Was Cleopatra black? Spike Lee thinks so. Even Shakespeare, no Afrocentrist he, called her “tawny” (yellowish-brown). Hollywood, though, makes her white (pictured).
But what do the facts say?
First, a disclaimer: American ideas of race, of black and white, are an invention of the 1600s. In Cleopatra’s time and place, people saw themselves in terms of language and country and sometimes religion, not skin colour.
Her family tree: Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies, who had ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years, since the time of Alexander the Great. The first Ptolemy was a general that Alexander left in charge of Egypt. When Alexander died, Ptolemy took over. He was a Macedonian Greek.
To keep their bloodline pure, brother often married sister, but brother often took a mistress too. Cleopatra’s father’s mother was a mistress. She could have been anything from Greek to Nubian. We have no idea. Nor do we know what her mother was. All we can say from her family tree is that she was anywhere beween 25% to 100% Macedonian Greek.
Her sister’s skull: Some, like anti-Afrocentric scholar Mary Lefkowitz, said Cleopatra was white because there was no reason to suppose otherwise. But then in 2009 came news about the body of Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s sister, the only body of a Ptolemy that has ever been found:
Evidence obtained by studying the dimensions of Arsinöe’s skull shows she had some of the characteristics of white Europeans, ancient Egyptians and black Africans, indicating that Cleopatra was probably of mixed race, too. They were daughters of Ptolemy XII by different wives.
Meaning that the Ptolemies were hardly as lily white as Eurocentric scholars had led us to suppose.
Some doubt it is Arsinoe’s body – the proof is circumstantial but it is more likely her than not – while others say you cannot prove race by skull measurements. Attempts to get nuclear DNA from her bones were unfruitful.
The coins: The advantage of coins is that they were made when Cleopatra was alive. The disadvantage is that the artists were not always the best. Click to enlarge:
In the last coin she looks like she is in her fifties or sixties, but that coin was struck in 31 BC when she was 37! Except for the hair she could be a man!
Temple pictures: Coin artists will tend to make her look more like a Roman man than she was. Here, for example, is an Egyptian picture of her done at the same time (flipped horizontally for easier comparison):
Her language and religion: In addition to speaking Greek, she spoke Egyptian. That is odd: she is the only Ptolemy in 300 years to do so. Why? There is more: she also followed the Egyptian religion and dressed in an Egyptian way. That makes it seem likely that her mother was herself Egyptian, not just her father’s mother.
As stated in another post, Egyptians in those days were more than 40% black. That would make Cleopatra at least 20% black – in addition to whatever blackness she had in common with Arisinoe.