Two thousand years after her death Cleopatra still has political relevance, and arguments over her racial heritage – was Cleopatra black or white? – inspire fierce debate, with ‘black’ variously defi ned as meaning of Egyptian origin,
or a person from non-Mediterranean Africa, or any person of colour, and ‘white’ usually being equated with Greek. Th ese defi nitions in themselves, of course, are open to charges of Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism – can we not have black Greeks? Or non-black Africans? Is white not a colour? In the USA in particular, the recognition that traditional history has too often been written by a male, Eurocentric elite who, consciously or not, have promoted their own agenda and cultural expectations has led to the development of the theory – sincerely held by many – that Cleopatra was a black Egyptian queen whose achievements have been reallocated to a white proto- European.14
Scholarly discussions and heated Internet arguments abound between the ‘black’ and ‘white’ camps. It is easy, but lazy, to ignore this popular debate, classify Cleopatra and her family as Greek and move swiftly on, tacitly dismissing any claim that Cleopatra may have a mixed-race heritage. So, who exactly was Cleopatra VII?
But what of Cleopatra’s racial heritage? Her mother is, of course, unknown, although we suspect that she was Cleopatra V, who in turn we suspect of being closely related to Cleopatra’s father, Auletes. If this assumption is wrong, if Cleopatra’s mother was not a Ptolemy, then she could have been an elite woman from anywhere in the Hellenistic world, although it seems most likely that she was either Egyptian or Greek.
Auletes is known to have had a close working relationship with Pasherenptah III, high priest of Ptah at Memphis, and it is not impossible that this relationship was sealed with a diplomatic marriage. An Egyptian mother might, perhaps, explain Cleopatra’s reported profi ciency in the Egyptian language. But again, to assume that an Egyptian mother would be ‘pure’ Egyptian is perhaps an assumption too far. For almost 3,000 years tradition, theology and ideology had taught the Egyptian elite that they lived at the heart of the controlled, civilised world. Other, non-Egyptian lands were places of unrestrained chaos occupied by illfavoured peoples destined to be denied eternal life. It followed that
those who lived and died by Egyptian custom within Egypt were Egyptian: the most blessed people in the world. ‘Egyptianness’, like ‘Greekness’, was very much a matter of culture. Colour – both skin tone and racial heritage – was an irrelevance. Th e well-known Greek tale of the xenophobic King Busiris, who habitually slaughtered any foreigner who set foot in Egypt until Heracles put an end to his cruelty, was quite simply a myth. Egypt had always been open to immigrants. Libyans, Nubians, Asiatics and others had settled beside the Nile and there had never been any problem with individual Egyptians marrying people who looked or spoke diff erently. As a result, the Egyptian people showed a diverse range of racial characteristics, with redheaded, light-skinned Egyptians living alongside curly haired, darkerskinned neighbours. Problems only came when too many people attempted to settle at once, bringing their own cultures with them. This willingness to accept, and the willingness of foreigners to assimilate, make it difficult to estimate just how many ‘Egyptians’ were actually of non-Egyptian origin.
If we step back one generation, our problems grow worse. Cleopatra’s paternal grandfather was Ptolemy IX, but her paternal grandmother, who may have been her sole grandmother, is again unknown. She could have been a Ptolemy but, as her children are regarded as illegitimate, she is more likely to have been an outsider from Egypt, Syria, Greece, Rome, Nubia or somewhere else entirely. Her maternal grandmother and grandfather are equally unknown. Moving back in time again, we get a further dilution of the ‘pure’ Macedonian blood with the introduction of Berenice I, Berenice II and the part-Persian Cleopatra I into the incestuous family tree. All we can conclude from this survey of just two generations is that, in the crudest of statistical terms, Cleopatra was somewhere between 25 per cent and 100 per cent of Macedonian extraction, and that she possibly had some Egyptian
byJoyce A. Tyldesley
For much of the twentieth century c.e., African American writers have claimed that Cleopatra was part Egyptian and that if she lived in the United States, she would be considered black according to the infamous “one drop” rule—that is, that even one drop of “black blood” makes a person black.7 The theory has enjoyed widespread popularity, particularlyin popular culture. Not only does viewing Cleopatra as black allow African Americans to claim as their own one of the most famous individuals in ancient history, but it also provides a platform from which to critique mainstream American culture. A good example is the blaxploitation film Cleopatra Jones in which a black female super-spy exposes police brutality against the Los Angeles black community.8 Criticism of the theory that Cleopatra was black has been fierce and for understandable reasons.9 Evidence supporting the theory, as the critics insist, is thin, consisting only of Strabo’s claim that Cleopatra was “illegitimate,” the sources’ silence concerning the identity of Cleopatra’s grandmother and mother, and the assumption that in the first century b.c.e. all persons classified as Egyptian were black. Applying a ninteenthcentury American definition of “blackness” to ancient Egyptians and
Greeks, who did not classify peoples by race, is, however, anachronistic, so it is not surprising that until recently, most historians have rejected this interpretation of Cleopatra10 and continued to view her as of “pure”
Macedonian ancestry. Yet the question underlying the African American reading of Cleopatra remains valid: “Who wrote the books?”11 For almost two millennia, historians have been forced to rely almost entirely on sources written by her enemies to reconstruct the biography of the last of the Ptolemies. As the recent publication of a decree on a papyrus signed by Cleopatra indicates, archaeology offers the possibility that Cleopatra may again speak in her own voice. Hopefully, the discovery and exploration of the submerged remains of her palace in Alexandria harbor will fulfill that promise and finally replace Cleopatra the symbol with Cleopatra the queen.
by Stanley M. Burstein
CLEOPATRA’S ANCESTRY WAS ESSENTIALLY Macedonian Greek. She was a descendant of Ptolemy I, a general in Alexander the Great’s army and the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. The tradition that Cleopatra was of African descent has at its origin two points of uncertainty in Cleopatra’s family tree. The identities of her mother and paternal grandmother are not known with certainty, and there has been speculation that one or both of these ancestors were members of Egypt’s native population. To judge from the ancient sources, Cleopatra considered herself culturally a Ptolemy. Nonetheless, the debate, often framed in terms of skin color, has been an enduring one, becoming especially prominent in the second half of the twentieth century. Afrocentrism aims to reclaim lost African achievements and to recognize Africa as the true source of European culture, on the grounds that the elements of that culture were stolen from Egypt.
by Prudence J. Jones
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