Cleopatra's beauty reconsidered

She was the legendary queen of Egypt who seduced two of the most powerful men in the ancient world. Shakespeare described her as a stunning woman whose infinite beauty "beggar'd all description" and Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, described her as "fair as is the rose in May."

But a tiny, silver coin that went on display at a British university in February 2007 suggests Cleopatra's beauty may be Hollywood fiction. The coin, a denarius worth 1/300th of a Roman soldier's salary, dates from 32 B.C. It was studied by experts at Newcastle University and went on public display at the university's Shefton Museum. The size of a modern 1 euro cent piece (18mm or 0.7in), the artefact was in a collection belonging to the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle, which is being researched in preparation for the opening of a new Great North Museum.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety; other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies.

- Shakespeare

The silver denarius coin would have been issued by the mint of Mark Antony. On one side is the head of Mark Antony, bearing the caption "Antoni Armenia devicta" meaning "For Antony, Armenia having been vanquished". Cleopatra appears on the reverse with the inscription "Cleopatra Reginae regum filiorumque regum", meaning "For Cleopatra, Queen of kings and of the children of kings". The well-preserved coin shows the Egyptian ruler with a shallow forehead, long nose, narrow lips, and a sharply pointed chin, while her longtime lover, the powerful Roman general and politician Mark Antony, is depicted with a large hooked nose and thick neck. The unflattering images suggest that fictional accounts overplay the attractiveness of the doomed couple.

"The image on the coin is far from being that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton," said Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of archaeological museums at Newcastle University, in a statement. "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."

Cleopatra's image on the coin

Perhaps Plutarch portrayed her more accurately, when in the "Life of Antony" written a century after the great romance, said of Cleopatra: "her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her. But the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice ..."

However she looked in reality, Cleopatra's charm helped change the course of Roman history. In 48 B.C. she seduced Rome's first emperor, Julius Caesar-30 years her senior-and bore him a son. But her relationship years later with Antony, with whom she had three children, ended in tragedy. After Antony's defeat by Octavian, Rome's soon-to-be second emperor, in 31 B.C., both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. According to legend, Cleopatra chose to perish by an asp's bite.