Looking at Cleopatra

In this age of selfies and Instagram, we are very aware of how consciously we all create the image of ourselves that we show to the world. The people of antiquity were no less self-conscious about their public image. Look at these two sculptures of Cleopatra VII.

Cleopatra VII Philopator is the famous Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and lover of both Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius. She was the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, founded by Ptolemy I, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt for almost three hundred years, arguably the first European colonial state in Africa. Like other Macedonian dynasties in the relics of Alexander’s short-lived empire, Ptolemy and his heirs took a pragmatic approach to ruling over a large population that did not share in their Hellenized Macedonian culture. They embraced a kind of cultural bilingualism in which they presented themselves in very different ways to different audiences.

Portrait head of Cleopatra VI, photograph by Louis le Grand via Wikimedia (Altes Museum, Berlin; 40-30 BCE; white marble)

This marble head of Cleopatra is sculpted in a Hellenistic style and presents the queen in a Greek cultural context. White marble was favored for sculpture in the Greek world because it reacts to light in ways similar to human skin, making marble sculpture appear more naturalistic. Details like the soft rendering of the mouth, the detailed delineation of the hair, and the slightly off-center tilt of the head are drawn from the artistic repertoire of late Classical and Hellenistic portrait sculpture. This statue asserts Cleopatra’s Greekness and her participation in the broader Mediterranean cultural world. It was probably displayed in Alexandria, the Ptolemaic capital, which had a cosmopolitan population largely made up of Macedonians and Greeks, along with substantial Jewish and Persian communities and a variety of other peoples, but few ethnic Egyptians. It was meant to be seen by an audience that would recognize and appreciate the way this portrait fit into the larger history of Hellenistic ruler portraiture.

Statue of Cleopatra VII, late 1st c. BCE, Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg, basalt, photograph by George Shuklin
Statue of Cleopatra VII photograph by George Shuklin via Wikimedia (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; late 1st c. BCE; basalt)

This basalt statue of Cleopatra uses not only an Egyptian artistic style, but an almost entirely Egyptian iconographic vocabulary. Many different stones were used for Egyptian portrait sculpture, but basalt was a popular one since the stone is very hard and durable, giving a sense of permanence especially to royal portraiture. Cleopatra is presented here as an Egyptian pharaoh. She wears a wig adorned with the royal uraeus and carries an ankh in her right hand. The cornucopia in her left hand is a Greek symbol, but its connotation of bounty is similar to the ankh’s symbolism of life. Also note that one of her feet is advanced. Egyptian women were typically depicted with feet together and men with one foot advanced, but the adoption of masculine traits to represent a ruling queen is also traditionally Egyptian. This statue was intended for an Egyptian audience and meant to convey Cleopatra’s commitment to ruling over her Egyptian subjects through the forms and structures that they had long been accustomed to.

The Ptolemaic monarchs were aware that their power rested on two precarious premises: that the people of Egypt would accept rulers who were not themselves ethnically Egyptian and that other Mediterranean, African, and Asian powers would respect as equals a royal house of comparatively recent vintage. These sculptures show the confidence with which Cleopatra balanced those two needs and reinvented her image for two different audiences.

(Sadly, there’s not an ostrich to be seen.)

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?