by Emanuele Mastrangelo and Daniele Scalea

Here we go again. Netflix is proposing yet another woke retelling of history, this time with a docudrama in which Cleopatra is impersonated by a black actress. This is not a mere "artistic license," about which there would already be controversy. As a documentary, Queen Cleopatra has pretensions to proper historical popularization, and right from the trailer it weighs the skin color it assigns to the Egyptian queen: one of the interviewees states that "it's possible she was an Egyptian" (in the ethnic sense), while another goes even further with a memorable example of historiographical accuracy: "I remember my grandmother telling me, 'I don't care what they tell you at school, Cleopatra was black.'"

Referring to the case, a "La Stampa" (Italian liberal newspapers) article affirms that "Cleopatra's ethnicity has long been the focus of academic discussion.": a phrase that aims to make it seem that, after all, yet another case of blackwashing is nothing more than a legitimate position with historiographical basis, perhaps controversial but solid.

busto cleopatra altes museum

Bust of Cleopatra, coeval, found on the Appian Way and preserved in the Altes Museum in Berlin.

The reality, however, is that there is no doubt about the belonging of Cleopatra VII Tea Philopator (69-30 B.C.), queen of Egypt, to the human group that in the age of political correctness we cannot call "white race" without being accused of "supremacism." And this is in spite of some possible (but highly improbable) quarter of Egyptian blood to which the proponent of blackwashing sticks, for the ancient Egyptians themselves were a Mediterranean people, certainly not one with sub-Saharan features.

Blackwashing: what and why

The blackwashing is that wokist practice that for several years now has been forcibly inserting "multiracial society" into anachronistic contexts, even to the point of ethnic falsification of major characters in history, in cinema, opera and theater. It starts with an unlikely African character placed in a European storyline (typically Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood, 1991) and goes on to black noblewomen during Bridgerton's English Regency (1811-1820). In between we have Achilles, Zeus, St. Peter, Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, and Margaret of Anjou (just to name a few) played by actors of African descent. As well as anonymous Roman legionaries, Celtic warriors, Cistercian monks, and 17th-century French librarians in films, TV series, and documentaries.

Every such release - modestly disguised behind the locution "color-blind casting" - punctually elicits waves of indignation among white audiences and counter-waves of scandalized articles blaming the "racism" and "supremacism" of those who are not exactly happy to see a character from their own history played by an actor from an ethnic background that does not conform to historical reality (what would one say about a Nelson Mandela played by a white actor?).

What color were the Egyptians?

Before we focus on Cleopatra, let us immediately clear the air of a misunderstanding. "North Africa" is not "Africa" in the sense of "dark continent." North Africa is in the Euro-Mediterranean subregion (part of the Palearctic ecozone) in terms of fauna, flora and human population, separated from the rest of the African continental mass (Ethiopian ecozone) by that Sahara Desert which is a semi-impenetrable barrier, as opposed to the Mediterranean Sea which (as the news of these days show) is instead an open highway with no tolls.

egitto etnie murale seti i

Reproduction of an Egyptian mural in the tomb of Seti I, depicting (from left to right): a Libyan, a Nubian, an Asian, and an Egyptian.

The Egyptians very much marked their racial difference with the Nubians, representing themselves as white (the women) or tan (the men) and stricto sensu "Africans" (from south of the Second Cataract) as black, very black . Greeks and Romans represented with perfect realism the inhabitants of Carthage, Cyrene, Alexandria, Meroe, and in no case do we find a Hannibal or a St. Augustine with sub-Saharan somatic features (also depicted with ethnographic rigor when necessary). After all, ancient geography distinguished between "North Africa" and "Ethiopia" understood as "Black Africa," although the continental mass was later roughly named after a region between Carthage and Numidia.

The Greek Cleopatra

Cleopatra, however, ethnically was not even Egyptian. She was the last descendant of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which had been imposed two centuries earlier on the Egyptian throne when the satrap Ptolemy proclaimed himself pharaoh. This Ptolemy came from Macedonia, that is, from a Greek kingdom. There he had been one of Alexander the Great's somatophylakes (bodyguards), accompanying him in the conquest of his empire and, upon the latter's unraveling following the Macedonian ruler's premature death, received dominion over Egypt.

Bust of Cleopatra, coeval, preserved in the Vatican Museums.

Bust of Cleopatra, coeval, preserved in the Vatican Museums.

The Ptolemaic dynasty was one of foreign conquerors. No matter that they claimed the title "pharaohs," the names they gave themselves, still 250 years later (when the dynasty ended), were only Greek: Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Arsinoe, Berenice. Their appellations were in Greek: Soter, Philadelphus, Euergetes and so on, up to Philopator, that of "our" Cleopatra (VII), meaning "who loves her father." By the way, the name Cleopatra means, in Greek, "glory of her father."

The Ptolemaic rulers resided not in Memphis but in Alexandria, the Greek colony founded by Alexander the Great: a metropolis in which Greeks coexisted with Egyptians and Jews, but in which the three ethnic groups remained rather separate. The well-known Library of Alexandria was created as a center of Hellenic culture: it was part of a larger cultural institution, the "Museum," dedicated to the Muses (Greek deities), and collected texts written in Greek; works written in other languages were systematically translated to enter the library's "catalog."

Members of the Ptolemaic dynasty spoke Greek, refusing to learn the Egyptian language. Cleopatra VII is remembered precisely as the first Ptolemaic pharaoh to learn Egyptian, but as part of a broader talent for languages that led her to learn many others. To better preserve the blood lineage intact, Ptolemy's descendants intermarried; often even between siblings. Cleopatra VII was most likely the product of such a union (although some uncertainty remains about the identity of her mother) and, before marrying Mark Antony, had two of her brothers for husbands. When not marrying a sister or cousin, Ptolemaic pharaohs chose Hellenic wives (not necessarily from Greece, but always from ruling dynasties of Greek blood). The only verified non-Greek blood graft in the dynasty was Cleopatra I Sira, wife of the fifth Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes: her mother was a Pontic princess of Persian blood, while her father had a Sogdian ancestor. Still, we are talking about Indo-European ethnic groups, and we are a long way from Black Africa.

Pompeii fresco depicting Cleopatra.

Pompeii fresco depicting Cleopatra.

Apart from family origins, we also have some available iconography on Cleopatra. In addition to coins bearing her effigy, at least two coeval busts of her have been preserved (one is in the Altes Museum in Berlin, the other in the Vatican Museums). The busts and coins have no color, but they allow us to know the other somatic features - and there is no hint of sub-Saharan origin in them.

The ultimate proof may lie in a fresco in Pompeii: comparing it with the above-mentioned busts and coins, it has been determined to be very likely to depict Cleopatra VII, to whom it is coeval. And this fresco leaves no doubt, for the skin of the alleged pharaoh is very white.


Yes: because, with all due respect to the authors of the TV series on Cleopatra, there is not the slightest possibility that the last Queen of Egypt was even tanned (women after all until a few decades ago avoided the sun, as the biblical verses of the Song of Songs remind us). This "Overton window" must therefore be immediately closed without appeal by rejecting for what they are, politically interested baloney, attempts to sow doubts around Cleopatra's origin. What is at stake here is not only philological correctness: ethnic substitution is by no means a hoax, as say the detractors of Minister Lollobrigida who dared to evoke it in public; and ethnic substitution begins first and foremost by inserting misunderstandings and hoaxes into the heads of the less savvy, accomplices a large legion of willing slaughterers of our identity.

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Editor of the Machiavelli Study Center's blog "Belfablog," Emanuele Mastrangelo has been editor-in-chief of "Storia in Rete" since 2006. A military-historical cartographer, he is the author of several books (with Enrico Petrucci, Iconoclastia. La pazzia contagiosa della cancel culture che sta distruggendo la nostra storia e Wikipedia. L'enciclopedia libera e l'egemonia dell'informazione).

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Founder and President of Centro Studi Machiavelli. Graduated in Historical Sciences (University of Milan) and PhD in Political Studies (Sapienza University), he is professor of "History and doctrine of jihadism" and "Geopolitics of the Middle East" at Cusano University. From 2018 to 2019 he was Special Advisor on Immigration and Terrorism to the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Guglielmo Picchi. His latest book (as editor) is Topicality of sovereignism. Between pandemic and war.