What Cleopatra might have looked like

Cleopatra: Hot or not?

I like to try to imagine what the characters in my book (the ancient ones, that is) looked like. This is, for obvious reasons, a futile task, but that has never held me back.

So I’ve already weighed in on what Hannibal, and Carthaginians in general, looked like (ie: hunky but not like Denzel); and what his Numidian cavalry looked like (ie, a bit like Zidane).

Cleopatra’s look, of course, is perhaps the most fascinating mystery in history because of her legendary sex appeal. Plutarch tells us, however, that it was not her looks per se that made Caesar and Antony fall for her, but her voice, her many languages, her wit and panache, her ability to read the psyche of a man she was seducing, and so forth.

In any case, researchers at Cambridge (the British one) have tried to reconstruct her face, and this is it.

It’s plausible, because she was said to have a dark complexion and a longish, hooked nose, which she inherited from her father, Auletes.

Let it be remembered, though, that there was not a single drop of Egyptian blood in her veins. She was pure Macedonian-Greek, descended from a relative of Alexander the Great. One of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy, founded her dynasty, and all his heirs, including Cleo’s brothers, were named Ptolemy. (Auletes, the piper, was a nickname.)

Let it also be said that she was the product of incest. The Macedonians adopted the Egyptian custom of marrying a brother and sister as co-rulers. (These then took the additional name of Philadelphus, or sibling-lover). Several Ptolemies before Cleopatra’s generation were horrendously fat and possibly otherwise genetically compromised. Cleo, however, got lucky. And although her child with Caesar was murdered, her children with Antony were allowed to live on in obscure parts of the Roman empire, breeding merrily with outsiders.

About Hannibal’s elephants

(Note to readers: I have corrected and updated this post here.)

So the other day I get a text message from our dear friends, the Rammings, with an urgent plea to intervene in one of their heated controversies around the dinner table of their rustic farm house in hip and rural North Carolina. James Ramming, aged eleven and studying Latin (and contemplating adding Greek), was contesting whether Hannibal’s famous elephants were …. Indian or African. It’s the obvious first question to ask about his elephants, which must be why the adult experts never ask it.

I pick up the phone and report for duty. And as I talk I discover …. that I have no idea what the answer is. So I extricate myself from the conversation with James and go back to our trusted old friends, Polybius and Livy. Those two, it turns out, didn’t even know enough to ask the question. (How many elephants would a Greek and a Roman historian in those days have seen?)

The fact that Hannibal took war elephants with him in his attack on Rome–and crossed with them over the snowy Alps–is usually the first and only thing that people know about Hannibal. It’s entered our collective lore. Above, a snivelly-nosed Hannibal on a (vaguely Indian-looking?) elephant who seems to be going shopping. Below, a more dramatic rendition of the Alpine crossing, with (vaguely African-looking?) elephants tumbling into the gorges as the mountain Gauls attack from the heights. (Actually, Polybius says that all the elephants survived.)

Well, which is it? One line in the middle of this Wikipedia entry claims that

he probably used a now-extinct third African (sub)species, the North African (Forest) elephant, smaller than its two southern cousins, and presumably easier to domesticate.

Makes sense. After all, Carthage was in Africa. Except that I don’t think so. I’ve already written about the trouble we get into when we confuse Carthage’s geography with modern notions of human race, what we might call the “Denzel trope”. I think the same applies to elephant race.

This Wikipedia article talks about the origins of war elephants in India. It is these that Alexander the Great would have encountered. Then he died and his generals, notably Seleucus and Ptolemy, carved up his empire to start their own kingdoms. They also seem to have taken over the tradition of fighting with war elephants. Carthage’s mother city, Tyre in modern Lebanon, was in the Seleucid empire, which included Syria. I think that Carthage, a naval empire oriented toward its mother city in the East more than toward the lands south across the Sahara, would have got its elephants from there. Hence, they would have been Indian.

That might explain why Hannibal’s favorite elephant–the one he was riding through the swamp when he caught the infection that blinded one of his eyes–was named Surus, “the Syrian”.

In any case, those beasts scared the bejeezus out of the Romans. War elephants were the tanks of antiquity. If things went according to plan (a big if), they plowed into the enemy ranks and broke up the formation. All the time, the archers and javelin-throwers were firing from their little fortress mounted on the elephant. Check out this fearsome rendition of the battle of Zama:

I’d rather be one of the guys on top in that one. Except……

Except that this was one of those many cases where things went wrong for the side with the elephants. Modern tanks go kaputt but not berserk. Ancient tanks went berserk. If they panicked, they were as likely to turn around and plow into their own ranks (the elephants didn’t care, after all). That happened here at Zama. For that reason, the elephants usually had mahouts with lances (you can see them in the picture), whose job was to kill the elephant as soon as he or she (both males and females were used) threatened the home side.

Long story short. Probably a sub-species of Indian. And soooo much fun to imagine. More, much more, in future posts.

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