Wasn’t Cleopatra Greek instead of black?

Netflix has added to the pile of insane new shows once more with a series about Cleopatra as a black woman. The Egyptian government got angry and has stated that she was light skinned. Historical falsification is once more a hot topic.

This partially goes back to an old not fully settled debate about what the native Egyptian population looked like. Were they native Africans or a Mediterranean people?

But it would seem largely beside the point since as any third-rate history student will tell you (or someone who watched Asterix and Obelix Mission Cleopatra) Cleopatra wasn’t African, she was Greek. She was a member of the Greek ruling dynasty of the Ptolemies founded by one of the generals of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy I. Was Ptolemy I black? Was Alexander the Great black? Were the Macedonians black? As has been pointed out, Elon Musk grew up in South Africa but that hardly makes him black. It doesn’t make him a native African.

While Ptolemy and his heirs went native in the sense of adopting many local customs that were traditional for Pharaoh’s, they did not take local wives. In fact, they kept the Greek royal blood pure by engaging in full-sibling incest several times (ironically a native Egyptian tradition going back thousands of years). Is the idea that Cleopatra was actually secretly adopted somehow?

Cleopatra could theoretically have been but this remains extremely unlikely. While Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemies, there have been some debates regarding her mother and grandmother. But while the identity of her mother is somewhat debated it seems nearly certain that she was Cleopatra V, the wife of her father and predecessor Ptolemy XII who in Egyptian fashion was either a sister or first cousin of her husband.

Cleopatra V’s is a relatively obscure member of the dynasty but her parents were either Ptolemy X (Ptolemy XII’s uncle) and his niece and wife Berenice III (Ptolemy XII’s (half? -) sister making her husband both her first cousin and uncle, or Ptolemy IX (her husband Ptolemy XII’s father and therefore Cleopatra’s grandfather) and his sister-wife Cleopatra IV making her and her husband indeed siblings who were the product of sibling incest themselves. The blood was either pure or purer.

The only complicating factor for a while was that Romans (who didn’t like Ptolemy XII) called him a bastard. That would have made him the first bastard king in Ptolemaic history (yet he ascended the throne without issue) and this resulted in speculation about whether his mother was a concubine of Ptolemy IX.

Some believed she would have been from the Alexandrian elite, but there was a theory that she was a part of the native Egyptian elite which would have made Cleopatra ¼ Egyptian. Historians Lefkowits and Cheshire helped put this theory to rest however. Chris Bennett has argued that Ptolemy XII’s mother was Cleopatra IV and that he was considered illegitimate simply because she had never been co-regent which had been the norm for Egyptian queens for over a century at that point. This theory is endorsed by the historian Adrian Goldsworthy. In this case her grandparents were full brother and sister. Extremely pure blood indeed.

Furthermore, accusations of illegitimacy of Ptolemy IX’s heir born during various intrigues and conflicts within the dynasty may largely represent slander.

IF the native Egyptians are believed to have been black(ish) and IF she indeed had a native mother (small chance) then it is possible that Cleopatra was partially black but only partially.

While the historical inaccuracies for the sake of (extremely dumb) woke politics are infuriating, it’s not actually an insult against a native Egyptian historical figure. Why did the Egyptian government get so upset? Cleopatra was not (fully?) a native Egyptian but partially if not fully Greek. She was a ruler from a colonial dynasty that ruled over Egypt in a sense.

The Egyptian population from Cleopatra’s time isn’t ethnically the same as the current population anyways. Obviously, the current Egyptian population had a long of Roman/Byzantine and then Arab and Turkish elements added.

But why the specific focus on her being light skinned? Isn’t the main issue that she was Greek? European and not Northern African?

It’s like having the last Emperor of China portrayed by a black man. Or even a Japanese man. Or a Han Chinese actually. He should be played by a Manchu, period! Genghis Kahn by a Mongolian! To be clear, not all Eastern people look alike.

John Logan

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