The controversy over Cleopatra’s race – Collection of Scholar Sources

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

“Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt” 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.

“The Reign of Cleopatra” (Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Ancient World) 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.

Cleopatra: A Sourcebook (Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture) by Prudence J. Jones

By Giannis

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Conrad says:

Why haven’t DNA tests been performed on the ancient mummies?

Conrad says:

Also, how many European countries have conquered and/or colonized Egypt? Greece, Rome, Arabs, French under Napoleon and lastly British -- how many took wives? How many, like US GI’s, have left their offspring behind? Countless numbers!

Yes, Egypt, part of Africa, started out dark -- please review the multiple complexions amongst the Hieroglyphs -- the lightest complected people weren’t always sitting on thrones.

Conrad says:

What we have here is a Paradigm problem.

My High School and college history teachers each pointed out that Alexander the Great, whenever he conquered a nation, ordered his soldiers to take a wife from amongst the conquered peoples. Wasn’t General Ptolemy one of his soldiers?

Men will be men, soldiers will be soldiers, same for slavemasters and conquerers. In America, slavemasters didn’t always wait for their women to be transported, thus the multiple complexions of “Blacks” in America. Yes, many sold or abandoned their children. Notwithstanding, the first Black Colleges in this country were created by white men for their mulatto children.

In a non-race conscious country, where the ruler has absolute power, who do you think his successors will be?

Paradigm problem? Yes. If Cleopatra is of mixed heritage, it kinda kicks a hole in the “superiority” myth.

Cleopatra Wasn't White says:

Cleopatra wasn’t 100% greek so her color wasnt 100% white lookin’. She shouldnt be played by Angelina Joulie. Someone like Halie Berry or a woman of color should play her. Perhaps a native Egyptian woman. C’mon now!

Virgil says:

Cleopatra wasn’t 100% greek so her color wasnt 100% white lookin’. She shouldnt be played by Angelina Joulie. Someone like Halie Berry or a woman of color should play her. Perhaps a native Egyptian woman. C’mon now!

Well that’s just silly. Even if she wasn’t 100% Macedonian, which we don’t know (well, we do know there was Persian ancestry in there; we have no knowledge of Egyptian ancestry), there’s little chance she was even as dark-skinned as Mediterranean “white” people — we do know she was a red-head, and red-heads tend to paler skin; and Macedonians were paler than Greeks too. Chances are, she was paler than Angelina, not darker!

darkangel says:

It is truly saddening and quite pathetic that people are still questioning Cleopatra's 'race', for my part I do accept that she was purely, if not entirely of Greek origin. However,the most important aspect of this great woman was her undeniable political astuteness, and her ability to charm two of the most powerful and important men in western history using her intelliegence and cunning. She was truly one of the most powerul women in a rigidly patriachal society in which most women were akin to slaves.

jasmine says:

I am an african…and I DO NOT. Think nor did I ever think Cleopatra was african…! She was not! She was greek..was a ptolemy! They
Where not african! I don’t understand why they try to put her into or race!
She was a great historical figure…but not african!! She just so happen to because a queen of an AFRICAN country!!

boo123 says:

umm im sorry but if you go to actual egypt the natives will tell how europeans broke off most of egyption noses so their black trademark heritage could be hidden. And often when they first began to discover they sand papered their dark pigment paint to make it seem lighter. Cleopatra's mother and grandmother were african descent really beautiful as described but they were erased from history so it will be no sign of black heritage. but recent studies of cleopatra's sister bones show strong african descent and how her previous image of greek is mislead. Yes she does have greek but no she was not white she was of color actually not light skin, but brown. Her sister is her full blooded sister no half or anything they were people of color. why cant people stop disclaiming black heritage it's there.

niki says:

Actually the bones you are referring to did not belong to Cleopatra's sister as radiocarbon dating has proved . They were the bones of someone that lived after the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Why are people trying to change history? Cleopatra was born to an incestuous, intermarrying family. She did NOT have one african ancestor. Open an encyclopedia for God's sake, look it up. The Ptolemaic Dynasty were Macedonian Greeks. The few times they did not intermarry, they married someone that was also greek. During their rule, the ruling class in Egypt were only greeks and their language was greek. The palace guard was called the Macedonian Guard. In fact Cleopatra was the only Ptolemy that learned the egyptian language. The Romans never mention her as black, I think they would have noticed. The statues of her depict her as Caucasian. Unless you can come up with proof that she had native egyptian ancestors, you're just distorting facts.
I guess it's the new trend…

MissZ87 says:

I think the bottom line needs to be that we DON’T KNOW WHAT RACE SHE WAS.. we only know that her father had greek lineage. I think that European people change the construct of race to fit their agendas. I do believe she had some Greek/Caucasian blood, but how would that make her any different from most African-Americans who have white ancestry or Bi-Racial people who are still seen as black and whose physical appearance is very similar to those of “black” people. If you are going to have a system to define race (which I don’t think we should), it should remain consistent.

When scholars analyze ancient peoples and their race a percentage of white blood automatically makes them white; however in modern society’s analysis of race a percentage of white blood still makes them black. In finality the concept of race is BS. It was created to mold particular social, economic, and political agendas. Without further archeological findings and analysis we cannot saw what her race was.

GreenSorceress says:

You make some interesting points. It only makes you wonder where are Cleopatra’s mother and paternal grandmother?