Cleopatra is making waves. More than 2,000 years after her death, the face of the Roman Republic is once again causing a diplomatic ruckus.
Last month, the Egyptian ministry of antiquities launched a stunning attack on Netflix because of the new series of the streamer Queen Cleopatra. Their contention was not that the documentary produced by Jada Pinkett Smith was a bit naff – it certainly is – but that it was a “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical misunderstanding”.
Netflix crime? Casting a black actress, British soap star Adele James, as the infamous queen. So, with the impatience of the Italians when faced with a plate of seafood tongue covered in Parmesan, Egyptian MPs promptly called for a total ban on Netflix. They argued that the solution was an “attack on family values”. Cleopatra’s story is, of course, intertwined with cozy home homilies.
But not three years ago, internet audiences were up in arms precisely opposite reason. That was when it was announced that Israeli actress Gal Gadot would be playing Cleopatra in a yet-to-be-released film directed by Patty Jenkins, who directed Gadot in Wonder Woman. Gadot’s deal promised to “bring the story of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, to the big screen in a way that has never been seen before… Telling her story for the first time through the eyes of women.”
Despite this admirable intention, some alarmed commentators accused the film’s supporters of washing one of the most famous women in history. The criticism of the film Netflix is supposed to address.
Doesn’t matter did Cleopatra looks good? Unfortunately for Netflix and the Egyptian government, no one really knows. What we know about Cleopatra is largely a fantasy of a succession of male writers – Plutarch, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw – constructed over thousands of years. The evidence we have of her appearance is sketchy at best.
“The facts we have about Cleopatra, the contemporary evidence, are quite sparse,” says Toby Wilkinson, Professor of Egyptology and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Lincoln.
“Mostly what we have are other people’s opinions about her that were heavily colored by her particular political position and then the whole web of myth that grew up around her, which of course is more powerful in the sense of the little historical facts that grew up on her. we have.”
No contemporary accounts of Cleopatra survive and none of those from which our traditional conceptions of her are drawn are considered particularly objective. Cleopatra is more fiction than history as we remember her today – queen of Egypt, great beauty, great allure of men, tragic person who took her own life with a snake.
After all, she wasn’t even really Egyptian. The Ptolemies, a ruling dynasty of which she was a member, styled themselves as Egyptian on public monuments, hence the enduring image of Cleopatra in Egyptian dress (and the famous look of Elizabeth Taylor). But in reality they were foreign invaders who strictly maintained the ethnic integrity of their own realm – up to and including frequent arranged marriages. According to her latest biographer, Stacy Schiff, ethnically Cleopatra was “about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor”.
The Ptolemies were actually from Macedonia, a powerful state on the edge of what we now know as Ancient Greece. Alexander the Great, who invaded Egypt and overthrew its Persian rulers in 332 BC, was born there. In the power struggle after Alexander’s death, one of his most powerful generals, Ptolemy, seized Alexandria and proclaimed himself pharaoh. His descendants ruled there for the next three centuries – Cleopatra was the last of the line.
“There was no concept of being Greek at that point. The Ptolemies would have had a strong sense of their homeland in Macedonia,” says Wilkinson.
We have very little idea of what Macedonia looks like. “They probably wouldn’t have looked much like the modern Greeks,” says Wilkinson. In other words, neither Gal Gadot nor Adele James are doing “accurate” castings for Cleopatra – because no one has a clue what “accurate” looks like. Given this context, talk of “whitewashing” – or otherwise – is meaningless.
A bigger problem for casting directors is the beauty of Gadot and James. Throughout the centuries, Cleopatra’s reputation as a stunning beauty has been maintained but her origins are dark at best. The legend seems to have originated with the Roman historian Cassius Dio, who declared that she was “a woman of great beauty”. But Dio was born nearly two centuries after Cleopatra’s death and his account of her appearance seems to have been motivated more by political considerations than anything to do with her appearance.
Cleopatra found a dynasty well on the way to disaster. The Roman Empire had turned its sights towards the fabulously rich corner of Africa on its doorstep and her father Ptolemy XII had to effectively mortgage Egypt for the payment of money necessary to keep the Romans safe. When Cleopatra took the throne, at the age of 21, the need to protect the Romans only increased.
“What does a woman ruler do in that position? What cards does she have left to play?” Wilkinson poses, explaining the machinations behind Cleopatra’s famous love affairs with two different Roman rulers: first Julius Caesar, then Mark Anthony. (Curiously, because she had children with both men, this extraordinary fact is one of the few facts of Cleopatra’s personal history that we can be sure of.)
It was Cleopatra’s relationship with Mark Anthony that made early historical accounts of her life so susceptible to political motivation. Cleopatra sided with Anthony in the civil war between the three Triumvirs who ruled the Empire after Caesar, which led to her death, Rome’s defeat of Egypt and the accession of Octavius Caesar to the emperor in 27 BC.
So the Roman historians who wrote the first accounts of Cleopatra were writing from the other side of history.
“It served his purposes to sack or sack Egypt in order to bolster the Roman claim and Roman victory in the conquest of Egypt,” says Wilkinson. “You never get an unbiased account of Cleopatra.”
For example, it suited Dio to portray her as a great beauty because it fit into his wider construction of Anthony as enslaved to a sexually seductive captor. At the same time the image humiliated Anthony and cast him as a traitor, being under the control of Egypt, not Rome. So Dio’s account of Cleopatra is scheming and sexual.
But the closer one gets to actually seeing Cleopatra, the more one gets the idea that she was a great beauty.
“All we have to do is some statues that idealize and inevitably coin, which is probably more accurate, showing her a very prominent aquiline nose and a pointed chin. She doesn’t look what you would think of as beautiful in the 21st century aesthetic,” says Wilkinson, diplomatically.
The closest contemporary written account of Cleopatra’s appearance comes from the Roman historian Plutarch, who has this to say: the people who saw her. .”
“She was considered powerful and of course has her own charm,” says Wilkinson.
“Why did Julius Caesar sail up the Nile with Cleopatra? She was not necessarily beautiful in the ordinary sense just because she held the keys to Egypt. That was what drove her crazy.”
He continues: “The idea that you can make a Cleopatra film that is somehow ‘accurate’… I mean, which is accurate? Which version of the truth do you follow?” says Wilkinson.
Whether Netflix and the Egyptian government would consider it is a question. For centuries, Cleopatra has been under pressure from competing powers, her image shaped to suit the agendas of the times. In a way, then, the Netflix series is just the latest in a long line of mythmakers to resurrect the myth of Cleopatra – at the expense of the real-life ruler.
Could the real Cleopatra please stand up? Poor woman, she doesn’t even know who she is.
Queen Cleopatra is now on Netflix