In Cleopatra, a recent Netflix documentary, Cleopatra is depicted as a Black African ruler, which has led to a renewed debate about her racial identity. However, Cleopatra was not black, but rather of Macedonian Greek descent.
To understand why Cleopatra was not black, we must look at her family history and the political context of her time. Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled Egypt from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE.
The Ptolemies were Macedonian Greeks, who traced their ancestry to one of Alexander’s Generals, Ptolemy I Soter. They ruled over a largely Egyptian population, but their cultural and ethnic identity remained distinctly Greek.
The Ptolemaic dynasty was founded in the aftermath of Alexander’s conquest of Egypt, which ended the reign of the native Black Nubian Egyptian Pharaohs of Kemet.
The Ptolemaic dynasty was therefore founded after the Nubian Dynasty had been overthrown, and there is no evidence that Cleopatra had any direct Nubian ancestry.
It is true that there were some Nubians who served in the Ptolemaic court as soldiers, administrators, and servants, but they were not in positions of power or authority. The Ptolemaic rulers identified themselves as Greek and maintained a Greek culture and way of life.
Furthermore, Cleopatra’s lineage can be traced back to the original founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy I Soter.
Ptolemy I was a general in Alexander’s army and was appointed satrap (governor) of Egypt after Alexander’s death. He established a new dynasty, which was initially based in Alexandria, the city that Alexander had founded on the Mediterranean coast. Ptolemy I married a Macedonian princess, Berenice I, and their son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, married his full sister, Arsinoe II, in order to maintain the purity of the royal bloodline.
The Ptolemaic rulers were careful to maintain their Greek identity, even though they lived in Egypt and ruled over an Egyptian population. They built magnificent temples and palaces in the Greek style and promoted Greek culture and learning. The city of Alexandria, which became the capital of the Ptolemaic kingdom, was a cosmopolitan center of trade and scholarship, with a large Greek population.
In order to emphasize their Greek identity, the Ptolemaic Dynasty even went as far as creating the new Egyptian Deity Serapis who was revered by Greeks in Kemet.
Cleopatra herself was highly educated and spoke several languages, including Greek and Egyptian. She was known for her intelligence and political skill, and she cultivated alliances with powerful figures in Rome, including Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Her reign was marked by both successes and failures, but her influence on history is undeniable.
Despite her Greek cultural background and the lack of evidence for any direct Nubian ancestry, there have been claims that Cleopatra was black. Some of these claims have been made in recent years, particularly in the context of debates about representation and diversity in popular culture.
The recent Netflix documentary “Cleopatra” which portrays Cleopatra as a black African ruler, is just one example of this trend.
However, the claim that Cleopatra was black is not supported by the historical evidence.
In fact, it is based on a misunderstanding of what race and ethnicity meant in the ancient world. The concept of race, as we understand it today, did not exist in ancient times. People identified themselves primarily by their language, religion, and cultural practices, rather than by their physical appearance. The idea that someone was black or white based on the colour of their skin would have been meaningless to people in Cleopatra’s time.
Furthermore, the boundaries between different ethnic and cultural groups were often fluid and porous.
People moved and migrated between different regions and kingdoms, and intermarriage was common. The Ptolemaic dynasty itself was founded by a Macedonian Greek general who had served in Alexander’s army, but it ruled over a largely Egyptian population. The Ptolemies maintained their Greek identity and culture, but they also adopted some aspects of Egyptian culture and religion, and they promoted a hybrid culture that combined elements of both Greek and Egyptian traditions as exemplified by the creation of the Deity Serapis.
The fact that Cleopatra was not black does not mean that she was not a significant figure in African history.
Egypt, after all, is a part of Africa, and it has a long and rich history that stretches back thousands of years. Cleopatra was one of the last rulers of an ancient civilization that had flourished for centuries, and her reign marked the end of an era. She was a powerful and charismatic leader who left a lasting impression on those who knew her, and her legacy has been the subject of fascination and speculation for centuries.
In conclusion, Cleopatra was probably not Black because she was of Macedonian Greek descent. Her cultural and ethnic identity was shaped by the fact that she was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was founded by a Macedonian Greek general who had served in Alexander’s army.
While Cleopatra ruled over an Egyptian population and adopted some aspects of Egyptian culture and religion, she maintained her Greek identity and way of life.
Claims that Cleopatra was Black are based on a misapplication of Afrocentrism as well as what race and ethnicity meant in the ancient world, and they ignore the complexity of her cultural and political context.
As such, whilst it may be true that Cleopatra was African because Egypt is in Africa, this does not necessarily mean she was of Black African Ancestry since she was the descendent of a Greek Macedonian Dynasty.
In addition, it should also be remembered that unlike the Black Empresses of Ancient Kemet that ruled before the Greek Ptolemaic Dynasty, Cleopatra was unable to preserve the sovereignty of Egypt because Egypt was conquered by Rome under her reign whereas the previous Black Female Rulers of Kemet like Queen Ahmose Nefartari, Queen Tiye and Queen Amanirenas defended Egypt’s sovereignty, and in some cases actually expanded Kemet to its greatest territorial extent under the Rulership of Thutmoses III of the 18th Dynasty.