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HOME : Classical Antiquities : Classical Masterpieces : Marble Bust of Cleopatra
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Marble Bust of Cleopatra - DB.003 (LSO)
Origin: Egypt
Circa: 1 st Century BC to 1 AD
Dimensions: 5" (12.7cm) high
Collection: Classical
Medium: Marble
Condition: Extra Fine

Location: United States
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This striking marble bust represents arguably the ancient world’s most powerful and influential woman, Cleopatra. The last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, she bridged the gap between the Hellenistic era and the beginnings of Rome’s Eastern Mediterranean Empire, ruthlessly exploiting her amply-attested charms in order to gain, hold and perpetuate power in the region.

The sculpture stands about 5” tall and depicts the head and neck of a determined-looking young woman. The piece is immediately distinguishable from classical Roman pieces by the manner of the carving, the form of the hair and – especially – the manner in which the features (particularly the eyes) have been rendered. The forehead is high and smooth, the cheekbones high, and the chin is rounded yet firm. The rendering of the brows is highly geometrical and symmetrical, converging jointly on a small, straight and pointed nose. The lips are firmly set and even, with a slight dimple above the lip and beneath the nose. As stated above, it is the eyes that stand out. They seem almost overlarge, due to the fact that they are wide-open and undecorated, and also because of the wide, elevated rim that surrounds them, lending drama to their impassivity and impactive power to the whole. The coiffure is represented in Cleopatra's unique signature hairstyle; it is shown as a pair of sweeping curtains of hair flowing back from an uneven centre parting, and gathered in the back with an elongated clip, oriented vertically forming three braids. Small triangular tufts of hair protrude from each side, just anterior to the ears.

Cleopatra, whose full name was Cleopatra VII Philopator, was a Greek aristocrat whose father was Ptolemy the Twelfth. While technically Egyptian, she was actually Greek; Greek was her first language, and she was descended from a long line of Hellenistic pharaohs who originated with Alexander the Great, some 350 years before. Cleopatra is reputed to have been the first member of her family in their 300-year reign in Egypt to have learned the Egyptian language. Cleopatra adopted common Egyptian beliefs and deities. Her patron goddess was Isis, and thus during her reign, it was believed that she was the re-incarnation and embodiment of the goddess of wisdom.

She ruled first with her father, then with her brothers/husbands Ptolemy 13th and Ptolemy 14th. Inbreeding of this sort was standard in New Kingdom and Hellenistic Egypt, but Cleopatra was determined enough to ensure her power by contracting a liaison with Gaius Julius Caesar when a Roman Empire seemed inevitable. She attempted to rule on her own following her fathers’ death, but was forced into exile by conservative courtiers who put her brother Ptolemy 13th on the throne. She raised an army, but it proved unnecessary once a series of diplomatic blunders by her husband/brother led to alienation of Caesar. She seduced him, and thus gained both imperial favour and the throne. She married her other brother, Ptolemy XIV, but seems to have prevented him from actually administering to any royal affairs.

When she bore Caesar’s son Ptolemy XV Caesarion, Ptolemy the 14th was – perhaps not coincidentally – poisoned, leaving her as ruler with heir in hand. To safeguard their future, she had her sister – Arsinoe – murdered.

Following Caesar’s assassination, she became involved with Marc Anthony, bearing him three children. Unfortunately, he was defeated by the armies of Octavian, leaving her abandoned. She committed suicide – apparently by asp bite – in 30 BC, aged just 39. Her son Caesarion ruled momentarily but was executed by Octavian’s forces. With him died the long line of Egyptian pharaohs, although her three children by Marc Anthony did survive and were taken back to Rome.

This piece is a remarkable survival, and a stirring representation of a truly outstanding historical personality. It is also symbolic of the cultural symbiosis between Egypt and the Romans, and a beautiful piece of art in its own right. This is an extremely important and desirable masterwork.

- (DB.003 (LSO))


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