How Accurate were the images of Ancient Rulers?

By: The Scribe on Friday, November 26, 2010

When we look at a picture of Cleopatra or a bust of any of the Roman emperors we tend to think that they were physically impressive or attractive. This is all well and good, but how realistic were these images? Archaeologists and historians are beginning to discover that in many cases the rulers that we think we know actually looked very different than their portraits.

Although scientists are doing their best to come up with realistic images of what ancient rulers looked like there is only so much that they can do to figure it out. Part of the problem is because many of the images and portraits that were made of ancient rulers have been lost. In other cases they may have been damaged or disfigured by natural disasters or by invading armies. However, in some cases digital imaging is allowing scientists to use remains and other sources of information to put together educated guesses about what some famous ancients may have actually looked like.

One of the best methods of telling what an ancient ruler looked like is to examine the coins that bore their likeness. Because they were minted during the time that the person was alive there is a better chance that they may look fairly accurate. For example, images of Cleopatra that have been found on the coins of the time actually suggested that she may not have been as beautiful as her legend would have us believe. They depicted her neck as being very large and her facial features as being very birdlike. A bust of Alexander carved by Lysippus considered to be one of the most accurate.

It was believed that Alexander the Great may have suffered from scoliosis and that this was one reason why many of his images depict him looking off to the side. It may also have contributed to the peculiar gaze that Alexander was known to have. This comes from sculptures of Alexander that were made during his life and is supported by reports that his father and brother had the same congenital deformities. It is also believed that this may have contributed to his death as well.

The bust of Alexander (right) was carved by Lysippus and is commonly believed to be one of the most accurate. It shows him gazing off to the side.

Julius Caesar also may not have looked quite like the handsome and authoritative person that paintings, money and sculpture have shown him to be. In one sculpture that is believed to be quite accurate, Julius Caesar is depicted as having eyes that are closely set together and a pugilistic nose. He looks far different than the other sculptures that were made of him depicted.

The bust of Caesar shown below was found in France. It had been pulled from the bottom of the Rhone River. a bust of Caesar that was found in France.

Other rulers have ordered stylized images of themselves as busts, works of art and on the coins that they minted. It was often not in an artist’s best interests to depict an ancient leader in a highly realistic fashion and portraits were often created that glossed over the physical shortcomings of ancient rulers. Ancient literature was also often written so that it painted rulers in a good light as well. It was not uncommon to find that unappealing information was either altered or left out so as to paint the conquerors in a good light or to gloss over details that were not to their credit.


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