Cleopatra and Mars

Cleopatra and Mars

by Roderick T. Long by Roderick T. Long


I remember how, when the Viking lander first began sending photos back from Mars, scientists were amazed to discover that the Martian sky is pink. Initially the sky showed as white, but the Viking project’s scientists quickly noticed that the colour of the lettering on the lander itself was off, and when they corrected the colour, the sky blazed forth in glorious pink — a development which the scientists noted was completely unexpected.

At the time, the scientists’ astonishment baffled me — because I had learned years before, in elementary school, long before any photos had come back from Mars, that scientists were predicting that the Martian sky would be pink or purple. So how did the scientific community manage to forget its earlier prediction? Why were they surprised by something a fifth-grader in Idaho could have told them?

Beats me. But I lately had a feeling of dj vu over the recent news story concerning the discovery of a coin with Cleopatra’s face on it, revealing a less than beautiful visage. Archaeologists and historians reported with cries of amazement that Cleopatra’s reputation as a great beauty must now be revised.

Their reaction puzzles me in much the same way that the Viking project’s scientists’ reaction to the Martian sky puzzled me.

First: it’s old news that Cleopatra’s charm lay more in her personality than in her physical appearance; I recently quoted Plutarch on my blog to just that effect. Surely all these archaeologists and historians have read Plutarch?

Second: this is not the first time that coins with Cleopatra’s image on them have been discovered. Given my longstanding interest in classical history, I’ve been seeing pictures of Cleopatra coins for years. None of the depictions was especially attractive. So what’s new here? Surely all these archaeologists and historians have seen Cleopatra coins before?

Third: this is nothing unique to Cleopatra. On the contrary, it’s a persistent feature of ancient coins generally that the images on them are less flattering than, say, statues or busts of the same persons. Take a look, for example, at these depictions of Augustus and Tiberius.

Is it because the busts were idealised, making the coins a more accurate portrayal? Or is it because the coins were more hastily made (or because the ancients were, famously, better at 3-D representation that at 2-D — or again, better at 2-D front views than at 2-D profiles), making the busts actually more accurate? Or is it (perhaps most likely) some of each?

Well, I don’t know. What I do know is that looking good in busts and not so good on coins is a pervasive feature of ancient portraiture. So why all the surprise about Cleopatra? And why the leap to the assumption of the coin’s accuracy in this case? Surely all these archaeologists and historians have seen ancient statuary and currency before?