Cleopatra caused a sensation. More than 2,000 years after her death, the face that sank the Roman Republic is once again causing a diplomatic uproar.
Last month, Egypt’s antiquities ministry launched a notable attack on Netflix over streamer Queen Cleopatra’s new series. Their argument was not that the Jada Pinkett Smith-produced documentary was a bit stupid – it certainly is – but that it was a “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical misunderstanding”.
The crime of Netflix? Cast a black actress, British soap opera star Adele James, as the infamous queen. So, with all the patience Italians have over a plate of parmesan-topped seafood linguine, Egyptian MPs promptly demanded that Netflix be banned entirely. The casting, they argued, was “an attack on family values”. Cleopatra’s story, of course, is otherwise filled with cozy home homilies.
Yet not three years ago, Internet pundits were up in arms over precisely the opposite to reason. It was then that it was announced that Israeli actress Gal Gadot would play Cleopatra in an as-yet-unreleased film directed by Patty Jenkins, who directed Gadot in Wonder Woman. Gadot’s version promised to “bring the story of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, to the big screen in a way she has never been seen before … Telling her story about her for the first time through the women’s eyes”.
Despite this laudable intention, some outraged commentators accused the film’s supporters of whitewashing one of the most famous women in history. The same criticism that the Netflix film purported to face.
So Done Waiting for Cleopatra? Oddly for both Netflix and the Egyptian government, nobody really knows. What we think we know about Cleopatra is largely a fantasy of a succession of male writers – Plutarch, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw – built up over the millennia. The evidence we have about her appearance is flimsy at best.
“The actual facts that we have about Cleopatra, the contemporary evidence, is pretty scant,” says Toby Wilkinson, a professor of Egyptology and vice-chancellor at the University of Lincoln.
“Most of what we have are other people’s opinions of her that have been hugely colored by their particular political position and then the whole web of myths that have grown up around her, which are obviously more powerful in some sense of the few historical facts we have.”
No contemporary accounts of Cleopatra survive, and none from which our traditional conceptions of her are drawn are considered particularly objective. Cleopatra as we remember her today – an Egyptian queen, a striking beauty, a great seducer of men, a tragic figure who took her own life with a snake – turns out to be more fiction than history.
After all, she wasn’t even really an Egyptian. The Ptolemies, the ruling dynasty of which she was a member, called themselves Egyptians on public monuments, hence the persistent surviving image of Cleopatra in Egyptian dress (and Elizabeth Taylor’s famous look). But in reality they were foreign invaders who rigorously maintained the ethnic integrity of their own lineage, up to and including frequent incestuous marriages. According to her most recent biographer Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra was ethnically “about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor”.
The Ptolemies actually came from Macedonia, a powerful state on the edge of what we now call Ancient Greece. It was the birthplace of Alexander the Great, who invaded Egypt and overthrew its Persian rulers in 332 BC. In the power struggle following Alexander’s death, one of Alexander’s more powerful generals, Ptolemy, captured Alexandria and declared himself Pharaoh. His descendants ruled there for the next three centuries: Cleopatra was the last of the lineage.
“At that point there really was no concept of being Greek. The Ptolemies would have identified very strongly with their Macedonian homeland,” says Wilkinson.
We have very little idea what Macedonians were like. “They probably wouldn’t have looked much like modern Greeks,” says Wilkinson. In other words, neither Gal Gadot nor Adele James are “accurate” castings for Cleopatra, because no one has any idea what “accurate” is. Given this context, talking about “white washing” – or its opposite – makes no sense.
A bigger issue for the casting directors is the good looks of Gadot and James. For centuries, Cleopatra’s reputation as a striking beauty has been maintained, but her provenance is dubious at best. The legend of her appears to have originated with the Roman historian Cassius Dio, who declared her “a woman of extraordinary beauty”. But Dione was born nearly two hundred years after Cleopatra’s death, and her account of her appearance seems to have been motivated more by political considerations than by anything relating to her actual appearance.
Cleopatra inherited a dynasty well on its way to calamity. The Roman Empire had set its sights on the extraordinarily wealthy corner of Africa on her doorstep, and her father Ptolemy XII had been forced to effectively mortgage Egypt for the fees needed to keep the Romans at bay. By the time Cleopatra took the throne, aged 21, the imperative to repel the Romans had only increased.
“What does a female housekeeper do in that position? What cards are left to play? poses Wilkinson, in explaining the tactics behind Cleopatra’s famous love affairs with two different Roman rulers: first Julius Caesar, then Mark Antony. (Curiously, since she had children with both men, this remarkable fact is one of the few pieces of Cleopatra’s personal history that we can be sure of.)
It was Cleopatra’s affair with Mark Anthony that made early historical accounts of her life so susceptible to political motivation. Cleopatra sided with Antony in the civil war between the three Triumvirs who ruled the empire after Caesar, which resulted in the deaths of both, Rome’s defeat of Egypt, and Caesar’s accession to emperor in 27 BC
The Roman historians who wrote the first accounts of Cleopatra were therefore writing from the other side of history.
“It served their purposes to belittle or exoticize Egypt in order to strengthen the Roman claim and Roman triumph in having conquered Egypt,” says Wilkinson. “You never get an unbiased account of Cleopatra.”
For example, Dione was suited to portraying her as a great beauty because it fit her larger interpretation of Antony as a slave to a seductive sexual temptress. The image simultaneously emasculated Antony and made him a traitor, a slave of Egypt, not Rome. Hence Dio’s account of Cleopatra as scheming and sexually voracious.
But the closer we get to whoever actually saw Cleopatra, the more fragile the idea that she was a great beauty seems to seem.
“All we have left are some inevitably idealizing statues and a coinage, probably more accurate, which portrays her with a very pronounced aquiline nose and a pointed chin. She doesn’t have the look that we would consider beautiful in the 21st century aesthetic,” Wilkinson says diplomatically.
The closest contemporary written account of Cleopatra’s appearance that we have comes from the Roman historian Plutarch, who has this to say: “Her beauty, as we are told, was not in itself altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.”
“She was considered powerful, and of course that brings her attraction,” says Wilkinson.
“Why did Julius Caesar go up the Nile with Cleopatra? Not necessarily because she was beautiful in the conventional sense, but because she held the keys to Egypt. That was what made her fascinating.
He continues: “The idea that you can make a Cleopatra film that is somehow ‘accurate’… I mean, whose accuracy is it? Which version of the truth are you following? says Wilkinson.
It’s a question both Netflix and the Egyptian government would do well to think about. For centuries, Cleopatra has been contested by competing powers, her image shaped to fit the agendas of the times. In one sense, then, the Netflix series is just the latest in a long line of mythmakers who have polished the Cleopatra myth, at the expense of the real-life ruler.
Could the real Cleopatra please stand up? Poor woman, not even she knows who she is anymore.
Queen Cleopatra is now on Netflix