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Was Cleopatra Black?

Evidence Pro and Con

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Cleopatra: Marble Bust

Cleopatra: marble bust in Greek style, from the Vatican, Museo Gregoriano Egizio

Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra VII

Getty Images / Hulton Archive
Head of Cleopatra

Head of Cleopatra, about 40 BCE

Getty Images / Hulton Archive

That Cleopatra was an African queen is certain -- Egypt is, after all, in Africa -- but was Cleopatra black?

Cleopatra VII is usually just known as Cleopatra though she was the seventh queen to bear the name Cleopatra. She was the last of the Ptolemy dynasty to rule Egypt. She, like many other Ptolemy rulers, first married one brother, then, on his death, another. When her third husband, Julius Caesar, took Cleopatra back to Rome with him, she certainly caused a sensation. Did the color of her skin contribute to that sensation? There's no record of that reaction. In what's called the "argument from silence," many conclude from that silence that she did not have dark-colored skin. But an "argument from silence" only indicates possibility, not certainty.

Depictions of Cleopatra in Popular Culture

Shakespeare uses the word "tawny" about Cleopatra -- but Shakespeare wasn't exactly an eyewitness, missing meeting Egypt's last Pharaoh by more than a millennium. In some Renaissance art, Cleopatra is portrayed as dark-skinned, a "negress" in the terminology of that time. But those artists were also not eyewitnesses, and their artistic interpretation may have been based on trying to distinguish Cleopatra's "otherness" or their own assumptions about Africa and Egypt.

In modern depictions, Cleopatra has been played by white actresses including Vivien Leigh, Claudette Colbert, and Elizabeth Taylor. But the writers of those movies were also not eyewitnesses.

What Do We Know About Cleopatra's Ancestry?

The Ptolemy dynasty was descended from the Greek Macedonian Ptolemy Soter, established as ruler of Egypt by Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt in 305 B.C.E. (In other words, they were imperialist outsiders.) Many of their marriages were incestuous, with brothers marrying sisters -- but not all the children born are known to have had both fathers and mothers who were Ptolemies.

We are not certain of the heritage of Cleopatra's mother or her paternal grandmother. That leaves 50% to 75% of her genetic heritage unknown -- and ripe for speculation.

Is there any evidence that either her mother or paternal grandmother was a black African? No. "We don't know the heritage of" means just that. We don't know.

Is there any evidence that either of those women were not black Africans? No, by the same reasoning.

Cleopatra's Paternal Grandmother

Many scholars believe that Cleopatra's paternal grandmother was a concubine. That woman's background has been assumed to be either Alexandrian or Nubian. She may have been ethnically Egyptian, and she may have had a heritage which we'd today call "black."

Cleopatra's Mother

Cleopatra's mother is usually identified as her aunt, Cleopatra V, daughter of Ptolemy IX. Cleopatra V's mother is also unknown; Cleopatra V was not the daughter of a royal wife, but we don't know if the mother was another Ptolemy relative or a concubine of Egyptian or Semitic African or black African background.

Race - What Is It, What Was It in Antiquity?

Complicating such discussions is the fact that race itself is a complex issue, with unclear definitions. Race was perceived differently in the classical world than it is today, with one's homeland and national heritage, and perhaps language, being more important than what we'd today identify as race.

Cleopatra Spoke Egyptian

We do have early evidence that Cleopatra was the first ruler in her family to actually speak the native Egyptian language, rather than the Greek of the Ptolemies -- but that would be evidence for an Egyptian ancestry, not necessarily black African. It doesn't add any real weight to a racial argument. And she might have learned the language for political reasons or just from exposure and an ability to pick up language.

Evidence Against a Black Cleopatra: Incomplete

Perhaps the strongest evidence cited against Cleopatra having black ancestry is that the Ptolemy family was quite xenophobic -- against "outsiders" including the native Egyptians they ruled for about 300 years. This was more as a continuation of Egyptian custom among rulers than it was racial prejudice -- if daughters married within the family, then loyalty was not divided. But it's not likely that those 300 years passed with only "pure" heritage -- and in fact we can be confident that both Cleopatra's mother and father had mothers who very likely did not have Macedonian Greek ancestry.

Evidence for a Black Cleopatra: Flawed

Unfortunately, the modern proponents of the "Black Cleopatra" theory -- starting with J. A. Rogers in World's Great Men of Color in the 1940s -- have made other obvious errors in defending the thesis (Rogers is confused about who Cleopatra's father was, for instance) and make other claims (like that her brother, whom Rogers thinks is her father, had obvious black features) without evidence. Such errors and unsubstantiated claims don't add strength to their argument.

A BBC documentary, Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer, looks at a skull which might be from a sister of Cleopatra -- or rather, the documentary looks at the reconstruction of a skull, since no actual skull was found in the tomb -- 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 hardly conclusive.

Conclusions: More Questions Than Answers

Was Cleopatra black? It's a complicated question, with no sure answer. It is likely that Cleopatra had ancestry other than pure Macedonian Greek. Was it black African? We don't know. Can we say for sure it was not? No. Was her skin color very dark? Probably not.

More: Myths of Women's History

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