Queen Cleopatra, Netflix’s new docuseries, angered more than a few Egyptians by casting a Black woman as the famous Egyptian queen. But …was Cleopatra even Egyptian, let alone Black? Executive-produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, who said she wanted the series to “represent Black women,” Queen Cleopatra features British actress Adele James as Cleopatra VII (who lived from about 69 or 70 BCE through 30 BCE). This formidable queen, known partner of Roman political and military leaders Mark Antony and Julius Caesar and last ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, eventually lost a war with Emperor Augustus, leading to the birth of the Roman Empire, Egypt’s annexation as a Roman province, and her own death.
The historical controversy over Cleopatra’s race is so old that it has its own substantial Wikipedia page. Some Egyptian citizens feel strongly that Netflix and producer Smith ended up on the wrong side of this debate, accusing them of Blackwashing Egyptian and Greek history. Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary felt so strongly about this that he is bringing legal action against the streaming giant, demanding its ultimate discontinuation in Egypt.
To get to the bottom of this (in my opinion!) annoying and repetitive debate—and to assess just how much of an overreaction it is to bring a lawsuit against a streaming service when you could simply watch Elizabeth Taylor, who played the queen in 1963’s Cleopatra, don $60 worth of eyeshadow—I spoke to Denise McCoskey, classics professor at Miami University and author of Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nadira Goffe: We know that Cleopatra was Macedonian and Greek, but it’s been theorized that she was also Persian, Egyptian, and more.* Would you say that she might have presented as darker-skinned? Do we know anything about, not only what she was, but what she looked like?
Denise McCoskey: One of the really interesting things is the ancient Romans—that’s our main source, there are some Greek writers, but she’s primarily in conflict with the Romans at that political moment [which means they wrote about her more]—they’re actually not that interested in her appearance. So, there’s really not a record of it, but it’s not unusual because appearance just wasn’t used to define people in the way that it is today. There’s artwork that portrays her, but the artwork is really variant. People have identified marble busts as showing her, but that’s a really speculative identification—there’s nothing other than a sort of Greek-looking woman with a ponytail. She is on coins, and that’s much more secure because they can date the coins. But the representation of figures on coins is really hard to match to any realistic portrait. Coins have their own conventions.
You also have this monumental representation of her on the side of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, and she is absolutely in the guise of an Egyptian pharaoh. She is in all of the conventional posing, the clothing, she’s got hieroglyphics. It’s very clear that publicly, she was very willing to be portrayed as an Egyptian ruler, someone who is racially Egyptian, or at least pharaonically Egyptian, whatever that might mean.
The director of Queen Cleopatra, Tina Gharavi, said in a piece for Variety: “What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele [James] than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.” As a historian, can you confirm this?
[There are] two things I would say about that: One is that when you look at ancient texts, generally speaking, it’s very hard for them to comment on skin tone. I mean, they do have words for it. It’s not like they didn’t recognize variation. But getting them to comment on what is the standard skin tone for Greeks and Romans, it just doesn’t happen.
The only example I can think of is a Roman novel that’s a little bit later, in which people are trying to disguise themselves, and so they say, when they go to disguise themselves as Gauls, that they actually lighten their skin color, and they darken their skin color to play Ethiopians. If you take those sorts of passing evidence, I think you would have to say that a kind of northern European whiteness is not how we should imagine ancient Greeks and Romans, and that there was a variation in skin color, but that it was not likely to be that pale.
It is the case that you sometimes get language that idealizes paleness when it comes to women. But I think that that’s often mistaken as valuing whiteness, when it’s really valuing a lack of suntan. What it is really valuing is an upper-class ideal where women didn’t have to go outside, so they didn’t become darkened by the sun in the ways that men would. So if you look at things like Roman wall paintings, men are shown with a reddish-brown skin and women are often shown pale, but I think that that’s more about a class ideal than any valuation of whiteness the way that we would [think of it] today.
That’s really interesting, because I also read somewhere that said that ancient Egyptians had a gendered view of skin color. But what you’re saying makes more sense, which is that they had a gendered view of society, and therefore that impacted their skin color.
It also seems like we agree that the other option is perhaps Cleopatra wasn’t white, but that doesn’t mean she was Black.
Right. And the other thing I would say is that the whiteness for women’s skin color was an ideal, and there’s actually evidence that women put white lead on their face as a kind of makeup. So even if that’s an ideal, it’s not clear that upper class women had that, versus cultivated that through cosmetic means, you know? So that, to me, suggests that most women, including upper-class women, were not as pale as that ideal.
Some Egyptians have been very angered by this portrayal of Cleopatra. Some of them have gone so far as to attempt to take legal action against Netflix because they claim that it’s a sort of Blackwashing of their history. Some have approved of this legal action as a necessary step in preserving Egyptian culture, while others have criticized this move as an example of the way that racism and colorism function in Egypt. What do you make of this controversy?
I’m not very sympathetic to it. I do think there’s a huge cultural gap [between now and then], but I also think that the skin color of the ancient Egyptians has really been part of racial thought since the 19th century, and the idea that the Egyptians were white is deeply rooted in 19th-century beliefs. Part of what was going on at that moment is Egyptians were sort of whitewashed due to this understanding that the Greeks actually valued the Egyptians. So, if you have this kind of idea [as 19th-century Anglo-Americans did] that the Greeks are the most superior civilization, then you start to get worried about a civilization that is older [which], in fact, produces all of this monumental architecture that is so admired.
It became really central to 19th-century racial theory to prove that the Egyptians were white. And you actually get that in scientific racism, in things like [George R. Gliddon and Josiah C. Nott’s] Types of Mankind, [in which] there’s a study of Egyptian skulls that presumes to argue that ancient Egyptians were white. There’s this really great historian [Scott Trafton] who works on American racial ideas in particular, and he says the ancient Egyptian body was central to American racial ideas, and I think that’s global as well. But it also then becomes part of a discourse around slavery, because, in the 19th century, the whitewashing of Egyptians was also about trying to deny the fact that people of color had certain capacities that you had to have. Proving the Egyptians were Black became a really abolitionist viewpoint. Herodotus describes ancient Egyptians as having Black skin color, so all of a sudden Herodotus was pulled into all of these 19th-century debates about the skin color of the ancient Egyptians.
What I would say is, it is disappointing to me. Among contemporary Egyptians who are so offended by that, it seems to me a willful inability to confront the history of the question of Egyptian skin color. And they’re sort of siding with, to me, what are quite 19th-century racialized views. Which is to say that the only way that Egyptian culture can be admired, the only way that we can talk about cultural superiority, is to make the Egyptians white. I find that so out of step with the history of how ancient Egyptians’ skin color has been studied.
I understand there’s a cultural gap. I don’t want to step into it with debates in Egypt. But it’s just so disappointing not to acknowledge all the ways that power and racism have circulated around this question for centuries. I think [former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs in Egypt] Zahi Hawass even said Cleopatra had blond hair! I mean, there’s no way that she had blond hair; I mean that’s not possible.
You said that this is disappointing. What would you have hoped or expected to hear from people?
In 1991, Newsweek ran a cover story that said “Was Cleopatra Black?” and it was all about this work Black Athena that has been big in Classics and Afrocentrism. I just feel like we’re back in that moment and nothing has changed. What I would want is for people, like these Egyptian archaeologists, instead of making this argument of Was she Black or white, to continue beating on the theme that ancient Greeks and Romans thought about race differently. It literally made no difference to the Romans what color of skin she had.
Cleopatra was really demonized as Egyptian by the Romans. When she went to war with Rome, you can see them beginning to craft [a narrative]. I mean, they’re the ones that shifted her from Macedonian to Egyptian because [at first] they were perfectly willing to acknowledge that she comes from a Macedonian family. But all of a sudden, when she’s at war, she’s the Egyptian Cleopatra. She also, when you look at the evidence, clearly comfortably embraced an Egyptian identity.
So, to me, in the modern world, a Cleopatra with a dark skin color [like Adele James in the new docuseries] is a translation. I don’t think it should be taken literally, but it shows her as distinct from the Romans, which is what the Romans believed. If you’re going to cast Romans as European, white-looking people, then she is racially different—they’re producing a racially different Cleopatra. So that makes sense to me to show her racially different in modern terms. The problem is that we have to explain [that] that’s not racially different in ancient terms.
I understand that there is a line of criticism that the way that racism functioned in ancient Rome and ancient Egypt is entirely different from the way race functions now, but people sometimes follow that up with: So there’s no point in even talking about this. I don’t think that that second part is necessarily true. Like you just said, it takes a sort of delineation between then and now, but they’re not entirely disconnected from each other, in my opinion. In your view, how did race function, as far as we know, during the era of Cleopatra? You mentioned they used it as a sort of political othering to further their war propaganda. How else did race function?
I think race was much more tied to what we might call a cultural performance. So I think that race was tied to what you did, not what you are. And I think it’s very clear that Cleopatra worshiped Egyptian gods. We know that she was the first in her family to speak Egyptian. It’s also said that she spoke Ethiopian without translators. There’s a way, it seems to me, [to] think about race as something which can be inhabited and performed and not just imposed on someone. It seems very clear to me that she performed an Egyptian racial identity.
Now, we might be cynical about that performance in the sense that it suited her very well because she was trying to rule Egypt. But it seems to me that, you know, there’s often an undertone that somehow it would embarrass Cleopatra to be considered Egyptian. I think that that’s completely wrong. The Romans imposed that identity on her, but she performed it in the way that she imagined it.
But I also think that, for her, the identities wouldn’t be mutually exclusive. I think that she could be Macedonian and Egyptian at the same time, or Greek and Egyptian at the same time. But it’s important to acknowledge that she was performing an identity that put her at odds with Rome, and that’s what I want to see in modern television productions, you know; this idea that she was really different in terms of gender, and racially different, from the Roman point of view.
That, to me, makes sense to try to portray, but it’s dangerous to do it in modern terms because people don’t understand it’s a translation. I prefer her to be dark-skinned rather than white. I will say that. I mean [Cleopatra being] white is equally speculative, and equally likely to be wrong. So, it makes sense to me that a filmmaker would try to try to convey her sense of difference. But in a positive way, one that she’s embracing and not just one that’s seen through the eyes of Rome. To me, that’s the most important thing.
Time ran a piece about this controversy, and they quoted a lot of different historians and academics. And one of them, Rebecca Futo Kennedy, said: “To ask whether someone was ‘Black’ or ‘white’ is anachronistic and says more about modern political investments than attempting to understand antiquity on its own terms.” But, the way that I see it, the entire point of consistently rehashing Cleopatra’s story and her racial identity as a potentially Black woman is that people often use it to make some sort of statement or commentary about the state of Black people today, like, We used to be queens and kings, but now we’re here under the weight of generations of oppression. Antiquity doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
The quotation you read is absolutely accurate. I mean, of course. But I think that’s not realistic for entertainment. That’s not realistic for certain kinds of representation because we, in the modern world, are much more visual at this moment in how we think about race. We make decisions about race that are very, very different.
I think the problem is, and I think classical historians have been implicated in this, that you have the question: Was Cleopatra Black? And you hear the answer: No, she was Greek. What that means, implicitly, is that the Greeks were white—and that is a false presumption. So there’s always going to be a kind of disconnect in this conversation if Greek is supposed to be non-Black, because that’s just not the way to think about it. I don’t have a lot of patience for that because that’s not the way to try to break through this impasse that we’re having. They sort of act like they’re making a corrective, but what they’re doing is simply reinforcing the false notion that Greek was white. And I don’t believe that for a minute. The Greeks certainly weren’t, I don’t think, pale in the way that we might think of as white, and they certainly weren’t white with a capital W. I mean, they did not understand themselves to be part of a white race; I mean, that’s just completely out of their consciousness.
I think some of my colleagues are maybe a little bit less willing to simply say what I would say, which is I much prefer her to be played by an actress of color than a white actress at this point in time for those reasons. Though I don’t think that that’s accurate, it’s a translation.
Do you think that we need to bring Cleopatra into the 21st century? Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to make, and don’t Black people deserve, a depiction of a Black hero that we know for a fact was Black, whose story isn’t told nearly as much as Cleopatra’s? I mean there’s an entire continent of African queens we could be talking about.
I’ve written about Cleopatra in certain places, and, you know, in some ways I was like, Oh no, not this again. Can’t we talk about someone we haven’t pored through and pored through? I think one of the appeals [of Cleopatra as entertainment] is obvious, but it’s the sex, right? You know, the fact that she’s sexually involved with Julius Caesar and then sexually involved with Mark Antony, and the ways that that gets played up by the Romans as sort of symptomatic of her appetite, which is both about being a woman and about being Egyptian.
I like to think about some of the parts of her that are not so salacious. I think there’s no question: She was smart. She was powerful. And she stood up to Rome, which I do think is interesting. But I agree with you, there are other historical figures who don’t have the genealogy of Hollywood and all of these other things that make her so fought over. I think the bottom line is she’s such a symbol in the West now that it’s like a blood sport. And I wish we had a better understanding of her.
Why do you think she’s become such a symbol in the West? Why are people so drawn to—I mean, besides the sex, which I think you’re totally right about—Cleopatra and her story?
I think it really goes back to the Romans and how they crafted a narrative. One of the things that I love to tell my students is when she [and Mark Antony were] at war with Rome, the Romans only declared war against her. They did not declare war against Mark Antony. It just suits them very well to build her up in a very particular way so that they can bring her down. Augustus, when he defeated her, he wanted her alive, so she committed suicide. But then he evidently either paraded her dead body or an effigy of her dead body at Rome. To me that’s the beginning of Hollywood looking at her, that moment her body has become the cornerstone of Augustus’ rise to power, which is really the cornerstone of the Roman Empire—because he’s the first Roman emperor.
This idea that we’re going to parade her and show her around just gets played out again and again. So I think the short answer to your question is the Romans. The Romans crafted a narrative that became so compelling that it’s reproduced and reproduced and reproduced. But it’s about looking at her. It’s about consuming her, in my opinion, which is what Augustus invited everyone to do.
Instead of understanding her.
Right. Instead of saying, actually, This is a civil war and it’s as brutal as any civil war, what he says is, This is my rise to power, on the body of this woman. There’s also a story that he took one of her pearls and put it in one of the temples at Rome, I think on Venus. So, there’s all of these kinds of symbols of her conquest that I think become deeply embedded in the rise of the Roman Empire. She’s a really good object for thinking about other things.
It’s useful to think of them being the first to gaze at her. We’ve inherited a Roman gaze, and I think mainly we’ve inhabited that rather than resisted it. To think about casting a different kind of Cleopatra is to think about resisting that legacy.
Correction, May 12, 2023: The interviewee originally referred to a piece of scholarship that was not relevant to the Cleopatra origins controversy.