A new Netflix documentary, Queen Cleopatra, exploring the life of the legendary ruler of Egypt, has come under fire for historical revisionism. The documentary has been criticized for “blackwashing” due to the decision to depict Cleopatra as black, despite the historical figure being of Greek descent.
The documentary, which is narrated and produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, focuses on Cleopatra’s reign during the 1st century BC and her relationships with the equally famous Roman generals Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar.
Historically speaking, Cleopatra VII Philopator belonged to the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Macedonian Greek royal dynasty that ruled Egypt during the Hellenistic period. Cleopatra was the descendent of Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general who served alongside Alexander the Great and founded the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt after Alexander’s death.
Why is the Netflix Cleopatra series controversial?
The new series has drawn the ire of online users reacting to the recently released trailer. Some online commentators have expressed puzzlement over the decision to inaccurately portray a historical figure in what is meant to be an educational documentary.
One user who commented on the YouTube trailer and garnered over 2,600 likes, wrote “Cleopatra was so Greek, and so separated from what we know as Egyptian, that her being able to speak Egyptian along with Greek was a marvel. The true story of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, the Siege of Alexandria, and her place in history is so much more fascinating than the false depiction of reality being shown in this trailer.”
This is not the first time that the depiction of a figure from ancient Greek history or mythology has provoked strong condemnations. The decision of the BBC in 2018 to cast the mythical ancient Greek figures of Achilles, Patroclus, and Zeus with black actors stirred a similar controversy.
More broadly, misrepresentation of historical figures in TV and film has been rife over the decades. For example, the 1956 film The Conqueror, has been widely mocked for the decision to cast John Wayne – a white American – as Genghis Khan, who was Mongolian.
The historical figure
Cleopatra VII Philopator ruled over Egypt from 51 to 30 BC and was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt. After her death, the Roman Empire took control of the country.
The Ptolemaic Dynasty was formed by Ptolemy I Soter, a Greek general in Alexander the Great’s army, in 305 BC. Although located in Egypt, the dynasty that Ptolemy established retained its Hellenistic character.
The majority of the elites in the Ptolemaic Kingdom were of Greek Macedonian origin, although the wider population consisted of a greater variety of peoples who had settled in Egypt over centuries.
As noted by historian Sheila L. Ager. the Ptolemies themselves practiced interbreeding and sibling marriage
Cleopatra, a direct descendant of Ptolemy, was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn the Egyptian language, as all those before her spoke only Greek. She was also believed to have spoken Ethiopian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac, Median, Parthian, and Latin.
The name Cleopatra comes from the Ancient Greek words κλέος (kléos), meaning “glory,” and πατήρ (pater), meaning “father,” which means “glory of her father.”
Renowned for her intellect and wit, Cleopatra was described by her contemporaries as incredibly seductive and persuasive, qualities which added to her mystery throughout the centuries. More importantly, it was these qualities which enabled her to survive in the cut-throat world of ancient power politics.
She has become a popular figure in media, literature, and art, and her enchanting qualities, romantic relationships, and beauty, are often the focus of such works.
Most of the information available about Cleopatra’s life comes from Plutarch, who was born sixteen years after the Greek queen died.
Cleopatra’s struggle for power
According to surviving ancient sources, Cleopatra’s father was Ptolemy XII while her mother was likely Cleopatra V Tryphaena. When her father passed away, Cleopatra, who was eighteen at the time, was next in line for the throne followed by her brother Ptolemy XIII, who was 10.
The two siblings were to be married and rule together, but Cleopatra soon began to exert more power over her younger brother, which ignited a rivalry between the two.
The issue of two heirs proved bloody for the dynasty. Soon after she took the throne, Cleopatra’s advisers betrayed her, and she was forced to flee Egypt.
While in exile in Syria, Cleopatra assembled an army and set out to the far reaches of Egypt to face her brother’s troops in a civil war.
As the war raged on, Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra’s brother, sanctioned the murder of the Roman general Pompey, who was Julius Caesar’s rival. Ptolemy XIII hoped that this would please Caesar and win his favor, but it had the opposite effect and offended the Roman general’s sense of honor.
Thus, when Caesar was welcomed into Alexandra, the center of Ptolemaic Egypt, Cleopatra saw an opportunity to regain power. According to ancient sources, the queen snuck into the palace to meet Caesar and try to form an alliance with the Roman leader.
The pair shared the same adversary—Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra’s brother. Caesar’s goal in Egypt was the collection of a debt that was owed to Rome after Cleopatra’s father died. Whereas Ptolemy XIII was unwilling to repay the debt, in Cleopatra Caesar found a willing ally who would honor Egypt’s financial pledges to Rome.
A war broke out between the outnumbered Roman forces and the Egyptian king, and the battle seemed all but decided until Roman reinforcements arrived. Upon the Roman army’s entry into Egypt, Ptolemy XIII’s forces crumbled, and he was forced to flee Alexandria. According to ancient sources, he later drowned in the Nile.
Caesar’ next move was to place Cleopatra, along with her other younger brother Ptolemy XIV, on the throne.
Caesar remained in Alexandria for a time after returning the throne to Cleopatra, and it is heavily implied that he fathered the Greek queen’s son, Caesarion, or “Little Caesar,” before returning to Rome.
In 46 to 45 BC, Cleopatra and her son visited Caesar in Rome, and stayed in his villa. The Greek queen of Egypt stayed in Rome until Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, after which she returned to Egypt.
Shortly after her return to Egypt, her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIV was killed, likely on Cleopatra’s own orders. After her brother’s suspected assassination, Cleopatra’s three-year-old son, Caesarion became the new co-ruler.
The new status quo was advantageous for Cleopatra, as it provided her with a co-regent who was unwilling and incapable of betraying her. She now ruled essentially alone.
Throughout her reign, the Greek queen of Egypt also linked herself to various deities, such as Isis, which further cemented her legitimacy as ruler of the land.
Meanwhile in Rome, turmoil had ensued in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. His former allies, Mark Anthony, Octavian, and Lepidus, fought for control against his assassins, Cassius and Brutus.
Both sides of the conflict sought out support from Cleopatra, and perhaps unsurprisingly, she offered Roman reinforcements that had been stationed in Egypt to support Caesar’s allies.
Caesar’s allies were victorious and rule over Rome’s empire was divided between the Triumvirate, formed by Mark Anthony, Octavian, and Lepidus, although Lepidus was later side-lined.
Mark Anthony and the Greek queen of Egypt
Mark Anthony invited the Greek queen to Tarsus, located in modern-day Turkey, to meet her in person. According to ancient sources, Cleopatra came dressed in the robes of the goddess Isis and dazzled the Roman leader.
Anthony, captivated by the queen of Egypt, pledged that he would support her rule in the country. When Cleopatra returned to Egypt, Mark Anthony decided to leave his family, including his wife and children, to spend time in Alexandria.
While there, he continued to party with Cleopatra. The pair even formed a drinking club called “The Inimitable Livers,” ostensibly as a group to honor the god Dionysus but likely to drink and revel.
Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios, which means sun, and Cleopatra Selene, which means moon, shortly after Anthony returned to Rome in 40 BC.
Cleopatra was a shrewd ruler and Egypt became one of the wealthiest powers in the Mediterranean. This proved advantageous to Anthony who maintained a close alliance with her and borrowed money from her to fund his military campaigning.
In return for funding, Anthony returned a number of countries that were once part of the Egyptian Empire, including Cyprus, Crete, Libya, and much of the Levant.
While Anthony resided in Egypt, Cleopatra gave birth to her son, Ptolemy Philadelphos, in 36 BC. Anthony then refused to return to his wife in Rome and decided to stay in Egypt, where he declared that Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, was Caesar’s true heir and even offered money and land to the three children he fathered with the queen.
The relationship between Octavian and Anthony had already deteriorated sharply at this point and the latter’s perceived loyalties to Egypt over Rome provided Octavian with a pretext to rally support against his fellow triumvir.
Based on what was seen by many Romans as a scandalous relationship between Anthony and the foreign queen, Octavian convinced the Roman Senate to declare war on Egypt and Cleopatra, knowing that Anthony would take her side, by saying that Anthony was looking to establish a new Roman capital in the country.
This led to the famous Battle of Actium, during which Octavian crushed Anthony and Cleopatra’s forces. Many historians are still puzzled by Anthony’s decision to face Octavian at sea, given his prowess as a general on land.
The couple were separated as they both fled to Alexandria. On the journey back to the Egyptian capital, Anthony heard a rumor that his beloved had killed herself, so he fell upon his own sword, only to die after learning that the rumor was not true.
Upon arriving in Alexandria, Cleopatra buried Anthony and retreated to her chamber, where she took her own life. Plutarch states that she died at 39 after being bitten by an asp, a poisonous snake, which was a symbol of divine royalty. Other sources claim that she poisoned herself.
The death of both of his rivals allowed Octavian to take sole control of both Rome and Egypt, and with this consolidation of power, Octavian, renamed Augustus, became the first Roman Emperor.
Cleopatra’s legacy as an exotic, seductive, and powerful ruler of Egypt has persisted throughout the centuries. While she is now popularly known for her love affairs, suicide, and beauty, Plutarch actually stresses that she was not very attractive physically, but that her charm and intelligence was irresistible.
The Greek queen of Ancient Egypt has become a popular symbol of powerful, seductive women, with countless films, paintings, and stories written in her honor.