Was Cleopatra Black? Here’s What We Do and Don’t Know About Her Heritage

May 29, 2023

The heritage of Cleopatra — the famous queen of ancient Egypt — has been the subject of debate for quite some time. Was Cleopatra Black or was she Greek?
Born in 69 B.C., Cleopatra ruled Egypt from 51 B.C. until her death in 30 B.C. Some say she was of solely Macedonian Greek descent, whereas others argue that she was part Egyptian, making her of African descent as well. The new Netflix docuseries Queen Cleopatra, the second season of the African Queens anthology series from executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith, weighs in on that debate with one possible answer.
The hard truth is, we don’t know for sure what her heritage really was.
That’s according to Shelley P. Haley, a professor of classics at Hamilton College, who says that Cleopatra’s bloodline has some information missing. Her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, was descended from Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general who fought alongside Alexander the Great. But Cleopatra’s mother’s identity has not been confirmed.
Was Cleopatra Black?
“We don’t know her exact racial heritage. We don’t know who Cleopatra’s mother was. There’s been a lot of research to prove that her mother was Egyptian, but we can’t know for sure,” Professor Haley says in Queen Cleopatra.
Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton, the author of Cleopatra and Egypt, says in the docuseries that Cleopatra’s grandmother’s identity is also unknown.
“Cleopatra’s father was given a nickname which was illegitimate. So people recognize that his mother had probably been somebody who was at the royal court,” Dr. Ashton says.
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Experts Disagree About Cleopatra’s Heritage
The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has already responded to Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra docuseries with a statement insisting that Cleopatra was of Macedonian descent. (Macedonia was a kingdom located in modern-day Greece.)
“The Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Archaeology [Dr. Mustafa Waziri] confirms that Queen Cleopatra was light-skinned and [had] Hellenic features (Greek),” the Ministry wrote on its Facebook page on April 27. “Queen Cleopatra’s works and statues are the best evidence of her true features and Macedonian origins.”
Dr. Waziri strongly disagrees with Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra, arguing that “the appearance of the heroine in this body is a falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical misconception.”
But Netflix never claimed to know the truth about the age-old “was Cleopatra Black?” question. In fact, the producers of the Netflix series say that the decision to cast actress Adele James as Cleopatra in the docuseries was a “creative choice” that acknowledges the debate around the subject of the ancient queen’s heritage.
“The creative choice to cast an actor of mixed heritage to play Cleopatra is a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race. During the time of her reign, Egypt’s population was multicultural and multiracial. Cleopatra’s race was unlikely to be documented, and the identities of her mother and paternal grandparents weren’t known. Some speculate she was a native Egyptian woman, while others say she was Greek,” Netflix writes on its Tudum website.
“The aim of African Queens has always been to uncover the hidden histories of powerful women from the past and what made them leaders that we still talk about today,” the producers of the series added.
“Working with leading historians and experts including Shelley Haley (Professor of Classics and African Studies, Hamilton College) and Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton (Cleopatra scholar), we explore Cleopatra’s story as a queen, strategist, ruler of formidable intellect as well as a woman whose heritage is the subject of great debate. Her ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra, but we did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt.”
The Argument for Cleopatra’s Potential Egyptian Heritage
For now, it seems that historians will have to agree to disagree. But some historians are leaning toward her having native Egyptian blood.
“If you look at her depictions, she looks different depending on who it is that’s depicting her,” Debora Heard, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology specializing in Nubian archaeology & Egyptian studies, says in the docuseries.
“Given that Cleopatra represents herself as an Egyptian, it seems very strange that we insist on depicting her as wholly European,” Dr. Ashton added.
Professor Haley echoed this opinion.
“Cleopatra feels very close to the Egyptian people. Cleopatra learned the Egyptian language. She practiced the Egyptian religion. She wants to be remembered as Egyptian,” she says in the docuseries.
“My grandmother was the inspiration for me. I would come home and I would tell her about what I was learning. ‘Oh, we’re learning about the Greeks and oh, we’re learning about the Romans, and today we learned about Cleopatra!’” Haley added. “And I remember, clear as day, her saying to me, ‘Shelley, I don’t care what they tell you in school — Cleopatra was Black.’”
Main Image: Adele James as Cleopatra in a dramatic reenactment for Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra docuseries. Courtesy of Netflix.

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