‘I remember my grandmother saying to me: I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.’ So asserts a trailer for a new Netflix ‘docuseries’ looking at the lives of powerful women in history. Alas for the speaker, an American of African descent, her grandmother’s idea of historical truth was highly subjective. It was built on an absurd generalisation about all Africans being black, and the regrettable assumption that skin colour is an important criterion for judging people’s merits. No one denies the awful legacy of slavery among African Americans, and the wish to find female African heroines is understandable – but it is also vital to get the facts right.
That is not easy when looking at the first century BC, but it is easier with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt than with almost anybody from that time. She was a member of a Greek dynasty ruling over Egypt that could trace itself back to Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy. By her time the number of kings of Egypt named Ptolemy had reached 13, including some notable eccentrics such as Ptolemy VIII who floated around his court in a diaphanous gown that revealed every part of his portly physique all too clearly. The Ptolemies married other Greeks, and occasionally they even married their sisters, an ancient Egyptian custom among the Pharaohs that their many Greek subjects found distasteful. Although the name of Cleopatra’s mother is unknown, there are good grounds for insisting that she was not of Egyptian descent. The most one can claim is that some of the blood of the dynasty of Mithridates, king of Pontus (Anatolia and the Black Sea region) ran in Cleopatra’s veins.