The sixth book of the Asterix series takes our hero, his monolithic sidekick, and this sidekick’s own canine sidekick further than they’ve ever been before: Ancient Egypt! What an incredible time period for the world. The indomitable Gauls faced Gaius Julius Caesar, one of the greatest militarists of all time. At the same time in Egypt, Cleopatra VII was hooking up with various Romans to seriously mess around with the configuration of the Ancient World’s leadership.
Cleopatra only appears in three Asterix comics. She is the catalyst for the sixth volume, but she also figures into the storyline in Asterix and Son and has a cameo in Astreix and Obelix All at Sea. In all three, her relationship with Caesar is central to her appearances.
Goscinny and Uderzo chose to make Cleopatra a unique beauty in Asterix and Cleopatra. In the two other appearances, her features are more closely aligned with what we might deem a beautiful woman today, given our generation’s sensibilities. But the question of beauty is just that — a question: was Cleopatra in fact a beautiful woman?
[If you are thinking, "I would like to skip the rest of this rot, please, and go to the REVIEW," now's your chance.]
Historians differ and most accounts were not written contemporary to Cleopatra’s life so some doubt should be cast on their record regardless of how they weighed in. Generally, even if a historian decided she was homely, he remarked that her charismatic attributes were the central reason for Cleopatra’s ability to capture the fascination of Caesar and then Mark Anthony.
One thing appears to be true: what we consider beautiful today is not necessarily what ancients considered beautiful. This makes sense in the right context. Even current cultures vary widely on what elements of a person’s physical appearance would be considered attractive. For example, in Western European societies a thin, well-proportioned woman with long hair is more likely to get head-turning than a woman with round features and a bald head (although the latter might get head-turning as well, just not the flattering kind), whereas a bulky woman is the right choice for cold nights in Siberia when there’s wood to be chopped and aggressive cuddling to be done. Just a few hundred years ago, European artists tended to portray women that carried healthy layers of fat as examples of beauty. This can be explained in that a fat woman would most likely not have had tapeworms or some horrible disease, and since these maladies typically led to poor health or death, a woman was unlikely to be able to reproduce, and, since the main object for men, whether they admit to it or not, is to ensure that their genetic material is passed on (or at least go through the motions to pretend to do so), a plump woman was therefore deemed a righteously hot babe.* Nowadays, there are medicines for tape worms and such, so the aesthetic of beauty has shifted to a “paradigm” (we were thinking of using an equally obnoxious word like “construct”) where a woman with smaller features, symmetry in face and body, larger eyes, lush hair, and an hourglass figure is preferred. Why? Because gay fashionistas feel that their clothing hangs better on those types of body frames, and cosmetic companies feel that their wares show better on those types of faces rather than on round or severe faces (think of the terribly derogatory phrase “lipstick on a pig” if you don’t believe us).
As is common throughout this blog, we make up a lot of stuff and that’s true of the previous paragraph. Sounds good though. And, if you think beauty can’t be manufactured, go read up on De Beers and the origin of the diamond as a coveted piece of jewelry. The attractiveness of men to women is proportional to the size of diamond he buys her. Prove us wrong.
So, back to Cleo. In the ancient world, coins were often minted with the faces of leaders while they reigned. Fortunately, we have some samples of Egyptian coinage that carry the visage of Isis-incarnate (Cleopatra thought of herself in this way) which have survived to modern times, so these images are probably some of the closest representations of Cleopatra’s actual profile we have. You be the judge of her beauty.
Anyway, getting back to the contemporary – here’s a depiction of the Egyptian Goddess-Queen from the album plus a picture from the live film version of the story. Speaking of striking beauties, Monica Bellucci may be terribly miscast if she is supposed to accurately represent the features of the real Cleopatra, but for this error we are actually grateful. Madam Bellucci, we salute you.
* Did you count them? Seven commas in this sentence. Seven! We, so, like, our, commas.