Cleopatra’s Ethnicity: Was She Black, White, or Mixed?

It is well-documented that the famous Egyptian queen was of Macedonian descent. Cleopatra’s ancestors left Europe and landed in Egypt. They made themselves kings of the country and ruled it for 300 years.

But did Cleopatra only have Macedonian blood? Or did her kingly ancestors marry people of other nationalities during their 300-year stay in Africa?

Here is a fast-ish breakdown of Cleopatra’s ethnicity.

Background: the decline and invasion of Egypt

Photo of the three pyramids of Giza surrounded by sand. In the foreground there are a few people. They look tiny compared with the pyramids in the background.

The native Egyptian pharaohs built the pyramids 2,500 years before Cleopatra was born. By the time of her birth, Egypt was in decline and ruled by foreigners. (Photo: Vincent Brown/CCBY2.0)

When Cleopatra was born, Egypt was in frank decline.

The country had had an impressive run; it had been a superpower for millennia. The native Egyptian pharaohs had built amazing cities, pyramids, and temples. But that had happened 2,500 years before Cleopatra’s birth.

By the 900s BC, Egypt had lost its power. And it was invaded by the Libyans.

From then on, Egypt was mostly ruled by foreign kings. The country was conquered, in succession, by the Lybians, the Kushites, the Persians and, finally, by the Macedonians from Europe.

Why was Cleopatra Macedonian?

Cleopatra’s family: the Ptolemies. They were highly inbred. The Ptolemy kings married their full-sisters.

All the roads lead to Alexander the Great.

Alexander was the king of Macedon, a smallish country in Europe. Back then, Macedon was Greece’s neighbor, nowadays it is part of Greece.

Alexander crossed into Asia and conquered the huge Persian Empire in the 320s BC. His new empire included Egypt.

Alexander became pharaoh of Egypt. But he soon died.

His generals split the empire between them. And they made themselves kings of those lands.

The Ptolemaic dynasty begins

One of Alexander’s generals was Ptolemy Lagos. In the partition of the empire, Ptolemy grabbed Egypt and made himself pharaoh.

He established the Ptolemaic dynasty, which bears his name, in Egypt. His descendants ruled Egypt for the next 300 years.

Cleopatra VII Philopator -the famous queen- was his direct descendant.

Ptolemy was a Macedonian through and through, like Alexander. He was a nobleman.

And now that he was king, he needed a proper wife. So he tried to marry Alexander the Great’s sister to legitimize his reign. But she was killed by his enemies. Coincidentally, her name was Cleopatra, which was a popular Macedonian name, not an Egyptian one.

Thus, Ptolemy married two Macedonian nobles instead. Ptolemy’s children, therefore, while born in Egypt, were of full Macedonian blood.

After Ptolemy died, his son Ptolemy II became king. He first married a Greek/Macedonian noble. And then he married his full-sister, following an ancient Egyptian custom.

So Ptolemy II’s children were also Macedonian.

And most of the following Ptolemy kings followed suit: they married their sisters. That went on for 300 years until Cleopatra was born in this highly inbred family.

That is why Cleopatra had Macedonian blood.

Read next: What did Cleopatra Look Like? See her Statues and Coins

But were the Ptolemies only Macedonian?

Cleopatra’s Ptolemies married outside the family only four times. The brides were related to one another. They all descended from Alexander’s generals.

No, the Ptolemies were not only Greek and Macedonian.

Cleopatra’s ancestors did marry four times outside of the family. They chose brides that descended from Alexander’s generals.

These four women -Berenice I, Arsinoe I, Berenice II, Cleopatra I- were heavily related to one another. And three of them were relatives of the Ptolemies themselves.

The four brides were of Macedonian descent. Two of them were fully Greek/Macedonian. While the other two also had Persian (Middle Eastern) blood.

Through them, Cleopatra’s family tree gets quite impressive. She descends from Seleucus, Lysimachus, Antigonus, and Antipater. They were Alexander’s Macedonian generals, just like Ptolemy.

After Alexander’s death, they became kings of the Seleucid Empire, Syria, Asia Minor, Macedon, and other territories.

Therefore, Cleopatra was related to many of the ruling houses of the Mediterranean. For example, the famous King Mithridates the Great of Pontus was a relation of hers. Mithridates was one of Rome’s greatest foes for decades.

So the Ptolemies had Macedonian and Persian blood. Or Greek and Iranian, to use their modern equivalents.

Read about her ancestors in more detail: These are Cleopatra’s Dazzling Ancestors. Her Family Tree

Macedonian, Persian, and…?

Here it gets interesting. The Ptolemies were reigning royals. So there are clear records of who married whom and which children they had.

It is certain that Cleopatra’s grandfather, King Ptolemy IX, was of full Greek and Iranian descent. All his ancestors are neatly accounted for.

But then, the clarity stops. There are two lagoons in Cleopatra’s family tree.

First lagoon: Cleopatra’s grandmother

Cleopatra’s father, King Ptolemy XII, was nicknamed ‘Auletes’ (flute-player) and ‘Nothos’ (bastard). He was the son of the king. But who was his mother?

Cleopatra’s grandfather, King Ptolemy IX, dutifully married his two sisters.

Yet, it seems that his son, Ptolemy XII Auletes, was not the son of either of them.

At least there is no record that he was. And Egyptians and Romans called him Ptolemy ‘Nothos,’ that is, ‘bastard.’

That leaves open the possibility that Auletes was the son of a concubine.

The Ptolemies had a strong love for everything Greek. Their court was full of Greeks and Macedonians. Their capital, Alexandria, was full of Greeks. The Ptolemies’ native language was Greek, which was also the tongue spoken at court and in which the official documents were written. And they received Greek educations. The Ptolemies were quite proud of their Greek descent, and they held tight to their culture.

The situation in Egypt was loosely akin to what happened when the British conquered India and displaced the native population.

So, usually, the concubines of the Ptolemies were Greeks. Likely, the concubine of Ptolemy IX was also a Greek. But there is no proof of it. And someone else could have caught the eye of the king.

The Ptolemies were in contact with peoples from Europe, the Middle East, Lybia and Numidia (in North Africa), Kush and other sub-Saharan territories, and certainly with native Egyptians. So his concubine could have hailed from any of these lands.

Thus, his son Ptolemy Auletes could have been of mixed blood.

Some scholars have argued that Auletes was not truly illegitimate, that he was the son of Ptolemy IX’s second wife. She was a Ptolemy. But when she married her brother, she, oddly, did not become the official queen of Egypt. That would have accounted for her son being called ‘illegitimate,’ as in not the son of the official queen.

Neither the Egyptians nor the Romans liked Auletes, so it is possible that they used his mother’s unofficial status to denigrate him.

But at this point, there is no evidence one way or the other.

If it comes down to probability, most likely, Cleopatra’s grandmother was a concubine of unknown nationality.

Second lagoon? Cleopatra’s mother

A very worn statue. The face of a woman. Her hair is parted in the middle, she has a short forehead, her eyes are somewhat deep-set, her nose is big and aquiline, her lips are medium-sized, her face seems oval-shaped.
Queen Cleopatra V. Most likely, she was the mother of ‘our’ Cleopatra. But it is not absolutely certain. 1st century BC bust. Saint-Raymond Museum, France. (Photo: Musée Saint-Raymond/CCBYSA4.0)

Now, this is a big lagoon since it represents 50% of Cleopatra’s ethnic makeup.

There are no records of who was Cleopatra’s mother.

Ptolemy Auletes married, of course, his sister. Her name was Cleopatra V Tryphaena.

But almost immediately after the famous Cleopatra -Cleopatra VII- was born, Tryphaena disappears from the many official documents.

Some think she died during childbirth or soon after Cleopatra’s birth.

But there are two historical mentions of Tryphaena later on. One, 11 years later, in a dedication on a temple. And then, there was a Tryphaena that ruled Egypt briefly with Cleopatra’s sister Berenice.

So other scholars believe Auletes and his wife had a falling out soon after Cleopatra’s birth. And that he exiled Tryphaena. That would explain her disappearance from the documents. Also, why there is no mention of Tryphaena as the mother of Cleopatra. And it also explains why there is so little information about her in general.

So if that is what happened, it is not surprising that everything related to Auletes’ wife is missing. The problem is that it leaves a lagoon when it comes to the famous Cleopatra VII. Are there no records of who is her mother because she was the daughter of a concubine? Or was she the queen’s daughter, and the association was erased?

One Greek author, Strabo, mentions Auletes’ five children. He says that his eldest daughter Berenice, who was legitimate, became queen.

Is Strabo saying that Auletes’ other children, including Cleopatra, were illegitimate? Or is he just pointing out that Queen Berenice was legitimate, unlike her illegitimate father who the Egyptians had ousted in her favour? It is not clear.

No Roman author, of the many that wrote about Cleopatra, mentions that she was illegitimate. This might be telling since the Romans ended up being quite entangled with Cleopatra, and most of them did not like her one bit. After all, if it had been up to the queen, Rome would have ended being a province of Egypt, and not the other way around.

And let’s remember Romans had no problem calling someone a bastard to their face, as they did with Cleopatra’s father.

Yet, not even Cicero calls her a bastard. And the famous orator had a lashing tongue, and he disliked the queen -whom he had met.

Most surprisingly, not even Octavian does.

Octavian was Cleopatra’s archenemy. He had mounted a full-fledged PR campaign in Rome against both the queen and her Roman husband, Mark Antony.

Octavian used every possible charge against them, real, exaggerated, or imaginary. And yet, he does not call Cleopatra illegitimate once.

In Auletes’ case, most scholars believe he was the son of a concubine. In Cleopatra’s case, most scholars suspect she was the daughter of Tryphaena, the queen.

If Tryphaena was Cleopatra’s mother, she would have passed to her daughter more Macedonian and Persian genes.

Summary: Cleopatra’s ethnic makeup

Cleopatra imagined by six European painters.

So only 25% of Cleopatra’s ethnic makeup is absolutely certain. Through her grandfather, she was 25% European and Middle Eastern.

The other 75% is inconclusive. It could have been European, Middle Eastern, North African, sub-Saharan African, or a mix of two or more of those.

To simplify: Cleopatra could have been 100% Caucasian, or she could have been mixed (Caucasian+African).

If the archaeologists make a breakthrough, and that 75% is solved, we’ll let you know.

More on Cleopatra and Julius Caesar:

Was Cleopatra Beautiful? What the Ancient Authors Say About her Looks

View 128 Ancient Coins Which Bear Cleopatra’s Face

Was Julius Caesar Handsome? How the Ancient Sources Describe Him

What Julius Caesar and 14 Other Famous Romans Looked Like. From Statues and Coins

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2021-01-20
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