A new look for Julius Caesar

Was it love at first sight when Cleopatra tumbled out of a rug and instantly enchanted Julius Caesar? What was her initial impression of the man she felt compelled to take to bed to secure her place on the Egyptian throne?
The face (above) may have been close to what she saw on that fateful day in Alexandria in 48 BC. Here was a man in his early 50s (she was nearly 40), brown-eyed, slightly gaunt with narrow lips, a saddle-shaped crown, furrowed brow and receding, greying hair.

This new look Caesar is on show at the Dutch national archaeological museum, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden. It was unveiled at the launch of Caesar in de Lage Landen (Caesar in the Low Countries), a book by an archaeologist called Tom Buijtendorp, who is involved in this new reconstruction.

His research suggests that far from being the victorious general as he portrayed himself in Commentarii de Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars), Caesar fought a substantial part of the Gallic Wars in northern Gaul, suffering his greatest defeat in the Low Countries, possibly near Maastricht. In fact, recent archaeological evidence indicates that the Romans' bid to the capture all the territory west of the Rhine was met with such resistance from the Belgic tribes that his plans to invade Britain were affected.

Dubbed Caesar in the Low Countries, the bust, made by physical anthropologist Maja d'Hollosy, is based on a bust of Caesar in Leiden museum's collection. 'Normally I make facial reconstructions based on the skull,' says d'Hollosy. 'This was the first based on a bust, and I had to rely on other people's work.'

Her other sources were images thought to have been made in Caesar's lifetime: the Tusculum bust in Turin and the image of Caesar on the silver portrait denarius struck by moneyer Marcus Mettius in Rome in 44 BC. Historical documents suggest his skin and eye colour. Most of the time, d'Hollosy says, she followed the museum's bust, while reducing the unrealistically large size of the eyes and the Adam's apple. In his book, Buijtendorp concludes that the skull of the Tusculum bust shows Caesar had a difficult birth, which resulted in an asymmetric skull. Combined with a receding hairline, this makes the bust more realistic.

'Though questions about his appearance remain,' admits Buijtendorp, 'Cleopatra would have recognised this less heroic-looking Caesar better than the image we are used to.' He hopes that his research will serve as a basis for further studies. 'Given the growing fund of clues for Caesar's presence in the Low Countries,' he says, 'new work lies ahead.'

• The new bust goes on show in The Netherlands in Roman Times at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden from 4 September. (http://www.rmo.nl/english)
Roger Williams