Sunday, February 27, 2011

Was Cleopatra Black?

While I was researching my chapter on Cleopatra for Scandalous Women, the question of whether or not she was black came up. For centuries Cleopatra was seen as an exotic femme fatale but with the rise of interest in African-American history and the black power movement over the years, there has been a rush to claim Cleopatra as a sister. I used to argue about this with my brother constantly when I was in high school and studying ancient history. He insisted that Cleopatra had to be black because she was the Pharoah of Egypt and Egypt was in Africa. I, of course, explained to him all about Alexander the Great and how after his death, his empire was divided amongst his generals, and Ptolemy ended up with Egypt. We went around like this for days before I just gave up arguing with him. Now of course, with the announcement that Angelina Jolie might be playing the role in a film adapted from Stacey Schiff's biography, the question comes up again (the fact that Angelina Jolie is much more beautiful than the real Cleopatra never seems to come up).

Unfortunately it is impossible to prove one way or another. Her father Ptolemy XII was at least half Macedonian Greek, his mother’s origins are unknown. There was a  high degree of inbreeding amongst the Ptolemies, they were notoriously xenophobic, preferring to speak Greek and to keep Greek customs. According to the chart on Wikipedia, she only had four great-grandparents and six (out of a possible 16) great-great-grandparents. I would say that means that Cleopatra was probably at least 50% Greek Macedonian. Still at some point, they needed to inject from fresh blood into the dynasty. Cleopatra’s mother is also unknown. So it is possible that she was at least part African. Although she learned Egyptian, becoming the first Ptolomeic Pharaoh to do so, Cleopatra identified herself as being Greek, even as she took on the trappings of Egyptian culture. Certainly the coins that were minted during her lifetime show a woman who looked more Greek than she did Egyptian.

A 2009 BBC documentary, Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer, looked at the reconstruction of a skull which could p ossibly from a sister of Cleopatra (Cleopatra had asked Mark Antony to have one of her remaining siblings, who was a threat to her throne, murdered) to show features which have similarities to both Semitic and Bantu skulls. Their conclusion was that Cleopatra could have had black African ancestry -- but it's not really conclusive. Another problem is that we think of as race means something different entirely from what it might have meant in Cleopatra's day. Are contemporary Eygptians black or are they Arab, or a melange of different races? Yes, they are African but if someone's parents were originally from Egypt does that make one African-American?

Still the question is still raised. Why does it matter? Well, Cleopatra was a powerful woman who ruled Egypt by herself for over 20 years before her death.  Books, plays, films, operas and poetry have been written about her. She has moved from being a historical figure into an iconic figure. Who wouldn't want to claim her as one of their own. Claiming Cleopatra as black, gives young black girls an example of a sister who was doing it for herself so to speak. No matter what race she was, she is mythic figure that continues to enthrall countless biographers and filmmakers to this day.

Unfotunately unless we find Cleopatra's grave or a time machine to send archeologists and historians back in time, we will never know for sure what Cleopatra's racial make-up is.

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