Cleopatra VII: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
This is a 2-part post. Part 1 is written by Dr Katherine Blouin and Part 2 is an expanded version of the interview Dr Rebecca Futo Kennedy gave to Time Magazine on April 19–20 2023. For broader context, we invite you to read the 2-part blog post we co-wrote with Dr Usama Ali Gad in 2020 for the SCS Blog.
Since the trailer for Netflix’s upcoming Queen Cleopatra documentary series was released, debates regarding who can claim the last Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt as theirs have been, once again, raging online.
I will spare you the details. Here is the trailer of the series, which is executive produced Jada Pinkett Smith:
Emerita Professor of Africana Studies and Classics Shelley Haley, who was a consultant on the series, just published a post in Pasts Imperfect, where she provides more context and behind-the-scene information regarding the process that led to the production of the series and her approach to the subject matter.
Over the past few days, as I was witnessing and thinking about this renewed debate, I, together with other colleagues who have written public-facing pieces on the history and modern reception of Cleopatra VII, received request for interviews from a flurry of international media. While I was not able to accept any of these invites, this morning, as I was eating my breakfast, the Muses inspired me to share a few thoughts on the matter on my facebook wall. Following the suggestion of some colleagues, I am sharing them here, in an expanded version. My hope is that we — teachers, students, people who value ancient history — find ways to engage with ancient portrayals of and modern claims to this ancient Queen (and ancient Egyptian history more broadly) in ways that are critically-minded, self-aware, decolonial, and caring. Here it goes:
High profile reactions to the trailer coming from Egypt have been numerous and, in many cases, quick to reproduce anti-Black racist tropes. For instance, a few days ago, a petition entitled “Cancel Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra”” was set up on change.org by someone named Qawem. So far, not that many people have signed it (c.3700 at the time of writing). The text of the petition goes as follows:
“Afrocentrism is a pseudoscience that is pushing a group’s agenda to claim Egypt’s history and rob the actual Egyptians of it. By using false articles and zero evidence, they are still attempting to falsify history
“Cleopatra was born in Alexandria, Egypt in the Ptolemaic dynasty to Greek descent. She was NOT black. This is in no way against black people, and is simply a wake up call to preserve the history and the integrity of the Egyptians and the Greeks.”
“The show is clearly done to complement the Afrocentric movement, which claims to be the owner of the ancient Egyptian civilization, and to consolidate what the movement promotes. Egypt was never black and it was never white, Egypt is just Egypt. There are many great African/black civilizations, but Egypt was/is NOT one of them. Sign the petition to stop the falsification of history!”
Comments under the petition show a range of takes on the topic, all of which oppose the idea that ‘Cleopatra was Black’. What strikes me is the number of people claiming she was ‘Greek’. What does Greek mean here? A modern bioracial category (= ‘Whiteness’)? An ethnicity? A cultural identity? A continental belonging (‘Western Europe’ or, with its settler colonial expansions, ‘the West’)? One thing is sure: The good old debate as to whether Alexander and the Macedonian dynasties that ruled parts of his empire ‘belong’ to Greece or to Macedonia is alive and well.
The stance of the author of this petition agrees with former head of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities Dr Zahi Hawass’. In an English translation of an original piece written in the Arabic Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that was published in Egypt Independent on April 14 2023, Dr Hawass is quoted as saying:
“This is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was blonde, not black.”
I must admit I hadn’t seen the ‘blonde’ part coming.
Well, that’s not exactly true.
Indeed, Hawass’ comment reminded me of a clip I showed in my “Race and Ethnicity in the Ancient Mediterranean and West Asian World” this term. The short interview was posted on facebook in February 2022 by an account named Mr Imhotep. Asked whether the ancient Egyptians were Black, Dr Hawass responds:
“They were dark-skinned, but they’re not (n-word). Because look at the lips of the (n-word) like this and the nose like that. It’s really the Egyptian origin at all. It’s different. Completely different. And this is why you cannot connect the Egyptian civilization with the African at all. It’s different, at all, from Syria-Palestine and Mesopotamia. It’s different. Completely.”
You can watch the full clip here:
Zahi Hawass Admits That Egyptians Were Black Skinned | In order to determine ethnicity…
33K views, 1.2K likes, 256 loves, 749 comments, 1.7K shares, Facebook Watch Videos from Mr. Imhotep: In order to…
If I understand correctly, Dr Hawass’ stance is that ancient Egyptians were neither African nor West Asians, but Egyptians. His statement is striking in more than one way. First, it is based on a stereotypical use of phenotypical criteria that is rooted in 19th and 20th-century eugenics (see notably on the matter Debbie Challis’ book Archaeology and Race). Second, it downplays Egypt’s very tangible Africanity. There is, after all, no denying that the country is located on the African continent. More so, it also occludes a long-standing, and accreting array of evidence pertaining to the reality of very ancient (going back to Predynastic times) and sustained mobility between Egypt, North, Central and Eastern Africa, as well as West Asia. Such a story is in line with current nationalist narratives about Pharaonic Egyptian history as they have been marketed both within and outside the country (see for instance the 2021 Golden Parade).
There is a lot at play here that ties into what Usama Ali Gad, Rebecca Futo Kennedy and I wrote back in 2020 in a 2-part essay entitled “Casting Cleopatra: It’s All About Politics”. We still stand by our words, which were written in the context of the casting of Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Cleopatra. You can read them here and here.
That being said, I would like to gently remind all who, like me, are not Egyptian, to avoid lumping all c.110 million Egyptians living in the country as well as the large and widespread Egyptian diaspora worldwide under the umbrella of the petition author’s and Dr Hawass’ words. Same re the stance of the male lawyer who is suing Netflix over the documentary. While many Egyptians do agree with them, Egypt, like all countries, is a complex and multifaceted society, with its own intersecting layers of historical narratives, (post-)colonial traumas, internal politics.
A few months after Mr Imhotep’s short interview with Dr Hawass was published, Dr Amro Ali, a sociologist who has been writing extensively about Alexandrian hauntings, posted a thread in reaction to another claim to Cleopatra. This time, it took the form of a Hellenocentric meme. You can read Dr Ali’s nuanced insights here:
A few days ago, Dr Ali posted a sarcastic and satirical post regarding Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra saga. He kindly accepted I quote it here. Cause, why not?
In light of the Netflix Cleopatra saga trending lately, spare a thought for the previous six unfortunate Cleopatras who ruled Egypt and yet no Egyptian, Greek, Macedonian or Afrocentricist ever mentions them or wants to claim as their own because they were apparently boring and less scandal-prone women rulers. Cleopatras I, II, III, IV, V, and VI just don’t make the cut for Shakespeare, Elizabeth Taylor, or Netflix.
It seems that race debates, virulent nationalism, civilisational gatekeeping, and DNA are only activated to lay claim to the messed up famous historical figures. And the one, unlike the other six, who ended up losing a decisive war and a whole country.
Check up on your Cleopatras, they are hurting inside
So, where do we go from here?
I would like us all to think about the many positionings from which all modern stories about Cleopatra VII are told and sold. Not only the new Netflix one, all of them. Let’s think about who has the power to tell some stories, who speaks louder where, why they might want to tell the story they tell, what traumas, what hegemonic means are attached to them.
We have no clue who Cleopatra actually was as a person nor what she looked like. All our written sources are by non-locals, and to a great extent pro-Octavian men. I know this is a bit of a bankrupt comparison but imagine us knowing NZ PM Jacinda Arder not through her words and the words of the people she lived among and ruled, but through Fox News or The Sun’s lense. Let’s just say the reliability is … limited.
In a 2009 chapter entitled “Be Not Afraid of the Dark”, Shelley Haley writes:
“So my answer to the reporter and to my students and to colleagues — whether Afrocentric or Eurocentric in standpoint — is that Cleopatra, and indeed, the people of “the ancient world,” had a “race,” but that it is anachronistic to insist that she or they had a race as we understand it. Instead, we must search out and analyze their construct of race. So, my caveat to readers of this chapter is the same. Do not read our construct of race into ancient cultures. Did the Romans conceptualize a phenomenon such as “racial difference”? Yes. Did the Romans notice skin-color differences? Yes. Did they attach a value to skin-color differences? That question is not answered so easily. In any society’s value system, individuals are aggregates of multiple differences; judgments are then made according to the combination.”
The questions I find most interesting are not what was the colour of Cleopatra VII’s skin nor how would she be categorized bio-racially were she to live today in Egypt or in the USA (where, despite the fact that anti-Blackness does exist in both countries, relationships to racecraft are not 100% aligned). Rather, the following questions matter to me the most: What is each story aiming to achieve? What’s the end game here? What’s the master narrative under it all?
I want to end this post by citing a quote from Cree lawyer and writer Harold R. Johnson’s (excellent!) book The Power of Story. I’ve used it recently in conclusion to a talk on my project about historical appropriations in the ‘Freedom Convoy’ (re Classics-related appropriations more specifically, see this post). It think it is fitted in the present case too because it allows us to put all these stories into a broader perspective:
“Be very careful of everything you say. Every word that comes out of your mouth is a story. With every word you speak, every word you write, you can heal, or you can kill. So be careful. Watch what you say. After you learn to be careful with what you say, then learn to be careful with what you hear — what you listen to. You become the stories you take in — the stories you inhale — the stories you believe.”
Part 2 —Cleopatra VII: A Q & A, by Rebecca Futo Kennedy
The questions that follow are adapted from Armani Syed’s questionnaire. You can read her piece here.
Q: Was Cleopatra black? Was she Egyptian? What do we know about her ancestry for sure? How have these questions been answered what do these debates miss?
A: I should probably start with my standard statement on the misapplication of modern racial and ethnic identities to the ancient world and this answers part of the next question as well. To ask whether someone was “black” or “white” or “Black” or “White” is anachronistic and says more about modern political investments than attempting to understand antiquity on its own terms. As I wrote on the Society of Classical Studies’ facebook page: “I am getting at the issue of “lineage” and descent as the thing that makes one “Egyptian” or “Greek” or “Roman”. We know that one could be any of these things in antiquity by adoption, citizenship, descent, or cultural practice. We know that some people who called themselves Greeks did not think people of Macedonian descent (Ptolemies!) were Greek. We know the Ptolemies intermarried at least twice with Syrian-Macedonian-Greek families. We know Roman’s defined themselves through citizenship and Cleopatra may have gained it. We know Egyptians accepted her as pharaoh and considered her Egyptian. Our modern ethno-national or bioracial ideas did not define identity in antiquity, so how is it anything but modern ideology or anachronism to limit ancient identities to our specific model of parental birth? That is my point. My point is that if we want to be more historically accurate, we need to understand how ancient peoples considered their ethnicities instead of universalizing and de-historicizing our own views and putting them on them. It isn’t “rewriting history” to try to understand the past better in its own terms. It’s revising modern attempts at understanding history with better knowledge and nuance. But I have not seen the show (just the trailer), so I don’t know what they are doing fully. What I am saying only is that this “she was Greek not Egyptian” fundamentally misunderstands ancient ways of thinking.”
She could have been Greek, Macedonian, Egyptian, and Roman all at the same time because these are not a matter (only) of ancestry. This is only one way to “be” something. A small number of scholars point to an unknown spot or two in her family tree to suggest that her grandmother or even mother were “indigenous Egyptians”, which they then interpret as “Black”. Now, the reality is that one can say that there were ancient Egyptians we would today consider “black” in so far as they were non-Arab, non-Phoenician, Africans. And we see references in ancient sources to Black-skinned Egyptians. This is typical for men. Ideologically, women were associated with pale or “white” skin and men with dark or “black” skin. This is a gender division, not ethnic or modern bioracial.
Q: How have ancient depictions of Cleopatra VII painted a certain image of her that many cling to today?
A: There are many representations of Cleopatra as an Egyptian pharaoh, but these tend to get overlooked in favor of her coinage images, which present her more closely aligned with Greek standard iconography. These objects are for different audiences and reflect different aspects of Cleopatra’s identity. We should not separate them, but in our modern search for singular identities, we restrict Cleopatra in ways that she was not restricted to in her own life.
Q: Why do you think modern audiences are seeking concrete answers?
There is a tendency in the modern world to fixate on famous figures of the past who represent “civilizations”. Imagine that you are told (as Black Americans were) that their “people” have contributed nothing to world history and others around you (like “White” people) that all great civilizations are a result of European/White people. Imagine now that these ideas have been underpinned by claims being laid upon ancient civilizations as their “foundation” (like ancient Greek and Roman cultures) and as a justification for imperial domination of non-European spaces. Cleopatra is contentious and fought over because she is a larger than life historical figure based in the continent of Africa, which supposedly has contributed “nothing” to world history and the pushback comes as a result of historical anti-blackness.
Q: How does our understanding of Cleopatra, including her credentials, and history in general, change if we were to view her as Black?
It changes nothing about Cleopatra herself, but it changes the way people claim her or feel rights to claim her.
Q: Why do you think present-day Egyptians take issue with depictions of Cleopatra as Black?
There is a strong strand of anti-blackness in the Arab world that manifests in the desire to differentiate between MENA (Middle Eastern/North African) and “sub-Saharan”. The term “sub-Saharan” is relatively new and only emerged in the 1940s, so it seems to also reflect a strengthening of Egyptian nationalism and attempts to be not viewed as “Third World” or associated with the “backwardness” of Africa (see here and here). But, again, it is because of the strong ethno-nationalist way we tend to construct identities in the modern world. It isn’t just Egyptians, however. We see it with figures like Nassim Taleb, who have pushed back on the “blackwashing” of the pre-Arab ancient world (like with the Mary Beard-Taleb BBC Cartoon debacle back in 2017). That pushback is not rooted in historical evidence, but in a misapplication of genetics.
Q: Anything else you wish to add to these discussions?
I would add that I think asking the question “was Cleopatra black” or “Was Cleopatra “Greek” is the wrong set of questions to ask because it suggests that these are universal and not historically contingent categories. And it means that we continue to have the same conversations decade after decade instead of actually learning more about how the ancient world considered its own identities and those of the “others” around them.
P.S. As a complement:
For direct engagement with ancient primary evidence pertaining to Cleopatra VII, check out this 2006 textbook by Dr Prudence Jones, as well as, if you read Italian, this 2021 monograph by Dr Livia Capponi. From our perspective as historians, all primary evidence must be looked at/read keeping in mind the context of production: who produced (including in the present case gender, status, politics and the sponsor(s))? when (incl. whether the production was done in the Queen’s lifetime or centuries after)? where? why? for whom? Also, keep in mind the (written or iconographic) conventions that come with the medium used to portray the Queen, whether coins, Egyptian temple reliefs, marble statues or poetry. When an iconographical identification is proposed, pay attention to the criteria used to hypothesize or confirm this identification. For instance:
Some audio and video content worth a listen/watch: