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Monday, 16 April, 2001, 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK
Cleopatra unveiled
Some images have only recently been identified
By the BBC's Molly Price-Owen

An exhibition at London's British Museum aims to debunk some of the myths surrounding Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt, who reigned during the first century BC.

The exhibition of her life and times also draws on her liaisons with the two great Roman leaders of the day, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Among the hundreds of exhibits are statues, vases and vessels, jewellery, marble reliefs, frescoes and paintings, and other artefacts, some of which have never before been on public display.

The exhibition brings together ancient images from museums all over the world.

New images

Marble statue of Cleopatra VII, c 51-30 BC
Many images were destroyed
They depict people Cleopatra knew, like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian, offering an insight into her family history.

There are also some items newly identified as representing Cleopatra herself.

"These have recently been identified as Cleopatra on various grounds," explains Peter Higgs, curator of the Museum's Greek and Roman Department.

"In some she has a wonderful head-dress which comprises three rearing cobras; in others she is holding up two cornucopias, the horns of plenty and the symbols of fertility."

What we see is a very severely arranged hairstyle, tied in a bun at the back, large eyes, hooked nose and full lips, and fleshy chin

Peter Higgs, curator

The images are certainly royal and certainly date from the first century BC, but, says Mr Higgs, the clinching item is a tiny little gem - the smallest item in the exhibition - which comes from the British Museum's owns store rooms.

"This shows a portrait of Cleopatra, comparable with the coins that we know are definitely portraits of her, but has the three rearing cobras which only Cleopatra used," he says.

Beauty disputed

Recently identified statues in polished basalt, which gleams like black marble, show Cleopatra as a beautiful, curvaceous woman, who one could certainly imagine seducing emperors.

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra
The mystique of Cleopatra inspired Hollywood
Yet recent reports in a British newspaper suggested that Cleopatra was fat and frumpy, with a large hooked nose, bad teeth, sharp eyes, and a thick fat-folded neck. How does Peter Higgs reconcile that description with the image most of us have of her?

"These statues carved in the Egyptian style, show this wonderful curvaceous body, but, if you look at the face, it's not what we call beautiful by modern standards, although she may have been considered beautiful at the time."

The exhibition also includes a three-times larger than life head of Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, the first time he has been on show.

He probably spent the last 1500 years under the murky waters of Alexandria harbour.

After its discovery a few years ago, by the French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, the statue was put in a desalination tank to rid it of impurities and this is the first time it has gone on public display.

Fine red chalk drawing of Cleopatra by Guercino (late 1630s)
Depictions have changed through the ages
Another superb object is a fragment of papyrus - a decree exempting Mark Antony's chief aide from taxation. At the bottom of it is written a royal command, which reads: "Make it happen."

Yet we still know very little about the last queen of Egypt and the politics of her time, and there are no contemporary descriptions of her.

Octavian, who defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, ordered the destruction of all images of her, but at the request of a wealthy Alexandrian a few were spared.

Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra committed suicide by putting an asp to her breast.

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See also:

11 Apr 01 | Reviews
Cleopatra still a mystery
29 Mar 01 | Middle East
Cleopatra: thin or fat?
11 Apr 01 | Arts
Cleopatra relics on display
16 Dec 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Unlocking Egyptian secrets
03 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Queen's pyramid discovered
03 Jun 00 | Middle East
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