Netflix’s new docudrama series “Queen Cleopatra” has come under fire from a wide variety of publications, this one included, for its ahistorical depiction of the famed Egyptian monarch as dark-skinned. These sorts of race-blind castings are all the rage in Hollywood these days, from “Bridgerton” to “Hamilton.” Where “Queen Cleopatra” differs, however, is in its claims to historical truth. The series is presented as a docudrama, with interviews from purported scholars and historians who promote the idea that the last monarch of ancient Egypt was indeed black.
One such classicist Netflix relied on is Shelley Haley, a professor at Hamilton College who specializes in viewing classics through the lens of black feminism and critical race theory. She also leads the preeminent organization in the field, the Society for Classical Studies (SCS). The SCS has been at the forefront of the “history wars” — the leftist quest to revise history in line with the mandates of “equity.” It promotes “antiracist’ education” and “Queering the Past,” while foregrounding noxious DEI ideology in its mission statement and blog. This leftist program is meant to reforge the past to appease the woke in the present, the opposite of doing history.
Haley’s approach to defining Cleopatra as black slots into this broader agenda and was the subject of a New York Times piece titled “Fear of a Black Cleopatra.” Her anti-historical ideas are given favorable treatment by the authors, who defend not just Netflix’s casting choice, but the claim that Cleopatra was herself black, if not ethnically then culturally.
The piece lays out the crux of Haley’s claims about Cleopatra: the idea of so-called “cultural Blackness.” This concept is explained as follows: “When we say, in general, that the ancient Egyptians were Black and, more specifically, that Cleopatra was Black,” Dr. Haley wrote, “we claim them as part of a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation, and survival.”
Her point is that we are not limited to considering only representations of what Cleopatra looked like or descriptions of her ancestry. We can also use what we know of her life, reign, and resistance to understand her race as a shared cultural identity.
The idea that “cultural Blackness” is defined as the knowledge of “oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival” is not only deeply reductive, but it is also so broadly defined as to be useless in historical analysis. Blackness as oppression and exploitation ignores the wild successes of African history, including Mansa Musa, arguably the richest monarch in world history. This myopic focus on the negative defines blackness as perpetual victimhood, removing agency from black figures in the past and the present. It demeans or avoids the history of black achievement and culture, ignoring impressive accomplishments in favor of a simplistic view of race and enslavement. This does black history and black people a profound disservice.
The idea of “cultural Blackness” defined as overcoming oppression is so broad as to encompass nearly every culture on Earth. The Russians overcame oppression when they threw off the Mongol Yoke in the 1400s; the Germans did so when they ejected the Napoleonic interlopers from their fragmented lands in 1814; Americans overturned a repressive imperial government with the victory at Yorktown in 1781; the Chinese escaped from oppression when Imperial Japan was ejected from its territory at the end of World War II; Jews have overcome the challenges of hatred and intolerance more times than can be counted. Does that mean that all of these groups are now “culturally Black”? Can African-Americans claim the suffering of Jews in Tsarist Russia as their own? How about the infamous Rape of Nanking? Is that going to be retconned as an anti-black hate crime? And why does this not work both ways?
The authors address that last concern, of course, saying:
To recognize Cleopatra as culturally Black is not to pretend that skin color is meaningless now — in the manner of recent figures like Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, who claimed a cultural identity that was not theirs. In our society, race and racism are deeply entwined with skin color and other inherited physical traits. We cannot understand modern forms of oppression without understanding how phenotypical difference contributes to them, and we cannot legitimately claim a racial history without having lived it.
Cleopatra lived it. And it’s that experience, not her physical attributes, that should determine how we imagine her life.
But did Cleopatra actually live that racialized experience? Was she, using Haley’s rubric, “culturally Black”? If one is serious about the history, the answer is a resounding no.
Indeed, Cleopatra was a product of conditions almost exactly the opposite of those defined as “culturally Black.” The last Egyptian queen was no stranger to exploitation, but she was the oppressor, not the oppressed. Despite her knowledge of the local language, Cleopatra was no ordinary Egyptian. She was an absolute monarch in a line that began with forcible conquest. Sovereigns in ancient Egypt were almost comically powerful in comparison to modern political figures; although the cult of personality around current American politics is worrisome, U.S. presidents don’t present themselves as the literal embodiment of God. Cleopatra did, depicting herself as the goddess Isis, a fact somehow spun by the Times as part of a narrative of oppression instead of megalomaniacal narcissism. She owned thousands of slaves and could command the obedience of any Egyptian citizen. Repressed, she was not.
The authors use negative depictions of Hellenized Egyptian culture by the Roman writer Propertius to claim that the scion of the Ptolemaic dynasty was scorned and debased by the dominant culture. A brief look at other passages from ancient writers puts the lie to this cherry-picked sourcing. Egypt was the jewel of the ancient Mediterranean world, rich in natural resources, population, and movable wealth, hence the reason why the Macedonians conquered it in the 300s B.C. and why the Romans in Cleopatra’s day were so invested in annexing it.
Cleopatra, as the queen of Egypt, was the ultimate owner of those riches, and she didn’t exactly use them to uplift her subjects. Instead, she used them to woo Roman generals in an attempt to sell out her country while retaining her own power and prestige. The well-regarded Roman writer Plutarch describes these immense riches in his book Lives, specifically during his “Life of Antony”:
… [Cleopatra] came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture. … The next day, Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both.
This passage details how absurdly wealthy and elite Cleopatra was, so much so that she embarrassed one of the preeminent Roman leaders of the time with his relative poverty and lack of sophistication. She used these riches to promote her own power and attempt to ensure the survival of her dynasty over that of Egypt itself. This approach backfired, ending with her suicide by poison after Antony’s loss at the Battles of Actium and Alexandria in 31 and 30 B.C., respectively. But this loss and her self-inflicted demise do not make Cleopatra into an icon of the oppressed; in fact, subsequent Roman rule of the province was less arbitrary and capricious than was her own.
Not only does Haley’s idea of “cultural Blackness” and the Times piece that parrots this contention fail dramatically in the case of Cleopatra, it fails as an overall historical theory. It reduces an entire ethnicity and culture to the experience of oppression, both narrowing the understanding of black history and appropriating the history of others.
In this way, it serves two leftist goals: expanding blackness to encompass whatever fits a presentist narrative and privileging black scholars in discussing these topics. In some ways, this follows the model of #ownvoices in young-adult literature, where authors must only create stories centering on the author’s personal identity factors. In history, and thus classics, this would privilege white, Western scholars, especially given the paramount importance of European civilization in those fields. By creating an expansive definition of “cultural Blackness” — which, if it includes Cleopatra, covers almost anything — this problem is reversed. Under this new rubric, black scholars would be the true experts and others would be marginalized.
In short, it is part and parcel of the broader equity movement, and it should be treated as such. The academics who espouse this claptrap should be defenestrated, their universities razed, and the ground salted. Or, to put it in words even Cleopatra would comprehend: woke history delenda est.