century A.D., spoke of her beauty thusly: “For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking.” This Dio dude was Roman and lived nearly 100 years after Cleopatra, and yet even HE knew of Cleopatra’s supposed alluring beauty. It seems, then, that the portrayal of Cleopatra as gorgeous goddess caught on early and was passed down through history.

How, then, do we explain these images of Cleopatra?

The first is a marble bust that dates from about 30 B.C., around the time of her death. The second is an ancient Greek silver coin in wide circulation during Cleopatra’s reign, showing the pharaoh in profile. In these perhaps more realistic images, Cleopatra, with her hook nose and homely appearance, is in stark contrast to popular images of her. Hardly the face of a woman whose conquest of powerful men was proof of her sexual appeal. And hardly the stunning beauty we’ve been led to believe.

So whose images of Cleopatra are the most historically accurate? I tend to believe the truth is always in the middle.

Remember Cassius Dio, the first century A.D. historian I mentioned earlier who claimed Cleopatra was “most striking”? A fellow historian of his, Plutarch, begs to differ, indicating "her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” In other words, this first century Roman wondered what all the fuss was about. He went on to say that “the sweetness in the tones of her voice” was what made Cleopatra attractive, not any physical attribute. It was Cleopatra’s wit and charm alone, in fact, that won many men over.

But Dio doesn’t completely eschew her non-physical qualities. He is known to have said, “She {also} possessed a most charming voice and knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one.” Again, a reference to non-physical attributes that, in spite of any lack of physical beauty, made Cleopatra attractive to everyone around her.

So, do we need Cleopatra to be beautiful in order to validate her as a woman? Must she possess a stunning face and a shapely figure in order for us to take her seriously as a powerful leader and influential political tactician? The answer, it seems, is no.

But just to be safe, Little, Brown and Company, publisher of Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra biography didn’t show Cleopatra’s face on the cover of the book. (Intentionally?) Instead, her head is turned extremely to the left, as if she's looking over her shoulder. All you can see is the back of her head. But the suggestion of beauty is there—the long line of her neck, her swept-up hair, her flowing wardrobe. This seems to suggest that even though we know she may not be the beauty that pop culture typically portrays her as, we want her to be. We want her to have the whole package: beauty, brains and brawn.

But isn’t it enough that Cleopatra was powerful, and cunning, and “sweet,” and charming? Must she be beautiful, too? Can't we accept that she used something other than her beauty to achieve what she did? In other words, what value do we place on a pretty face?

A lot, but remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And to many, Cleopatra, in spite of any lack of beauty she had, was one of the most beautiful women in history.

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