Was Queen Cleopatra black? Her debated race, explained

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It’s one of those questions historians and professors have been trying to answer for years. It regularly comes back as a trending topic after the release of a new movie, TV series, or documentary representing her: Cleopatra is a historical figure who lived centuries ago, Egypt’s last pharaoh before it became a province of the Roman Empire, and the debate about her actual race, whether she was black or white, is not recent. After Netflix released Queen Cleopatra in May 2023, with the British actress Adele James portraying her (you can find her in the cover image above), there is a renewed urge to have a reliable answer. In this article, we will briefly summarize this long-lasting debate, explaining what we know so far.

You can watch the official trailer for Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra here on Youtube.

Was Queen Cleopatra black? A short summary of her debated race, explained

The doubt about the actual race of Queen Cleopatra, whether she was black or white, has been the subject of studies and books at least since the mid of the 1900s. And despite the many debated positions, there is still no definitive answer today.

The main uncertainty about Cleopatra is related to her unknown mother: Cleopatra was born in early 69 BC, daughter of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, but there is no information about her mother’s identity. The Ptolemaic dynasty has Macedonian Greek origins, which would support white skin. However, not knowing the mother’s race introduces an essential degree of uncertainty.

Cleopatra has been vastly portrayed in classical art, often as a white woman. However, most representations adopted the standard imagery around Macedonian Greek appearance, not necessarily based on her authentic existence. According to experts, only a few representations can be reliably connected to her natural aspect: among them, Cleopatra’s official coins (approved by herself and used as currency when she was alive, you find them in the picture below), her bust at the Vatican Museum, and the bust at Berlin’s Altes Museum.

Coin displayed at the British Museum
Coin displayed at the British Museum

In all these representations, we have no chance to deduce the skin’s color (Cleopatra is portrayed on silver in the coins and on marble in the busts, no colors are involved in this kind of work, obviously). However, in all these cases, she’s represented as a Greek woman in style, supporting the idea that she was white.

The idea of a black Queen Cleopatra has been debated in many writings in the last decades. You can find this extensive article on Wikipedia, extensively summarizing the controversy and the prominent positions introduced by writers and experts over the years. Since we have no irrefutable proof, every opinion shall be considered a speculation expressed to introduce new elements to analyze. And since each position comes from different background, including some studies centered on African American history, we can understand how some expert is more willing than others to insist on a specific thesis.

The Netflix series Queen Cleopatra reignited this debate, with people accusing the production of “blackwashing” and historical inaccuracy. An Egyptian lawyer sued Netflix over it, as this article on the Egypt Independent shows. The actors involved in the cast and other experts insist that skin color is not the real point around the story of Cleopatra: it can be safely considered an anachronistic debate, as the race topic was not receiving relevant attention in ancient Egypt as it does today.

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