The media has made a big to-do about Marc Antony and Cleopatra being 'ugly'. This isn't because they weren't 'beautiful'---they were proud of who they were back then and wanted exact portraits of every ill-begotten feature. The sterner, the better. This was when Rome was still a 'Republic'.
February 15, 2007—
She was the legendary queen of Egypt who seduced two of the most powerful men in the ancient world.
But a silver coin that went on display at a British university yesterday suggests Cleopatra's beauty may be Hollywood fiction.
A very common misunderstanding about sexual attraction is, the man or woman has to have 'physical beauty.' Throughout the evolution of humanoids, the markers of 'beauty' have strayed all over the map. One epoch's lovelies are another's uglies. Just in the last 150 years, the canons of desirability have shifted mightily.
For example, in the Victorian era, tall, skinny women were considered ugly, too horrible to even contemplate. Tall, skinny women with huge mouths and gigantic dentistry were terrifying creatures akin to witches and warlocks. Big feet and big hands were horrible, too.
Women about 4' 10" tall, with dainty hands and very small feet, big hips and small waist cinched up by the corsets all upper class women wore, a very small mouth, if a woman of the upper classes so much as opened these bud-sized lips to openly laugh, she would be very dismayed and so, she would cover her face to hide any sight of an open mouth.
In the post-WWI era, first small, boyish women were tres chic, women bobbed their hair and wore clothes similar to young boy's garb in the previous decades. Then things shifted yet again and tall, thin women became the role models in the mid-1930's. The tall, thin model has pretty much stayed with us since then leading to women looking like preying mantises, seeking mates to suck dry.
Since the appearance of beauty has shifted so violently in just a short historic time, expecting this to not be true in the dim past is silly. The conquering tribes forging empires were not known for their loveliness but rather their cunning ways and ability to organize invasions. Alexander the Great is most unusual in being attractive looking...his father certainly was not, he looked more like a pirate.
Cleopatra descended from one of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy. He was a hard fighting, ugly old dog. Since he took over the Egyptian quadrant of the empire conquered by Alexander, his family married strictly for political gain. Throughout history, a woman with an ugly face but with tremendous wealth and lands, always is very attractive to hosts of males.
To this very day, this is true. Women with no lands, no wealth, must struggle to appear appealing but women born to the manor like Queen Elizabeth, don't have to try at all. She, like many monarchs in the past, strives to appear as sensible and plain as possible while using garb to project power, thus the crowns, the royal robes of ermine and purple.
The conflict between her and Princess Di, a woman desperate to appear attractive and desirable, is a classic clash which I would suppose, Shakespeare would have made much out of if this happened in his own time.
In Egypt, Cleopatra learns of Antony's marriage, and takes furious revenge upon the messenger that brought her the news. She grows content only when her courtiers assure her that Octavia is homely by Elizabethan standards: short, low-browed, round-faced and with bad hair.
Cleopatra was well-educated and held court with many philosophers and scientists who fled the collapse of Athens and the enslavement of the former free citizens of that once-great state. Alexander clipped their liberties but still supported their thinking and writings which is why he founded the world's greatest library in Egypt in his New City: Alexandria.
And Cleopatra reigned there and she protected the Classic Culture. The greatest tragedy to befall humanity after her death, as the Roman Empire rotted, this library was attacked by maddened Christians who burned it to the ground, rejoicing in the destruction of the greatest philosophers on earth.
The Romans were a rough, ill-bred lot. When Roman generals met women trained in the classics, able to talk about geometry or physics, poetry and arts, they were easily smitten. Cleopatra was the top woman at that time in these matters. Her melodious voice didn't talk about domestic things, she spun a finer web.
From the National Geographic article:
"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 image of Cleopatra as a beautiful seductress is a more recent image."
Many, many great actresses have had plain faces. Even ones with age ravaging them mercilessly can still move men to desire and women to wonder just because of their regal bearing or beautifully trained voices! Often, a pretty face is spoiled when the bearer speaks.
Indeed, I assure everyone, sexual desire has very little to do with prettiness. The greatest courtesans, if they are painted by dispassionate artists, have little to recommend except they all have triumphed through cleverness and a quick mind that can swim through any situation. Confidence coupled with knowledge of human psychology, they reel in powerful or rich men, effortlessly.
The Romans were interesting because they were 'realists.' This meant, they prided themselves on what and who they were and were proud to present misshapen noses, scars, dewlaps, furrowed brows or grim mouths. Indeed, the other people to have this sentiment were the Italians during the Renaissance and Revolutionary America, leading into Victorian Europe's stout frank appraisals of their own imperial selves.
This sculpture is typical of the portraiture of the late Republic. The portrait is life-size and probably formed part of a statue, bust or funerary relief. The head is carved in the so-called veristic style that represented the subject in a highly realistic manner, in this case with the furrowed brow, sunken cheeks and grave expression of an older man. Links have been drawn between this style of portraiture and the death masks or imagines maiorum of Roman ancestors, which were carried in funeral processions. The portrait also illustrates the impact of Hellenism on Rome, since these portraits were inspired by Hellenistic portraiture and were probably carved by Greek artists.
The Classic Greeks used standardized models for themselves, preferring the ideal over the actual. Except for a few statues like the irritating, annoying Socrates who they killed, he was shown in some of his ugly featured frowning self but the few busts of him don't hold a candle to the host of images the Romans made of themselves showing all their cold cruelty and calculating lust to eternity's gaze.
Going through a gallery of these harsh faces is dismaying but also instructive. Like the grim, calculating faces of even the Victorian courtesans, coldly eying the artist painting them reclining naked, is amusing considering how our present-day beauties have to bare their teeth in such aggressive smiles, they look like sharks or killer whales about to swallow its prey.
We think such faces are lovely and desirable but I am betting other generations will be disgusted or horrified. Tastes change.
Archaeologists from the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Rome Municipality came across the 50-foot-deep (15-meter-deep) cavity while working to restore the decaying palace.
"We were drilling the ground near Augustus' residence to survey the foundations of the building when we discovered the cave," said Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of the area.
"We knew from ancient reports that the Lupercale shouldn't be far from the Emperor's palace, but we didn't expect to find it. It was a lucky surprise.
A brutal, conquering people claiming an origin from wolves and abandoned twins isn't going to be very concerned it looking pretty. As the empire rotted, the inability to face the truth and reality became epidemic and the strong portraits of the earlier republic's strong ruling classes became simple and prettier, silly and weak, no furrowed brows on the well-fed, self-satisfied latter spawn.
Then for nearly 1000 years, portraits vanished. Only stock images with rigid faces staring at nothingness prevailed. Only with the rebirth of humanism and the rediscovery of a few of the books that didn't perish when the Great Library of Alexandria was burned, did artists again paint or carve honest portraits.