Black basalt statue of Cleopatra VII

© 2001 Hermitage Museum

Black basalt statue of Cleopatra VII

The queen as goddess

The existence of numerous statues representing Ptolemaic royal women reflects the important role that the queens played in the dynastic cult, where living rulers were promoted and worshipped. Cleopatra VII called herself Nea (the new) Isis, after her father, Ptolemy XII, who called himself Neos (the new) Dionysos.

This is one of the best-preserved images of a Ptolemaic queen. It is one of a number of statues - with the queen wearing a corkscrew wig and holding a cornucopia - that probably served as cult statues of the deified queens. The figure is clearly Egyptian in style, though with Greek attributes (the cornucopia and knotted dress). The front of the headdress is decorated with a uraeus, the symbol of Egyptian royalty. The triple form is unique to Cleopatra.

At the end of Plutarch's Life of Antony, the Roman biographer records that a wealthy Alexandrian named Archibios paid Cleopatra's victorious enemy Octavian the enormous sum of 2,000 talents to save the statues of the queen in Egypt. It is possible that this is a survivor of the images so saved. To a Roman it would have meant very little. To an Egyptian, it was a sacred object, and the scale of the figure suggests that it could have been placed in a shrine. As late as AD 373, when Egypt was nominally Christian, we hear of statues of Cleopatra being gilded. A Coptic Christian bishop and an Arab historian later remembered Cleopatra as 'the last of the wise Greeks'.