The elephant headdress in the form seen on this bust first appears on coins that depict Alexander the Great, minted by one of his successors, Ptolemy I, circa 318 B.C. The imagery is thought to evoke Dionysus, the mythical conqueror of India (see pl. 7 in Davis and Kraay, The Hellenistic Kingdoms). The coins of the Bactrian king Demetrius I, circa 200-185 B.C., portray him wearing a similar headdress to symbolize that he, too, was a conqueror of India, the land of the elephant (pl. 152 in Davis and Kraay, op. cit.). During the Roman Republic, the elephant headdress was employed for the personification of the province of Africa, as seen on gems, lamps, mosaics, bronzes, and especially on coins, some minted by client-kingdoms in North Africa, others by Romans, such as Pompey the Great and Metellus Scipio (see Le Glay, "Africa," in LIMC, nos. 1-5).
This exquisite and important bust finds its closest parallel with an emblema still joined to its bowl that was found in a villa at Boscoreale, near Pompeii, in 1895, and is now in the Louvre (no. 324 in Walker and Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt, from History to Myth). Both depict the same youthful woman; they differ in the form of the garment, a chiton for the Boscoreale bust, a chiton and a himation for the present example. Both are imbued with similar powerful symbols, sharing the lioness, lion, cobra, fruit and wheat, the present bust with an additional scorpion. The Boscoreale bust is more elaborately embellished, as the figure holds a cornucopia topped with the crescent moon of Selene, its shaft with a bust of Helios, the eagle of Zeus, and two stars for the Dioscuri. She is surrounded by other symbols including the quiver and bow of Artemis, the club of Herakles, the sistrum of Isis, the dolphin of Poseidon, the pliers of Hephaistos, the staff of Asklepios, the sword of Ares and the lyre of Apollo.
While some have identified the Boscoreale emblema as a depiction of Cleopatra VII through comparison with a marble portrait found in Cherchell, Algeria (see no. 262 in Walker and Higgs, op. cit.), the identification has been rejected as neither the Cherchell portrait nor the emblema resemble Cleopatra's coin portraits. Walker informs (op. cit., p. 312) that the Boscoreale emblema more likely is a portrait of Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony. The symbols on the cornucopia can be understood as references to the Ptolemaic royal house and specifically to Cleopatra Selene, represented in the crescent moon. The elephant headdress may refer to her status as ruler, together with her husband Juba II, of Mauretania. Many of the other symbols found on the Boscoreale emblema also appear on the coins minted by Juba II.
Cleopatra Selene and her twin brother Alexander Helios were born in the autumn of 40 B.C. After their parents' deaths by suicide following their defeat by Octavian at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., the children of Cleopatra VII and Antony were taken to Rome, where they were marched in golden chains in the triumphal procession. The children were raised in Octavian's household, together with other royal hostages. Another of the hostages was Juba II, who in 25 B.C. was placed by the Emperor as a Roman client-king over his ancestral homeland of Numidia. Some five years later Octavian gave Cleopatra Selene as wife to Juba. Octavian (now Augustus) would make them king and queen of Mauretania. Their capital was Caesaria, modern Cherchell in Algeria. Cleopatra Selene died in approximately 5 B.C., appropriately during a lunar eclipse.