The monumental legacy of Cleopatra, Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, is frequently eclipsed by reductive contemporary discussions over her identity. She has been variously claimed as Macedonian, Greek, Egyptian, and African.
Debates over Cleopatra’s “race” were reactivated after Netflix released a trailer for its four-part docudrama Queen Cleopatra last week, starring Adele James, a Black actor. The series is also being narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, who said she wants the show to “represent Black women.”
This has led some, including Egypt’s foremost archaeologist Zahi Hawass, to reiterate that Cleopatra, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 69 B.C. into the Ptolemaic dynasty, was of Macedonian Greek ancestry.
One Egyptian lawyer, Mahmoud al-Semary, was so incensed by the Netflix portrayal that he is taking legal action. At the same time, some Egyptians have raised concerns about racism and colorism in modern-day Egypt, an Arab country with its own Black population.
But in reality, debates around Cleopatra’s racial identity are ahistorical because they reflect contemporary views about race rather than how people were understood in ancient times. Some experts say they highlight the modern conceptualization of race that became prevalent during the 17th and 18th centuries.
“To ask whether someone was ‘Black’ or ‘white’ is anachronistic and says more about modern political investments than attempting to understand antiquity on its own terms,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy, an associate professor of Classics at Denison University, tells TIME.
“If we want to be more historically accurate, we need to understand how ancient peoples considered their ethnicities instead of universalizing and de-historicizing our own views,” she adds.
Here’s what to know about Cleopatra, Egypt’s last Pharaoh, and the discussions around her identity.
Who was Cleopatra?
Cleopatra VII was the seventh, but most well-known Egyptian ruler, to hold this name. She was the last member of the Ptolemy dynasty to rule Egypt after 5,000 years of Pharaonic rule; her reign lasted 21 years before she died by suicide in August 30 B.C.
Cleopatra was the second of five children born to King Ptolemy XII, and his wife, Cleopatra V. Tryphania. She undertook medical studies as well as learning philosophy, rhetoric, and oratory, and was believed to speak many languages in addition to her native Greek. Cleopatra was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn native Egyptian, a now-extinct language that Spoken Coptic descended from. (Egyptian Arabic is the most commonly spoken vernacular in Egypt today.)
Upon the death of her father, Cleopatra ascended the throne in 51 B.C., sharing with one of her younger brothers Ptolemy XIII. But she eventually claimed the so-called double crown, replacing her brother as sole ruler.
What do we know about her ancestry?
The Ptolemy dynasty descended from Greek Macedonian roots and ruled ancient Egypt during its Hellenistic era, with marriages typically occurring within the family. The dynasty was established when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 323 B.C.
The part of Cleopatra’s bloodline that remains a mystery is that of her mother and paternal grandmother. However, many experts say there is no evidence to suggest either woman was Black.
As Duane W. Roller, a professor emeritus of Classics at Ohio State University, wrote for the Oxford University Press blog in 2010, “Assuming, however, that Cleopatra’s grandmother was not from the traditional Macedonian Greek stem, the question arises as to just what she was. Sources suggest that if she was not Macedonian, she was probably Egyptian. So by the time of Cleopatra’s grandparents, there may have been an Egyptian element.”
“She could have been Greek, Macedonian, Egyptian, and Roman all at the same time,” Kennedy says. She notes that the gaps on Cleopatra’s family tree leave room for people to misinterpret indigenous Egyptian identity as 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,” 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.”
Kennedy adds that visual representations of Cleopatra that more closely resembled Egyptian rulers have been historically overlooked in favor of her likeness on coinage, which is more closely aligned with standard Greek iconography.
“These objects are for different audiences and reflect different aspects of Cleopatra’s identity. We should not separate them, but in our modern search for singular identities, we restrict Cleopatra in ways that she was not restricted to in her own life,” Kennedy says.
The messy debate over Cleopatra’s ‘race’
Racial classifications as we recognize them today are largely a product of 17th and 18th century Western anthropological thought, particularly during the European Enlightenment.
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 color.
As such, these classifications were created far too late to accurately apply to ancient civilizations. “There is a tendency in the modern world to fixate on famous figures of the past who represent civilizations,” Kennedy says. She adds there will always be groups who want to flatten and claim Cleopatra, one way or the other, to suit their narrative.
But, Kennedy says, asking if Cleopatra was Black, white, or another race is the wrong question because “it suggests that these are universal and not historically contingent categories.”
She adds: “It means that we continue to have the same conversations decade after decade instead of actually learning more about how the ancient world considered its own identities.”
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