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Was Cleopatra Black? A Netflix Show Is Stirring Controversy

Debates over the “race” of Cleopatra, the Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, are ahistorical as they reflect contemporary views about race rather than how people were understood in ancient times. Some experts say they highlight the modern conceptualization of race that became prevalent during the 17th and 18th centuries. Cleopatra belonged to the Ptolemy dynasty that descended from Greek Macedonian roots and ruled ancient Egypt during its Hellenistic era. However, the part of Cleopatra’s bloodline that remains a mystery is that of her mother and paternal grandmother. While there is no evidence to suggest her grandmother was black, references to black-skinned Egyptians are present in ancient texts, but there is a gendered element to it. Women were associated with pale or “white” skin and men with dark or “black” skin. Cleopatra could have been Greek, Macedonian, Egyptian, and Roman all at the same time. The visual representations of Cleopatra have been historically overlooked in favor of her likeness on coinage, which aligns more closely with standard Greek iconography. Racial classifications as recognized today are largely a product of 17th and 18th century Western anthropological thought, particularly during the European Enlightenment. The classifications were created far too late to accurately apply to ancient civilizations. Cleopatra was the last member of the Ptolemy dynasty to rule Egypt after 5,000 years of Pharaonic rule. Her reign lasted 21 years before she died by suicide in 30 BC. Cleopatra undertook medical studies as well as learning philosophy, rhetoric, and oratory, and was believed to speak many languages in addition to her native Greek. Upon the death of her father, Cleopatra ascended the throne in 51 BC, sharing it with one of her younger brothers Ptolemy XIII, but she eventually claimed the so-called double crown, replacing her brother as the sole ruler.

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