Cultural historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett considers how perceptions of Cleopatra have moved in the last decade and a half.
First, Cleopatra became an African. When writing about nineteenth-century orientalist images of Cleopatra in my book, I drew on the work of the American scholar Martin Bernal, the most prominent of a long line of Afro-centrist classical historians. Bernal argues that for centuries the culture of ancient Egypt has been underestimated by racist historians unwilling to acknowledge that Greek, and therefore all European, civilization had its origins in Africa. While I was finishing my book, a version of that argument achieved common currency, and it became fashionable to assert that the ancient rulers of Egypt were black, but that their blackness had been shamefully denied. In the summer of 1991 two productions of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra were running in London. In each of them Cleopatra was played by a black actress: one of whom, Donna Croll of the Talawa Theatre Company, told a reporter ‘the fable of the white Cleopatra is just another way of bleaching out history’. Soon, whenever I talked about Cleopatra in public, there was one question I was invariably asked: ‘Was she black?’
It’s a hard question to answer. Whether or not the pharaohs should properly be described as black, Cleopatra was not one of them. Her father was a Ptolemy, the direct descendant of one of Alexander’s generals, a Macedonian from an area of northern Greece whose people can be quite fair. Theoretically he, and all his forebears for over two centuries, had been the offspring of incestuous brother-sister marriages, and were therefore purebred (as well as in-bred) Greeks. In fact, it occurred more than once that the heir to the throne of Ptolemaic Egypt was the child of a royal concubine of unrecorded origin. Cleopatra was one such case. We do not know who her mother was.
But the difficulty is not only one of lack of information. Certainly, as I repeatedly demonstrate in my book, Romans of the first century BC saw Egypt as an alien place. But the fact that it was located on the African continent didn’t make it any more alien than – say – the countries now known as France or Germany. It was more threatening, because infinitely more civilized and prosperous and therefore a far more formidable competitor, than either of those northern territories. But Cleopatra’s Italian-born contemporaries did not see the Egyptian people’s skin-colour as being in any particular way significant, or indeed as noticeably different from their own: they didn’t divide the brownish-skinned people living around the Mediterranean into ‘black’ Africans and ‘white’ Europeans, as it has been conventional to do for the last five hundred years or so. Africa and Europe were not yet strange and mutually opposed universes: they were two shores of the same sea.
Besides, the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ were not fraught as they are now with the slave trade’s legacy of shame and grievance. Cleopatra’s contemporaries had slaves, certainly, but slavery and slave-ownership were not colour-coded in ways now familiar. Lucan, in his extravagant account of the splendours of Cleopatra’s court, describes her page-boys. Some of them are dark-skinned, curly-haired ‘Nubians’ from the southern reaches of the Nile: others are blue-eyed, blond Germans. To Lucan (a Roman citizen of Spanish origin) they seem, as they would also have done to his contemporaries in Alexandria – equally curious, equally exotic, equally fit for servitude.
My guess is that Cleopatra was not noticeably darker than the Romans with whom she came into contact. She had lived in Rome before Julius Caesar’s death: there were plenty of people there who knew what she looked like. During the last stages of the conflict between her and Octavius, Roman poets and propagandists did their utmost to exaggerate her foreignness. They would surely have made use of anything in her appearance that marked her out as different from themselves, but I know of no ancient reference to the colour of her skin.
But blackness, of course, is a cultural condition and a state of mind as much as it is a matter of physical appearance. In the early 1990s the director of another version of Cleopatra’s story asserted that identifying the Hellenistic queen of Egypt as a black woman allowed her to do justice to Cleopatra’s ‘earthiness’ and her kind of ‘non-European regality which allows someone to sit on the floor’. Racial identity was the preoccupation of the moment. Just as Cleopatra had previously been co-opted into playing a part in discussions about the ethics of suicide, the status of a wife and the comparative merits of aristocratic or autocratic government, so in the last years of the twentieth century she found herself at the centre of a debate about race relations. Yet again, the terms of that debate were specific to the period that produced them. Yet again Cleopatra was being made over in conformity with anachronistic clichés and an interpreter’s prejudices. Only a few years later, that director’s language already seems at best old-fashioned, at worst insulting: we do not now see ‘earthiness’ and a reluctance to use the furniture as characteristically black or African attributes. And they are certainly not attributes anyone could ever have safely assigned to Cleopatra, who was celebrated not for her instincts but for her scholarship and for the extreme formality of her court. We do not know her exact genetic inheritance, but we do know that the republican Romans were shocked by her propensity for sitting, not on the floor, but on a throne of solid gold.
More recently Cleopatra’s African identity has come to seem less problematic, less urgently interesting, than her identity as a Middle Easterner. Any new account of her story would have to display an awareness that it describes a clash between what is now a predominantly Muslim state and a Western superpower. In the 1920s the Egyptian dramatist, Ahmad Shawqi, an active opponent of British colonial rule, made of Cleopatra a nationalist heroine defending her country from corrupting Western influence. It is a theme ripe for further development.
Sixteen years ago I wrote that Westerners, ancient and modern, have repeatedly expressed the belief that Egyptians and other eastern Mediterranean peoples were effeminate, self-indulgent and sex-fixated while the Romans and their heirs – the peoples of the western democracies – seemed, according to the same code of prejudices, to ‘embody the “masculine” virtues of patriotism, self-discipline, sexual abstemiousness and readiness for war’. Now those prejudices have been almost exactly reversed.
To a militant Islamicist – from Egypt or from anywhere else in the vast area, stretching from the coast of Lebanon to the eastern borders of the ancient Iranian empire, that Cleopatra and Antony dreamed of making their own – the West probably now seems as degenerate as Cleopatra’s Egypt seemed to the Romans. While to a Westerner unnerved by terrorists’ threats, the people of the Middle East now appear as stern, as morally censorious and as inhumanly brave as the Romans once fancied themselves to be.
Cleopatra keeps on changing, and will continue to do so until her name is forgotten, but the forces that shaped her life and which have shaped her legend – the forces of fear and fantasy and covert desire – are still at their lethal work in the world.
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