When an ancient coin depicting Anthony and Cleopatra was unveiled, the world was shocked - could Cleopatra really have been so unattractive?

And how has she had such a lasting fascination? Women's Editor Sarah Foster finds out.

THERE is a fast-expanding montage in the Museum of Antiquities within the ancient, sprawling complex of Newcastle University. It's made entirely out of cuttings and what is obvious at once is that Elizabeth Taylor's face is the main image in the stories. This is the Press for one small coin, and it is clearly an explosion. "Over 150,000 websites have used it now," says Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of archaeological museums at the university. "It has stunned us. It's really caught the popular imagination."

What's caused the stir about the coin, which bears the images of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, is its depiction of the latter. A world away from the film star looks of Elizabeth Taylor, who played her glamorously on screen, she has a pointy, beak-like nose and mannish face. She has become the stuff of legend, her love for powerful Mark Antony, a would-be emperor of Rome, inspiring Shakespeare's famous play. It is no wonder that the coin has caused an outrage.

To put the hoo-ha into context, I've come to hear the facts. If Cleopatra was so ugly, then why does everyone revere her? What might go some way to explaining this is the colourful life she led. "A lot of the writing that we have about her is by Roman writers, who wanted to portray her as drunk and decadent, so the writing is only one side," says Clare Pickersgill, assistant director of archaeological museums. "What actually happened is that Mark Anthony had been very interested in the support of Cleopatra or of Egypt for his campaigns in America, Parthia and Mesopotamia. She was queen of Egypt and, likewise, obviously it suited her to have the support of Antony, so I think it was something that suited them both."

Before the union of the two, there had been relative stability. Rome's one time ruler, Julius Caesar, was no longer on the throne and power was shared among three men, of whom Mark Antony was one. But he and Octavian, with whom he ran the Second Triumvirate, each sought dominion for himself. "Everything came to an end in 31 BC at the Battle of Actium, and that was between Antony and Cleopatra on one side and Octavian on the other," says Clare. "Cleopatra fled with her ships back to Egypt and Antony followed, therefore Octavian had won. In 30BC Antony committed suicide and Cleopatra committed suicide shortly after, and at that point Rome took over the rule of Egypt."

All this we know from what was written at the time, but what of passion and romance, the couple's love for one another? "They met as political leaders. What happened after that is very difficult to interpret," says Lindsay. "They had three children so they were certainly getting it together. We're talking about a period when dynastic marriages were the norm. It's very difficult to get into the minds of individual people and what they think."

What's undisputed is that while Antony had two wives, he never married Cleopatra. Was this because he didn't love her? Again, it's difficult to tell. "He couldn't really marry Cleopatra," reasons Clare. "He was already with his first wife when he met her and his second marriage was a political union." Lindsay adds: "What we don't know is whether Cleopatra understood that. She would have regarded it as perfectly reasonable but whether she was huffed about it is impossible to tell."

One thing appears to be the case - if she was ugly, then this did not stand in her way. She wielded power, and that's what mattered in the end. "I think what the writers do tell us is that she was very charismatic and intelligent, so that was much more important than her beauty," says Clare. "Researchers have known this so it's not a new concept." Lindsay adds: "I think over history when you look at most rulers, very few of them are good looking. I don't think it was ever important to be beautiful to be powerful - that's a more recent thing. I think it's just in films that they somehow feel that people need to be beautiful."

So it's confirmed: her looks weren't Cleopatra's strong point, but does it follow that the coin portrays her accurately? We know at least that it is genuine. "It's part of the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle," says Clare. "We know that it came into the collection in the early 30s and it was a private donation. The coin itself was part of the moving mint of Antony as he was travelling on his campaigns. It was actually minted in 32 BC."

While she concedes that Cleopatra, whose head appears on one coin surface, is not dissimilar to Antony, on the other, she says this doesn't mean the portrait can't be right. "The images are similar because they are both wanting to show themselves as strong rulers," says Clare. "There were ways of showing a ruler on a coin but that said, this is Antony's mint," says Lindsay. "I can't imagine that he would allow these coins to be minted if they didn't show himself and Cleopatra the way he wanted them to be shown."

What must be taken into account is that in Cleopatra's time, your looks could not be much enhanced. As Lindsay says, not even the queen could call on modern beauty methods. "She would have worn cosmetics and she certainly would have dressed magnificently but in Egypt and in Rome at the time, mirrors were not as clear as they are today and they weren't big. Nobody could say 'does my bum look big in this?'."

It seems the truth is far less glamorous than the myths, which some may feel is disappointing, but if they've shattered our illusions, then Clare and Lindsay don't regret it. "I think it's quite interesting that we have a couple who were very famous in their own time and legends have grown up and the legends are leading now," says Lindsay. "I think what's interesting about the coin is that it still somehow comes as a shock that Hollywood isn't right - but it's still a good story."

The coin will be on display at the Shefton Museum at Newcastle University, open from 10am-4pm Monday to Friday with free admission, until January 2009, after which its permanent home will be the new Great North Museum on the current Hancock Museum site.