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Why Cleopatra was not Black

Updated on November 2, 2015
Jeramey Conrad profile image

Jeramey is a jack-of-all-trades and master of... a bunch. Two Master's degrees, but I never refer to them for my expertise, I *use* them

Cleopatra bust

Marblebust of Cleopatra VII of Egypt from 30-40 BCE
Marblebust of Cleopatra VII of Egypt from 30-40 BCE | Source

Cleopatra is one of the most famous figures in history,

To many, she is synonymous with Egypt, perhaps rivaled only by King Tut or the Book of Exodus's Ramses as famous rulers of Egypt.

A lot of people want to claim her as their own for a sense of pride and cultural affinity. However, this is often based on some erroneous assumptions.

Angelina Jolie at the premiere of "Alexander'' in Cologne.
Angelina Jolie at the premiere of "Alexander'' in Cologne. | Source

Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra?

There was a great deal of concern and quite a controversy when it was revealed actress and producer Angelina Jolie intended to produce and star in a Hollywood Cleopatra movie, as per the Sony email hacks.

Most of the arguments were, "She can't play Cleopatra, she's white!" or "Haven't we had enough of Hollywood's problem with white-washing famous historical people?" (John Wayne as Genghis Khan comes to mind), "This is 2015 we should find qualified actors of the right ethnicity to play these roles!"

This movie isn't even close to being made and people are very concerned. Why?

Egyptians are Africans

Most of the complaints come from the very well-intentioned goal of casting more actors of color in general, and especially in roles where they reflect the actual historical people of color the film depicts. See the controversy over how "white" the 2015 Stonewall film was.

But why? Most look no farther than a map and see that Egypt is in Africa and call it a case closed. Ignoring the fact that continents are just a useful construct when discussing geography. There is nothing close to a universal cultural, linguistic, or physical similarity to people who just happen to live on the same continent. What do an Arab, a Siberian and a Vietnamese have to do with each other, let alone a Tibetan, an Uzbek and an Indian?

Drawing a conclusion on something about a person from as broad a category as "continent" is faulty reasoning. Even if you knew the cultural group or nation, one would be hard-pressed to reach anything more than a lucky guess about skin color, language, or religion. There are likelihoods, sure, but no guarantees.

Which of these demonyms refers to black people?


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Egypt: Africa or Middle East?

Africans are Black

What do you think of when you think of "Africa", "Nubia", "Kush", "Ethiopia" or "Sudan"?

Which, if any of these, to you mean "black people"?

Africa

The Roman province of Africa Proconsularis was established after the Romans defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War. It was the richest province in the western part of the empire. The Arabs later named roughly the same region as the original province Ifriqiya (إفريقية) from the Latin language. During medieval history the area comprised what is today Tunisia, western Libya and eastern Algeria – roughly coterminous with what was the Africa Province of the Roman Empire.

Carthage was populated by the Phoenicians, who are the present-day Lebanese. Rome, of course, was largely a population of Italian and other Southern European peoples. And the Arabs were also from south-west Asia. None of the people who gave “Africa” its name (as it used to only apply to the area centered around modern Tunisia, similar to how “Asia” only applied to the Anatolian peninsular, today’s Turkey) were what we consider to be “Black”. There was no sub-Saharan component to the name. The idea that “African = Black” is totally baseless.

Nubia

Nubia is a region along the Nile in modern northern Sudan and southern Egypt. Nubia was one of the first civilizations in Northeastern Africa. Its history can be traced from 2000 B.C. via written records from Rome and Egypt.

The name Nubia comes from the Noba people, who were nomads who spoke a Nilo-Saharan language and settled the area in the 4th century. Nubia was also known as Kush, or, in Classical Greek usage Ethiopia.

Several pharaohs were of Nubian origin, particularly those of the 12th Dynasty (1991–1786 B.C.E.) which originated from the Aswan region. These rulers became assimilated and tended the nation in Egyptian fashion, they exhibited typical Egyptian attitudes and adopted typical Egyptian policies. In the New Kingdom, Nubians and Egyptians were often so closely related that some scholars consider them virtually indistinguishable, as the two cultures melded and mixed together.

But to many this concept of “Black Nubians” is still current. There is no evidence that the Nubians were black or were any different than the Egyptians. And if Nubians were Black, only the ruling class during a handful of periods were from Nubia. There was no population shift for the millions of Egyptians who were not royalty.

Kush

The Kingdom of Kush was an ancient African kingdom centered where the Blue and White Niles, and the River Atbara meet in what is now the Republic of Sudan. Kush was an Egyptian colony during the New Kingdom period (16th century BCE) in Egypt, and was sometimes known as “Nubia”. Its ruler was known as the “Viceroy of Kush”. In 1070 BCE the New Kingdom dissolved and Kush became an independent kingdom with a capital at Napata.

In the 8th century BCE Kush invaded Egypt, led by King Kashta – which, in ancient Egyptian, simply meant “The Kushite”. Kushite kings ruled Egypt as pharaohs in what is called the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty of Egypt. This dynasty, where Egypt was ruled by Kushite kings, lasted until the nation was conquered by the Assyrians.

While Egyptian sources variously called their southerly neighbors “Nubian” or “Kushite”, the invading Assyrians and early Greek geographers labeled the nation “Ethiopia”. This phrase is often found during Classical Antiquity. The Nubian capital during this period was Meroë, and the kingdom lasted until the 4th century AD, when it fell into civil war.

The Kushite capital was eventually captured and burnt to the ground by the Kingdom of Axum – who we know as the forerunners of modern Ethiopia.

The name “Kush” was used by the historical biblical scholar Josephus, who connected the ethnogenesis of the kingdom with that of the biblical character Cush, in the Hebrew Bible (Hebrew: כוש), one of the sons of Ham (Genesis 10:6). Ham had four sons named: Cush, Put, Canaan and Mizraim (the latter was the Hebrew name for Egypt).

Whether the Kushites were a light-skinned or dark-skinned people is still discussed, but most likely there were of the similar ethnicity as the native Egyptians and Semites across the Red Seas. In fact, most scholars think there is not enough evidence to think of them as anything more than Southern Egyptians. They were occasional rulers of Egypt, but had no lasting impact.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia gets its name from the Greek word “Αἰθιοπία”, derived from the Greek words aitho "I burn" + ops "face", implying that to the Greeks’ eyes the residents of what they called Ethiopia had a darker skin – not only to the Greeks themselves, but presumably compared to that of their neighbors as well. Whether this was a “black”, “brown”, “red”, or “tan” cannot be known any longer. This name appears in the historical epic poems Iliad and the Odyssey twice and thrice, respectively. The Greek historian Herodotus specifically uses it for all the lands south of Egypt, including modern Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

In the 8th century BCE a kingdom named “D’mt” with a capital near Yeha was established in modern Ethiopia, which many scholars believe to have been composed of a joint multi-cultural polity of Semitic and Cushitic peoples. African Cushitic Agaw people and Semitic people named Sabaeans from Arabia across the Red Sea. D’mt fell in the 4th century BCE, and in the 1st century CE the first records of the Kingdom of Axum (also sometimes spelled Aksum) are found in what is modern Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The Persian religious figure Mani listed Axum, Rome, Persia and China as the four great powers of the 3rd century CE, his contemporary writing period.

The name Ethiopia also occurs in many Greek translations of the Old Testament, but in the Hebrew and Aramaic original languages the comparable term used is Kush, which scholars also apply to Nubia. In the New Testament, however, the Greek term Aithiops, “an Ethiopian”, does occur.

The confusion over whether Nubia, Kush, or Ethiopia are the name for the same kingdom can be found in the name of the capital, which at that time was still Meroe. In the fourth century CE, the capital city was conquered by the Kingdom of Axum. Later, inscriptions transliterated to “Ityopya” were found, commemorating King Ezana converting the kingdom to Christianity.
In the 15th century book, written in an early form of the modern language of Ethiopia – Ge'ez, the “Book of Aksum” (Liber Axumae), the name of the nation is said to be derived from a legendary figure named “Ityopp'is” a supposed son of the biblical Cush, son of Ham, who is also said to have built the capital, Mazaber.

The modern nation was also known as Abyssinia, which comes from the Ge’ez ethnonym “Habesha” which was Arabacized to “Al-Habashah” which was Anglicized to “Abyssinia”.
Ethiopia had very little influence on historical Egypt, except when the term was used mistakenly to refer to Nubia/Kush. They were largely a Semitic people, having more in common with those of Southern Arabia, such as modern Yemen, than their neighbors in the Nile or Saharan regions of Afria.

Sudan

The modern country's place name Sudan was a name given to a geographical region to the south of the Sahara, stretching from Western to eastern Central Africa. The name derives from the Arabic bilād as-sūdān (بلاد السودان), or "the lands of the Blacks", an expression denoting West Africa and northern-Central Africa. In many uses it was actually intended for what is known to modern geographers as "West Africa" (Mali, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, etc) rather than the area in North-East Africa which bears its name today.

Quiz score rationale

“Sudanese” was the most correct answer, as it literally comes from the Arabic, Bilad as-Sudan, meaning “the land of the blacks”. I gave positive two points for this answer.
“Ethiopian” comes from the Greek meaning “burned face” and is largely accepted to refer to those with a much browner skin than the Greeks were used to seeing, most likely any of those who were Semitic, Persian, and Mediterranean North Africans. It is unknown what exactly this ever meant. I gave positive one point for this answer.
“Abyssinia” many people may have known to be an alternate name for “Ethiopia” (like Holland and The Netherlands) but it has a different derivation, so I just gave a neutral score, 0 points, for this response.
“Nubian, Kushite, and Egyptian” were several long-standing empires and nation-states and each referred to a polity rather than a people. As such they were probably cosmopolitan and had people from many different races, at least especially in the cities or among the merchant class. Negative one point was given for this answer.
“African” is completely meaningless when it comes to race. There are white Africans, and not just the descendants of modern European colonizers, but many North and East Africans are what may be considered “white” in other cultures. Negative two points were given for this response.

Who was Cleopatra?

The short answer? Some Greek lady.

The name Cleopatra is derived from the Greek κλέος (kleos) meaning "glory" and πατήρ (pater) meaning "father", so her name meant something like, "she who comes from glorious father" in the feminine form.

Cleopatra VII Philopator was born in 69 BCE and died 30 BCE. She was a Pharoah of Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty. Does this make her an Egyptian? No.

Ptolemy was one of Alexander the Great's seven most trusted generals and deputies, and was appointed "satrap" (a Persian rank similar to "governor") of Egypt after Alexander's death in 323 BC. In 305 BC, he declared himself King Ptolemy I, and the Egyptians accepted his descendants (known as "the Ptolemies") as the successors to the pharaohs of independent Egypt. The Ptolemaic (tɒ-lə-meɪ-ɨk) dynasty was thus a Macedonian Greek royal family which ruled Egypt for almost 300 years. This period is often called either "the Ptolemaic Kingdom" or "the Hellenistic period".

The Ptolemies, throughout their dynasty, spoke Greek and refused to speak Egyptian, which is the reason that Greek as well as Egyptian languages were used on official court documents such as the Rosetta Stone.

As Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, she was of Macedonian Greek origin. And this was not a case of her outsider father marrying into locals, nor anyone of the Ptolemies. They didn't just refrain from speaking the language, but didn't interact with the locals hardly at all. The Ptolemies married each other. Cleopatra's mother (Cleopatra V of Egypt) was her father's (Ptolemy XII Auletes) sister or first cousin (more on that later).

Cleopatra ruled jointly with her father, and then her two brothers, all of them named Ptolemy (numbers XII through XIV). She married both of her brothers, but did not produce any children. Then she became sole ruler, met some guy named Julius Caesar (an important historical figure, it would seem) and had a son with him named Caesarion, whom she appointed to be a co-ruler with her. After something bad happened to Caesar in mid-March 44 BCE, she had three children with Mark Antony, Cleopatra Selene II, Alexander Helios, and Ptolemy Philadelphus. After Mark Antony committed suicide, so did Cleopatra herself, traditionally believed to be via asp bite on August 12, 30 BCE. She was followed as Pharaoh by Caesarion, who was then killed by Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Caesar's legal heir eliminating his potential competition) and Egypt became the Roman province of "Aegyptus".

The Death of Cleopatra

The Death of Cleopatra c1659 Oil on canvas 153 × 168.5 cm (60.2 × 66.3 in)
The Death of Cleopatra c1659 Oil on canvas 153 × 168.5 cm (60.2 × 66.3 in) | Source

Beyond mere incest, systemic inbreeding

If you thought the Targaryens were bad, read this closely.

The high degree of inbreeding amongst the Ptolemies is also illustrated by Cleopatra's immediate ancestry. There were at least three marriages brother-to-sister, and three more of uncle-to-niece, to say nothing of the number of first cousin couplings.

At any point in Cleopatra's ancestry looking four, five or six generations prior, all of her ancestors are one contemporary couple. Without inbreeding one traditionally has 16, 32, and 64 different ancestors at those points.

Unless some native Egyptians migrated to Macedonia 300 years earlier and rose to a high position in Philip's court or in Alexander's armies, there is no way Cleopatra was an ethnic Egyptian.

Conclusion

By no means is it certain that Cleopatra was not Black. We will simply never know. But we can be reasonably certain she was mostly Greek. Or Macedonian (that's a completely different story!). And we can be definitely sure that every member of her family tree was also Macedonian Greek.

From this we can surmise she looked like what South-Eastern Europeans look like today. Even if she were actually Egyptian and not a Macedonian Greek, she'd look like what North Africans look like today, certainly not as dark or with the features of someone from Senegal, Cameroon, or Kenya.

Next time someone is clamoring for more Black representation in Hollywood -- support them! But suggest a different avenue than Cleopatra. There's the glorious empires of the Mali, Songhai, and Ghana in West Africa. The fabled city of Timbuktu and its luxuries and centers for scholarship. There's the well-known figure of Shaka Zulu and the rest of the Zulu Empire. There's the Swahili trade federations of East Africa and the island city-state of Zanzibar. There's tons of interesting historical African figures, and a lot of them are Black to boot!

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  • Jeramey Conrad profile image
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    Jeramey Conrad 2 years ago from Northeastern United States

    Hi Will, what point, exactly, did I fail to prove? That Cleopatra was not 100% Macedonian Greek? Maybe she wasn't, but she still would have been 96% Greek. Or 94%. There's only so much ethnic wiggle room when you have one great-great-great-grandmother instead of 16.

    Or am I biased because I did not conclude that Cleopatra was a "Nubian" or some other "black-skinned" Egyptian who never existed or left no cultural or physiological imprint on Egypt.

    It's nothing against black people, brown people, or Egyptian people -- it's just a fact that Cleopatra was none of those things. Anyone claiming otherwise is feeding you fairytales.

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    Will4444 2 years ago

    What a ridiculous article. The author did nothing to prove his point. Only biased guesses.

    "Next time someone is clamoring for more Black representation in Hollywood -- support them! But suggest a different avenue than Cleopatra. There's the glorious empires of the Mali, Songhai, and Ghana in West Africa. The fabled city of Timbuktu and its luxuries and centers for scholarship. There's the well-known figure of Shaka Zulu and the rest of the Zulu Empire. There's the Swahili trade federations of East Africa and the island city-state of Zanzibar. There's tons of interesting historical African figures, and a lot of them are Black to boot!"

    What a funny snarky person you are, Jeramey Conrad.

  • savvydating profile image

    Yves 2 years ago

    Hmmm. Very interesting. I'll plan on looking into this Greek ancestry thing. (My last name means Greek) The good news is that you are not denigrating African (Americans), rather---you are simply trying to set the record straight. As for Ms. Jolie playing Cleopatra, uh...no---unless she grows a bigger nose. An interesting and well written article. You have piqued my interest in this historical figure. I thank you for that.

  • Jeramey Conrad profile image
    Author

    Jeramey Conrad 2 years ago from Northeastern United States

    Thanks, Nell! It's kinda weird how often people just say, "Oh, maybe she just had a Greek name?" Or that as a classical figure we refer to her by her name in Greek (as in the case of Persepolis -- I seriously doubt the ancient Iranians called their capital "Persian City" in Greek). But yes, largely I wanted to address the fact that people make assumptions based on false equivalencies and other logical fallacies that aren't borne out by history or geography.

  • Jeramey Conrad profile image
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    Jeramey Conrad 2 years ago from Northeastern United States

    Thanks Farawaytree. There's a lot of information out there, but most of the time, we in modern times just assume we know it already. I just try to present what may be a tired topic to some in a refreshing way,

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

    Great info, and of course Cleopatra was Greek! as you said, so many people want to jump to conclusions!

  • Farawaytree profile image

    Michelle Zunter 2 years ago from California

    Fantastic hub Jeramey! I'm always interested in anything to do with Cleopatra and you really gave a terrific read. I learned many new things!