A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Was Cleopatra black?

November 10, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

Current popular opinion says that Cleopatra was black. But wasn't she in fact Greek? Were there previous Cleopatras that were black? (or African, whatever, although since they were in Egypt they would be African no matter what their skin color).

SDStaff DavidB replies:

I'm not sure it's true that "current popular opinion" says this — although it's an opinion some people may hold. Alas, opinion is all it is.

To quote Mary Lefkowitz, author of Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (1996), the short answer to your question is: "There is no evidence for thinking so."

In fact, she specifically addresses this question in the book, spending almost 20 pages on it. So if you want a more detailed answer, that's the place to go. Since we have a little less space here, I'll distill down some of what she said.

Lefkowitz begins by noting that, until recently, it never even occurred to anybody to ask this question. The information we have identifies her as a Macedonian Greek. Her ancestors were Ptolemies, descended from one of Alexander's generals. Cleopatra was a name traditionally given to women in the royal family, so, as you indicated, there were in fact previous Cleopatras. The one in question here was Cleopatra VII, daughter of Ptolemy XII and his sister (ewww). Sticking with the tradition of keeping it in the family, she married two of her own brothers in succession (the first "died in suspicious circumstances, [and] she had the second murdered," which is definitely taking sibling rivalry to extremes).

She was able to speak Egyptian (the first in her family to do so — her parents, er, aunt and uncle, er, whatever, must've been so proud!). She also did dress in the manner of Egyptians (no info on whether she walked like an Egyptian, though). The surviving coins of the day show her as "impressive rather than beautiful, Mediterranean in appearance, with straight hair and a hooked nose." Alas, coins weren't in color, so what hue her skin had we can't say.

Lefkowitz does note that there is a slight possibility that Cleopatra might not have been a full-blooded Macedonian Greek, because we don't know the precise identity of her father's mother. Apparently, grandma was not the wife of gramps, but his mistress (maybe he wanted to taste the forbidden fruit of somebody outside his immediate family, like a cousin). The assumption has always been that grandma was another Macedonian Greek, because the Ptolemies were a bit xenophobic, and somebody would likely have written about a foreigner being that close to gramps (examples of such writings exist when it happened with others).

Lefkowitz notes that most writers who have raised the question at hand here haven't been ancient historians. She says the first American writer to suggest that Cleopatra had a black ancestor was J.A. Rogers, in World's Great Men of Color. Unfortunately, Rogers somewhat muddled Cleopatra's family history, claiming her father was Ptolemy XIII (nope, Ptolemy XII) and her grandfather was Ptolemy XI (nope, Ptolemy IX). Then he claimed that Ptolemy XIII (who was actually Cleopatra's brother and husband and cousin and, oh, you get the idea) showed pronounced Negro traits — although this claim doesn't seem to have any actual support.

Some of the evidence used to support the claim of Cleopatra's alleged African roots come from, of all places, Shakespeare. In Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare called her "tawny." Rogers and other supporters claim this was a 17th-century way to describe mulattoes, and since Shakespeare obviously thought of her that way, she must have been.

Um, OK. But a close look at the passage in question shows that really isn't what Shakespeare meant here; in fact, Shakespeare would have probably called her an "Ethiope" if he meant "black." And, frankly, if the best evidence we have is a word in a Shakespeare play, well, that ain't gonna cut it in history class.

Another amusing piece of "evidence" comes from Rogers and others pointing to Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Why? Because Ripley, "who says he has proof of all his facts, calls Cleopatra 'fat and black.'" So, Rogers doesn't have to back up his claim because he says somebody else says he has the evidence. So there!

Other authors have followed Rogers and made similar claims, but with evidence that has been just as poor. For example, John Henrik Clarke used a modern portrait of a black Cleopatra as evidence, and also refers to the Book of Acts, claiming she described herself there as "black" — Lefkowitz and author Frank Snowden point out that this is a bit odd since Cleopatra isn't even mentioned there!

In general, the folks making this claim seem to be jumping through lots of illogical hoops. The main line of "reasoning" seems to be that because we don't know who her grandmother was, she must have been a black and it was covered up by white Europeans. Is it possible that her grandmother was black, and that she was therefore 1/4 black? Yes. Is it likely? No. Is it supported by any evidence? No. This looks like a UFO conspiracy — there is no evidence, so people in power must be suppressing that evidence. Those who are passing this off as Truth have apparently already made up their minds, and that's that.

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