Jesus Wasn't White, But Cleopatra Was

Nothing annoys me more than Hollywood insisting on maintaining "historical accuracy" when casting whites-only to depict historical honkies, but when depicting historical figures who were non-white, well, they make exceptions. All the major Hollywood films cast Jesus as a honkey, when the bible describes him as having "hair like lamb's wool and skin like polished brass."

When Hollywood famously cast Elizabeth Taylor to play Cleopatra, what they got wrong wasn't her so-called "race" but rather her physical appeal: Cleo was a honkey chick, but her beauty was all in her remarkable personality.

What I would like to see: black folks playing all manner of historical characters, including Napoleon. And of course: where's the movies about the slave rebellions? Amistad doesn't count, of course; they need to refilm it and this time focus on the rebels.


uptownseteve said...

Wrong again Hue.

Was the famous Egyptian Queen and ruler Cleopatra a Black woman? And what evidence exists to decide the issue one way or another?

First of all, we could find no definitive evidence from the ancient texts which clearly state Cleopatra’s race or color. Further, the camp of scholars who say she was definitely White as well as the camp which says she was without a doubt Black both rely on assumptions and anecdotal information which by themselves do not and cannot definitively decide the issue.

Thus, let us state what we know. Ancient Egypt was a predominantly Black nation owning its origin more so to African peoples from the areas of ancient Ethiopia and Nubia than to the peoples of the Middle East . Therefore, the original and foundation population was a Black population. Nevertheless, Egypt was the center of the ancient world. As such and as a result of the fertile Nile Valley , trade and invasions Egypt absorbed peoples from throughout the ancient world ranging from Mesopotamians (ancient Iraqis) to the early Jews of the Christian Bible. It was also invaded by a host of people including the Hyksos, a mysterious group call the Sea Peoples, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.

The net result of all this intermingling was that over time the people of Northern (called Lower Egypt because of the flow of the Nile) Egypt became more mixed or lighter in complexion that the people of Southern (Upper) Egypt.

As for Cleopatra, the foundation of her family lineage was Macedonian Greek. Alexander the Great died shortly after conquering Egypt . After his death, control of Egypt fell around 305 BC to one of his generals named Ptolemy. He established the Ptolemy line of Pharaohs who ruled Egypt for the next 200 years. Cleopatra was the last pharaoh in the Ptolemy line.

Now, for those who would have us believe that Cleopatra was White, the above fact settles the issue. They say she was Macedonian Greek and that’s the end of it. However, to accept their position requires that one believe that for over 200 years there was no intermarriage or even intercourse between the Ptolemy line and members of the native Egyptian population.

Such a position is impossible to believe, especially given the fact that the ancient Greeks virtually idolized the Egyptians and their institutions. Indeed, shortly after conquering Egypt , Alexander the Great visited the Great Pyramid at Gisa and declared himself son of the Egyptian god Ammon Ra. Without in any way diminishing the accomplishments of the ancient Greeks themselves, the historical record is clear that the Greeks adopted everything Egyptian from many of their gods to most of their laws. The writings of Greeks ranging from Aristotle to Herodotus are full of praise and admiration for the Egyptians. Aristotle, considered one of the wisest men who ever lived, praises the Egyptians in his Metaphysika saying among other things, “Egypt was the cradle of mathematics because the caste of priests were given great leisure, schole.”

Thus, it is impossible to believe that the Ptolemy line or any other Greeks would have separated themselves from and not intermarried with a people they so greatly admired.

Specifically regarding Cleopatra, let us establish that there were several Cleopatra’s in Egyptian history. The one of legend and about which most people speak was actually Cleopatra VII. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII called Auletes and Cleopatra V known as Tryphaenea.

If Cleopatra VII had any Black blood, it would have come from her father’s side of the family. There is some reason to believe that Auletes’ mother – Cleopatra’s grand mother – was a Black woman. There is little doubt that Auletes himself was not a pure Macedonian Greek. His birth was frequently referred to as being “irregular on his mother’s side.” This almost certainly means that his mother – Cleopatra’s grandmother – was not Macedonian Greek. But was she Black? This is where I part company with those Afrocentric historians who say Cleopatra was definitely Black. There is simply no description or labeling of Cleopatra’s grandmother to be found in the ancient historical record. We simply do not know for sure whether Cleopatra’s grandmother was a Black woman. All we can be reasonably sure of is that Cleopatra was of mixed ethnic or racial background. She was part Macedonian Greek and part something else.

Finally, the fact that Auletes’ mother may have been Black did not seem to bother the Greeks. His mixed background was known and he still became pharaoh. It was the Romans who caused the problem and may have indirectly caused the destruction of the information which could have established whether or not Cleopatra was Black.

At this time (80 BC to 51 BC) Auletes – Ptolemy XII – was paying tribute to Rome as both an ally and to avoid being invaded. Our research suggests that a move began in the Roman Senate to challenge Auletes’ right to be Egyptian Pharaoh in the Ptolemy line because he was not pure Macedonian Greek. Auletes (a scoundrel and playboy who spent little time actually ruling Egypt ) did two things to beat back the challenge to his rule. He bribed two powerful Roman senators – Ceasar and Crassus – to block the issue from coming up in the Roman Senate and just in case that failed he began hiding and destroying evidence about his mother. This is probably the reason that today we can find so little evidence about his mother’s background.

The bottom line is that Cleopatra VII was not pure Macedonian Greek. She was almost certainly of mixed ethnic or racial background. That mixture may have been a grandmother who was Black but we simply do not know for sure because Auletes appears to have hidden evidence of his mother’s background in order to defeat a Roman (not Greek or Egyptian) challenge to his rule.

Robert N. Taylor, Phd.

Paul Hue said...

Steve: I stand corrected. This is a very convincing evaluation because it directly addresses all the issues. Can you please reference it?

I offer one question: Why did the Roman coins show her as a honkey? Or might that representation be consistent with a white-looking person of mixed heritage? It would be nice to see this question addressed.

I concur with all that Taylor writes here. I am already familiar with all of it except the direct discussion of Cleo's racial heritage. By the way, Cleopatra is a Greek name, and a very popular one. As I recall, Alexander had a sister named Cleo, and his dad took a wife named Cleo, and their son vied with Alexander for the throne. And those weren't the only important Cleo's of that time and place, causing confusion for historians.

uptownseteve said...

"What I would like to see: black folks playing all manner of historical characters, including Napoleon. And of course: where's the movies about the slave rebellions? Amistad doesn't count, of course; they need to refilm it and this time focus on the rebels."

But Napoleon wasn't black.

But we're not sure that Cleopatra wasn't black.

But the thought of her or any historical beauty (ie Helen of Troy) being portrayed by a black actress drives you insane, doesn't it?

Paul Hue said...


This is URL for Steve's posting above.

Paul Hue said...

No, Steve, I am happy for a black women to play Cleo (who, as you demonstrated, was some sort of mixed baby), just as I am for a black man to play Napoleon (who was surely white). My readings indicate, however, that Cleo was not physically attractive, though. I would be happy for a black woman to play Helen of Troy. Why? Because I am not a racist.

Matty said...

Hmm...pretty interesting. those coins with her and antony posted on cnn yesterday just add to the debate. If I didn't know better I'd say she looked 18th century French.


Matty said...

Also, where does it say in the Bible regarding the hair and skin of Jesus?

Paul Hue said...

Here's a honkey professor who addresses the question of Cleopatra's ethnicity. This prof wrote a book, "Not Out of Africa", which refutes many of the claims that the Greek's stole their culture from Egypt.
Was Cleopatra Black?

Until recently, no one ever asked whether Cleopatra might have had an African ancestor, because our surviving ancient sources identify her as a Macedonian Greek. Her ancestors, the Ptolemies, were descended from one of Alexander's generals. After Alexander's death in 323 B. C., these generals divided up among themselves the territory in the Mediterranean that Alexander had conquered. The name Cleopatra was one of the names traditionally given to women in the royal family; officially our Cleopatra (69-30 BC) was Cleopatra VII, the daughter of Ptolemy XII and his sister. Cleopatra VII herself followed the family practice of marrying within the family. She married her two brothers (Ptolemy XIII and XIV) in succession (after the first died in suspicious circumstances, she had the second murdered). Her first language was Greek; but she was also the first member of the Ptolemaic line who was able to speak Egyptian. She also wore Egyptian dress, and was shown in art in the dress of the goddess Isis. She chose to portray herself as an Egyptian not because she was Egyptian, but because she was ambitious to stay in power. In her surviving portraits on coins and in sculpture she appears to be impressive rather than beautiful, Mediterranean in appearance, with straight hair and a hooked nose. Of course these portraits on metal and stone give no indication of the color of her skin.

The only possibility that she might not have been a full-blooded Macedonian Greek arises from the fact that we do not know the precise identity of one member of her family tree. We do not know who her grandmother was on her father's side. Her grandmother was the mistress (not the wife) of her grandfather, Ptolemy IX. Because nothing is known about this person, the assumption has always been that she was a Macedonian Greek, like the other members of Ptolemy's court. Like other Greeks, the Ptolemies were wary of foreigners. They kept themselves apart from the native population, with brothers usually marrying sisters, or uncles marrying nieces, or in one case a father marrying his daughter (Ptolemy IX and Cleopatra Berenice III). Because the Ptolemies seemed to prefer to marry among themselves, even incestuously, it has always been assumed that Cleopatra's grandmother was closely connected with the family. If she had been a foreigner, one of the Roman writers of the time would have mentioned it in their invectives against Cleopatra as an enemy of the Roman state. These writers were supporters of Octavian (later known as Augustus) who defeated Cleopatra's forces in the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.
Mary Lefkowitz is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College. She is the author of many books on ancient Greece and Rome, including Lives of the Greek Poets and Women in Greek Myth, as well as articles for the Wall Street Journal and the New Republic. She is the co-editor of Women's Life in Greece and Rome and Black Athena Revisited.

Paul Hue said...


Oops, I forgot the url for the Lefkowitz essay. I am unconvinced either way. As far as the Arabs, Persians, and Africans contributing to the development of civilization in crucial ways, I have no doubt. What I now doubt is that the Greeks did anytihng to those people that those people weren't doing to each other and to Europeans; the Greeks seem to me to have no more or less "stolen" from the Egyptians than did the Egyptians from the Arabs.