A new Netflix docuseries, named Queen Cleopatra, highlights the lives of powerful women throughout history. However, the trailer for the series introduces an unfortunate and highly subjective notion that “Cleopatra was black.” The speaker, an American of African descent, shares that her grandmother expressed this idea, but her assertion was based on a flawed generalization that all Africans are black and the erroneous belief that skin color is essential for judging an individual’s worth. While it is understandable to seek female African heroines, it is crucial to ensure factual accuracy.
Making documentaries about famous queens is a commendable service that Netflix may offer, but applying crude racial criteria to historical figures is inappropriate. This is a challenging task when looking back to the first century BC, but it is slightly more manageable when examining Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. She belonged to a Greek dynasty ruling over Egypt, tracing back to Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy. By her reign, thirteen kings of Egypt named Ptolemy had ruled, including a few eccentric rulers. The Ptolemies frequently married other Greeks, occasionally even their sisters, which was an ancient Egyptian custom that many Greeks found distasteful. It is uncertain who Cleopatra’s mother was, but there are sufficient grounds to argue that she was not of Egyptian descent. The most one could say is that some of the blood of the dynasty of Mithridates, king of Pontus (Anatolia and the Black Sea region), flowed through Cleopatra’s veins.
Mithridates used his Persian heritage for political purposes, just as Cleopatra used her Egyptian heritage, with one distinction: Cleopatra’s Egyptian ancestry did not exist. However, she appeared in carvings as an Egyptian Pharaoh making oblations to ancient Egyptian deities. Conveniently, in Ptolemaic Egypt, there was also an invented god called Serapis, a fusion of a Greek and Egyptian deity.
Cleopatra expressed her Greekness in her daily speech. She likely conversed with her Roman lovers, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, in Greek, not Latin. She was the first Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt to bother learning Egyptian, but she also had several other languages at her disposal. Like several of her predecessors who endowed the famous Library of Alexandria, she was exceptionally knowledgeable.
Her capital, Alexandria, was not one of the ancient Egyptian cities. Alexandrians were unsure if they even lived in Egypt, as the popular phrase Alexandria ad Aegyptum indicated. The word “ad” meant “on the way to,” not “in.” Alexandrians, many of whom were Greek, along with many Jews, saw themselves as part of the broader cultural world of Hellenistic Greece. The Jews even read the Torah aloud in Greek in their synagogues, one of which Cleopatra built for them.
The question of Cleopatra’s appearance is simple. Several busts and coin images are thought to depict her. She had a prominent nose. Her beauty was possibly a myth. She was the last of her line and became indebted to Roman factions for political support, leading to disastrous consequences that resulted in her suicide. This event led to the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire, and Rome began importing massive amounts of Egyptian grain, which was distributed to Roman citizens.
Martin Bernal’s book, Black Athena, is the most infamous attempt to characterize ancient Egyptian civilization as “black.” Bernal was a Sinologist, the son of the distinguished scientist, and radical socialist J.D. Bernal. Fascination with his medieval Spanish Jewish heritage led him to ancient Middle Eastern history and the assertion that the roots of Greek civilization were not the most notorious attempt to characterise ancient Egyptian civilisation as ‘black’ can be found in a book by Martin Bernal entitled Black Athena. Bernal was a Sinologist, the son of the distinguished scientist and radical socialist J.D. Bernal. Fascination with his remote Jewish roots in medieval Spain led him to the ancient history of the Middle East and to the assertion that the roots of Greek civilization were not European but African and Asiatic (through the Phoenicians of Lebanon).
Anyone looking at archaic Greek sculpture will quickly see the debt that early Greek artists owed to Egyptian statuary, particularly in the kouroi, statues of young males. But the distance between admitting that the Greeks were inspired by what they saw in neighboring lands and the argument that Greek civilization was borrowed lock, stock, and barrel from Egypt is enormous, and Bernal’s book was rubbished when it appeared in 1987, even though it still has its enthusiastic admirers who are content to ignore Bernal’s haphazard use of evidence and his constant errors of fact. Most, though, have probably not gone further than the book’s alluring title.
Netflix may well be doing a good service by making documentaries about famous queens, but attaching crude racial criteria to these figures makes nonsense of the past. What, one might ask, would they do with Kahina, the Berber queen at the time of the Arab invasion of North Africa, who may have been Jewish and may – like many Berbers today – have been fair-skinned and blue-eyed? Or the first slaves exported from West Africa by the Portuguese, fair-skinned Berbers from Mauritania and the Canaries? It is the now familiar problem of the historical truth getting in the way of a simple cultural or political agenda.
Here is the trailer of Queen Cleopatra where a woman recalled her grandmother saying to her, “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.”