What Famous Historical Figures Really Looked Like
Some of the most famous historical figures looked nothing like you imagined. Here are some realistic renditions of some of the most famous people in history.History
Developments in facial reconstruction software have made it possible for experts to bring ancient icons to life like never before. You’ve seen them in paintings and sculptures, but let's find out what famous historical figures really looked like!
Nero Claudius Caesar ruled over Rome from 54-68 AD and left a terrifying legacy in his wake. By all accounts Nero was considered a total psychopath: he murdered his own mother, aunt, stepmother, wife, and the pregnant mistress he left her for. He even sang a Greek epic on the roof of his palace while Rome burned for three days after a fire at the Circus Maximus which some suspected him of starting.
Before he could be executed for his tyrannous reign, Nero killed himself, declaring his delusions with his final words “An artist in me dies!”. But Nero didn’t look like the fearsome leader you’d expect.
A facial reconstruction created for a Spanish exhibition called Césares de Roma used old coins and marble sculptures as reference material. With a jowly jawline, flame-red hair, and some serious acne Nero looks like a total dweeb, and you’d have to be a psychopath to sport that neckbeard.
King Richard lll
King Richard lll was the king of England from 1483 to 1485, and in the time since his death, his likeness has appeared in Shakespeare's plays and film adaptations, but one thing remains: he was a grotesque child-murdering hunchback…or was he?
In 2012, Richard's skeleton was discovered below a parking lot in Leicester where he was hurriedly buried after the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. In 2013, researchers at Dundee University used his skull alongside posthumous paintings to create a realistic model of the real-life king, and it’s a far cry from the villainous ruler we all know.
Disregarding his controversial reputation, the result is a gentle-looking 32-year-old with an approachable face who also looks disturbingly like Lord Farquaad from Shrek. It seems that the King has been demonized over time, but one thing rings true: his spine was curved from scoliosis, so perhaps not all the rumors were false.
Not much is known about the real-life bard who transformed the English language: from his sexuality and reported disdain for his wife to the spelling of his name and doubts over whether he actually wrote his own plays, William Shakespeare’s life is shrouded in mystery.
Most will imagine him with a pointed beard, shapely mustache, and ruff collar, but the likelihood is that this image was kind of fictionalized over time. Many paintings exist of the playwright, but the Chandos Portrait dating back to 1600-1610 is the most widely accepted as a near-realistic representation.
This painting alongside a death mask discovered in Germany in the 1940s was used by Dr Caroline Wilkinson from the University of Dundee to create the following surprising reconstruction. The unnervingly lifelike rendition reveals a greying man plagued by sadness but with the pensive expression of a true playwright.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, insights into the man behind the music are scarce as far as Johann Sebastian Bach is concerned. The German composer only sat for one portrait in his lifetime and left no clues about his personality before his burial in an unmarked grave in 1750.
In 2008, Caroline Wilkinson began work on a 3-D reconstruction based on a bronze cast made from Bach’s skull loaned to her by the Bach Museum in Eisenach. Scans and specific measurements allowed Wilkinson to imagine what Bach really looked like, and the result differs only slightly from his popular representations.
The man beneath the 18th-century wig had a thick neck, a firm brow, and a slight underbite. The software can only reveal so much, so additional details like layers of fat, wrinkle deepness, and eye color were improvised using artwork. But this is as close as we have come to the real-life Bach.
If you’ve ever seen contemporary images of Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet famed for The Divine Comedy and Inferno, you’ll know he wasn’t a pleasant-looking guy. Painters often depicted Dante as a figure of much distaste, with pinched facial features and a large hooked nose.
However, a reconstruction completed in 2007 revealed a softer side to the poet. Although his bones had been hidden by monks who refused scientists access, the man behind the myth was pieced together using measurements taken of his skull when his crypt was finally opened in 1921.
The final work from researchers at the University of Bologna may not have transformed Dante into a handsome hero, but his rounder chin, contemplative gaze, and ever-so-slightly smaller nose make him a damn sight less melancholy. Perhaps the man who wrote so extensively about the ugliness of sin wasn’t so ugly after all, history is just harsh sometimes.
For St Anthony, one of the most popular Catholic priests, facial reconstruction was not so forgiving. The patron of lost and stolen articles was born in 1195 and entered the religious order aged 15, and by the time of his death in 1231, he was so well-loved that he became the second-fastest saint canonized a year later in 1232.
Popular images of St Anthony show him holding the baby Jesus alongside books, torches, or lilies, and he has long been considered a handsome gentleman with European features and strong cheekbones.
When his body was exhumed after 30 years all that remained were his bottom jawbone and tongue, but in 2013 a 3-D designer in Sao Paolo was commissioned to offer a glimpse of what the Saint really looked like. The final product is a far plumper man with fairer skin, less chiseled features, and an imperfect halo haircut.
Mary Queen of Scots
The life of Mary Queen of Scots was far from boring. She became Queen of Scotland at just 6 days old and was shipped off to France at five only to return 14 years later as a widow. When Mary visited her cousin Queen Elizabeth 1st in England to escape the tumultuous Scottish political climate, she was imprisoned.
After a failed assassination plot against her cousin, she was executed. While Elizabeth earned herself a villainous place in history with her powder-white skin and bright red hair (which even inspired the evil red queen from Alice in Wonderland) portraits of Mary were equally unkind.
Poor old Mary had suffered enough without being thought of as a sickly pale woman draped in fabric, but thankfully a realistic rendering by experts at the University of Dundee from 2013 sheds a new light on the queen. she was, in fact, just an average 25-year-old woman with a lot on her plate.
You might not recognize this man, but he’s actually responsible for most of our understanding of the universe as we know it today. Nicolaus Copernicus was a mathematician and astronomer who famously challenged the long-held view that the earth was the center of the universe by proposing the concept of a heliocentric solar system that revolves around the sun instead.
In 1543, the same year his life-changing findings were published, Copernicus died aged 70, and his remains were lost until they were discovered in a Catholic cathedral in Poland in 2005. Polish police DNA matched his remains to a nearly 600-year-old hair left in one of his books and set about creating a life-like portrait of the man himself using their state-of-the-art forensic facilities.
According to the remains, Copernicus had a broken nose and a scar above his right eye, and many have even raised spooky similarities between this modern rendering and the actor James Cromwell.
The last pharaoh of Egypt was the iconic Cleopatra, who ruled for 30 years and has become known as one of the most beautiful women in history. But without any legitimate remains to examine, her appearance has been a source of much debate.
The most true-to-life artifacts are surviving busts like the one from the Altes Museum in Berlin dating to 40-30 BC, which depict her as a modest young woman of no extraordinary beauty.
Even more surprising are modern reconstructions based on these sculptures as well as paintings and historical accounts, which picture Cleopatra with very strong features, like in this 3-D rendering by M.A Ludwig.
This supports the idea that the irresistible allure that seduced some of history’s greatest men like Julius Caesar originated from her cunning and incredible intelligence instead. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and things were very different over 2000 years ago.
Maximilien Robespierre was one of the most controversial figures of the French Revolution whose short reign as the head of state between 1792 and 1794 became known as The Reign of Terror. During this period, 17,000 enemies of the revolution were executed by guillotine, and the historical jury is still out on whether he was really a bloody dictator or a true advocate of the working class.
Ironically, Robespierre himself was executed on July 28, 1794, a day after attempting to escape arrest by shooting himself. In 2013, forensic pathologists and reconstruction experts teamed up to create a realistic model of Robespierre using a death mask made by Madame Tussaud from his decapitated head.
His character may continue to divide, but he was definitely no oil painting. An auto-immune disorder had caused him a series of maladies, but you can’t help seeing a French "Hey Arnold" in his wide face and beady eyes.
Until recently, little was known about Meritamun, the inspiration behind iconic Egyptian statues like this one.
Her name translates to “beloved of the god Amun”, and she’s thought to have been the daughter of Pharaoh Ramesses the Great, and later his wife. Her 3000-year-old skull was discovered in the archives of the University of Melbourne, although no one is sure how it traveled halfway around the world.
Using CT scans, researchers in 2016 were able to reproduce her skull using a 3D printer from which they sculpted a life-like model of the mysterious ancient woman.
Thought to have been 18-25 years old at the time of her death, researchers couldn’t pinpoint the cause without the rest of her remains. But one thing’s for sure: she had a sweet tooth. Her skull showed the effects of tooth decay and two abscesses, which makes sense as sugar had just been introduced to Egypt by Alexander the Great.
Ancient Egyptian icons have been a great source of intrigue and researchers were keen to uncover the woman behind Queen Nefertiti’s historic legacy. Although various archaeologists have claimed to discover her remains in recent years, the Queen's tomb has never been found.
The most plausible is a badly damaged mummy known as the ‘Younger Lady’ which was discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 2003 bearing superficial similarities like a double-pierced ear and a nearby royal wig. In 1913, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt discovered a bust of Nefertiti buried upside down in the sand, which is still the most legitimate known artifact.
Nevertheless, in 2018 paleoartist Elisabeth Daynes embarked on a painstaking 500-hour recreation of Nefertiti based on CT scans of the bust and the Younger Lady. The result is a strikingly beautiful woman who was showing signs of age after mothering 6 children, dressed in elaborate jewelry which was recreated by Dior.
Debate still reigns over whether the boy-king Tutankhamun was the biological son of Queen Nefertiti, but research into his appearance has been enlightening. The most universal image of King Tut is a decorated interpretation of his infamous golden sarcophagus.
But the boy beneath was not such a pretty sight. Over 2000 digital scans of his mummy made in 2005 yielded a surprising image of the king as a flat-headed child, and another virtual autopsy carried out in 2014 added more detail such as buckteeth, a receding chin, and even a clubfoot.
The reason for such deformities is believed to be a misinformed Egyptian belief in the "pure bloodline" his parents were likely siblings, and he later married his own half-sister at 10 years old. Inbreeding isn’t to blame for everything, though, as the ancient practice of infant head-binding deliberately deformed the cranium in keeping with family tradition. It’s a long way from the noble king we imagined.
Julius Caesar is remembered as a handsome and heroic Roman emperor, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Caesar’s triumphant rule ended in a sordid affair with Cleopatra and his death by stabbing on the Senate floor in 44 BC, but it’s hard to imagine their romance if his true likeness is anything to go by.
A contemporary bust displayed in the Netherlands alongside a similar battered sculpture held in Italy was scanned in 2018 by Dutch anthropologist Maja d’Hollosy to create a realistic silicone recreation of the ancient ruler. The most striking feature of this surprising new Caesar is his prominent head, which dwarfs his facial features.
One theory about his bulging skull refers to his birth by cesarean section (hence the name) which reportedly killed his mother, however, other historical accounts debunk this tragic birth story. Archeologists have been clear one on thing though: realism was in fashion at the time, so sculptors did not dream up this unusual shape.
I hope you were amazed by these recreations of famous historical people that looked very different than how we imagined. You might also want to read our articles about things, famous landmarks, and foods that looked different. Thanks for reading!