NYT op-ed: Cleopatra was black because her lived experience made her “culturally black”

May 11, 2023 • 11:30 am

You’ve surely heard the argument that Cleopatra (“Cleopatra VII Philopator“, the Queen of Egypt, 70/69 BC – 10 August 30 BC) was “black”, an argument that has long turned on her genetics and genealogy. It’s generally been made to fold her into the group of sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants, especially when the argument is made in the U.S., where Cleopatra is appropriated by descendants of black African slaves. In other words, the “black Cleopatra” argument maintains that she was pigmented like modern Africans, with a dark skin, and, if we could see her DNA, it would group her with sub-Saharan Africans.

The “was-Cleopatra-black” argument, as you can see by reading the very long article about it in Wikipedia, has been persistent, but the consensus of scholars, based on historical analysis (and to a lesser extent from depictions in painting and statuary) is that Cleopatra was Macedonian Greek, the last ruler of the Ptolomeic dynasty going back for nearly three centuries. Her father, Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, was of that ancestry, and although her mother was not absolutely identified, she may have been the Queen Cleopatra VI Tryphaena.  There is no evidence that Cleopatra’s mother was black, ergo that Cleopatra herself would be half black. Genetically, I suspect she would probably group with ancient Greeks and Persians, not with sub-Saharan Africans. (No mummy is available, so we can’t know for sure.) But as Wikipedia notes, the dispute about Cleopatra’s race takes place among the populace in general, not among scholars:

The race and skin color of Cleopatra VII, the last active Hellenistic ruler of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, has caused some debate, although generally not in scholarly sources.

Further, as many scholars have pointed out, the ancients, including Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, didn’t even have the same concept of “race” as we do. Rather, although they were xenophobic, they considered “outgroups” based on other factors, mainly that they belonged to populations that were ethnically, culturally, and geographically different from the three main groups above, and were therefore inferior. Greeks and Romans, for example, enslaved conquered peoples and their descendants, and those were generally not sub-Saharan Africans.

Having no time to look this up, I doubt that the these three civilizations even had a concept of “race” that bears any resemblance to the concept people have today, which is generally based on genetic composition and geographical origin. (I’m using the old usage of race; I actually prefer “ethnicity” because we know now that the human species comprises groups within groups, and one could, on the basis of genetics and geography, demarcate any number of “races”.)

The irrelevance of the modern “race” concept to Cleopatra is also what Gwen Nally and Mary Gilbert, the two authors of the NYT op-ed below, argue: they say that it’s futile to bicker about the phenotype and genetics of Cleopatra because we simply don’t know enough about her and that the idea of “race” was irrelevant to ancient Egyptians (though most scholars, again, think she was Macedonian/Greek, which would be counted as “white” in the old definition of race).

The reason this controversy has resurfaced is, as Nally and Gilbert (henceforth “N&G”) note, is that there’s a new Netflix docudrama called “Queen Cleopatra”, produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, who is black.  In the film, Cleopatra is played by the British actor and screenwriter Adele James, who is also black. Here’s one of James’s tweets:

This has led to considerable controversy, particularly among modern Egyptians who claim Cleopatra was “one of ours” and not black. CBS News, for example, says this:

In the latest official response to the controversy, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a long statement at the end of April stressing that “Queen Cleopatra had light skin and Hellenistic (Greek) features.”

The statement criticized Netflix for casting James, whom the ministry said has “African features and dark skin,” to play Cleopatra.

Well, is it important? Even if Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans didn’t have a conception of race similar to ours, why can’t a black woman play Cleopatra? Racially mixed casting has been going on for a while now, and I don’t really see anything wrong with it.

But N&G do care: for in this op-ed they claim that Cleopatra is really “culturally black”, and thus can be claimed by blacks as a member of their group. But she can also be claimed by modern Greeks and Egyptians as members of their group, too! (Are you confused yet? Read on.)  I’m not sure why N&G make this claim, which seems to be deeply muddled given that they don’t even outline what “black culture” is. Somehow it involves oppression and exploitation, but also “triumph and survival”—but that’s as far as it goes. Under their view, we’re all culturally black.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Click to read (someone also archived the piece here).

Below is N&G’s note that ancient conceptions of race don’t even come close to ours. (I would maintain that even the very idea of “race” isn’t to be seen in these cultures, at least as their way of hierarchically ordering human  groups. Rather, they had an idea of “groups” that were based on geography and culture.)

What debates like this miss is that current notions of race are relatively recent inventions and do not necessarily speak to how people of Cleopatra’s day saw the world or themselves. Classicists tell us that although the Greeks and Romans did notice skin color, they did not regard it as the primary marker of racial difference. Other concepts — environment, geography, ancestral origin, language, religion, custom and culture — played bigger roles in delineating groups and identities. So regardless of the material a sculptor may have chosen to use to summon Cleopatra’s powerful visage, there is no meaningful sense in which she — or anyone else of her era — would have identified as white.

The question that follows is: How, then, can anyone, including a Netflix dramatization, claim that Cleopatra was Black?

Good question, indeed!  My answer would be that scholars say Cleopatra was probably Macedonian/Greek, which would make her “white” in today’s parlance. But really, who cares what actress portrays her? This would seem to be a sensible view that would end the controversy, but N&G don’t agree: the main point of their piece is that Cleopatra was indeed black, but “culturally black”:

Dr. Haley has said that she was struck by the experience, early in her life and career, of encountering Black American communities that seemed to view Cleopatra as one of their own. Building on that experience, Dr. Haley’s academic work on Cleopatra adopts a more complex criterion for racial identification than skin color alone. “When we say, in general, that the ancient Egyptians were Black and, more specifically, that Cleopatra was Black,” Dr. Haley wrote, “we claim them as part of a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival.”

Why was Cleopatra oppressed? She doesn’t seem to have been, so were her ancestors oppressed? It doesn’t look like it: they were Pharaohs and Queens!  So where can you find oppression in Cleopatra’s persona?  You can’t really, though N&G dig hard looking for it:

Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was a member of the family that conquered Egypt over 200 years earlier. He was routinely referred to as an illegitimate child. His mother is unknown, as is the identity of Cleopatra’s mother, though several clues suggest she may have been Egyptian, including Plutarch’s claim that Cleopatra was likely the first Ptolemaic ruler to speak that language.

When the Roman poet Propertius famously called Cleopatra a whore queen (meretrix regina), he laced his misogynist tirade with allusions to Egypt, such as the “noxious” city of Alexandria and the “yapping” Egyptian god Anubis. The intersection of Cleopatra’s race and gender resulted in a form of oppression that cast her heritage and sexuality as particularly dangerous. Regardless of her lineage or appearance, it’s clear that Cleopatra’s actions were not perceived as the typical behavior of a Greek or Roman woman.

Note the “intersectionality” here, as well as the term “gender” instead of “sex.”  But one poet’s slur does not oppression make; remember that Cleopatra was QUEEN OF EGYPT. Yes, she had life and love troubles, but so do we all.  Here’s more of N&G’s unconvincing argument that Cleopatra was oppressed:

Throughout her reign, Cleopatra was also careful not to depict herself as a wife or consort but rather as Isis, the great Egyptian goddess who raised her son alone, without her slain husband, Osiris. Cleopatra was a pragmatist, doing what it took to survive, aligning herself first with Caesar, then with Mark Antony, before fleeing Actium when the tides turned. Finally, when it became clear to her that Octavian would let her live only in order to march her through Rome as a war captive, she took her own life by poison.

But that doesn’t say anything about oppression, at least of the type the authors are discussing. They further argue that modern Egyptians and Greeks can also claim Cleopatra as part of their culture:

Dr. Haley argues that Cleopatra’s experience was part of a history of oppression of Black women. Reclaiming Cleopatra as Black and choosing to portray her now as a Black woman highlights this history — and is consistent with contemporary Egyptians or Greeks identifying with Cleopatra on the grounds of their own shared culture. Unlike racial assignments based on physical characteristics, which seek to distill people into rigid and recognizable categories, shared cultural claims can easily coexist.

But Cleopatra wasn’t black. So N&G have to argue that she, like black women today, had a history of oppression but also “a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival”.  If these are the criteria that make Cleopatra “culturally black,” and also make Egyptians and Greeks culturally black, then they also make the Irish, modern Hispanics, and Jews “culturally black.” Indeed, every group on Earth, whether it be demarcated by genes or culture, has had its moments of oppression and of triumph. If everybody is culturally black, then nobody is.

This makes the whole “culturally black” argument into complete nonsense. Cleopatra was, if anything, privileged, though her life was tough at times.

Why, then, was this article written? The only reason I can think of was to somehow enable American blacks to still claim Cleopatra as one of their own. (If her portrayal by a black actress wasn’t intended to do that, then why are the Egyptians objecting so vehemently?) But why can’t we adopt the more sensible view that all humans can find something of Cleopatra in themselves: she was part of humanity and shared human emotions, love. and experiences (granted, not experiences that largely coincide with mine)?  In an attempt to shoehorn Cleopatra into an ethnic group in order to boost group esteem, N&G fail miserably. The NYT should have put this piece in the circular file.

But there’s a lesson here: regardless of what color Cleopatra was, she was part of the confluence of humanity, not to be claimed by any living group as “one of theirs”—any more than I can claim George Washington as “one of mine”.

In the end, was Cleopatra not a woman and a sister? And isn’t that enough to end these stupid and divisive arguments about her “race”, at least among the public?


Supplementary material: If you want to see what Cleopatra may have looked like, this page has lots of pictures of the “Berlin Cleopatra,” a sculpted portrait made when she was alive. Wikipedia describes it as “a Roman sculpture of Cleopatra wearing a royal diadem, mid-1st century BC (around the time of her visits to Rome in 46–44 BC), discovered in an Italian villa along the Via Appia and now located in the Altes Museum in Germany.” Here’s a face-on view:

69 thoughts on “NYT op-ed: Cleopatra was black because her lived experience made her “culturally black”

  1. Chrissake, pick the available actress with the best acting chops for the role regardless of race. The statue above of the Queen of the Nile doesn’t look much like Liz Taylor, either.

    1. The Hollywood movie with Liz Taylor did not purport to be a documentary. The Netflix movie does claim to be a documentary.

    2. People still don’t get it. It’s not about the actress, it’s not about black and white. Racism is an American trope.

      It is the fact that a group of Afro centric revisionists want to take over someone else’s culture and history. This tv series’ main theme is : “ I don’t care what teachers say ( or archeologists and historians), Cleopatra was (culturally as in urban black in America) black”.

      F.. that! Back off and get your own culture. Sick and tired of these people trying to brainwash others to change facts. Say sorry and move on, or appreciate the fact she was Egyptian in culture and of Greek upbringing and background, and say yeah as a black person in modern day I might not relate but I can appreciate and look up to her on a human level.

      Sick and tired of these justifications and victim blaming.

  2. The NYT’s attempt to analyse this in terms of the current American fixation with race is ridiculous.

    It is indeed correct that the Romans would not have had the same concepts of race as modern Americans, but that’s because nearly all the peoples who were part of the Roman empire and conquests were broadly “caucasian” and thus “white”.

    They did have a term for sub-Saharan Africans, they called them “Ethiopians”. There were some in the Roman empire, but they were rare. We know that because a historian recounts the emperor Septimius Severus meeting an “Ethiopian” soldier at Hadrian’s Wall, and that would not be worth recounting unless it was rare.

    I’m betting there were also few Chinese or Japanese in the Roman empire, so they wouldn’t have had a concept of “Asian” people (I’m open to correction there). As for that modern American category “Hispanic”, well they didn’t even know about South America.

    So, yes, the Romans and Greeks would definitely have had notions of different racial groupings, but obviously not the ones that Americans are fixated on today. And neither the Ancient Egyptians nor Cleopatra were “black” (no matter how “oppressed” the monarch of a rich and powerful nation is made out to be).

    1. And closer in time to Cleopatra than Septimus Severus is the battle of Phillipi in 42 BC, where Brutus and Cassius faced Octavian and Mark Antony.

      The historian Appian tells us that “When the soldiers were going out to the fight an Ethiopian met them in front of the gates, and as they considered this a bad omen they immediately cut him in pieces.” This again suggests that sub-Saharan people were unusual enough in the Roman Empire to be considered a bad omen (the colour black being associated with death).

    2. On the other hand, the Egyptians certainly were perfectly familiar with sub-Saharan Africans. They had several “Nubian” (their term) Pharaohs who originated in Nubia (doh!) on their southern border, and a whole dynasty of Kushites from even further up the Nile.

      1. What is more, the Egyptians always portrayed the Nubians with dark brown skin, whereas they portrayed themselves either with red skin (for men) or yellow skin (women).

        1. The “red skin for males” convention is generally interpreted as “worked all day in the fields” (or grinding Pyramid Parts℠, but still under the blazing sun) while the women folk pent a lot of the day on domestic duties indoors or at least where an awning could be supported from the house roof.
          In the days of “red figure” pottery in the Med region, the Greeks had a fairly similar convention, leaving the menfolk with the red base pigment lined with black, while the womenfolk were marked with a white “slip” (clay painting).
          I’m not sure if enough Babylonian coloured pottery has survived to see their opinion ; if it did, it hasn’t penetrated to my attention.
          The Egyptians knew who their neighbours were, had a very consistent artistic convention for them, and used it when depicting, particularly people from “vile Kush”.

    3. There were no (or very, very few) Asian people in the Roman empire. However, the Romans did know that another great empire existed to the east. On one occasion, representatives of the Roman empire actually met representatives of the Chinese empire.

      1. Well, Alexander the Great got something like half the way to China, so it’s very plausible that there was sufficient trade contact that at least some idea of what was at the other end of the Silk Road(s) was known at the west end. They knew what silk was, and they knew they didn’t know how to make it, and had to get it, overland, from China.
        Similarly, via shipping up and down the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, the Romans knew of India, even if they didn’t know much about it. I’ve definitely seen reports of Indian coins and (datable) artefacts from Roman-era sites in the Levant.

      2. How far east do we want to go? The emperor Ashoka the Great, of the Indian subcontinent, sent Buddhist missionaries and traders to the Near East around 250BCE. Their philosophy may have had a significant influence on religious beliefs in that part of the world – including on the development of Christianity.

  3. Virtually without exception, I have argued that cultural appropriation, as the term has generally been bandied about these days, typically with regards to who gets to cook what food or play what music, does not exist. However, I have found my exception. This is the very definition of cultural appropriation, and it is proudly thus.

    1. If you want another example of bona fide cultural appropriation, look up the story of Nightwish and John Two-Hawks.
      Short version: metal band writes a song commemorating the suffering of American Natives and makes contact with a Lakota musician. Said musician agrees to collaborate, writes and recites a poem and plays flute on the song. Lakota representatives go “who is this guy? He’s not in our tribe, check the lists. And what’s that gibberish he’s speaking? …because it sure isn’t Lakota.”
      (Btw, the same band Nightwish also had several songs about evolution on the album “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, with guest appearances by Richard Dawkins.)

  4. Do the people in Africa today find it offensive that progressives lump them all together in one culture? Africa is a continent and I suspect there are as many different cultures on it as there are in Europe. Furthermore, Egypt in antiquity had more in common with and interacted more with other Eastern mediterranean cultures than anywhere from Sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, Egyptians had a history of being the ones doing the conquering and empire building. They weren’t the oppressed so much as the oppressors.

    Cleopatra was the first ruler in her line to learn the language of the people she ruled. I think that should tell us how Egyptian the culture was she was born in. And even if her mother was Egyptian and she had some experience of Egyptian culture, that was still totally different from the culture of the states whose populace supplied the European slave traders who shipped them to the Americas.

    Then there’s the time difference. I am English. Alfred the Great was English and yet we would each find the other’s culture totally alien. The culture of Egypt in the first century BCE would be even more foreign to an African today.

    1. Do the people in Africa today find it offensive that progressives lump them all together in one culture?
      There are 40+ tribes in Kenya alone, and many of them do not identify as the same as many others.

        1. It’s not just tribes; the Bantu of west Africa, the Pygmies of central Africa, the Nilo-Saharans of east Africa, and the Khoi-San (formerly called Bushmen or Hottentots) of southern Africa are different races, as different from each other as Europeans are from Native Americans. Because they all have dark skin, White people lump them together as “Black.”

  5. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was a member of the family that conquered Egypt over 200 years earlier.

    Huh? Unless my memory is going drastically faulty, Ptolemy was one of Alexander The Great’s generals, who was chosen by AtG as Satrap of his Egyptian province and stayed on in the job after AtG’s death. Hardly “her” (Cleo’s) family’s conquest.
    I checked : Wiki describes Alexander in Egypt as “where he was regarded as a liberator” [from the Persians] and he didn’t receive significant opposition there. The remains of the Persian Empire continued to need … “persuasion” of the pointy-metal-vigorously-applied variety. Several years of “persuasion”.
    There is a repeated rumour that Ptolemy was actually Alexander’s half-brother through adultery of his mother -of-record with Alexander’s father. But “It is probable that this is a later myth fabricated to glorify the Ptolemaic dynasty.” (Carney, Elizabeth (2010). Philip II and Alexander The Great: Father and Son, Lives and Afterlives. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-973815-1. via https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemy_I_Soter )
    An obligatory addendum to any discussion of “Cleo” is the unbeatable last words of Cæsar : “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!“. Compared to this piece of NYT drivel, this film is a masterpiece of scholarship.

    Didn’t … didn’t that film re-use some of the sets from the Taylor-Burton docum-drama?

    1. My favourite general from Alexander’s army is Monophthalmos (one eye) for his name alone.

  6. Why is it that casting actors of different races unhistorically only goes one way? You could cast a black man (or woman?) as Pericles, but you couldn’t cast a white man as Crispus Attucks.

    1. The usual answer to that is that it is a form of affirmative action for actors; that black actors don’t get many chances to do major roles and so it deprives black actors of roles to cast a white actor as a black man.

    2. I think, especially in historical dramas, there are relatively rare roles written for blacks and, when there are, it is precisely because the plot turns in some way upon the character’s being black (as would arguably be the case with Crispus Attucks).

      As an even more specific example, I think Denzel Washington worked great in the title role of Joel Coen’s recent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, but I think it would undermine the gist of Othello to cast a white actor in the title role of that play.

      1. There’s always black make-up. The opera Otello was routinely sung in blackface if your go-to singer was white, e.g., Placido Domingo, but I think it’s usually sung with just regular theatrical makeup these days. It still works. Opera is all about the suspension of disbelief.

        1. That may well work at the opera, Leslie, since opera sets aren’t designed to achieve a sense of reality. Movies, OTOH, are a horse of a different hue; except in particularized instances, the sets (including location shooting) generally endeavor to achieve the maximum possible sense of reality so as to ease the suspension of disbelief.

          I don’t think blackface would work well on the big silver screen (for this reason as well as for the obvious cultural baggage it carries). Hell, it’s distracting to this day to see Charlton Heston darkened up to play a Mexican in Touch of Evil, especially since there was no need for it, given that there are a quite a few Mexicans every bit as light-skinned as Heston was himself. (IIRC, both Heston and Orson Welles came to regret the use of that makeup.)

  7. “But really, who cares what actress portrays her?” – it’s supposed to be a a documentary. Casting actors and actresses who look like at least somewhat like the people they portray probably looked like is part of making the whole thing credible, immersive and accurate.
    And if someone intentionally casts someone who DOESN’T look like the historical counterpart, and takes great pride in that fact, yeah, I care too, because that someone is trying to warp reality, and I hate that.

    1. Seems to be the typical Mormon approach of baptising the dead into the Mormon religion obviously without their consent except in this case with race/ethnicity.

  8. Razib Khan did a pretty thorough piece, on his Substack, on the origins of the folks who make up the bulk of Egypt’s population today. Until I read it, I hadn’t known that there is sufficient DNA available from BCE residents of the Nile region to perform a comparative genomic analysis of ancient and modern inhabitants. His conclusion was that folks living there today are pretty much the same as their ancestors who built the pyramids. He also concluded that there was almost no introgression of sub-Saharan people into the region until comparatively (CE) recent times. The Sahara, after all, is a pretty significant barrier to population movement. This, of course says nothing about the Ptolomeic ancestry of Cleopatra, except that Khan also concluded that there was negligible gene flow between ancient Egypt’s ruling class and the common people. That being so, it seems unlikely that one of sub-Saharan ancestry would have been on the scene and welcomed into the ruling strata. I subscribe to Razib’s “Unsupervised Learning” and will be interested to see if he comments on the “Queen Cleopatra” production.

    1. He also concluded that there was almost no introgression of sub-Saharan people into the region until comparatively (CE) recent times. The Sahara, after all, is a pretty significant barrier to population movement.

      Which may well be true. But irrelevant.
      The historical records of Sub-Saharan entry into Egypt is that “they” came along the Nile valley, not across the Sahara. The Egyptians did have some problems with people coming at them from the West – what they and the Romans both described as “Lybia” – but again, they were travelling along the Mediterranean coast, not across the Sahara. Though in Roman times, the coastal corridor was hundreds of miles deeper than it is today, which can largely be ascribed to the humble goat.

  9. One’s heart goes out to those of the oppressed and exploited, such as the Queen of Egypt, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and, most of all, Professor Ibram X. Kendi, condemned to struggle under the burden of his $20,000/hr speaker fees.

  10. No inconsistency detected. I’m sure they’d probably also be happy to claim that Clarence Thomas is white because he’s “culturally white”.

    So keep an eye open for the upcoming biopic of Justice Thomas in which he is portrayed by Paul Giamatti.

  11. What an amusing case of cultural appropriation! A group of rich Americans, headed by Jada Pinkett Smith, who is surely wealthier than 99% of Egyptians, have appropriated Cleopatra. In doing so they have erased the ethnicity of North Africans, because they operate under the racist delusion that everyone in Africa has the features of a sub-Saharan African.

    The only historical “evidence” for Cleopatra being a soul sister rests on the very remote possibility that her mother might have been a Nubian or Ethiopian. But Cleopatra lived and ruled in Alexandria, a part of Egypt long colonized by Greeks and Macedonians and other peoples of the Mediterranean.

    If Jada Pinkett Smith desires to make a show about genuinely black Pharaohs and queens, why doesn’t she focus on the twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt instead? Its rulers originated in Kush (Sudan) and conquered Egypt in 744 BC. But of course she’ll run into the same problem as with Cleopatra—-all of these figures have very little to do with modern American culture, where Euro- or African American.

    1. the twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt instead? Its rulers originated in Kush (Sudan) and conquered Egypt in 744 BC.

      Please, respect the traditions of Egyptian literature : it’s “vile Kush”, unless the current pharaoh happens to be from the “Glorious Land of Kush”!

  12. “I’m using the old usage of race; I actually prefer “ethnicity””

    This is all a matter of semantics. However, I would suggest using race for high-level groups and ethnicity for lower-groups. For example, I would suggest using the ‘R’ word for Europeans and ethnicity for Germans vs. Irish. Basically, this all comes down FST values.

  13. I wonder why our culture is more enamored with Cleopatra than Hatshepsut. Cleopatra reigned over the end of a formerly great culture. Hatshepsut ruled during a time of prosperity and peace, left behind great monuments, and was pharaoh. She exercised tremendous power. Perhaps Cleopatra’s sexual liasons and romanticized death make her more intriguing.

    Movies often take liberties with historical fact. Their creators are often trying to make a political/ cultural point, just as Pinkett Smith is here. The only issue I see is that so many people learn history from movies instead of historians. So these personal inventions can become an erroneous part of a shared memory of an actual historical event or person.

    As far as art is concerned, they could cast a woman of Chinese descent in the role. Why not?

      1. I think you are correct. Cleopatra is famous (to us) because of her ties to Rome. I read all seven volumes of Colleen McCullough’s (famous for “The Thorn Birds”) series, “The Masters of Rome”. Cleopatra shows up (a lot actually), but as a consequence of her relationship with Caesar. Rome had a considerable interest in Egypt. Rome use grain from Egypt to feed its population.

    1. I wonder why our culture is more enamored with Cleopatra than Hatshepsut.

      Plutarch, Bill Shakes (Duke of Oxford), and Champollion, in approximately that order.
      Actually, I think the re-discovery of Hatsheput didn’t start until … the 1860s, maybe even later? While we’ve had access to Plutarch’s works since they were written in the first century CE. He was one of Shaky Bill’s major sources.

  14. Our concept of Cleopatra as a sexy sort of whorish woman is Roman propaganda that has really shown some staying power so kudos to their marketing in the 1st C BC! The Romans didn’t like the prospect that power might be moving to the East with Caesar and his love interest and when Augustus came on the scene he knew he had to conquer Egypt and secure his own power (and kill Caesar’s kid so he didn’t challenge his own legitimacy as heir). But cleopatra was from a long line of Greek rulers. There is no doubt about this. But of course the retort will most likely be that the Classics are racist anyway.

    And if you want a taste of cultural appropriation you really should get to know the Ancient Romans. They took stuff from everywhere, especially religions.

    1. “And if you want a taste of cultural appropriation you really should get to know the Ancient Romans. They took stuff from everywhere, especially religions.”

      Yes, but what did they ever do for us?

    2. Colleen McCullough does not depict Cleopatra as sexy and whorish. Bad political choices? For sure.

      1. But most of our movies about her do and most of the view of the general public is in line with that depiction.

  15. Much of the dialog I have read about this issue seems to be folks that take the position that casting Black person in a White role is “colorblind” casting. But that argument is insincere. Tom Hanks does not get to play Frederick Douglass.
    Personally, I think that in a few years, much of today’s media will seem terribly dated, because we are trying so very hard to empower everyone and be inclusive.
    Last night, we were watching a drama about Russian aristocrats in the 18th century, and it was not unexpected that a decent percentage of them seemed to have sub-Saharan or East Indian Heritage. It is something I mostly have learned to ignore.

  16. On a related note, Masterpiece Theater has a new mini-series of Fielding’s Tom Jones in which Tom’s love, Sophia Western, is played by a black woman, Sophie Wilde. I happen to be currently reading the novel, and here is a partial description of Sophia:

    “Her neck was long and finely turned. . .here was whiteness which no lilies, ivory, nor alabaster could match. The finest cambric might indeed be supposed from envy to cover that bosom which was much whiter than itself.”

    Oh well. . .never mind.

  17. How much does anyone want to bet that the next two years will see a sudden surge in “scholarly work” in “reputable journals” (as well as a likely media blitz) that claim Cleopatra was, indeed, black, despite literally all evidence to the contrary?

  18. The NYT news story that discussed the controversy in Egypt over this documentary was excellent. I suppose they thought they needed to run this op-ed as a counterbalance to…facts? Were they afraid of their newsroom again?

  19. This whole kerfuffle is a uniquely American absurdity. Our racial obsession is a culture bound syndrome and “racism” it its modern (last 10 years) form is a moral panic.

    The woke are actually MANUFACTURING the racism that, all the metrics tell us, is in decline. I’m embarrassed to be a leftist and must feel like sane conservatives did when the MAGAs came over the hill on the Trump train.

  20. From a 2017 Nature article titled “Mummy DNA unravels ancient Egyptians’ ancestry”

    “Both types of genomic material showed that ancient Egyptians shared little DNA with modern sub-Saharan Africans. Instead, their closest relatives were people living during the Neolithic and Bronze ages in an area known as the Levant. Strikingly, the mummies were more closely related to ancient Europeans and Anatolians than to modern Egyptians.

    The researchers say that there was probably a pulse of sub-Saharan African DNA into Egypt roughly 700 years ago. The mixing of ancient Egyptians and Africans from further south means that modern Egyptians can trace 8% more of their ancestry to sub-Saharan Africans than can the mummies from Abusir el-Meleq. ”

    That being said, I could care less that Cleo is played by a black women. I saw a broadcast of an Ontario Stratford On Avon’s “Macbeth” a few years ago and the problem was the young blonde guy as Macbeth was totally overpowered by the black woman who played Lady Macbeth, and the barrel chested white guy who played his Duncan and the black guy who played MacDuff. It took about five minutes to stop thinking ‘hey, Lady Macbeth is black’ to thinking for the rest of the play, ‘this guy who’s playing Macbeth, he isn’t good.’ See what merit or lack of it can do?

    1. The researchers say that there was probably a pulse of sub-Saharan African DNA into Egypt roughly 700 years ago.

      That is suspiciously close in time to the Hajj of Mansa Musa. 60 thousand men (not to mention 12 thousand slaves, carrying the cash) are likely to leave a demographic footmark wherever they pass.

  21. The only relevant comment in all the justificatory waffle is this:

    “Dr. Haley has said that she was struck by the experience, early in her life and career, of encountering Black American communities that seemed to view Cleopatra as one of their own.”

    It’s all about Americans wanting to feel good about something, and feeling they have a right to feel good about it. Once that is accepted as sufficient reason for doing something, all rationalizations become possible.

    1. A very long time ago I saw a newspaper article (maybe around the Disney release of “Pocahontas”) where an incredibly high percentage of Americans claimed Indian (indigenous) ancestry. And pretty much all of them claimed ancestry from an ‘Indian princess’ and very few claimed ancestry from an ‘Indian brave’. Make of it what you will.

      1. It’s exactly the same influence that means there are thousands of times more people who believe themselves to be re-incarnated Atlantean Princes than there are re-incarnated Atlantean goatherds. Or, for that matter, locally, people who are proud to trace their ancestry back to Edward II, when there are almost certainly far more people whose ancestry traces as directly back to a pike-man in one of Edward I (“Longshanks”, “Malleus Scotoram”) ‘s armies.

    2. It’s all about Americans wanting to feel good about something, and feeling they have a right to feel good about it. Once that is accepted as sufficient reason for doing something, all rationalizations become possible.
      This! ^

  22. I find it annoying when people project their current ideologies on the past in order to elevate or denigrate one particular character, instead of trying to understand the person in their context.
    I am sure Cleopatra could be considered a “bad” person by today’s standards. She had her sister killed, for instance, she surely had slaves, and no royal from that time would be a role model for our kids, unless we heavily manipulate history to accommodate our fashionable present day beliefs.

    1. See also the current attempts by trans ideologists to retrotrans (not a word but it will suffice) women from history who didn’t confirm to the accepted gender roles of their time and are now claimed as ‘assigned female at birth’ but who identified as male, because obviously strong-willed, independent women just can’t have existed.
      So far I’ve seen this ridiculous claim made for Boudicca, Joan of Arc, Mary Anning and even Queen Elizabeth I, the latter claim seemingly based solely on her famous ‘I may have the frail body of a woman, but I have the heart of a king’ speech on the eve of war. That is seen by the followers of the fashionable nonsense as her admission that she identified as male!
      There are many other women whose histories are being appropriated in this lame attempt to pretend that transgender people have always existed in great numbers but weren’t recognised as such in their time because we’ve only now developed the language to describe and define transgender.

      1. ‘confirm’ in my first paragraph above should read ‘conform’. Small phone keyboard, large fingers!

      2. Yup, anyone in the past who was vaguely non-conforming with the gender stereotypes is now retrotransed. Not only offensively presumptive, but often involving the erasure of homosexuality / lesbianism.

  23. This dilution of the concept is very good news. In French one our mock philosophers coined the sentence ” Tout est dans tout, et réciproquement” i.e. “Everything belongs to everything, and the other way round”. It is attributed to Pierre Dac but that may be apocryphal.

  24. Ancient Egypt was a diverse society, but Cleopatra’s family tree is well-documented as to disqualify any recent “black” ancestors. She didn’t even have any recent Egyptian ancestors of any race being as she was a Ptolemid! When blacks try to claim Nefertiti and Cleopatra as black (to the point that I have encountered black women with these names) based on the scantiest of evidence it just makes me cringe. Modern Egyptians have way more SSA input than the majority of Ancient Egyptians given the extensive mixing that has occured since that time, and even that’s a relatively small amount.

  25. When a black actor plays a role written for a white – or worse historically white – then this is simply black-facing that is much condemned when whites do it. In other words, the black actress is not really portraying a black but portraying the white but in black-face. Instead of putting black makeup on the face, they use a black skin. It should not be supported.

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