Publication date May 29, 2023

Netflix's Riveting 'Queen Cleopatra' Series Ignites Global Controversy

The timeless legacy of Cleopatra, Egypt's last Pharaoh and Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, has once again been thrust into the limelight following Netflix's release of a trailer for its forthcoming four-part docudrama "Queen Cleopatra". The casting of Adele James, a Black actor, in the titular role has reinvigorated the enduring debates surrounding Cleopatra's racial identity, causing a stir among scholars, viewers, and even legal authorities.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 69 BC, Cleopatra was of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a lineage with Macedonian Greek roots. This historical fact has incited notable figures like Egypt's leading archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, to argue against the casting, suggesting it misconstrues Cleopatra's true ancestry. The issue has even escalated to legal levels, with Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary voicing his objections through legal action. Despite the controversy, some Egyptians have also pointed to the conversation as a reflection of ongoing issues of racism and colourism within Egypt today.

However, it's critical to note that the complexities surrounding Cleopatra's racial identity reveal more about contemporary societal perceptions of race than they do about the historical reality. Modern notions of race, categorized predominantly in terms of 'Black' and 'white', emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries, long after Cleopatra's reign. As explained by Rebecca Futo Kennedy, an associate professor of Classics at Denison University, these concepts are historically anachronistic when applied to ancient times.

Cleopatra VII, the most renowned ruler of her name, was not just a queen, but a scholar who studied medicine, philosophy, rhetoric, and oratory. She was fluent in numerous languages and was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn native Egyptian. Following her father's death, Cleopatra assumed the throne in 51 BC, shared initially with her brother Ptolemy XIII, but later claimed as her own.

The Ptolemaic dynasty originated from Greek Macedonian roots and ruled over ancient Egypt during its Hellenistic period. Marriages within the family were common, preserving the Greek Macedonian lineage. The identities of Cleopatra's mother and paternal grandmother remain uncertain, although there's no definitive proof to suggest they were Black.

However, due to these gaps in Cleopatra's family tree, the possibility of an Egyptian element in her heritage can't be completely dismissed. As Kennedy points out, Cleopatra's identity could encompass Greek, Macedonian, Egyptian, and Roman influences simultaneously. The modern inclination to project contemporary racial identities onto ancient figures can lead to misinterpretations, particularly regarding indigenous Egyptian identity.

Historical evidence suggests that ancient Egyptians were diverse, with references to Black-skinned Egyptians present in ancient texts. However, these references often carried a gendered connotation, with women typically associated with pale skin and men with darker skin. These associations were more reflective of gender than ethnicity or modern racial classifications.

Artistic depictions of Cleopatra have also been scrutinized. Cleopatra's likeness on coins, more aligned with Greek iconography, is often favored over depictions that resemble traditional Egyptian rulers. This preference underscores the tendency to box identities into singular categories, a practice that likely didn't apply in Cleopatra's lifetime.

The controversy surrounding Cleopatra's racial identity illustrates how our modern understanding of race can distort perceptions of historical figures. The racial classifications we're familiar with today, based on continent and skin color, were established centuries after Cleopatra's reign, making them ill-suited to define the identities of those in ancient civilizations.

Ultimately, the question of whether Cleopatra was Black, white, or another race may be misguided. It perpetuates the notion that these are universal and unchanging categories, rather than constructs that evolved over time. The ongoing controversy surrounding Cleopatra's racial identity serves as a reminder of the importance of understanding ancient identities within their own historical contexts, rather than through our modern lenses.

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