Ancient coin challenges myth of Cleopatra's beauty

Antony and Cleopatra were not the handsome General and his beautiful queen Hollywood would have us believe, according to experts at Newcastle University, who have been studying the depiction of the one of history's most tragic romantic couples found on a Roman coin.

The silver coin of Mark Antony and Cleopatra was discovered 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, currently under development in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Antony and Cleopatra are shown on either side of the small silver coin (pictured), which is about the size of a modern five pence piece. Cleopatra is depicted with a shallow forehead, long, pointed nose, narrow lips and a sharply pointed chin, while Mark Antony has bulging eyes, a large hooked nose and a thick neck.

See photographs of the images on the coin:

Cleopatra's face on coin

Antony's face on coin

Clare Pickersgill, Assistant Director of Archaeological Museums at Newcastle University, said: 'The popular image we have of Cleopatra is that of a beautiful queen who was adored by Roman politicians and generals.

'The relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra has long been romanticised by writers, artists and film-makers. Shakespeare wrote his tragedy 'Antony and Cleopatra' in 1608, while the Orientalist artists of the nineteenth century and the modern Hollywood depictions, such as that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1963 film have added to the idea that Cleopatra was a great beauty. Recent research would seem to disagree with this portrayal, however', said Clare.

Lindsay Allason-Jones, Director of Archaeological Museums at Newcastle University, added: 'The image on the coin is far from being that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton!

'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'.

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. 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 of the coin with 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 collection has been owned by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne since the 1920s. Until now, it has been kept in a bank, but the development of the Great North Museum project means that other 'hidden gems' like the Antony and Cleopatra coin, will be able to go on display to the public for the first time when the GNM opens in 2009.

The coin will go on display in Newcastle University's Shefton Museum from Valentines Day, Wednesday 14 February. Opening hours are Monday - Friday 10.00 am - 4.00 pm. Admission free. Contact 0191 222 3925.

Historial note for editors: Antony and Cleopatra

Cleopatra VII was the last ruler of Egypt before its conquest by the Roman leader Octavian in 30BC. She was also the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. The Ptolemaic rulers, who ruled Egypt from 305BC until 30BC. Cleopatra was born in 70/69BC probably in Alexandria. She became queen at the age of 17, and died when she was 38.

Mark Antony, born in 83BC, was a Roman general and politician who had been a supporter of Julius Caesar. After the death of Julius Caesar he joined with Octavian and Lepidus to form a body of three governing people in Rome. The second triumvirate, as it is referred to, ended in 33BC after which civil war followed. Mark Antony was also known for his fondness of wine, women and song.

Mark Antony had been interested in the support of Cleopatra and Egypt for his campaigns in Armenia, Parthia and Mesopotamia. On their meeting Cleopatra put on a show that displayed her wealth and which left Antony in awe. Antony had a relationship with Cleopatra, despite being married to Fulvia and later to Octavia. Cleopatra already had a son, Caesarion, from her relationship with Julius Caesar, but she had three more children with Antony, the twins Alexander and Cleopatra, and a son Ptolemaios.

In 31 BC the battle of Actium, between Antony and Cleopatra and Octavian, took place off the west coast of Greece. Cleopatra fled with her ships back to Egypt and Antony followed. Soon after this defeat, in 30 BC, Antony committed suicide. Shortly afterwards, Cleopatra also committed suicide, apparently by allowing asps to bite her.

Octavian, who later became the first Roman emperor Augustus, then took control of Egypt. Cleopatra's son Caesarion was killed by Octavian's troops, but the three children belonging to her and Antony were raised by Antony's wife Octavia.

After the suicide of Antony and Cleopatra the portrayal of Cleopatra as drunk and decadent and as being responsible for ensnaring Antony were circulated in Rome. Her suicide, on the other hand, was regarded as a noble act, and in Egypt she continued to be viewed as a patriotic ruler. Her suicide, often seen as a result of her love for Antony - but more likely because she did not want to be dragged into Rome as part of the victory parade of Octavian - has contributed to the romantic image we have today.

The Great North Museum Project

The Great North Museum Project is a Newcastle University-led project in partnership with Tyne & Wear Museums, Newcastle City Council, the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, and the Natural History Society of Northumbria. The Great North Museum is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Tyne and Wear Partnership, ERDF, One North East, Northern Rock and other trusts and foundations.

The GNM will incorporate the Hancock Museum's natural history collections with the archaeological and ethnographic collections held in Newcastle University's Museum of Antiquities, Shefton Museum and Hatton Gallery. The new Museum, which will be housed in a completely refurbished and extended Hancock Museum building, is due to open in 2009.

Date released 14 February 2007