Grapevine's Atlas History

How Egyptian was Cleopatra?

Three hundred years of advanced incest, all for this.

I was scrolling through TikTok like all my fun, cool Gen Z friends the other day, and I came across a neat video showcasing a program that used AI to generate realistic images of historical figures like Augustus Caesar and Alexander the Great. I didn’t save it, and TikTok is an unsearchable black hole, so it’s gone forever. That’s okay, though, I’ve seen the same thing all over, like here and here.

Using modern technology to give us a more accurate view of the past is super neat and can potentially aid in bridging the gap between the modern era and a past that sometimes seems unreachably foreign.

But obviously, the glory of machine interpretation comes with a few caveats. First among these is that the technology is limited by the source material. If you’re rebuilding someone’s face using a 2D drawing, there’s only so much intel you can pull from that flat representation.

Statues are better, because they’re 3D (fun fact), but they carry us right on over to caveat number two, that being that people wealthy and powerful enough to have their likenesses immortalized in statues were also wealthy and powerful enough to convince sculptors to lie a little bit. Put short, there’s no way everyone was this hot. Imagine if the only image the world had of you was the best picture you’ve ever taken. And also you’re like twelve feet tall.

So every time we see something like this, we should take its claims of authenticity with a grain of salt, because what we can make is limited by what they had made. And their making may have been peppered with artful bullshit.

But as I scrolled through the comments (stupid) of that initial TikTok, I found that folks had another problem with the way these people were represented: Cleopatra, Egyptian Pharaoh and famed Queen of the Nile, was white.

The misrepresentation of someone’s skin color is an understandable flash point for rage in 2021. We’re finally coming to terms with the effects of improper representation in media, and a thousand plus years of cocaine-skinned White Jesus tells us that these inappropriate racial associations can be long standing and serve to bolster racial divides.

…which is why I’m somewhat cautious to make my next brave statement: Cleopatra was probably white (or, more precisely and honestly, Macedonian Greek).

It might seem counterintuitive, especially in the aforementioned world where we’re just pulling back the curtain in learning the effects of racism on the field of history itself. It’s especially confusing when we acknowledge that the old-school Egyptian pharaohs, who are sometimes misrepresented as having been pretty white, were not that.

But as easy as it is to improperly assume that the Ancient Egyptians were white, some folks might not know that assuming they were black is also inaccurate.

Boiling race down to white and black is big brain in the United States, where we’re into that kind of shit, but more realistically, race is a series of overlapping gradients. Ancient Egyptians’ skin tones were probably visually similar to Modern Egyptians’ skin tones: an uneven gradient that trended lighter in the Nile Delta to the north and darker as you followed the river south.

Okay“, my sparring partners might respond “Excellent article, dipshit. She wasn’t black, she was slightly lighter than black.

If that was my point, I’d stone myself for getting ten paragraphs deep on a technicality. But while it’s true that the old old Pharaohs of Egypt were probably a mixed bag of variably brown folks, Cleopatra should not be included among them, because she lived in a way, way different time.

Like, way different. Two of the most famous rulers of Ancient Egypt, Akhenaten and Nefertiti, ruled between 1351 and 1336 BCE, which was well over 3,000 years ago. And theirs was the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, meaning Egyptian history goes back even further. In fact, that dynasty is usually considered the first of the New Kingdom. So, again, in this context, 3,300+ years ago is fresh.

In contrast, Cleopatra was born in 69 BC, over 1200 years after both of her royal predecessors died. You can probably do math, but just in case: if Cleopatra were born today, Nefertiti and Akhenaten would have lived in the 800s alongside Charlemagne, the invention of algebra, and other shit you don’t care about because it was a very long time ago.

That’s a lot of time for things to change, but if I just said that ancient Egyptians and modern Egyptians probably looked similar, would it have made a difference?

In Cleopatra’s case: yeah. What ethnic Egyptians looked like at the time of her birth is pretty irrelevant, because Cleopatra wasn’t ethnically Egyptian. 

Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which descended from Ptolemy I Soter, a close homeboy of Alexander the Great, Macedonian Emperor and conquest enjoyer. Alexander is famous for conquering an unprecedented shitload of land in the 300s BCE, from Greece to India (Remind me to write about Greco-Buddhism some time. It’s a trip).

But while Alexander’s conquests are well-known for their breadth, also impressive is the speed with which they were undertaken. Alexander spent his whole adult life conquerin’, but the dude only lived to age 32. In order to sustain a lifestyle of rapidly grabbing one piece of land and moving on to the next without repeatedly losing the territory he’d just gained, Alexander instituted a system of leaving his Macedonian buddies behind to govern his new territories in his preferred Macedonian style.

When Alexander died, his empire fractured, having been held together by the relatively weak glue that was him. But while the Empire’s consolidating fibers were weak as a whole, the individuals left behind by Alexander to rule in his stead were pretty strong. Known as the diadochi, they continued to rule the territory Alexander had conquered, in some cases, for hundreds of years. The Persian Seleucid Empire made it all the way to 63 CE. Very nice, Seleucids!!

The Seleucids were initially led by the diadochus Seleucus I Nicator, a Macedonian general. Another Macedonian diadochus was Ptolemy I Soter. Just like Seleucus took over for Alexander in Persia, Ptolemy succeeded him in Egypt.

Ptolemy’s line eventually gave us Cleopatra, but “eventually” here is a period of hundreds of years. Being born in Macedonia to a Macedonian family, Ptolemy was definitely some flavor of olive-skinned white dude, but hundreds of years in Egypt is plenty of time to intermix with the local native population. 

There’s no way to definitively determine that Cleopatra’s ancestors never let native Egyptian blood water their family tree (lmao what the fuck), but it’s important to remember that hers isn’t your common immigrant family, but an aristocratic institution.

When William the Conqueror, a French Duke from Normandy, lived up to his name and conquered England, his descendants and successors spoke French, not English, for 300 years, despite living in a country that insisted on continuing to speak the garbled Germanic tongue.

Similarly, even though the royal families of old Europe had an entire continent of suitable marriage candidates, they usually chose to breed amongst themselves, a factor that led to fun, quirky rulers like Charles II of Spain, whose body and brain were so ineffective that he ruled poorly, died early without an heir, and led Europe into the War of the Spanish Succession.

We’ve since learned that inbreeding is bad, but Cleopatra’s forebearers hadn’t. The closest thing her bloodline had to racial diversity was probably what little bit of Persian had snuck in through the Seleucids, the neighbors and favorite fuck-partners of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

That’s not an entirely fair way to paint the Seleucids – the favorite fuck partners of the Ptolemaic Dynasty were, far and away, other members of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. And not, like, far-off branches of the family. If two incestuous relationships in Game of Thrones fucked you up, the Ptolemaics, who did it no fewer than twelve fucking times (and probably way more) would have you comatose.

Seriously, though – Cleopatra’s family tree is as close to a straight line as it gets. Even the Queen herself married two of her brothers before deciding prominent Roman beefcakes were more attractive than blood relatives.

In other words, Cleopatra may not have been entirely white, but if she wasn’t, it was probably less secret black grandma and more me when my dad told me his DNA test came back 1% Bantu.

Maybe I’m 0.5% African. Or maybe modern DNA tests are still working out their kinks and making white people feel diverse is a silly little side effect.

But either way, 0.5% African isn’t African. The numbers point overwhelmingly in the other direction: unless my very white mom is secretly 60% Japanese, I’m just another white dude. And Cleopatra was probably just another mostly-Macedonian pharaoh. To say otherwise is to be the queen of denial about the Queen of the Nile.

But now I have some explaining to do. I’ve laid out the case that Cleopatra was probably “white”, and I took some two and a half pages (plus some wiggle room for my bullshit) to do it. I must think it’s pretty important, and right now, I’m starting to feel like a white culture warrior. I’d better grab my anachronistic viking helm and head east to storm the Capitol Building.

But(#3) Cleopatra being European isn’t the important part of the story. It’s actually really boring, and the real criminal act is that I’ve made you read through three pages of text with that idea in mind. What is important is that we tend to think of pre-modern nations as ethnic monoliths, stoically uniform and uninterrupted until the very recent past let cars in. But that’s not true. The default state of the human race is nomadic, and people have been moving and immigrating from one land to another for forever.

I’m not trying to take the “people weren’t meant to be tied down” angle – I stay inside 23 ½ hours a day and the idea of disrupting that schedule terrifies me. I also don’t mean to paint Cleopatra as an immigrant icon; obviously, as royalty, she’s not exactly comparable to people who risk everything for the chance at a better life abroad. More than that, though, immigrant is a far from accurate label to paint a woman whose great great great great great great grandfather is her closest connection to Macedonia.

The point, however poorly made, is that people have been moving from one country to another since before we can remember, and to ignore that is to ignore a longstanding human tradition of immigration and ethnic diversity. Also, Cleopatra wasn’t ethnically Egyptian, specifically because her family went insanely out of their way to prevent it. If genetic purity means three hundred years of sibling fucking, maybe the concept of purity itself is more than a little impure.

Footnote: This piece applies the racial term “white” pretty liberally, which is appropriately controversial when attached to people of southeastern European descent who lived a long time ago. Throughout much of the past thousand years, southern Europeans were often categorized separately from “true white” northern and western Europeans. Italians and Greeks, like the Irish, were often targets of discrimination during early waves of immigration to the United States.

The term “white” has evolved over time, no doubt related to the growth of non-white communities in countries like the U.S. As soon as a more different other appears, the more familiar others don’t seem so different. Today, the U.S. census considers Arab and Iranian-Americans white, which is a more recent and debated extension of the term. But because “race” is less scientific truth and more an aesthetic (and political) interpretation of a continuum of human diversity, our definitions can ebb and flow.

“Whiteness” as a whole is a pretty recent concept, and the genetic purity the Ptolemaics sought was probably more related to their perception of themselves as a super family and less their status as Macedonian Europeans.

If your takeaway at the end of all this is “Cleopatra was WHITE!” and not “people are more complex than their national backgrounds would suggest”, I fucked up.

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  • Background: Egyptian hieroglyphics.jpg by Wikipedia user حسني بن بارك
    • Recolored
    • Published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License
  • Person shrugging Emoji.png by Wikipedia user EmmanuelCordoliani
    • No Changes Made
    • Published under the Creative Commons Attiribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License
  • Cleopatra VII, 40-30 BCE; Altes Museum, Berlin (2) (28399851109).jpg by Flickr user Richard Mortel
    • Recolored
    • Published under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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