Calamos Supports Greece
GreekReporter.comAncient GreeceBeauty Secrets of Queen Cleopatra Unveiled

Beauty Secrets of Queen Cleopatra Unveiled

The beauty and allure of Cleopatra VII have remained defining characteristics of the Ptolemaic queen. Credit: Mary Harrsch / Flickr CC BY 2.0

A significant part of Cleopatra VII Philopator’s enduring reputation is as one of history’s most famous femme fatales, renowned for her beauty and wit which attracted not one, but two of the Roman Republic’s most powerful men.

Whether or not this popular characterization of Cleopatra is historically accurate, her reputation has led many to wonder whether she had any particular beauty secrets that she used to ensure Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony

The historical record does provide some clues as to how the Ptolemaic dynasty’s most famous ruler presented herself, from hairstyles to clothing, and even makeup. Although we cannot be entirely certain how she presented herself, there are enough historical details to piece together a reasonable picture of how Cleopatra might have presented herself.

Was Cleopatra really a beauty?

As the old adage goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” As far as the ancient sources are concerned, the question of Cleopatra’s beauty raised mixed responses, with some ascribing an irresistible physical appearance to her and others attributing her allure more to her intellect and charm.

For example, Cassius Dio (164 to c. 235 AD), an ancient Greek historian, described Cleopatra as “a woman of surpassing beauty,”

During the first meeting between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, Cassius Dio wrote that “Caesar, upon seeing her and hearing her speak a few words was so completely captivated,” that the Roman general acquiesced immediately to Cleopatra’s requests.

Cleopatra portrait
It is probable that this painting of Cleopatra with red hair and her unique facial characteristics, depicted wearing a royal diadem and hairpins studded with pearls, found in Roman Herculaneum, Italy, and believed to date back to the 1st century AD, was created after her death. Credit: Ángel M. Felicísimo/ Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Plutarch (c.46 to c.119 AD) also briefly commented on the Ptolemaic queen’s appearance in his Life of Mark Anthony. Contrary to Cassius Dio, Plutarch did not reckon Cleopatra’s beauty to be particularly noteworthy but instead praised her intelligence and character.

“Her beauty, so we are told, was not itself outstanding; it did not immediately strike those who saw her; yet being with her had an inescapable hold; when talking with her, she was persuasive, and the character which surrounded her whole manner in company had a force to it,” wrote the Greek historian and philosopher.

Hair and makeup

In the few surviving marble busts of Cleopatra, she is depicted wearing her hair tied at the back in a bun. Historians like Paul Edmund Stanwick refer to this as a “melon hairstyle”. Coinage depicting the queen shows her wearing the same hairstyle.

Depictions of Cleopatra with this hairstyle also show her wearing a diadem, a symbol of royal power adopted by many Hellenistic rulers who succeeded Alexander the Great as the masters of the divided fragments of his empire.

"Vatican Cleopatra"
Marble bust of Cleopatra made between 30 and 40 BC in the collection of the Vatican Museums. The “melon” hairstyle can be seen here as well as the diadem. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Professor Diana Kleiner of Yale University has identified two more hairstyles worn by Cleopatra. One of these hairstyles emulated those worn by Macedonian queens, which is unsurprising given Cleopatra’s lineage.

To achieve this style the hair was carefully divided into individual curls, which were typically swept away from the face and elegantly gathered into a bun positioned at the back. According to Professor Keline, it may have been worn during travel.

The other hairstyle was “the usual Egyptian wigged headdress that had its origins in Pharaonic times”. In this case, the main point of attention would have been the headdress rather than the hair itself, with a rearing cobra made of precious metal proudly displayed.

Cleopatra coin
A 40 drachma coin from Alexandria that dates between 51 and 30 BC features Cleopatra’s likeness. The coin has a portrait of Cleopatra wearing a diadem on the front and an inscription that reads “ΒΑΣΙΛΙΣΣΗΣ ΚΛΕΟΠΑΤΡΑΣ” on the back, accompanied by an eagle standing on a thunderbolt. Credit: Otto Nickl / Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Professor Kleiner explains that “Cleopatra appears to have worn different coiffures in different circumstances, playing to her audience, so to speak, in life and in art.” It would have been important for her to present herself in the Hellenistic fashion to the Greek elites who held the most senior positions in Ptolemaic Egypt, but also in traditional Egyptian fashions for her ruler to appear legitimate to a native Egyptian audience.

Regarding the Ptolemaic queen’s makeup choices, she would darken her eyebrows and enhance her eyeliner using black kohl, creating an elongated look. The application of deep blue eyeshadow extended gracefully up to her brows, further accentuating her eyes. Additionally, Cleopatra embraced the fashionable trend of adorning her hands with intricate henna patterns, a popular practice during that era in Alexandria.


Cleopatra wore a variety of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman outfits intended to accentuate her beauty. The selection of these styles would have been dependent on the contexts in which the queen appeared, as it was important for her to present herself accordingly to her friends, foes, and subjects.

One of the styles she wore combined Greek and Egyptian aesthetic sensibilities and is seen depicted on sculptures of other Ptolemaic queens. This style consisted of a sheer dress, likely of a semi-transparent material, which left the bare breasts exposed in a manner popular amongst native Egyptian women.

Ptolemaic queen sculpture
Sculpture of a Ptolemaic queen, possibly Cleopatra VII. The sheer dress with exposed breasts can be observed in this sculpture. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0 / Wikimedia Commons

The depictions of other Ptolemaic queens wearing this style are consistent with the writings of the Roman poet Lucan, who claimed that she wore a transparent dress that exposed her breasts, likely made of Chinese silk.

Lucan also described the jewelry she wore, writing that “her baleful beauty inordinately painted, covered with Red Sea pearls, a fortune in her hair and around her neck, weighed down with jewelry.”

See all the latest news from Greece and the world at Contact our newsroom to report an update or send your story, photos and videos. Follow GR on Google News and subscribe here to our daily email!

Related Posts