Tuesday, 24 March 2009

More nonsense about Cleopatra’s ‘black ancestry’



I watched last night the BBC’s Cleopatra: portrait of a killer. The title of this so-called documentary is enough to tell you what a fatuous, shoddy, sensationalist, misleading and downright inaccurate piece of trash this was. Its central premise was that the skeleton of a young woman found in a tomb in Ephesus, Asia Minor, is that of Princess Arsinoe who, history tells us, was murdered on the orders of her sister, Queen Cleopatra VII. The programme then suggests that using evidence from a reconstructed skull – not the real skull, which was not found in the tomb – a team of forensic scientists, on the basis of the pronounced distance from the forehead to the back of the skull, which is a common feature of Semitic African and Bantu African skulls, believe that Arsinoe, and hence Cleopatra, could have had ‘African’ ancestry – and that this supports the ‘controversial’ (according to the programme) or ‘stupid’ (according to me) theory that Cleopatra was black.

Now, listening to the scientist in the programme – see video clip above – explain skull theory, it is clear that she is not asserting with any conviction that the skull – assuming, of course that it is an accurate recreation of Arsinoe’s skull – proves the African ancestry of Arsinoe and Cleopatra. In fact, the scientist says that the skull ‘looks more white European’ and that the long head shape is not only characteristic of Africans but can also be found in many other racial types.

And even if Cleopatra had some Egyptian blood – and I mean Coptic/Egyptian and not Bantu African – and this is at least a possibility since we know that Cleopatra’s mother – who was in fact also her aunt – was Cleopatra V, an illegitimate daughter of Ptolemy IX – then this does not make the Ptolemies an Egyptian let alone an African dynasty and there remain no grounds on which to call Cleopatra VII a ‘black’ or even an ‘African’ queen. The Ptolemaic dynasty, from start to finish, was overwhelmingly Greek in race and culture, and in fact Cleopatra’s, and the dynasty’s, downfall came about as she tried to resist Roman influence in Egypt (Cleopatra regarded the Romans as barbarian invaders) and, at the same time, extend ‘Hellenistic influence upon the entire Roman world, making Alexandria, not Rome, the capital of this immense empire’. (Vrettos, T. Alexandria, City of the Western Mind).

The programme regurgitates all the old salacious Roman and Western myths about Cleopatra, aimed to discredit her and the Hellenistic world. The queen is portrayed as licentious, devious, cold-blooded and cruel, when in fact we know Cleopatra was devoted to statecraft as well as to Greek arts and science and that she only ever had two lovers – Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony – who she beguiled not so much with her beauty but with her formidable intellect and charm – ‘the contact of her presence was irresistible’ (Plutarch). On the question of Cleopatra’s beauty, we also know – due to busts and coinage portraits – that not only was she not ‘classically’ beautiful – ‘her actual beauty… was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it’ (Plutarch) – but she also most definitely did not have black features.

■ If you live in the UK, you can watch the whole of Cleopatra: portrait of a killer here, on BBCi player.