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Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?



Cleopatra ruled Egypt from 51–30 B.C. Romans saw her as a malicious temptress who exploited her feminine wiles to manipulate men. She’s a tragic heroine in contemporary literature.It’s no surprise that numerous painters have depicted the enigmatic Queen of the Nile, what with all the dramatic legend surrounding her.

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Cleopatra: Who Was She?

One of the most dramatic stories ever told is Cleopatra’s. I can see why it inspired writers, poets, and artists.To make sense of artistic representations of Cleopatra, one has to be familiar with the historical context of her life and death.

The reign of the Ptolemies

Cleopatra VII is who most people call “Cleopatra.”Cleopatra VII was the seventh member of Egypt’s royal line, and the seventh with her name, to be born in 69 BC. One of Egypt’s most famous pharaohs was not of Egyptian descent, which may come as a surprise to some. After defeating the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great of Macedon acquired control of Egypt in 332 BC. He installed a Greek administration but didn’t change Egyptian culture.

Upon his death in 323 BC, one of his generals, Ptolemy I Soter, ascended to the throne and founded the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Egyptian king Ptolemy I StellaCC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Egyptians kept their Greek ancestry and language during their rule. To perpetuate the Macedonian lineage, siblings married and produced children. Auletes reigned before Cleopatra. Egyptians resented him for not stopping Rome’s invasion. Given how often Ptolemy XII bribed Roman senators, it wasn’t unexpected.

As a consequence, Egypt amassed a substantial amount of debt. His luck was in that Rome was too preoccupied with its own internal political conflicts to pay much attention to Egypt.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Image of Ptolemy XII Auletes, Egyptian pharaoh and dad of Cleopatra VII, by NYPL (licenced under Creative Commons Attribution Scan by NYPLCC BY-SA 4.0,International) and posted to Wikimedia Commons.

Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII reigned.

Ptolemy XII executed his oldest daughters for organising a coup d’état. After his death in 51 BC, Cleopatra became Pharaoh. According to family tradition, she married Ptolemy XIII. When this happened, Ptolemy XIII was 10 and Cleopatra was 18.

Ptolemy XIII intended to assassinate her to become king.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?

In the book “Pierres Antiques Gravées Tirées des Principaux Cabinets de la France,” by French artist Élisabeth Sophie Chéron, there is an engraving of Ptolemy XIII of Egypt, Cleopatra’s younger brother and spouse (published c. 1736). This etching was inspired by a 1st-century BC medallion portraying Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator.
Public domain image of Élisabeth Sophie Chéron (1648 – 1711), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

She fled Egypt for Syria. Assassinations of Egyptian royal family members were regular. Cleopatra must have been successful in Syria to gather an army. Pelusium, Egypt’s border with Persia, erupted in civil conflict.

Cleopatra saw that her army was losing ground and decided to seek help from Rome in the form of reinforcements.

Caesar and Cleopatra

At the time of his attempted murder in 48 BC, Roman commander Julius Caesar was in Egypt looking for his political opponent Pompey. Ptolemy XIII ordered his troops kidnap Pompey and have him beheaded in an effort to curry favour with the Romans. He took Caesar Pompey’s head to Alexandria. His hopes were dashed.

For several reasons, the conduct infuriated Caesar.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Peter Paul Rubens, Julius Caesar, 1625–1626;  Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons

Egypt had no place meddling in Roman affairs. Pompey, Caesar’s political opponent, deserved to die with honor.By surrendering to Caesar, he may have escaped death.

Cleopatra benefited greatly from the slight her brother dealt to Caesar.

We suppose she had a man sneak her into Alexandria on a carpet to visit Caesar. Many artworks portray Cleopatra walking out from behind her carpet to meet Caesar.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Image by  Jean-Léon Gérôme,, from his 1866 painting Cleopatra and Caesar, showing the queen rising from a carpet roll; (Public domain) uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

Cooperation helped both parties. The Romans supported Cleopatra militarily, and Caesar deposed Ptolemy XIII to punish Pompey. A Pharaoh who owed Rome money and provided food and other essentials benefitted him.

Ptolemy XIII surrendered Alexandria to the Romans in 47 BC. Ptolemy XII wanted to abdicate but was drowned on the Nile.

The same year, she had Caesarion. Caesarion was his heir, hence he couldn’t marry Cleopatra. She married her youngest brother.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Boston Public LibraryCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia CommonsCleopatra VII (left), Caesarion (bottom, middle) and Ptolemy XIV (right) on a relief from Egypt’s Dendera Temple

After a year away, Caesar came back to Rome with Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe IV in tow.This was done to show the Romans that Arsinoe hasn’t changed his position towards the Egyptians and to discourage him from trying to topple Cleopatra’s rule. Arsinoe was forced to become a sister in the Temple of Artemis.

Senators assassinated Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. Cleopatra worried Ptolemy XIV would gain the kingdom.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Image of Cleopatra VII with her newborn son Ptolemy XV Caesarion, on a coin from Cyprus, dated about 47 BC and now in the British Museum (picture by rome/, licenced under CC BY 2.0)

Mark Antony and Cleopatra

After Caesar’s death, Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus reigned. Mark Antony ruled the eastern Roman provinces while others ruled the west. At 42 BC, he met Cleopatra in Tarsus.

Mark Antony, who was married to a woman named Fulvia, was instantly smitten with the Egyptian queen. Cleopatra artwork often depicts the spectacular entrance of her ships at Tarsus.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Charles-Joseph Natoire, Cleopatra’s landing in Tarsus, 1756; Public domain through Wikimedia Commons.

Mark Antony left Fulvia in Italy for Cleopatra in Alexandria. Mark Anthony compared himself to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility, and conquest, to win over the people.

Many excused Antony’s connection with Cleopatra because she was Isis (the Egyptian goddess of magic and fertility).

Dionysian partying might explain the couple’s behaviour. Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene were Cleopatra’s twins, born in 40 BC. Mark Antony married Octavia, Octavian’s sister, to preserve his political status. Mark Antony and Cleopatra welcomed Ptolemy Philadelphus in 37 B.C.

Mark Antony divorced Octavia and married Cleopatra in 32 B.C., angering Octavian and the Roman republic. Many of Cleopatra’s enemies saw her marriage to Mark Antony as a plot to topple the Roman Republic. It didn’t help that she boldly declared Caesarion, not Octavian, to be Caesar’s rightful successor.This led to Octavian declaring war against Cleopatra.

The Roman populace, convinced that she had charmed Mark Antony and that she planned to make Alexandria the capital of the Roman Empire, backed her choice.

Death of Cleopatra

The resulting Actium Battle occurred on the Greek mainland. Cleopatra and her allies couldn’t defeat Octavian’s armies when Mark Antony abandoned them. Octavian’s army searched for them when they returned to Egypt. Mark Antony committed suicide to safeguard his reputation after losing to Octavian.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
From Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1607), Act 4, Scene 15, print after Nathaniel Dance-Holland; After Nathaniel Dance-HollandCC0, through Wikimedia Commons.

Octavian kidnapped Cleopatra with the intention of killing her in front of a crowd of his followers in Rome. But she killed herself to stop him. Reasons for her suicide are controversial. The most often circulated version has her luring an asp into a breast bite, where the snake’s venom would do the greatest damage.

Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” is only one example of the many works that feature Cleopatra in this fashion (1607).

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Death of Cleopatra (1796-1797) by Jean-Baptiste Regnault; Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cleopatra’s Star Power Originates From Which Factors?

Myth and art represent Cleopatra in many ways. Historians think her brilliance and adaptability helped her succeed.

It was said that her beauty won Julius Caesar and Mark Antony’s hearts.
Recent reports question her beauty.

What follows is a discussion of her three primary persona archetypes.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Cleopatra (1887) by Gustave Moreau; Gustave Moreau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile

Cleopatra’s reputation as a stunning beauty has endured throughout the ages. Her strict beauty regimen reportedly included honey-infused milk baths.

It was said that her beauty won Julius Caesar and Mark Antony’s hearts.
Recent reports question her beauty.

. A coin with Cleopatra’s likeness and dated to circa 32 BC was discovered in 2009.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
A coin, or tetradrachm, of Seleucis and Pieria in Syria, with Cleopatra VII on the reverse side, dated to c. 32 BC; GulustanCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not a detailed description, but it’s evident she wasn’t beautiful. Historiographers searched her ancient accounts. Plutarch:

“Her beauty wasn’t unmatched… Her charisma and persuasiveness made her hard to resist.

This suggests that her brains, not her looks, drew our attention. Nobody who met her questioned her wit or intelligence. In 22 years as Egypt’s leader, she performed incredible things. She spoke several languages and was a skilled diplomat. Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic monarch or queen to learn Egyptian, earning her the title “Philopator”

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Cleopatra (1876) by Heinrich Faust; Heinrich Faust, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Femme Fatale: Cleopatra

The various Roman biographies published about Cleopatra contributed to her image as a volatile and volatile person.She allegedly had men under her control by the use of her feminine wiles (or maybe witchcraft). There are even references to her as the “whore queen” in Roman literature, with the implication that she used her sexuality for political gain.

However, statements like these were often made to insult her intellect.

Since she was related to Caesar and Antony, many thought she wanted to take over Rome. She was clever and cunning after killing her two brothers. She wasn’t crueller than other rulers.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Portrait of Cleopatra (1917) by Maxfield Parrish, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons.

The Love Affair That Divided Cleopatra and Antony

Art depicting Cleopatra often uses the tragic heroine trope associated with her. Many people think that she did whatever she did in her latter life out of devotion to Mark Antony. After reading Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, in which the two are portrayed as star-crossed lovers doomed to die apart, the tragedy takes on an added layer of poignancy.

Artwork of Cleopatra often portrays her as a distraught lady.

Her tragic end has served as inspiration for many artists over the years. Her most recognisable likeness is that of a stunning lady getting her breasts nibbled on by an asp. False, yet it adds to the story’s sadness.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Death of Cleopatra (between 1715 and 1735) by Antoine Rivalz; Antoine Rivalz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Celebrity Cleopatra Artwork

Cleopatra appears in art. As long as she’s a cultural figure, Cleopatra will be made. We picked iconic Queen of the Nile paintings.

In the case of Cleopatra and the asp (c. 1628) Edited by Guido Reni

ArtistGuido Reni (1575 – 1642)
Date Paintedc. 1628
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions114,2 x 95
Where It Is Currently HousedNewport Museum and Art Gallery, Newport, Wales

Reni worked from 1575 until 1642. His Early Baroque paintings portray classical or religious topics. Saint Cecilia (1606) and Bacchus and Ariadne (1610) are very famous (c. 1619).

The 1628 painting ‘Cleopatra with the Asp’ shows her death.

Businessman Boselli commissioned artist Palma Giovane.

Reni shows her compassionately, with light skin, delicate features, and rosy cheeks. Her white skin and black background are incredibly Baroque.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Cleopatra and the Asp (c. 1628) by Guido Reni; Guido Reni, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Andrea Casali, Cleopatra Soaking the Pearl in Wine, ca. 1754

ArtistAndrea Casali (1705 – 1784)
Date Paintedc. 1754
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions254 x 175,2
Where It Is Currently HousedNational Trust Collection, Hampshire, England

Between the years 1705 and 1784, Italian artist and art dealer Andrea Casali was active. He painted extensively for the Catholic Church, and his output earned him the title of “Knight of the Golden Spur.” Rococo was his preferred style, and he produced works like “Lucretia” (1750) and “Allegory of Spring” (c. 1760).

Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl represents Cleopatra’s encounter with Mark Antony. Mark Antony reportedly admired Cleopatra’s clothes and accessories. She removed one of her pearl earrings, drank the wine with the pearl intact, and then dumped it.

She held this display to show she values material belongings little. Mark Antony wears a Roman soldier’s uniform.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl in Wine (c. 1754) by Andrea Casali; Andrea Casali, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cleopatra and the Peasant (1838) by Eugène Delacroix

ArtistEugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863)
Date Painted1838
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions123 x 98
Where It Is Currently HousedAckland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, United States

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) created several important works. Art historians and critics still consider him a major Romantic painter. Liberty Leading the People is his masterwork (1830).

The Egyptian queen meets an asp in the 1838 artwork Cleopatra and the Peasant.

In this terrible moment, she commits herself. Since Delacroix was a history buff, he painted Cleopatra accurately.

There is a greater resemblance to how the historical Cleopatra would have appeared in her dying moments thanks to the dress she and her servant are wearing and her usually Greek features.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Artist: Eugène Delacroix Date: 1838 Source: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Lawrence Alma-The Tadema’s Appointment of Antony and Cleopatra, 41 B.C. (1883)

Painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912)
Date Where the 1883 oil on canvas measures at now.Exclusive assemblage
Dutch artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema lived from 1836 until 1912. The Victorian era artist Alma-Tadema achieved widespread renown. His paintings, often with a classical Roman subject, earned him widespread acclaim and made him a household name. Some of his most well-known compositions are Ask Me No More (1906) and A Favourite Custom (1909).

Artwork from 1883 titled “The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra” depicts Cleopatra’s arrival in Tarsus to meet Mark Antony.

We see an Egyptian queen who looks more as she did in Delacroix’s day, as in this painting.She makes quite a statement dressed out in golden silk, flower garlands, and animal skins, and her boat reflects her opulence.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Public domain painting depicting Antony and Cleopatra’s first meeting, c. 41 BC, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra) (1883) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema from Wikimedia Commons.

Cleopatra (c. 1888) by John William Waterhouse

ArtistJohn William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917)
Date Paintedc. 1888
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions65,4 x 56,8
Where It Is Currently HousedPrivate collection

Waterhouse’s portraits are as well-known as “The Lady of Shalott” and “Ophelia” (1889).

Waterhouse presents Cleopatra as an Egyptian ruler (without the thick kohl eyeliner that is stereotypical of Egyptian art).

She wears a gold crown and diamonds with all-white linen. He gives Cleopatra a vicious look, supporting the murderess reputation. She was undoubtedly a complicated being that could simultaneously fulfil all her common traits, as depicted in his painting.

Why Was Cleopatra Depicted So Often in Art?
Cleopatra (c. 1888) by John William Waterhouse; John William WaterhouseCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cleopatra may have been a gorgeous enchantress, a clever conqueror, or a star-crossed lover. Her legacy continues on via art and narrative. The last Queen of Egypt and her artistic representation are well-documented online.

Frequently Asked Questions

Cleopatra’s Star Power Originates From Which Factors?

Cleopatra’s fame has several sources. She reigned as Pharaoh until the Romans’ defeat. Julius Caesar and Mark Antony were two of Rome’s most distinguished leaders. Shakespeare’s drama Antony and Cleopatra (1607) recounts her exciting life.

Could you please tell me whether Cleopatra really appears in any paintings?

Cleopatra wasn’t painted when she was alive. Egyptian reliefs show her as Isis’s donor. Her image appears on coins, albeit she seems more Roman. Probably because of her strong friendship with Mark Antony. We know nothing about Cleopatra’s looks.

Why is Cleopatra so popular?