Joan Smith: A myth that proves men prefer beauty to brains

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The Independent Online

So Cleopatra wasn't a babe - neither Pamela Anderson in a toga nor an early Jordan, mixing geo-politics with a startling decolletage. In fact, she didn't resemble any of the long list of sultry actresses who have played her from Theda Bara (in a fine example of celluloid Orientalism, dating from 1917) to Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren, whose Egyptian queen displayed an hourglass figure better suited to Baywatch then the Roman forum.

Even Sarah Bernhardt, gamely playing Cleopatra on stage into her 70s, was more likely exposing her own self-delusions than acknowledging that this great figure from history was no raving beauty, as archaeologists from Newcastle University have just pointed out. Yesterday they put on show a silver denarius, pictured, coined in Mark Antony's own mint to mark his victories in 32BC, which could hardly be less flattering to the celebrated queen.

Despite the shock waves which this news has caused - the frisson could hardly have been greater had the academics revealed that Cleo was a Geordie - I think I will just about be able to live with it. This is because it's been known for years, and this week's fuss about Cleopatra's appearance is actually a triumph for someone's PR skills; I guess this is the kind of exercise universities have to get involved in under the competitive higher education regime introduced by successive New Labour education secretaries.

Anyway, it's clear that whoever wrote this week's excited headlines about the Newcastle denarius - brought here, presumably, by a Roman soldier - was unaware of other coins bearing Cleopatra's image, of which there is at least one in the British Museum. That coin gives the queen equally masculine features, including heavy brows, a sharp chin and a beaky nose. As Lucy Hughes-Hallett pointed out in her magisterial study, Pascal's famous assertion - had Cleopatra's nose been shorter, the face of the world would have changed - simply proves that he (like dozens of movie directors) hadn't seen any of her coins either.

Now we've established that Cleopatra was neither a stunner nor a Geordie - and that the "Ant" in her life had absolutely nothing to do with Anthony McPartlin, the well-known Geordie TV presenter - the pertinent question is why the legend of her beauty has persisted against the evidence. One answer is Orientalism, the tendency to characterise everything from the East as feminine, seductive and mysterious. The Romans were as guilty of this as any 19th-century painter or novelist, but they would at least have known that Cleopatra was Greek rather than Egyptian.

Naturally the queen blurred this distinction, adopting Pharaonic imagery to portray herself and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, at the great temple of Hathor at Dendera in Upper Egypt. Cleopatra was smart and identified herself with the goddess Isis for home consumption, in contrast to the "Roman" profile on her coins, which she almost certainly approved. But the exotic appearance which has exercised the imagination of subsequent generations is a myth, demonstrating that men would much rather be beguiled by beauty than brains.

According to Plutarch, who wrote nearly 200 years after Cleopatra's death, the queen was notable not for her looks but her "force of character" and musical voice. The idea that such a woman could seduce two powerful men, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and change the course of history to boot, was quickly swept aside in favour of the notion that she was a siren, a historical error akin to confusing Margaret Thatcher with Marilyn Monroe.

I wish someone would make a movie about the "real" Cleopatra, long nose and all, but I can't help wondering how many contemporary actresses would be up for the part.

Sometimes it's better to regret

You can tell an election is looming in France, where the right is making a desperate bid to ally itself with popular culture. Earlier this week, La Mome, a movie about Edith Piaf opened in French cinemas.

Much as I admire Piaf's voice, the story of her life gives me the shudders. And I can't help wondering what Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the former prime minister and ally of the UMP presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, had in mind when he claimed that Piaf symbolised France's desire to return to the "real values of the people".

Perhaps he should have thought twice before offering his party as an example of the Piaf ethos, which suggests he wants the French to vote for an era of drug addiction, alcoholism and unrequited love.

* Is it "unfeminist" to lose weight, the columnist India Knight asked crossly earlier this week. She was responding to criticism of her recent book, in which she explains how she lost five stone. She described being obese as "absolutely horrible" and wrote about the shame and guilt experienced by women who are morbidly overweight.

Although I've never been obese myself, I'm sure Knight's observations touched a chord with many women. But then she laid into feminists who challenge women's obsession with dieting, claiming they habitually "crucify" other women.

Knight's own columns are notable for their ad feminam bile. Last autumn she lambasted "ancient old 'feminists' wheeling out themselves and their 30-years-out-of-date opinions" on the Muslim veil. She described them as "idiots" and suggested that "not necessarily everyone swoons with admiration at the fact that they have won the freedom to dress like 55-year-old slappers".

Knight may be an expert on diets, but casual expressions of misogyny, ageism and body fascism certainly don't fit my definition of a feminist.