Cleopatra nude

 Cleopatra nude

Around 1100 BC the Egyptian Empire collapsed – like most other empires in the eastern Mediterranean. However Egypt had a great talent for survival, so there was a long afterlife under several outside dynasties which may have been foreign but still maintained much of Egyptian culture. First there were they were conquered by the Persians under the Achaemenid dynasty; then came the Greeks who set up the Ptolemaic dynasty, whose best known Pharaoh was the last, the notorious Cleopatra. And then there were the Romans under whom they had a long and prosperous survival.

But the best known later Egyptian was Cleopatra the last of the Greek rulers. Cleopatra was indeed ethnically wholly Greek but she took boldly to Egyptian customs and was very keen to present herself to her Egyptian subjects as being the true inheritor of the Pharaohs of old.

Cleopatra nude sideways

Black basalt statue of Cleopatra, shown from the side

This then is  Cleopatra VII, – the great Cleopatra who seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony before finally committing suicide by clasping an asp to her bosom. This black basalt statue is in the Hermitage but from the side one notes the straight nose, the lovely rounded breasts, which do not necessarily have any resemblance to the originals – and the very heavy wig. Although Cleopatra was a Greek of the Macedonian dynasty,  she was clearly keen to emphasise her Egyptian-ness –she   even learnt Egyptian —and therefore she wore a wig.

Cleopatra nude full frontal

Full frontal nude of Cleopatra

Here we see her from the front. The wig has a uraeus in it,  the symbol of Egyptian royalty,  but she is carrying a cornucopia which is very much part of Greek and Roman symbolism.

She appears to be totally nude  – but looked down at her  ankles and the bottom half of her legs are mysteriously clothed. However she has a very prominent belly button though the area of her cunt is not very clear — the clothes seem to somehow appear halfway down her legs. Clearly the sculptor couldn’t quite make out whether she was meant to be totally nude or not

BM 2015 Egyptian lady on cartonnage 955An interesting example of Roman-egyptian sexuality is this fine cartonnage mask showing a woman brazenly displaying a fine pair of breasts. I wonder what this woman was like in real life? Was she really a show-off, openly flaunting her breasts to all her friends? Or was this mask prepared after her death by her husband, showing her as he wished to remember her? She has very prominent breasts which it appear to have been rouged: there are rouge lines radiating out from her right breast (left as we see it) enhancing their size and appearance.

Not that she was totally naked. In fact apart from her breasts she was remarkably well dressed with her necklace holding up her dress with a large brooch. From the style of earrings, bracelets and finger rings, she can be dated to the early 2nd century AD. But she certainly makes a remarkable display in the British Museum, shocking the prudes, but delighting the rest of us.



On  to the Minoans


Revised and updated: 23rd July 2015