The truth about Roman ‘portraits’ of Cleopatra

A Roman painted portrait claimed to represent Cleopatra VII has been circulating the news and social media over the past week. The fragment (Figure 1) dates to the first century CE and was found at Herculaneum. There is no inscription to identify the subject. It seems strange, therefore, that the image is being shared as a certain depiction of Cleopatra. Its appeal is doubtless the pale skin and red hair, which supports later European ideals and impressions of the ruler. In fact it has been suggested (Herbig, 1962) that the pale skin against a dark background was taken from a cameo, used for the model.


The identification of the painting as a portrait of Cleopatra stems from the suggested diadem (crown) and through comparison with coin images (Walker and Higgs, 2001). However, the image of the painting below shows that the fragment is damaged around the nape of the neck. A second painting from Pompeii shows that the “diadem” is in fact a head cloth that is tied around the bun to complete the hairstyle (Figure 2). This feature differs from two marble portraits of Cleopatra from Rome and also the coins (Figure 3).

Depiction of a woman found at Herculaneum
Figure 1 Fragment of a wall painting found at Herculaneum. Naples National Museo Nazionale Archeologica 90778

As noted, the Herculaneum fragment can be compared to similar depictions found in the so-called House of the Orchard at Pompeii (one example illustrated below; ). And this gives a further explanation as to why the two images have been associated with Cleopatra. House of the Orchard contains some Egyptianizing motifs (Room 5) alongside classical Greek iconography and Roman bucolic scenes. For this reason it has been suggested that the bust (Figure 2) might represent Cleopatra. This is in spite of the subject wearing a band around her head rather than the royal diadem (crown; see Walker and Higgs, 2001 for discussion).

Pompeian wall painting showing a female bust
Figure 2 Wall painting from the House of the Orchard Pompeii

Aside from the missing royal iconography, there is the dating of the wall paintings. The style of wall paintings at the House of the Orchard has been dated to 69-79 CE on account of the style of the wall paintings; so 100 years after the birth of Cleopatra. It is not a contemporary piece even if it were to represent the ruler (there is no definitive evidence to suggest that it does).

Furthermore, the Egyptianizing reliefs at the House of the Orchard are uniform in style (see Figure 4) and are substantially different from the style of the unidentified female bust. The biggest problem in identifying these images as Cleopatra remains the hair band. It’s style is completely different to the royal diadem or fillet found on coins and statues of Cleopatra (see Figure 3 for the Vatican portrait).

Figure 3 Detail of a sculpture representing . Vatican Museums, Pius-Clementine Museum.

Identifying ancient portraits

There are a number of ways to identify an ancient Roman portrait. This is not an exact science and the process requires knowledge of the period as well as the provenance (find spot).

  1. Inscription- not always as straight forward as it might first appear because the inscription could have been added later, or someone could have re-used part or all of a statue/sculpture.
  2. Location- if a particular sculpture was found in a location that was only used for a set period of time, it might be possible to associated a representation with a particular donor or ruler. The problem with this method is that statues were often reused for building material.
  3. Comparison with coin portraits- coins typically have the name of the ruler inscribed around their image and have been used for many years in Classical archaeology and art history to identify representations. The main issue with this method is that coin portraits are small, they are stamped on the metal of the coin using a die, which can become worn or distorted. Nevertheless this has been the main method of identifying royal and imperial portraits.
  4. Iconography- coins can also be useful when it comes to linking specific symbols with a particular ruler. This is particularly true in regards to Hellenistic rulers (including the Ptolemies).
Egyptianizing wall painting.
Figure 4 House of the Orchard, Pompeii. Egyptianizing wall painting.

It’s not always that simple…

The problem is that wealthy Romans who commissioned portraits of themselves were often shown with a likeness of the Emperor and his family. This is why it is essential not to use one of the aforementioned methods of identification but to consider them all. Crucially, royal or imperial status carried specific iconographic features. Hence, the problem with identifying the “portraits” at the start of this post with Cleopatra.

The fundamental issue remains the fact that these images are from private houses and were made after the death of Cleopatra in a foreign country. Over the past week they have been used by some emotively and politically to support the belief that Cleopatra had a pale complexion. Neither of the wall paintings has the appropriate iconography to represent a Hellenistic royal.

There are two motivations to associate these paintings with Cleopatra. The first is to counteract the suggestion that Cleopatra may have been partly of Egyptian ancestry (her mother/grandmother). The second is rooted in the belief that the Ancient Nile Valley population were not indigenous African people. I have written about such responses in a previous post cognitive dissonance. Over the next few blog posts I will be adopting a critical approach to review representations that have been identified as Cleopatra.


Herbig, R. (1962). Nugae Pompeianorum: unbekannte Wandmalereien des dritten pompejanischen Stils (Vol. 1). Ernst Wasmuth.

Pugliese Carratelli G. & Baldassarre I. (1990). Pompei : pitture e mosaici. Istituto della enciclopedia italiana.

Walker S. & Higgs P. (2001). Cleopatra of Egypt : from history to myth. British Museum; Princeton University Press.

Understanding the colour black in Kemet

The colour black in Kemet

I asked my friend Dr Runoko Rashidi for some inspiration for a blog post and he very kindly sent me a copy of a photograph of the Royal Wife and Mother Ahmose Nefertari. She was the wife of the first ruler of Dynasty 18- King Ahmose Nebpehtire, who ruled from 1550 to 1525 BCE. She was also the mother of Amenhotep (I) Djeserkare, who ruled from 1525 to 1504 BCE. It was in the latter capacity as the King’s Mother that she was made a goddess. The relief is of interest of course because her skin is painted black rather than the usual brown.

The ancient hieroglyphic writing of 'Kmt'
The ancient hieroglyphic writing of ‘Kmt’

The word Kemet literally means the Black land. The hieroglyphs above spell out the word and are accompanied by what we call a determinative (the circle and cross to the lower right of the word). In this case the determinative represents roads crossing and so a land.

In Kemet, black was associated with the night, with the Afterlife, and also with resurrection and rebirth. Black was also associated with fertility, we believe because it was the colour of the fertile soil that was deposited after the annual flooding of the River Nile.

The River Nile

Since the building of the Aswan dams the river no longer floods. However, even today it is possible to see how the river impacts on the terrain around it and how different this is compared to the surrounding desert escarpment. The annual inundation of the Nile was closely associated with the King of Kemet, and there were strict rules about when the ruler could and could not travel on the river.

Black and Divine

Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, circa 1560 BCE. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.
Painted relief showing Ahmose Nefertari, now in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy of Dr Runoko Rashidi

The relief above was found in a tomb at the workman’s village of Deir el-Medina. This was where the men who created and decorated the royal tombs in the so-called Valley of the Kings and Queens lived, and were also buried. These were highly skilled craftsmen and artists and when the elite in their own society died they were given elaborately decorated tombs. The tomb where the relief was found is now known as TT359 (TT being a shorter reference for Theban Tomb). It belonged to a man who held the position of Chief of Works named Inherkhau. He lived long after Ahmose Nefertari had ruled and commissioned two tombs; the second is now referred to as TT299. The tombs and the painting of Ahmose Nefertari were produced over 350 years after the Royal Wife and Mother’s death. Indicating that her role of goddess continued long after it was awarded.

If we look in detail at the painting we can immediately see that this is a representation of a goddess. If you look carefully at the cap which she wears you can see a wing stretching over the hair; and at the front, over the forehead, is the head of a vulture. Only goddesses wear this vulture cap. Royal women are depicted with a cobra on their brow, which is called a uraeus and effectively protects, as well as identifies the subject as royalty. The style of dress that she wears is typical of those found in Dynasty 20, when the scene was painted, rather than the period when Ahmose Nefertari actually lived. Her hair is braided and held in position by what appear to be gold thread or beads at the ends. This is, of course, common in many African societies and amongst the African Diaspora. The bulk and proportions of the hair that is represented here also suggests that its type is African.

But what about the colour of her skin?

Here, I am going to suggest that the colour is symbolic rather than simply a realistic representation of Ahmose’s skin colour. In the same way that on Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom statuary and statuettes women are often depicted with very pale and white skin. This does NOT reflect their true complexions. In fact this suggestion by Eurocentrics makes no sense at all, particularly when we consider that the consorts or male equivalents have the more typical dark brown skin colours, which is no doubt closer to that of the population at the time. I suggest this because by the New Kingdom both men and women are depicted with the same range of complexions.

By suggesting that white = racialised White then this means that women were of non-African descent but the men were! Of course this is completely ludicrous. I would imagine that Ahmose Nefertari’s skin colour was similar to that of her son’s, who is depicted with brown skin, and who also clearly has African type hair.

There are other posthumous representations of Ahmose Nefertari that show her with black skin. There is also a statue that now has a dark blue appearance, due to the original black pigment having been damaged by light. Using this powerful and potent colour to represent a goddess makes reference to her fertility and rebirth, which is why she was a popular goddess in tombs that were made substantially later than her lifetime.

I find that when people start to explore ‘Egypt’ in its African context (Kemet) they focus on the more obvious references to people of African descent. The paintings of Ahmose Nefertari are a case in point. However, as their knowledge expands, they find that ALL aspects of this complex ancient culture are African and it makes no sense to try and remove it from other traditional African cultures. The complexions that depict mortals, as opposed to gods or the deceased, show them with a range of brown-coloured skins (below), as you find amongst people of indigenous African descent people today. It is these depictions that are probably a truer representation of the people of Kemet and also Kush. But let’s not forget what an advanced and complex society Kemet was, nor how this is demonstrated by their development and use of symbolism.

A tomb relief showing Kemite/Egyptian people

I would like to thank Dr Runoko Rashidi for inspiring this post. The views expressed are my own.