Shakespeare was wrong: coins reveal the ugly truth about Antony and Cleopatra

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Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies

Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene II

Judging by the words of Marc Antony's lieutenant Enobarbus in William Shakespeare's play, the effect of Cleopatra's beauty on her lover was utterly mesmerising.

The play itself and modern interpretations such as the 1963 film version starring a sultry Elizabeth Taylor as the Egyptian queen and Richard Burton as the Roman soldier, have added weight to the idea that one of history's most romantic couples was also among the most beautiful.

But this notion has been challenged by the study of a 2,000-year-old silver coin, showing that Cleopatra had a shallow forehead, pointed chin, thin lips and sharp nose. Antony had bulging eyes, a hooked nose and a thick neck.

The coin from 32BC, which has come to light after years lying in a bank vault, is the size of a 5p piece. Since numismatics (the study of coins and currency) is widely accepted as the best pointer to the facial features of a monarch, archaeologists consider it to be of great significance. "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," said Lindsay Allason-Jones, Newcastle University's director of archaeological museums. "The image of Cleopatra as a beautiful seductress is a more recent image."

Though this idea may be hard to accept for romantics who remember Cleopatra depicted by such stars of the screen as Claudette Colbert in 1934 and Vivien Leigh in 1945, there is a considerable body of academic support for the university's case.

One of Shakespeare's key sources for his play was Plutarch's Life of Antonywhich is hardly flattering about the queen of Egypt who seduced Julius Caesar before turning her attentions to Antony. "Her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her," Plutarch wrote. "But [she had] an irresistible charm... and... her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice."

Devotees of Cleopatra may point to Plutarch's equivocations on the subject. He also speaks of "proofs which she had had before of the effect of her beauty". The marble bust of the queen in the Vatican museum is also enervating, albeit that the nose is missing, which may be to her benefit if the coin is a true guide. Another contemporary, Cassius Dio, spoke with withering honesty of her "surpassing beauty", while Flaubert wrote about "the pale creature with a fiery eye". Pascal, in his Pensées, remarked that had Cleopatra's nose been shorter "the whole face of the world would have changed". These are not all compliments which the modern romantic will want to try out on a Valentine's partner this evening.

Newcastle University's assistant director of archaeological museums, Clare Pickersgill, believes Shakespeare and Hollywood have much to answer for by misrepresenting Cleopatra and Antony. "Shakespeare wrote his tragedy in 1608, while the Orientalist artists of the 19th century and the modern Hollywood depictions, such as that of Taylor and Burton, have both added to the idea that Cleopatra was a great beauty," she said.

The silver denarius coin, by contrast, is contemporary to Antony and Cleopatra, and would have been issued by the mint of Marc Antony. On one side is the head of Antony bearing the caption Antoni Armenia devicta(" For Antony, Armenia having been vanquished"). Cleopatra appears on the reverse of the coin with the inscription Cleopatra reginae regum filiorumque regum ("For Cleopatra, queen of kings and of the children of kings" ).

The coin, which has been owned by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle since the 1920s and is being prepared for the Great North Museum, which is due to open in 2009, goes on display at the Shefton Museum at Newcastle University from today.