Gosh, Netflix is in hot water over its new drama-documentary series Queen Cleopatra. Thousands of social media trolls are suddenly self-appointed experts on the ethnicity of Cleopatra, taking Netflix to task for casting the black actor, Adele James. As I’ve discovered on my YouTube channel, there is an army of blowhards out there convinced they know every detail of Cleopatra’s ancestry and the sex lives of the Ptolemaic dynasty going back 250 years.
Respectfully, I put it to you: they do not. Here’s part two of two blog posts about the new Netflix series: Queen Cleopatra.
My YouTube video on Cleopatra drives some mad
I filmed a short video on the series for my YouTube channel asking viewers to consider the ethnicity of Cleopatra. Yes, she was descended from a Macedonian general of Alexander the Great, the first pharaoh called Ptolemy, but he had lived 250 years before. That’s the entire history of the United States as an independent country to give you an idea how long we’re talking about.
Do you really think her family’s ethnic composition, ruling a huge empire, never changed during that time? (Article continues after the video below).
I’m fortunate to know several well-informed and experienced Egyptologists and posed the question to them: was there really no inter-marriage, or other forms of relationships (concubines, etc), between the Macedonian Greeks who invaded Egypt under Alexander and the local population? Was Ptolemaic Egypt really a form of ancient Apartheid in which the “white” Greek rulers never mixed with most of the population?
The almost universal answer: of course, that’s nonsense. The idea that for centuries Egypt was some kind of white supremacist state run by racially “pure” Greeks suits modern racist theorisers but has nothing to do with the reality of Ptolemaic Egypt. And yet so many viewers of my YouTube video were enraged at the thought of Cleopatra being anything less than 100% Macedonian. For which read, 100% white. Whatever “white” in that context means. They’re not good on details.
Armchair genealogists and unqualified commentators on the history of Egypt screamed at me that:
- There were many depictions of Cleopatra in sculpture, paintings, mosaics, etc from her lifetime showing she was non-African and Greek. (There are not by the way. Many of the depictions post-date her by a wide margin.)
- The Ptolemies – all Cleopatra’s ancestors for 250 years – never had any carnal relations and certainly not any children with local Egyptians, nor with Nubians, nor anybody from deepest Africa. (Must wonder, do these people have access to 2,000-year-old CCTV footage from the palace bedrooms of Alexandria? Because that surely can’t be stated with any certainty!)
Some were prepared to concede that Cleopatra had “Iranian” blood. That’s a reference to intermarriage between the Ptolemies and another legacy empire of Alexander’s vast conquered realm, the Persian-based Seleucids. That apparently is OK for the protectors of Cleopatra’s pale pigment. Seleucids fine. Nubians, Kushites, or anybody remotely African – not.
Writing in Variety magazine, Iranian-born Tina Gharavi – who directed some of the Queen Cleopatra episodes – was taken aback by the hostility casting a black actor as the famed Egyptian ruler had generated. As she put it, given that Cleopatra was some eight generations removed from her Macedonian ancestors, “she was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston”.
And they are only one generation removed.
Everybody important in history was white and heterosexual
There is still a widespread prejudice that most serious people in history cannot possibly have been Black or LGBT or anything other than white and heterosexual.
Take, for example, the long-standing rumours that have swirled around President Abraham Lincoln about his sexuality. The men he shared a bed with were commented on in the 19th century by people who knew the assassinated leader. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, historians and others have seen red at the very thought that Lincoln could be LGBT. A great man? Gay? Surely a contradiction!
You can duplicate this over and over for other glorious and revered men and women in history.
Yet the ancient world was full of powerful and charismatic people with complex sexualities. Step forward Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and the emperor Hadrian for a start. Caesar’s soldiers even sang a bawdy ditty about what they thought was going on between him and the King of Bithynia. But to the bigots, not only is it impossible for a gay man to make history; they’re not even allowed to write or broadcast it.
One commentator on my video went to look at my profile and returned in triumph to others slagging off my argument to proclaim – yeah, he’s LGBT! As if to say: well, we don’t have to listen to his views!
Afro-centrism and Cleopatra
Now, that’s not to say that the Afro-centric view of Egypt advocated by some African-American historians and cultural commentators isn’t beyond criticism. It’s understandable that modern Egyptians get irritated when American writers claim they are not the genuine inheritors of ancient Egypt – that they somehow seized it from those who lived and toiled under the Pharaohs.
In 1996, Professor Mary Lefkowitz hit back at the Afro-centric view with a no-holds-barred riposte: Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth. This resulted in a very ill-tempered debate and a small avalanche of lawsuits.
Some very weird, ahistorical stuff has indeed been spouted on American campuses about “ice people”, “sun people”, and “sand people”. Arguably an inversion of racially based history taught by certain European governments in the 1930s. Others claim that Islam and, much later, Marxism, killed “the Black Movement”. What on earth does that even mean?
There is also the line that the invasion of Egypt by the new religion of Islam in the mid-7th century, spearheaded by Arab armies, was a “usurpation” of African history. This implies a complete change in the racial composition of Egypt under the early caliphate which is complete tripe. Islamisation and Arabisation of Egypt were a slow, almost glacial process in Egypt taking many centuries and involved the conversion and/or collusion of the local population including Christians and Jews.
For years, as a Friend of the British Museum, I’ve wandered round the Egyptian galleries and overheard Afro-Centric influenced tour guides spinning a line on ancient Egypt that is far too racialised. The point is that both those who argue a whites-only line on the pharaohs and those who promote radical Afro-Centric conspiracy theories are not getting the truth.
Ancient Egypt was not a racially “pure” state and ancient Egyptians came in many skin tones. Get over it!
Objections from modern Egypt
Gharavi and the Netflix Queen Cleopatra series has been attacked by some in modern Egypt who object to being regarded as an integral part of Africa. She has been subjected to an online campaign accusing her of “blackwashing” and “stealing” Egyptian history. This strikes me as the mirror image of the radical Afro-Centric claim that modern Egyptians stole African Egypt away from black people. Both reduce everything down to race.
This line of attack doesn’t mind Cleopatra being “Greek”, instead of Egyptian, so long as she’s never portrayed as an African. This has annoyed Gharavi who wondered why when the HBO drama series Rome, made nearly 20 years ago, depicted Cleopatra, one of the most brilliant minds of the ancient world, as a “sleazy, dissipated drug addict”, Egypt said nothing.
The moment her skin colour changed; the country was up in arms.
One reason for this is a simmering hostility between the Afro-Centric, African-American historians and the Egyptian archaeological community in recent decades. The high-profile former Egyptian head of Antiquities, Zahi Hawas, has referred to the Afro-centrists as “Pyramidiots”.
The perceived need for Queen Cleopatra to be white
Whatever the shortcomings of the Afrocentric position, some in Egypt seem to need Cleopatra to be as white as possible. The whiter the better. Hence their detestation of the Netflix series.
But what kind of white? Because up until now, most Hollywood depictions have veered towards Anglo-Saxon white. Even if we accept she was almost wholly Macedonian, I can’t think of a movie that included an obviously Greek Cleopatra. And she almost certainly didn’t look like Elizabeth Taylor or Claudette Colbert.
I get the impression some Netflix haters out there think Cleopatra was blonde and blue-eyed. Maybe they need to go to Greece on holiday – or anywhere in southern Europe. Olive skin, darker brown hair, and brown eyes are the norm.
I’m half-Portuguese. Snobbish French people in the past used to sneer that “Africa starts at the Pyrenees”. In other words, Spanish and Portuguese people weren’t properly white and European. My mother’s ancestors were a little too dark for bourgeois French tastes. Basically, “white” is something that has been vaguely defined though plenty of bigots think they know what it is.
Macedonians going native 2,000 years ago
Now, go back two thousand years and what does Greek or Macedonian mean? It’s certainly not the Nazi, Aryan pin-up that some white supremacists yearn for. Cleopatra as a Macedonian would have been more plugged into the Levant and north Africa than modern Germany or France. She would have looked like a Middle Eastern or north African woman at the very least. And it’s most certainly not impossible that there was a touch of Nubian – we cannot be certain.
Macedonia itself, before Alexander the Great, had been the runt of the Greek litter – looked down on by Athens, Sparta, and the other classical city states. But then these barbarians from the north took the whole of Greece and conquered a global empire from Egypt to India. Alexander himself married an Iranian woman, Roxana. None of the legacy empires that came after this death – Ptolemaic, Seleucid, Bactrian – would have survived had they not, to a degree, merged with the local population.
I have a Bactrian coin in my collection dating to around 120 BC. Two hundred years after Alexander the Great stormed into modern Afghanistan and Pakistan leaving behind the Bactrian kingdom. The coin has Greek text on one side and what looks like an image of Zeus or another Hellenic deity. On the other side, the script is in the local Indian dialect.
But here’s the weirdest thing – those Bactrian Macedonians had converted to a new religion: Buddhism. They didn’t get the memo from today’s bigots telling them they weren’t allowed to go native!
DISCOVER: Buddhist ancient Greeks in India!