- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

LONDON — A couple of millennia after their steamy affair went scorching across the Roman Empire, Mark Antony and Cleopatra remain among history’s most romanticized lovers. But in the looks department, they may both have left much to be desired.

In fact, one antiquarian now describes the Roman general and his Egyptian queen as, well, downright ugly.

It seems that far from being the glamorous hunk portrayed on movie screens by Richard Burton in the 1960s, Antony in fact had peculiar bulging eyes, a distinctly hooked nose and a sumo wrestler’s thick neck.

And the real Cleopatra seems many leagues removed from the beauty portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, having a sort of pointy chin, a nose like a witch and a shallow forehead. For good measure, Cleo appears to have misplaced her dentures.

This rather stark depiction of the demigods of Shakespearean fame is based on a tiny, 2,000-year-old silver coin that, after being hidden away in a bank vault for the past 85 years, was put on display to celebrate Valentine’s Day yesterday at Newcastle University in England.

The coin, minted in 32 B.C. with Cleopatra on one side and Antony on the other, offers evidence that the lovers were really a rather homely pair, said Lindsay Allason-Jones, the university’s director of archaeological museums.

“For years, we have grown up with this image of Antony and Cleopatra as sex symbols” — he “of the manly jaw and resonant voice,” as one writer put it, she with raven hair and dark, sultry eyes.

But “the truth is something entirely different,” Miss Allason-Jones said. “They are not attractive, and if you look closely it appears Cleopatra may have forgotten to put her teeth in.”

The little coin was found in a collection that belongs to Newcastle’s antiquaries society and was being prepared for its new Great North Museum. Miss Allason-Jones recognized its importance at once.

“Roman writers tell us that Cleopatra was intelligent and charismatic, and had a seductive voice,” she said. But, tellingly, “they do not mention her beauty at all.”

Notions of Cleopatra as a beautiful seductress probably began when William Shakespeare’s epic tragedy “Antony and Cleopatra,” rolled off some primitive printing presses in 1608.

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety,” Shakespeare wrote of the Egyptian queen. No one argued with him at the time, and London journalist Alan Hamilton suggested the Bard had a couple of motives.

One, he said, was to “please the groundlings at the Globe Theater who had no seats for their bums,” and the second was his royal patron, King James, who “liked a good love story.”

In later centuries, the spin took off. “The Orientalist artists of the 19th century and the modern Hollywood depictions [such as the Burton-Taylor film in 1963] have added to this fantasy,” said Clare Pickersgill, the university’s assistant director of archaeological museums.

In the 20th century, the legendary queen of Egypt was played at various times by actresses Vivien Leigh and Sophia Loren, as well as the redoubtable Miss Taylor.

“This coin completely dispels that myth,” said Miss Allason-Jones.

Still, the legend will doubtless live on, its romanticism probably undiminished — if for no other reason than the difficulty of finding an aspiring young actress willing to play Cleopatra as a witch-faced harridan looking for a receptacle for her teeth.

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