Antony and Cleopatra – oh the tragedy, oh the romance! And was there ever a more beautiful couple? It seems that yes, there probably was. Various pieces of archaeology have been challenging the notion of Cleopatra’s perceived beauty. The latest source is a tiny 2,000-year-old silver coin. It portrays the Egyptian queen with a shallow forehead, pointed nose, narrow lips and a slack chin. On the obverse beams her Roman lover Mark Antony, replete with bulging eyes, thick neck and a hook nose. The coin was studied by experts at Newcastle University who discovered it in a collection from the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, which was being researched as part of the preparations for the Great North Museum, due to open in 2009 in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Clare Pickersgill, Assistant Director of Archaeological Museums at Newcastle University, said: ‘The accepted image we have of Cleopatra is that of a beautiful queen who was adored by Roman politicians and generals.’ Indeed, her relationship with Mark Antony has long been romanticised and popularised by writers, artists, and most recently in films – notably the 1963 Hollywood depiction by the glamorous Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. However, it seems that the image of Cleopatra as a beautiful seductress is largely a more recent concoction. Roman writers tell us that Cleopatra was intelligent and charismatic, and that she had a seductive voice but, tellingly, they do not mention her beauty.
The coin is a silver denarius of Mark Antony and Cleopatra dated to 32 BC, which would have been issued by the mint of Mark Antony. The side with the head of Mark Antony bears the caption Antoni Armenia devicta meaning ‘For Antony, Armenia having been vanquished’.
On the coin’s reverse, around Cleopatra’s image, runs the inscription Cleopatra Reginae regum filiorumque regum, meaning ‘For Cleopatra, Queen of kings and of the children of kings’ (or possibly ‘Queen of kings and of her children who are kings’).
The coin itself is not enormously rare, but due to its depictions, it is very collectable.
The coin is now on display in Newcastle University’s Shefton Museum, Monday – Friday 10.00 am – 4.00 pm. Admission free. (Contact 0191 222 3925.)
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 23. Click here to subscribe
It’s interesting to know that coins can have images that can show a queen with a shallow forehead, pointed nose, narrow lips, and a slack chin. I can imagine how much history we can learn from such small pieces of money used years ago. It might be interesting to learn about Byzantine coins as well, especially if you are a collector, since every item can already tell something about the past which can be a good learning experience for anyone.