Quick hit: Cleopatra ‘of African descent’

From the BBC, Cleopatra ‘of African descent.’

It was traditionally thought that Mark Anthony’s lover was of Greek descent.

But remains of the queen’s sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey. indicate that her mother had an “African” skeleton.

Really? I always assumed she was African, what with the whole Egyptian thing, and that we only whitewashed her in art because, well, we do that.

I guess last week, that would have made me ill-informed, but hey! Turns out I was right all along.

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9 Responses to Quick hit: Cleopatra ‘of African descent’

  1. Chally says:

    I always assumed she was African, too. What on Earth?! There are a few weird memes surrounding Cleopatra, particularly her appearance. She’s held up as an ideal of female beauty, and as that ideal changes through the ages, so do descriptions of her body. But this African/Greek thing is just strange. As the interviewee Neil Oliver says, ‘It’s almost impossible to remember they were real people’.

  2. Crowfoot says:

    I don’t think the Egyptians are “racially” African, even though Egypt is in Africa? Unfortunately, my human osteology class didn’t make that kind of distinction; there were just three basic ancestral affinity groups that can be gleaned from the bones, with no ‘arab’ or ‘middle eastern’ grouping. (caucasoid, african, and asian, if you’re curious)

    Though I think the white-washing is an apt phrase here, isn’t it! (wrt to Cleopatra – her actual ancestral affinities aside) We all tend to ooh and aaah over the Egyptians, but tend to forget the Nubians, their immediate neighbours to the south who, I believe, also built step pyramids? I’m probably going to misspeak here – I didn’t end up taking that Egyptology class – but I seem to recall hearing that the Egyptians might have gotten their pyramid building ideas from the Nubians. (well, not to slag off the Egyptians! they were a funky amazing culture to be sure)

    How do they know that it was the mother who was African? It suggests tests on mitochondrial DNA but the article doesn’t actually say. I don’t think the bones would tell us about which parent? Unless the race of Cleopatra’s father is well known?

    I need to go to bed. My apologies if this comment is all unclear πŸ™‚

  3. Crowfoot says:

    I think Cleopatra was culturally Greek while not necessarily being ancestrally Greek? A quick look via google reminds me that her father was one of the Ptolomys, and if they’re fairly certain of his ancestry then they might assume any African features her sister had must of come from the mother.

    But this actually illustrates the problem with ignoring women all through history: Ptolemy XII was half something from his father and half something from his mother. So if 12 generations of Ptolemys are marrying Nubian princesses well how racially Greek does that make them in the end? The mother’s genetic input is always forgotten when we think of which race some famous king is.

  4. eloriane says:

    Excellent points about the erasure of women in history. I honestly didn’t know that much about it, except that I was fairly sure Cleopatra’s dad was a Ptolemy, in which case, she wasn’t Greek, she was Egyptian! And while we don’t consider Egyptians to be “African” I actually know of an immigrant from Egypt who continues to mark “African American” on all her forms, because she is from Africa and now she is American.

    At the very least, to be racially Egyptian would mean not looking like this picture, let alone this one. Seriously– she is blonde in that second one. Whereas I’ve always pictured her more like, well, this, or, for a more photorealistic representation, this (that’s Gina Torres from Firefly, playing Cleopatra in Xena! Does it get more awesome??).

    The amount of art in which Cleopatra is totally, totally white is actually really surprising to me– do a google image search for “Cleopatra painting”! Like I said, I always figured we knew she wasn’t white. But, um, apparently not.

    At least most of them don’t make her blonde. Most of them.

  5. Kathy says:

    The article that was linked seems to have misrepresented the findings. The study actually found that the body identified as Arsinoe was of mixed racial heritage. (There is also a debate within the community as to whether the body is truly that of Arsinoe–all we know is that the body is of a wealthy woman who died around the time of Arsinoe’s death and was around the same age. It really is a fairly tenuous connection.) It is also important to note that Arsinoe and Cleopatra did not have the same mother.

    I do not doubt that Cleopatra was of mixed racial heritage. However, the Ptolemaic dynasty did not inter-marry with Nubian princesses in great number. In order to ensure the “purity” (and whiteness) of the dynasty, Ptolemies married Ptolemies, the most valued marriage being between biological brother and sister. Disgusting, I know.

    This is not to say that there was no genetic variation. I am sure some prior Ptolemaic dynastic generations were made of only half-siblings, that is a brother and a sister from different, possibly racially different mothers (or fathers, for that matter) as found with Cleopatra and her sister.

    Concubinage was quite rampant in this era in general; but when it came to the descendants marked to be Ptolemaic dynastic rulers, the children of incestuous relations were considered the most “valid,” and were perpetuated. Cleopatra herself was wed to two of her biological brothers–and these unions demarcated Cleopatra and the Ptolemies as rulers.

    However, due to the incestuous manner of Ptolemaic dynastic marriages, as well as Arsinoe being Cleopatra’s half sister, I think it is premature to label Cleopatra as being primarily of African descent. But in the end, the chances we will ever really know the true racial heritage of Cleopatra are slim to none, as the only body of a Ptolemaic family member known to survive to today is that of Arsinoe, though even this identification is hotly debated.

    • Crowfoot says:

      Shocking! A mainstream article that misrepresented scientific findings?? πŸ˜› Thanks for the information on how tenuous the evidence is that those remains are in fact Arsinoe. And tenuous indeed! And thanks for the reminder of the Ptolemaic dynasty and their incestuous marriages. The idea of the Ptolemies marrying Nubian women was really just to illustrate what might happen biologically were that to be true – that we tend to ignore the genetic input of mothers. But, as you say, they married their siblings. Even with the possible genetic variations, as you suggested, they would still likely end up mostly carrying a close set of traits. And I agree, given this little history reminder, that the likelihood of Cleopatra being primarily of African descent is looking dubious. Still, I loved Gina Torres in the role! πŸ™‚

      That Cleopatra, who is at the very least of Greek descent, or Semitic, if not African – that’s she’s so commonly portrayed as at least white, and commonly blond is.. well, racist ain’t it? Bleh.

      Re the Ptolemies being Egyptian rather than Greek – perhaps you can correct me, Kathy (as I don’t have time to research it myself right now), but I seem to recall that the Ptolemaic dynasty was culturally Greek, even though they ruled Egypt, being connected to Alexander the Great? But their considered the last Egyptian pharoahs proper, aren’t they? Damn, I wish I had taken that class in Egyptology. I’ll try and do a search later in the day.

  6. Kathy says:

    The Ptolemies were indeed culturally Greek, being descended from a dude named Ptolemy (of course!) who was appointed the governorship of Egypt after Alexander died. Unsurprisingly, Ptolemy declared himself king and started the dynasty. The whole history is really convoluted and confusing, since all of the male line who inherited this kingship were also named Ptolemy. And all the sister/wives tended to be named either Arsinoe or Cleopatra. Hard to keep track of to say the least.

    When it comes to them being the “proper pharaohs,” one could say yes or no. Traditionally, the dynasties of previous pharaohs were probably culturally Egyptian; whereas the Ptolemies were essentially imperial/colonial rulers. Most of the Ptolemaic rulers did not even know how to speak the local Egyptian language, speaking only Greek. Cleopatra VII, the one we know best was actually an exception to this rule, it is said she actually did know how to speak the local language. And clearly the Ptolemies valued keeping it all in the family, as it were, ensuring Greek-ancestored offspring.

    On the other hand, the Ptolemaic dynasty were simply following the cultural norms of previous pharaonic dynasties, as they also were big into the sibling marriages. They also followed previous dynasties who were also not ethnically Egyptian; previous dynasties had been of Persian and Nubian ancestry, etc. so Egypt hadn’t really had culturally Egyptian rulers for a while prior. The Ptolemies were very careful to portray themselves as culturally Egyptian within their public artworks. If you look at Egyptian portrayals of the Ptolemies from this era, you will see that they resemble closely the traditional Egyptian art forms. You know, the “Walk like an Egyptian” style of wall carvings and such. In coin, however, and other Roman art forms, the Ptolemies are more northern Mediterranean looking. Basically, they were really good at their PR campaigns, portraying themselves in the best way for each locality.

    But you are absolutely right. Cleopatra was definitely not a blond-haired blue-eyed person of Northern European descent. She is just portrayed that way to appeal to the current mainstream racist depictions of beauty. Nothing like taking one of the most powerful women in history and reducing her to a sex-symbol; a hobby of those who write the histories since, oh, she was still alive. *Eye roll* Just look at the article linked to: not “Cleopatra, one of the most powerful and intriguing women in history, who did whatever she could to fight for her country’s best interests” but “Mark Anthony’s lover.”

    • Crowfoot says:

      I’m late in responding to this – sorry! But thanks again for the reminders. I have read about this before but was drawing a blank at the time. If I may ask, are you an archaeologist or historian?

      Nothing like taking one of the most powerful women in history and reducing her to a sex-symbol

      And Mark Anthony’s lover! I mean, who remembers Mark apart that he was sleeping with Cleopatra? Bah.

  7. Kei says:

    Your all flanges the north of Africa was always home to Arabs she was not Black not White with blue eyes or what not she was an Arab nuff said πŸ™‚

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