The Ptolemaic queen of Egypt was a reason for a heated discussion when, in 2020, Gal Gadot was cast as Cleopatra in a Paramount Pictures’ film that never went to production. Apart from some media users calling it inappropriate to use an Israeli actress to depict a ruler of Egypt, the critics also described the Wonder Woman star as “very bland looking”, accused the production team of whitewashing the history, and eventually argued that Cleopatra “should be played by a Black
Today, the coin has been tossed, again. A trailer, which was recently released for Netflix’s upcoming docudrama series about African queens, has re-awakened discussions about Cleopatra’s ethnicity.
Many commentators have felt that the choice of British actress Adele James was a wrong choice since it portrays the Egyptian ruler as having black African origins. One character presented in the Netflix’ trailer clearly says: “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”
Cleopatra VII Philopator is usually associated with beauty, an image carved in our minds with the same strength as her not-so-flattering busts is engraved on coins of Patrai.
While beauty parameters change over the centuries, the concept of a Caucasian Cleopatra was only reinforced by popular culture through numerous artists. When the Egyptian queen appears in paintings, such Cleopatra Before Caesar (by Jean-Léon Gérôme), The Death of Cleopatra (Achille Glisenti) or Cleopatra and the Peasant (Eugène Delacroix), she is portrayed as an absolute beauty with an alabaster skin, corresponding to the 19th century beauty standards.
More recently, the same narrative was adopted by filmmakers in historical and fictional movies: an Italian comedy film, Two Nights with Cleopatra (1954), starring Sophie Loren; A Queen for Caesar (1962), featuring French actress Pascale Petit; while Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Cleopatra (1965).
Trying to verify Cleopatra’s beauty based on the writings coming from historians of the era is no easy task. They usually comment on the queen’s character, hardly mentioning her appearance.
Dio Cassius (c.155 – c.235 AD), a Roman senator and historian who spent decades documenting the history and political changes of the time, describes the Egyptian queen as a “charming and intelligent woman who uses her beauty to captivate and manipulate everyone around her”.
The Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch (c.46–c.119 AD), said: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” When Plutarch mentions Cleopatra’s “irresistible charm,” he applies it to her intelligence, persuasiveness, and political strength, attributes that made her one of the most iconic rulers of all times.
Without a doubt, the Ptolemaic queen had to take care of her appearance – one of the requisites that allowed her to win the heart of Roman general Julius Caesar and solidify her power – yet her ethnicity, skin colour or detailed features remain a subject of debate. The known depictions of Cleopatra are often loose adaptations of history, intertwined with the personalised convictions of their creators and audiences they address.
Lineage of Cleopatra
An Egyptian expert in Greco-Roman history and a professor at Egypt’s Ain-Shams University, Hassan Ahmed El-Ebyari, has studied the lineage of her family. Cleopatra has been a main focus of Ebyari’s research; he spent decades looking into literature, historical records and other documents mentioning the queen and centuries surrounding her reign. He has shared his findings on multiple programmes aired on Egyptian TV channels.
“Cleopatra’s ethnicity should be looked upon from two angles, the lineage of ethnic groups present in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period, and her family in particular,” Ebyari tells The Africa Report. He adds that as a daughter of Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s ancestry leads to Ptolemy I Soter (367-283 BC), son of Lagus. Ptolemy I was a Macedonian Greek general who came to Egypt with Alexander the Great and his rise to power marked the beginning of the Hellenistic period in Egypt.
“Until Ptolemy V, the rulers married siblings keeping the lineage going from Lagus. As a political move, Ptolemy V married Cleopatra I Syra (204 – 176 BC), a princess of the Seleucid Empire, a Greek state in West Asia, considered a division of the Macedonian Empire. As follows, Cleopatra’s ethnicity cannot be questioned when speaking of her father’s side,” Ebtari says.
Badrashin ethnicities have the light brownish skin complexion, a completely different tone than a darker skin colour known to Southern African nationals
Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII then married his sister Cleopatra V and according to official records they both had two children before the mother disappeared from court documents.
The debate then surrounds the children, with Cleopatra VII being the first born during this time the records have disappeared.
“This opens a debate of who Cleopatra’s mother was,” says Ebyari, adding that some scholars suggest that the famed queen was born to Ptolemy XII’s relation with another woman from the Macedonian royal lineages, while others point to a possibility of the mother being Egyptian from Badrashin, a county where Memphis is located.
“Badrashin ethnicities have the light brownish skin complexion, a completely different tone than a darker skin color known to Southern African nationals,” the researcher says.
Ebyari points to the fact the Mediterranean basin remains fairly similar in skin tonality. The presence of foreign nations in Ancient Egypt created a mixture, however at the time of Cleopatra, following almost three centuries of Ptolemaic rules, it is historically impossible to find African features in the royal circles, he says.
Sub-Saharan African ancestry
Away from the scholarly circles, some media followers believe that Cleopatra’s African ancestry is proved by the 2009 discovery of the bones of Arsinoe IV, Cleopatra’s younger sister. The claims made by Hilke Thur, an archaeologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and former director of excavations in Ephesus where the bones were found, created a huge media commotion.
Thur’s skeleton presentation pointed to Europeans, ancient Egyptians, and Black African components, a fact that was not equally represented by the media. In addition, Thur’s theory was challenged by many scholars calling them “highly circumstantial”.
“Perhaps more important than the colour of her skin is the culture with which she identified herself,” says Sally-Ann Ashton in her Honours Thesis Reflections of Cleopatra VII through Time: Cultural Perceptions of Gender and Power.
“She may very well have or not have Egyptian or African ancestry, or both. Still, there is resistance to the idea that Cleopatra was Black, for it has been ingrained in the literature and in our popular culture that she was Greek and Caucasian,” she says.
From all accounts, it seems that Cleopatra did indeed consider herself to be Egyptian first and foremost, not Greek or Macedonian
“It is also important to accept that ethnicity is not only about the degree of colour or culture; it is also about choice. Cleopatra was referred to as ‘the Egyptian’ in Roman sources; even in modem films, she often calls herself ‘Egypt.’ From all accounts, it seems that Cleopatra did indeed consider herself to be Egyptian first and foremost, not Greek or Macedonian.”