Cleopatra VII was perhaps the most famous woman of the ancient world. She was the last of a dynasty that ruled ancient egypt for about 300 years, from the death of Alexander the Great to the rise of the Roman Empire.
Her face has been immortalized on a handful of artifacts from the ancient world, including coins and a relief. Perhaps the best-known depiction of her is a relief at the temple of Dendera in Egypt which shows her alongside her son Caesarion.
But despite these ancient depictions, we actually know very little about what the most powerful woman of the ancient world looked like. In recent years, this controversy has centered on a controversial topic: what color was Cleopatra’s skin?
The archaeological record doesn’t leave us with many clues, experts told Live Science. His body was never found and depictions made at the time were probably not intended to be an accurate representation of his physical attributes.
“We just don’t have evidence from the ancient world that points to Cleopatra’s skin tone,” Prudence Jonesprofessor of classics and general humanities at Montclair State University, Live Science told Live Science in an email.
Also, our conception of skin color as “white” or “black” would have been foreign to ancient people living at the time.
Cleopatra VII reigned from around 51 to 30 BC. AD and was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt for almost 300 years. When Julius Caesar came to Egypt, she had with him a son called Caesarion. Later, she had a romance with Mark Antony which resulted in the birth of three children. After Octavian’s forces conquered Egypt in 30 BC, she committed suicide.
What was Cleopatra’s skin color?
The artifacts we have today are not many. They include coins minted from her that were found at the site of Taposiris Magna in Egypt. There are a number of statues that may represent Cleopatra VII which are now in museums scattered around the world. However, the provenance of these statues is uncertain and whether they truly represent Cleopatra VII is debated.
These artifacts and the relief of Dendera tell us little about its appearance.
Andrew Kenrick, a visiting scholar at the University of East Anglia in the UK, said ancient writers generally did not discuss the appearance of ancient characters. Kenrick also noted that ancient statues can be deceiving. “Sculptures and statues were intended as projections of various facets of a figure, rather than a true likeness,” Kenrick told Live Science in an email. For example, a sculpture may depict a ruler as being more muscular than he actually was.
Additionally, we don’t know the identity of Cleopatra’s mother or paternal grandmother, Kenrick noted, meaning it’s possible Cleopatra may have had African descent.
“What we do know is that Cleopatra’s father was Greek and she would have considered herself Greek – even though she presented herself as Egyptian, when it suited her politically,” Kenrick said. Sometimes the Ptolemies married within their own family and Cleopatra VII was married to her brother Ptolemy XIV before he was killed in 44 BC.
However, Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister of antiquities, thinks her Greek parentage clearly points to an answer.
“Cleopatra wasn’t black,” Hawass said in response to Adele James, a biracial actress, cast as the queen on the Netflix show “Queen Cleopatra.”
“As well-documented history attests, she was the descendant of a contemporary Macedonian Greek general of Alexander The Great. Her first language was Greek and in contemporary busts and portraits she is clearly depicted as white,” Hawass wrote in a column for Arab News at the time. Hawass did not return Live Science’s request for comment at the time of publication.
Can skeletal remains reveal what Cleopatra looked like?
In 2009, the BBC broadcast a documentary titled “Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer” in which the documentary makers spoke to researchers examining skeletal remains found in 1926 in a tomb in Ephesus, modern-day Turkey. Researchers believed the bones belonged to Arsinoë IV, a sister of Cleopatra who was killed on the orders of Marc Antony in 41 BC.
Although the skull was lost during World War II, the team reconstructed and analyzed the skull using old photographs and drawings and claimed to have identified cranial features suggesting Arsinoë IV’s mother was d African origin.
“The distance between the forehead and the back of the skull is long compared to the total height of the skull and it is something that is seen quite frequently in certain populations, one of which is the ancient Egyptians and another would be the Black African groups,” which might suggest that Arsinoë IV had mixed ancestry, Caroline Wilkinson, professor of anthropology at the University of Liverpool, said in the documentary.
Assuming that Arsinoë IV was Cleopatra’s own sister would suggest the queen may have been of part African descent, the researchers noted. However, a literature search did not reveal any published research in a scientific journal detailing these reconstructions. The researchers who made the suggestions did not return requests for comment at the time of publication. And a 2021 study in the Journal of Forensic Scientists found that when forensic anthropologists attempted to estimate the ancestry of 251 skulls of people in the United States of “mixed” ancestry, they were wrong 80% of the time.
The researchers Live Science spoke to were unaware of the claims or were cautious about the findings. Roll Duane, professor emeritus of classics at Ohio State University, said Cleopatra and Arsinoë may not have had the same mother. The ancient writer Strabo (63 BC to 24 AD), who lived in Alexandria, wrote that Ptolemy XII, the father of Cleopatra, had children from multiple mothers.
As such “we have no idea who Cleopatra and Arsinoë’s mother was, or even if they were the same person,” Roller told Live Science in an email.
Skin color in the ancient world
Regardless of Cleopatra’s skin color, the notion of “whiteness” or “darkness” as it is conceived today would have been foreign to ancient peoples. “The ancients just didn’t care the way modern and contemporary people do. It wasn’t relevant to them and their worldview, it made no difference to their feelings about Cleopatra. They were more concerned about her being Egyptian, Macedonian, female, etc.” Jane Draycott, professor of classics at the University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities, told Live Science in an email. .
That doesn’t mean some ancient people didn’t notice differences between cultural groups, Draycott said.
“The Romans commented on the blond and red-haired white peoples of northern Europe and the dark-skinned, ‘woolly’-haired peoples of Africa, and saw the two groups as different from themselves,” said said Draycott.
Romans would not have considered themselves white-skinned but rather brown or olive-skinned, Draycott said. This can be inferred from the fact that the Romans did not describe themselves as white but rather described people from northern Europe that way, Draycott noted.
Kenrick said Greeks would not have considered themselves white either. “Greek should not be equated with white, as the Greeks and Romans certainly did not consider themselves white,” Kenrick said in an email.
Ultimately, Cleopatra’s skin color isn’t particularly important, Roller said.
“Cleopatra’s skin color has nothing to do with her accomplishments, which are immense,” Roller said.