The Cleopatra Out Of Macedon Theory

What interests me most about Cleopatra's ancestry is the near certainty that she is very distantly related to Alexander the Great.

When Alexander died, there was a massive brawl between his Generals over who would rule the largest empire in human history. A very ugly brawl. Think Texas Chainsaw Massacre Meets Gladiator, only much nastier. When the dust settled, one of the few guys still standing with his intestines, limbs and head all in the expected positions was Ptolemaios.

Even in his own day the rumor was strong that Ptolemaios was the illegitimate elder half-brother of Alexander, by their father King Philip II of Macedon. Philip from a young age had been a likely lad with a propensity to bonk pretty much anything that moved, so the existence of a few extra siblings would be no surprise. Ptolemaios went a long way toward confirming this rumor by displaying during the Successor Wars the sort of strategic insight Alexander had always shown. Ptolemaios decided right away to limit himself to holding a single country, and he picked his favorite: Egypt. He kidnapped (corpse-napped?) the body of his half-brother Alexander and interred him in Alexandria, as indeed Alexander seems to have wished, and successfully held Egypt against all comers until the fighting was over.

Then he changed his name to Ptolemy and set himself up as Pharoah of Egypt. Ptolemy continued the ancient Egyptian tradition of marrying brothers to sisters to manage the succession, but he introduced a new naming scheme within the family. Almost all boys were named after him: Ptolemy. Almost all girls were named after the sister that Ptolemaios shared with Alexander the Great. Their sister, the daughter of Philip, was called...Cleopatra.

The Cleopatra was actually Cleopatra VII.

The Cleopatra Out Of Africa Theory

The news services seem to be awash at the moment with a large pile of steaming hype about Cleopatra being part African. This is on the basis of an extremely tentative identification of a headless skeleton in Ephesus, which might be her sister Arsinoe, and an even more tentative suggestion from skeletal measurements that this skeleton might be part African.

The skull to that skeleton used to exist, and was measured in the 1920s, after which they lost the skull and it's never been recovered. The measurements they're using to decide ethnicity are based on the missing skull, so nothing can be checked. Terrific. To cap it off, skeletal measurements are not exactly reliable indicators of race, so the most polite thing you can say about this claim is it's unproven.

My immediate reaction was, so what? (yawn) But it seems people care a lot, I guess because of the political correctness thing. A very modern political correctness that had no place in the ancient world. Ancient Greeks and Romans fought and squabbled with their neighbors over all sorts of geopolitical issues (think Greece/Persia) and more rarely over genuine repugnance (think Rome/Carthage...the Romans were horrified that the Carthaginians practised ritual child sacrifice), but mostly they squabbled simply because they could. You'd be hard pressed to find any examples of racism in the modern sense, as far as I'm aware (if you know of any, I'd be fascinated to hear). So whether Cleopatra or her sister was black, white, or rainbow colored stripes, it's unlikely an ancient writer would have paid much attention or cared in the least, an attitude I think we moderns would do well to emulate. It's what she did that matters.