The trailer for the latest season of ‘African Queens’ sparked a massive controversy because it features a Black actress as Cleopatra. Enraged Egyptians insist their queen was a light-skinned Greek. In part one, we looked at the debate over Black vs White Cleopatra—and why both are equally fictional. In part two: we look at far trickier questions: What do we know about Cleopatra’s ancestry? Did she even belong to a ‘race’ as we understand it?
Researched by: Rachel John and Anannya Parekh
The ‘real’ Cleopatra we know (sort of)…
If we set the entire race debate aside for a moment, here’s what we actually know about the Egyptian queen.
Pharaoh's child: She is indeed ethnically Greek—and her name—Cleopatra—means “glory of her race” in Greek. The pharaohs she descended from were “caste-proud Macedonians”:
They descended from Ptolemy I, a general who had served with Alexander the Great in his conquest of Egypt, and they had practiced sibling incest for some three hundred years by the time their last dynast was born. Inbreeding had consolidated their power, but also, one presumes, their traits.
Given all that incest, the claim that she had any kind of Black blood could be debatable.
But, but, but: Her father Ptolemy XII was born out of wedlock—the son of Ptolemy IX and a concubine whose identity is unknown. The pharaohs had many concubines of various ethnicities—of Greek, Jewish, Arab or even Thracian origin. Add to that confusion over her mother’s identity—who may or may not have been the queen. Cleopatra, interestingly, never mentions her mother—calling herself Philopator in Greek and Merites in Egyptian—i.e. “the one who loves her father”,
Plot mein twist: “Still others note that Macedonia, along with the rest of the Hellenic world, was not exclusively white—so her European descent did not preclude blackness.”
The ‘black’ sister: Arsinoe IV was Cleopatra’s estranged sister (or half sister)–-whom she later had killed. An Austrian team claimed to have discovered Arsinoe’s tomb—which is debatable since there is no definitive DNA evidence. Researchers reconstructed what was allegedly Arsinoe’s face using the skull of the skeleton—and concluded she was African. Ergo, Cleopatra also had African blood. As you can see, any ‘evidence’ of Cleopatra’s racial identity is filled with holes.
What did she look like? As we saw in part one, Western depictions of Cleopatra are hardly reliable—whether as Black or white. But in 2007, the great queen had to suffer the humiliation of headlines such as ‘Ancient coin dulls Cleopatra's beauty’. The reason: The discovery of a Roman coin that “depicts the celebrated queen of Egypt as a sharp-nosed, thin-lipped woman with a protruding chin.” The Guardian politely declared:
Far from possessing the classical looks of Elizabeth Taylor, or the many other goddesses who have played her on stage and screen, the Egyptian queen is shown with a shrewish profile while Antony suffers from bulging eyes, a crooked nose and a bull neck.
But the coins have little to do with whether or not Cleopatra was ‘hawt’. But her looks seem to have been ‘Romanised’ to fit her lover’s:
No two coins are quite alike, but in many, the most prominent features are an aquiline nose and a jutting chin. She wears her curly hair not in bangs but in the popular melon style of the time, tied in a bun at the base of her skull. Even these coins come with red flags, though. During her marriage with Mark Antony, a silver denarius coin was issued to pay his troops. Each side of the coin bears one of their faces, and hers seems exaggeratedly Romanized to match his.
You can see the similarities below:
Or maybe she looked like this—what BBC describes as “a rare realistic image of Cleopatra”:
And this what she looks like in an Egyptian relief—along with her son with Caesar:
Key point to note: Cleopatra lived from 69 to 30 BC—and was considered a living god. The ‘real’ Cleopatra is nowhere to be found. All her depictions—whether modern or ancient—served a political purpose.
Race, what race?
Inventing ‘race’: The most sensible takes on Cleopatra’s identity point out that ‘race’ is a modern creation. In fact, ‘race’ as a category dates back to the 17th century—and is part of the origins of European anthropology. It offered a way for white people to “sort” the people they encountered in the world:
The publication of the book ‘Systema Naturæ’ in 1735 saw Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus classify humankind into four distinct “varieties.” Race began as a human-coined shorthand to categorize groups based on continent and skin colour.
Also this: It’s a mistake to apply this modern category to the past—even though it undoubtedly destroyed many peoples and nations—and shaped their destinies. ‘Race’ isn’t like gravity—it didn’t always exist in ‘nature’ until humans ‘discovered’ it. Let’s say Cleopatra was, in fact, partly Egyptian—but does that make her partly Black?
“The reality is that one can say that there were ancient Egyptians we would today consider ‘Black’ in so far as they were non-Arab, non-Phoenician, Africans,” [classicist Rebecca Futo] Kennedy says. She notes that references to Black-skinned Egyptians are present in ancient texts, but there is a gendered element to this: “Ideologically, women were associated with pale or ‘white’ skin and men with dark or ‘black’ skin. This is a gender division, not ethnic or modern bio-racial.”
Experts point out that even asking whether Cleopatra is Black or white buys into the mistaken idea that “these are universal and not historically contingent categories.”
Cleopatra was a goddess: That’s the only ‘truth’ that mattered in ancient Egypt—and allowed her to rule unchallenged. Her subjects did not wonder if she was ‘biracial’–-or whether she was ‘Macedonian’ or ‘Egyptian’. As Futo points out, even the obsession in her family tree—who’s her mother, grandmother etc—is uniquely modern:
But Cleopatra does not have a ‘race’ as we understand it and to make any claims to being able to identify the “true racial background” of Cleopatra is to perpetuate a modern political position. She cannot be “at least 50% Egyptian” or “pure Macedonian Greek” because such things are modern socially and politically important and structured forms of identity; race is not a genetic truth. If we take our cue from antiquity itself, the ancient sources on Cleopatra are uninterested in disputing or even discussing her identity in the ways we obsess over.
The changing definition of ‘white’: The Black Cleo vs white Cleo debate ignores the fact that even the definition of ‘white’ has changed—just in the past century:
Many groups we now think of as white were certainly not seen as such for much of that period, from the Irish to the Slavs, from Italians to Jews. It took a long process of social negotiation and conflict before they were admitted into the club of whiteness.
In fact, modern Greeks were not considered ‘white’ for the longest time—even as English intellectuals claimed ancient Greeks as the roots of Western civilization.
The final nail: in this coffin is the genetic data about race. We now know that barely 6% of genes vary from one race to another:
Race, as it is now generally accepted by scientists, is not a biological reality but rather reflects the cultural and social underpinnings originally used to justify slavery and that live on in a myriad of ways. Instead of race, geneticists now prefer the term genetic ancestry.
The bottomline: We leave you with this wise observation made by Kenan Malik in The Guardian:
There is nothing wrong in casting Cleopatra as black. The problem lies in the resonances that flow from that. James is no more and no less authentically a Cleopatra than Elizabeth Taylor was… However Cleopatra is cast, it is a decision shaped by modern political desires or fantasies. The very question “was Cleopatra black or white?” – and the answers we give – tell us much more about ourselves, and our world, and the confusions that beset our understanding of race and identity, than they do about Cleopatra and her world.
The Guardian and TIME have the best take on why questions of ‘race’ don’t apply to ancient Egypt. Discover magazine looks at all the theories on what Cleopatra looked like. Classicists Rebecca Futo and Usama Gad penned a must-read series of blog posts on race and Cleopatra: Part 1 and Part 2. New Yorker has lots more on her life—while The Wire looks at her genealogical history. Be sure to check out part one—where we discovered that the Black Cleopatra is a historical invention—just as the white version.