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Dispelling Some Myths: Cleopatra the 'African' Queen

Updated: Feb 17


On August 17th, 2022 the Trimontium Trust (@TrimontiumTrust) reminded Twitter users that Queen Cleopatra of Egypt committed suicide on August 10th or 12th, 30 BC. To conclude the tweet, shown right, it was asked ‘Who is your favourite Cleopatra on the screen?’


The Egyptian queen has been the subject of numerous Hollywood movies over the last 100 years. The earliest the author is aware of is ‘Cléopâtre’ an 1899 French drama film directed by Georges Méliès [1]. Jeanne d'Alcy became the first actress in history to play Cleopatra VII in the cinema. It is also notable as one of the first horror films made where, during a desecration of Cleopatra's tomb, the queen's mummy is burned only for her ghost to reappear from the smoke. Significantly, the film set a benchmark for subsequent interpretations of the Queen as French born Jeanne d'Alcy was the first of many white women to play the role.



Over the following century the enigmatic Queen of the Nile has been played in movies by actresses such as Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, and, most famously, Elizabeth Taylor. Sadly, the one thing these actresses all had in common, other than the eponymous role, was that they were all white, Caucasian women. Perhaps Hollywood thought kohl eyeliner and a black wig were the only things needed to transform any white actress into the Queen of Egypt. On television, however, some effort to move away from this movie trope has been notable in some documentaries and drama series. In 1999, for example, Chilean actress Leonor Varela stepped into the role for the US television miniseries ‘Cleopatra’. Casting an olive-skinned woman marked a degree of progress, but Varela’s version of the queen has largely been forgotten. Six years later, HBO’s ‘Rome’ series (2005) saw the queen played by Lyndsey Marshal who, although British, definitely had a more ‘Mediterranean’ complexion.


Revelation Then, in 2009, a team of archaeologists found the skeletal remains of a woman they considered to be Princess Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s sister [2]. The researchers believe the remains, found in an octagon-shaped tomb in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that the mother of both princesses had an ‘”African” skeleton’ (BBC News, 2009). According to Hilke Thuer of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who made the discovery: ‘That Arsinoe had an African mother is a real sensation which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra’s family and the relationship of the sisters Cleopatra and Arsinoe.’


The discovery fuelled arguments calling into question the long-held acceptance that Cleopatra was ethnically Greek. As far as most historians are concerned she was a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, the Macedonian general who ruled Egypt (reigned 305/304 to 282 BC) after the death of Alexander the Great. In essence her families’ ancestry was Macedonian which, in turn, would strongly suggest that Cleopatra most likely had an olive-skinned Mediterranean Greek appearance. Yet, the 2009 discovery has led some, most notably on the internet, to vociferously claim that she was in fact a black African. Are they correct?


The docudrama The BBC’s ‘Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer’ was broadcast in the UK on March 23rd, 2009. The ‘documentary’ sets out the evidence purportedly proving the skeleton recovered in an octagon-shaped tomb in Ephesus was that of princess Arsinoe. As is so predictable of such programmes it is highly dramatized. In docudrama scenes actors portray the main historical characters while presenter Neil Oliver, doing what he does best, regales the audience with the sensational story of intrigue that involved Julius Caesar (played by Daniel Pellean), Cleopatra (Camelia ben Sakour), her brothers, and her sister Arsinoe (Karima Gouit). For the most part the ‘documentary’ really only retells the story of Cleopatra’s rise to power. If it was stripped of all the interpretative drama scenes, then the remaining archaeological science sequences would leave the viewing time at little more than 15 minutes. But critiquing the production is not the focus. Rather, let us look at the scientific evidence behind the discovery as revealed in the film.


Osteoarchaeology Dr Fabian Kanz of the Medical University of Vienna had examined the near complete skeleton. From his analysis he determined the skeleton was of a petite female aged approximately between 15 and 18 years old. Carbon dating revealed the young woman had died sometime between 200 BC and 20 BC which, although a window of almost two centuries, did tentatively place the skeleton in Cleopatra’s lifetime (69 BC to 30 BC).


Unfortunately for Dr Kanz the skull had been removed from Turkey by earlier archaeologists and sent to Germany in the 1920s. It was subsequently lost in the chaos of the Second World War, but fortuitously the skull had been photographed and its dimensions recorded. Using this detailed information, a team from the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee led by Caroline Wilkinson [3] were able to reconstruct the deceased’s skull. Dr Wilkinson noted that the morphology [4] of the subject’s eye sockets was indeed consistent with the age calculated by Dr Kanz - a young female. Significantly for the current discussion, her colleague, Dr Chris Rynn noted: ‘She had a very prominent nasal root, kind of like ancient Greek sculpture, that kind of classical nose shape.’ The emphasis is the author’s but the nose was described as ‘distinct and very straight’, and to the experts a strong indicator of ancient Greek ancestry.


Discussing the shape of the skull, Dr Caroline Wilkinson stated: ‘The distance from the forehead to the back of the skull is long in relation to the overall height of the cranium, and that is something you see quite frequently in certain populations one of which is ancient Egyptians. Another would be black African groups will also show that characteristic. This one certainly looks more white European, but it has this long head shape. It could suggest a mixture of ancestry.’

It is suspected that the shape of the skull and its association with black African groups was the catalyst for the claim Cleopatra was a black woman. Yet note what Dr Wilkinson actually said: ‘certain populations’ exhibit this characteristic of which one is black Africans and, most notably, another is ancient Egyptians, the very group to which Cleopatra belonged. Moreover, according to Dr Wilkinson the head shape ‘looks more white European’. These two factors combined suggested to the Dundee team that Cleopatra, and by association her siblings, might have been of mixed ancestry. Presumably to prove this beyond reasonable would require DNA analysis to reveal the appropriate markers. Yet even this assumes viable DNA can be recovered from the bones and that the woman’s remains are definitively Arsinoe’s, which is far from proven. All the Dundee team can say with any degree of certainty is that:


  • The woman was definitely African (remembering that Egypt is quite clearly in Africa. North Africa to be precise.)


  • She did not exhibit the typical facial features of a sub-Saharan black African.


Bombshell? Never one to let science get in the way of a good story, however, at 55 minutes into a 59 minute long programme the narrator, Neil Oliver, drops the ‘bombshell’ that: ‘Our revelation backs up the controversial theory that the princess and therefore her sister Cleopatra also had black African blood.’ Not really a ‘revelation’ since, as we have just noted, Egypt is in Africa.


The 3D model of the skull of the lady from the octagon tomb was manufactured. It allowed the programme to reveal a computer generated facial reconstruction of ‘Arsinoe’ created by the University of Dundee team, shown right. It is worth noting that eye, hair and skin colouring on such reconstructions are often speculative, revealing a series of decisions made purely by the rendering artist. Regardless, the result is of a striking woman with remarkable facial symmetry which is often considered a marker of ‘beauty’.


A Nubian connection From the Ephesus discovery, describing Cleopatra’s ancestry using the terms ‘African’ or she had ‘African blood’ is somewhat vague. As we have already noted Egypt lies in North Africa and thus all the kingdom’s inhabitants, whether royal or not, can be described as Africans. Yet it does not follow that Egypt’s global position implies that the Queen should be considered a black African, with a skin colour and features typical of peoples living south of the Sahara Desert. Such arguments lack definitive proof. So what did Professor Thuer mean when she said ‘Arsinoe had an African mother’? Might this refer to the theory of mixed ancestry?


Let us assume for a moment that Cleopatra’s ancestry did indeed involve sub-Saharan relatives, could the argument be made that the Egyptian royal family had intermarried with, say, Nubians? The Egyptians certainly had contact with the Kingdon of Nubia lying just beyond Egypt’s southern border. The Nubians and Egyptians had a very long and complex relationship where at various points in their histories the Egypt ruled Nubia. Nubians were an integral part of New Kingdom Egyptian society (c. 1532 - 1070 BC).


For example, Queen Ahmose-Nefertari was thought by some scholars such as Flinders Petrie to be of Nubian origin because she is most often depicted with black skin. Others argue that her skin colour actually indicates her role as a goddess of resurrection, since black is both the colour of the fertile land of Egypt and that of the underworld. Yet the mummy of her father, Seqenenre Tao, has been described as presenting ‘tightly curled, woolly hair’, with ‘a slight build and strongly Nubian features’ (Yurco, 1989, 24 - 29.). Yurco also noted that some rulers of the earlier Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 - 1782 BC), particularly some pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty, had strong Nubian features due to that dynasty’s origin in the Aswan region of southern Egypt. While supportive of Egyptian pharaohs having mixed ancestry it does not directly follow that Cleopatra’s ancestors continued the practice.


Ptolemies Everything changed in 332 BC when Alexander the Great conquered Persian-controlled Egypt. After Alexander's death in 323 BC, however, his empire quickly unravelled amid competing claims by his closest friends and companions (the ‘diadochi’). Control of Egypt was won by Ptolemy, a Macedonian who was one of Alexander's most trusted generals and confidants. In 305/4 BC Ptolemy declared himself pharaoh. Adopting the title was intended to legitimise their rule and gain recognition from native Egyptians. Yet, while they had themselves portrayed on public monuments in Egyptian style and dress, the monarchy rigorously maintained its Hellenistic character and traditions. Alexandria, a Greek polis founded by Alexander, became the capital city and a major centre of Greek culture, learning, and trade for the next several centuries.


War with the Seleucid Empire, a rival Hellenistic state, saw the Greek Ptolemaic Kingdom expand its territory to include eastern Libya, the Sinai, and northern Nubia. In 275 BC Ptolemy II Philadelphus invaded Nubia and annexed the northern twelve miles of this territory, subsequently known as the Dodekaschoinos ('twelve-mile land'). Later, throughout the 160s and 150s BC, Ptolemy VI has also reasserted Ptolemaic control over the northern part of Nubia. Despite a century of family feuds, the extent of the Kingdom inherited by Cleopatra had changed little.


Image From Ptolemy I to Cleopatra VII the surviving images of the Ptolemies are remarkably consistent retaining distinctively Macedonian or Greek features. That said, the evidence we have for how the enigmatic Queen of the Nile looked is sketchy at best. Carved reliefs of Cleopatra portray her as a pharaoh following the very formulaic Egyptian style (below left and centre. Busts have been identified as Cleopatra but reasonable doubt remains whether they are actually of her. In February 2007, a coin bearing a portrait of Cleopatra (below right) went on display at Newcastle University. Its discovery sparked renewed interest in the Queen and a debate about whether she really was the beauty we imagine. The coin, dated to 32 BC, shows a rather homely Cleopatra with a large nose, narrow lips and a sharp chin; nothing like Elizabeth Taylor. Yet the ancient historians never characterised Cleopatra as a great beauty, and she was not considered a romantic heroine in her lifetime. In his 'Life of Antony', written in AD 75, Plutarch tells us:


‘Her actual beauty...was not so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence...was irresistible...The character that attended all she said or did was something bewitching.’



Conclusion Leaving aside discussions about how beautiful she was, are we any closer to proving whether Cleopatra was a black woman? From the coin image alone, the large nose seems at odds with the typical features of sub-Saharan Africans. If anything, the ‘hooked’ or ‘Roman’ nose is typical of the facial features of people living in North Africa today, those of Arab descent and, more widely, those people who for centuries have lived around the Mediterranean Sea. If anything the image is consistent with earlier representations of her Macedonian ancestors.


For those claiming Cleopatra was a black woman, referring to her being ‘African’ provides a convenient grey area within which to speculate. To make such arguments requires a blurring or perhaps a deliberate misunderstanding of the glaringly obvious fact that Egypt is in Africa. Ancient Egyptians were Africans just as their modern descendants are today, and thus Cleopatra was in this sense African. On the balance of probability, however, to describe her as ethnically ‘Greek’ fits both her lineage back to Ptolemy I and acknowledges she shared the typical features and olive-skinned complexion of North Africans and other Mediterranean peoples. The case for the Queen of the Nile being black remains fanciful and, as yet, unproven.


So, to loop back to the beginning, are we any closer to resolving who should portray Queen Cleopatra? There simply is no black or white answer. But if one wanted to be as historically accurate as the current evidence allows then we would argue that actress Camelia ben Sakour (above right) has set the standard for others to follow.

 

References:


BBC News, (2009), ‘Cleopatra's mother “was African”', Available online (accessed August 13th, 2022).


BBC, (2009), ‘Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer’, YouTube, Available online (accessed September 11th, 2022).


Crawford, A., (2007), ‘Who Was Cleopatra?’, Smithsonian Magazine, Available online (accessed August 13th, 2022).


Nittle, N., (2019), ‘Almost all of the actresses who’ve played Cleopatra have been white. But was she?’, Vox.com, Available online (accessed August 13th, 2022).


Yurco, F.J., (1989), ‘Were the ancient Egyptians black or white?, Biblical Archaeology Review, 15:05, Available online (accessed September 12th, 2022).


Endnotes:


1. The film was considered lost during the 1930s until a copy was found in 2005 in a forgotten repository. Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, granddaughter of the filmmaker, said that it was the 202nd film found out of the 520 shot by Méliès between 1896 and 1912.


2. The discovery and its implications formed a small part of the BBC’s hour long docudrama ‘Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer’ broadcast on March 23rd, 2009.


3. Caroline M. Wilkinson FRSE (born October 27th, 1965) is a British anthropologist who has been a professor at the Liverpool John Moores University's School of Art and Design since 2014. She is best known for her work in forensic facial reconstruction and has been a contributor to many television programmes on the subject, as well as the creator of reconstructed heads of kings Richard III of England in 2013 and Robert the Bruce of Scotland in 2016. Wilkinson holds a PhD in facial anthropology from the University of Manchester (2000), and from 2000 to 2005 led the Unit of Art and Medicine at that university. Between 2005 and 2014 she taught at the University of Dundee in the award-winning Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, where from 2011 she was Professor of Craniofacial Identification and Head of Human Identification.


4. Morphology is the study of the forms of things.



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