For her own person,It beggared all description: she did lieIn her pavilion—cloth-of-gold, of tissue—O’erpicturing that Venus where we seeThe fancy outwork nature. On each side herStood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,With divers-colored fans, whose wind did seemTo glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,And what they undid did.Enobarbus (Act 2, Scene 2, Antony and Cleopatra)
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra was of indescribable beauty that overshadowed even Venus (Roman deity of love and beauty), but did the reality match this Elizabethan imagining and Shakespearean immortalisation?
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; she also possessed a most charming voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one.Dio, Roman History
Dio (noted Roman historian) explains Cleopatra’s beauty as incomparable – though I think we should pay attention to the fact that he was writing roughly 200 years after she was around so maybe not the most reliable source.
Plutarch writes a little closer to an appropriate time frame, but was still a good 100 years off the mark:
For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…Plutarch, The Life of Antony
He offers that ‘yeah, she was alright… But Antony’s ex-wife was better. Guess he just likes the smart ones’. Basically.
Any visual representations consist largely of unreliable busts and politically-charged coinage (that would deliberately make her look like a powerful man), so it is hard for us to decide for ourselves. So, we really don’t have much to go on. What we have is a few people who have never met her trying to guess at her beauty based on her reputation for seducing powerful men. Though, it may be entirely possible that she was simply of charming character.
Personally, I prefer to think of her as a powerful, intelligent and beautiful character. We seem to be lacking a wealth of good historical figures that can combine all three…