About this artwork
Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.) ruled Egypt during the period when Rome was slowly absorbing the eastern Mediterranean and its vast riches. By allying herself first with Julius Caesar and then, after his assassination, with Mark Antony (83–30 B.C.), she hoped to maintain her own authority and Egypt’s independence. The powerful political alliance between Antony and Cleopatra worried Caesar’s heir, his great-nephew Octavian, who in 31 B.C. defeated the couple in a sea battle. Rather than suffer the humiliation of surrendering to Octavian, Cleopatra and Antony killed themselves.
By pairing their faces on coinage, the rulers advertised their powerful partnership, which was so strong that they are shown with the same face on this coin. Cleopatra’s profile is a copy of Antony’s portrait. However, by placing her image on the front (primary side) of the coin, Cleopatra is presented as the more important of the two rulers. Moreover, her portrait is larger than Antony’s, extending to her shoulders and featuring her legendary pearl jewelry. A crown circling her carefully braided hair symbolizes her status as a queen.
To pay their armies and satisfy their other debts, the ambitious Roman warlord Mark Antony and the charismatic Egyptian queen Cleopatra minted coins bearing their portraits. Antony is shown with the short hair that was the typical Roman fashion of the time, but also with distinctive features including a flat nose, a strong chin, and a long, thick neck. Although regally adorned in her legendary pearl jewelry, Cleopatra’s physical attributes surprisingly mimic those of Antony, right down to the Adam’s apple on her massive neck.
Since coins changed hands easily, they were an especially effective way of spreading the political ideologies of those who issued them. A person who saw these coins would not only equate Cleopatra and her power with Antony and his, but would also understand that she was the more important of the two because her image appears on the front of the coin, while his is relegated to the back. Since the once glorious kingdom of Egypt survived entirely on Roman sufferance, this was a bold claim on the part of the couple, one that undoubtedly offended their enemies in Rome.
- Ancient Roman
- Tetradrachm (Coin) Portraying Queen Cleopatra VII
- 37 BC–33 BC
- Obverse: ΒΑCIΛICCA ΚΛΕΟΠΑΤΡΑ ΘΕΑ ΝΕω[TERA] Reverse: ΑΝΤωΝΙΟC ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑTωΡ ΤΡΙΤΟΝ ΤΡΙωΝ ΑΝΔΡωΝ
- Diam. 2.6 cm (1 1/16 in.), 15.22 g
- Katherine K. Adler Memorial Fund