Cleopatra was of, at least partly, European descent. Her family left Macedon, in Europe, and landed in Egypt, where they became kings. That is well documented.
But did Cleopatra only have Macedonian blood? Or did her ancestors marry people of other ethnicities during their 300-year stay in Africa?
Here is a fast-ish breakdown of Cleopatra’s ethnicity.
Background: the decline and invasion of Egypt
When Cleopatra was born, Egypt was in decline and ruled by foreigners. The native Egyptian pharaohs built the pyramids 2,500 (!!) years before Cleopatra’s birth, when Egypt was-ultra powerful. (Photo: Vincent Brown/CCBY2.0)
When Cleopatra was born in the 1st. century BC, Egypt was in decline.
The country had had an impressive run; it had been a superpower for millennia. The native Egyptian pharaohs built amazing cities, pyramids, and temples. But that took place 2,500 years before Cleopatra’s birth.
In the 900s BC, Egypt lost its power and was invaded by the neighboring Libyans.
Why was Cleopatra Macedonian?
Cleopatra’s family: the Ptolemies. They were highly inbred. The Ptolemaic kings married their full sisters. (Hover over the images to read the captions.)
Cleopatra was Macedonian because the Macedonians conquered Egypt.
They became the kings of Egypt. And Cleopatra descended from those Macedonian kings.
The conquest was the doing of Alexander the Great.
Alexander was the king of Macedon, a smallish country in Europe. He crossed into Africa and invaded wealthy Egypt in 332 BC.
Alexander became the pharaoh of Egypt.
The Ptolemaic dynasty begins
Alexander was pharaoh for about a decade. After his death, one of his generals, Ptolemy Lagos, succeeded him on the throne of Egypt.
Ptolemy’s descendants ruled Egypt for the next 300 years. They were known as the ‘Ptolemaic’ dynasty.
“Our” Cleopatra was a member of this Ptolemaic dynasty. She was a direct descendant of Ptolemy Lagos.
Actually, the name ‘Cleopatra’ was a popular Macedonian name -it was not Egyptian.
So who was this Ptolemy? He was a Macedonian nobleman, that is, he was European.
Now that Ptolemy was a king, he needed children. So he married two Macedonian noblewomen (not at the same time, though).
Thus, Ptolemy’s children were of full Macedonian blood despite being born in Egypt.
After Ptolemy died, his son Ptolemy II became king. He first married a Greek/Macedonian noblewoman. And then, he married his full sister, following an ancient Egyptian custom.
So Ptolemy II’s children were also full Europeans.
And most of the other Ptolemy kings followed suit: they married their sisters. That went on for 300 years until Cleopatra was born into this highly inbred family.
That is why Cleopatra had Macedonian blood.
But were the Ptolemies only Macedonian?
Cleopatra’s ancestors married outside the family only four times. Two of the brides were fully European, the other two were European and Persian.
No, the Ptolemies were not only Greek and Macedonian.
Cleopatra’s ancestors preferred to marry their sisters, but in those 300 years, they married outside the family four times.
Each of those times, they chose brides descended from Alexander the Great’s generals.
These four brides -Berenice I, Arsinoe I, Berenice II, Cleopatra I- were heavily related to one another. And three of them were related to the Ptolemies themselves.
The four brides were of Macedonian descent. Two of them were fully Greek/Macedonian. The other two were Macedonian and Persian (Middle Eastern).
Through them, Cleopatra’s family tree gets quite impressive. She descends from Seleucus, Lysimachus, Antigonus, and Antipater. They were Alexander the Great’s friends and generals.
And just like Ptolemy, they were Macedonian aristocrats who became kings after Alexander’s death.
Therefore, Cleopatra was related to many of the ruling houses of the Mediterranean.
So the Ptolemies had Macedonian and Persian blood. Or to use the modern equivalents, she was of Greek and Iranian descent.
Macedonian, Persian, and…?
Our Cleopatra is on the left, on a coin minted by her. The other two are Cleopatra’s brothers, Ptolemy XIII (center) and young Ptolemy XIV (right).
Here it gets interesting. The Ptolemies were reigning royals. So there are detailed records of who married whom and the 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, two unexpected gaps in the family tree. It is not certain who were Cleopatra’s grandmother and mother.
First blank: Cleopatra’s grandmother
Cleopatra’s father, King Ptolemy XII, was nicknamed ‘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.
But his son Ptolemy XII Auletes was probably born outside of marriage.
There is no record that he was the son of either queen. And Egyptians and Romans called him ‘Nothos,’ a word that means ‘bastard’ in Greek.
The Ptolemies had a strong love for everything Greek. Their court was full of Greeks and Macedonians. Their capital, Alexandria, had been founded by Greeks and 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 a Greek education. The Ptolemies were quite proud of their Greek descent, and they held tight to their culture.
So, usually, the concubines of the Ptolemies were Greeks. The concubine of Ptolemy IX was probably 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 (both 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, who was a Ptolemy.
But when she married her kingly brother, she did not become the official queen of Egypt. That could account for her son being called ‘illegitimate.’
Neither the Egyptians nor the Romans liked Auletes, so they may have used his mother’s unofficial status to denigrate him.
But there is no evidence one way or the other.
Most likely, Cleopatra’s grandmother was a concubine of unknown nationality.
Second blank? Cleopatra’s mother
There are no records of who Cleopatra’s mother was.
Now, this is a big gap since her mother provided 50% of Cleopatra’s ethnic makeup.
Cleopatra’s father, King Ptolemy Auletes, married his sister -no surprise there. Her name was Cleopatra V Tryphaena.
But was she Cleopatra’s mother?
King Auletes had several children. Soon after the birth of his daughter Cleopatra VII -our Cleopatra-, Queen Trypahena almost disappears from the official documents.
Some scholars think she died during childbirth or soon after our Cleopatra’s birth.
But there are two historical mentions of Tryphaena later on. One, 11 years later, in a dedication on a temple. And a few years later, a Tryphaena ruled Egypt briefly with her daughter (our Cleopatra’s sister).
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. It would also explain why she is not mentioned as the mother of Cleopatra. The king would have erased her from the records.
But that leaves a question mark when it comes to the famous Cleopatra VII. Are there no records of her mother because the mother was a concubine? Or was she the queen’s daughter, and the association was erased?
One ancient Greek author, Strabo, mentions Auletes’ five children. He says his eldest daughter Berenice, who was legitimate, became queen.
Is Strabo implying that Auletes’ other four children, including Cleopatra, were illegitimate? Or is he just pointing out that Queen Berenice was legitimate, unlike her illegitimate father? (Spell it out, Strabo!)
No Roman author, of the many that wrote about Cleopatra, mentions that she was illegitimate.
This might be telling since the Romans were quite entangled with Cleopatra, and most of them did not like her one bit. She had waged war against Rome, after all.
And let’s remember Romans had no problem calling someone a bastard to their face, as they did with Cleopatra’s father. And they knew Cleopatra’s family quite well.
Yet, not even Cicero calls her a bastard. The famous Roman orator liked to call people names and point out their flaws. Cicero disliked the queen, whom he had met. He writes about her disparagingly, but does not mention she is illegitimate.
Most surprisingly, not even Octavian does.
The very Roman Octavian was Cleopatra’s archenemy. Octavian mounted a full-fledged smear campaign against her and her Roman husband, Mark Antony.
Octavian used every possible charge against them -real, exaggerated, imaginary. And yet, he did not call Cleopatra illegitimate once.
In Ptolemy Auletes’ case, most scholars believe he was the son of a concubine. In Cleopatra’s case, most scholars suspect she was the daughter of Cleopatra V Tryphaena, the legitimate queen.
If Tryphaena was Cleopatra’s mother, she would have passed to her daughter more Macedonian and Persian genes.
Summary: Cleopatra’s ethnicity
Cleopatra imagined by four European painters.
So only 25% of Cleopatra’s ethnic makeup is certain. Through her grandfather, Cleopatra 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 any 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.
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