“Blackwashing” Cleopatra, you say? A case of moral panic?

 The psychologist Stanley Cohen described moral panic as “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” (Cohen, 1972, p. 1). The casting of a bi-racial actor in the role of Cleopatra for a Netflix docu-series has prompted accusations of “blackwashing” history and arguably a state of moral panic, which the media has (largely) endorsed.

This isn’t the first time that such a response occurred. In 2008 I was involved in a project to digitally reconstruct Cleopatra. The process (described here) prompted an unfavourable response from some groups because the reconstruction showed a young woman with a darker complexion and African-type hair. It used to surprise me that so many people with no formal training in either classical archaeology/art history or Egyptology felt that their opinion was a reality. Fifteen years later and some people are responding in exactly the same way. Of course nobody can know for certain what Cleopatra looked like. We have representations of the ruler from during her lifetime, but the extent to which these reflected her true appearance remains uncertain. However, the point of contention for many has really been her perceived ancestry.

The same people who criticize the presentation of Cleopatra as “Black” (I will be deconstructing this later in the post) insist that she was”light skinned” and “white”. It isn’t helpful to apply modern racialized terms of “Black” and “white”, especially when they were meaningless to ancient people. Cleopatra was descended from Macedonian Greeks who were immigrants to Egypt. This much is clear. However, it is possible that her mother and grandmother were Egyptian (their identity is unknown). Leaving those modern racialized terms aside, if we look at depictions of ancient people from the Nile Valley their hair is black in colour and coily/curly and their complexions range from light brown to dark brown.

A barbering scene from the tomb of Userhat

Ancient people from Greece and Rome showed the people from the Nile Valley in the same way the Egyptians had depicted themselves for thousands of years. Paintings from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii show Egyptian priests with a darker complexion (see below); their hair shaved for the purpose of purification during rituals. The priestesses and members of the cult who were depicted on the walls of the Roman temple are shown with a range of complexions. Italy under the Romans and Egypt in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods were multicultural societies and were not bound by modern concepts of racist hierarchies.

Roman wall painting from Pompeii showing an Egyptian priest
Roman wall painting from Pompeii showing an Egyptian priest

Ethnicity vs “race”

Cleopatra was bi-cultural (Egyptian and Greek). However, she chose to present herself exclusively according to Egyptian culture in her homeland. Her Greek-style royal imagery was preserved for coinage (an international currency). It was this style of representation that was adopted for contemporary and posthumous portraits of the queen in Italy.

The Ptolemies, who were ethnically Greek had ruled Egypt for over 250 years at the time of her birth. For their first century of rule they had balanced their presentations separately as Greek kings/queens and as the Egyptian royal family. This was doubtless to muster political and religious kudos among the indigenous priesthood, who were a powerful and educated class. Adopting the Egyptian concept of kingship awarded the rulers a deified status that had hitherto been reserved for deceased mortals in Greece. By the reign of Ptolemy V many Egyptian-style representations of the king borrowed from Greek-style portraits of the rulers. Temple reliefs continued to be decorated with purely Egyptian style images of the rulers; their names translated in hieroglyphs.

Ethnicity is a cultural identity. Many recent commentators are confusing this with the modern concept of racialized identities. It is possible to be multi-ethnic (multi-cultural) and indeed this was recognised in Ptolemaic Egypt where Greeks and Egyptians married and had families. Any research on Ptolemaic society shows this to be the case. However, unlike her predecessors we only have evidence of Cleopatra depicting herself in Egypt as an Egyptian. As noted, her presentation overseas catered to a European audience and was essentially different.

Taking account of the possibility that Cleopatra’s mother and grandmother were Egyptian people, it seems plausible to present her as someone who is part European and part Egyptian (African). In modern racialized terms- as bi-racial. It is therefore notable that those who object to this premise claim that Cleopatra could not have been “Black”. The argument that she was descended and culturally Greek are irrelevant to her racialized identity. Moreover, it is the same people who have decided that a bi-racial Cleopatra is “Black”, perpetuating the so-called ‘one-drop rule’ used historically in the US. By recognising that Cleopatra may have had an Egyptian mother and/or grandmother it places the ruler more directly within an Egyptian historical context rather than removing her, as has been claimed.

For those who state that the Ptolemies married their siblings- this is true until the time of Ptolemy XII (Cleopatra’s father). He was illegitimate and refereed to as a “bastard” (nothos). Why then is it so far stretched that Cleopatra could be part Egyptian? A more pertinent question should perhaps be- why do people need Cleopatra to be racialized as “white”? I will consider this from a psychological standpoint in my next post.

The truth about Roman ‘portraits’ of Cleopatra

A Roman painted portrait claimed to represent Cleopatra VII has been circulating the news and social media over the past week. The fragment (Figure 1) dates to the first century CE and was found at Herculaneum. There is no inscription to identify the subject. It seems strange, therefore, that the image is being shared as a certain depiction of Cleopatra. Its appeal is doubtless the pale skin and red hair, which supports later European ideals and impressions of the ruler. In fact it has been suggested (Herbig, 1962) that the pale skin against a dark background was taken from a cameo, used for the model.


The identification of the painting as a portrait of Cleopatra stems from the suggested diadem (crown) and through comparison with coin images (Walker and Higgs, 2001). However, the image of the painting below shows that the fragment is damaged around the nape of the neck. A second painting from Pompeii shows that the “diadem” is in fact a head cloth that is tied around the bun to complete the hairstyle (Figure 2). This feature differs from two marble portraits of Cleopatra from Rome and also the coins (Figure 3).

Depiction of a woman found at Herculaneum
Figure 1 Fragment of a wall painting found at Herculaneum. Naples National Museo Nazionale Archeologica 90778

As noted, the Herculaneum fragment can be compared to similar depictions found in the so-called House of the Orchard at Pompeii (one example illustrated below; ). And this gives a further explanation as to why the two images have been associated with Cleopatra. House of the Orchard contains some Egyptianizing motifs (Room 5) alongside classical Greek iconography and Roman bucolic scenes. For this reason it has been suggested that the bust (Figure 2) might represent Cleopatra. This is in spite of the subject wearing a band around her head rather than the royal diadem (crown; see Walker and Higgs, 2001 for discussion).

Pompeian wall painting showing a female bust
Figure 2 Wall painting from the House of the Orchard Pompeii

Aside from the missing royal iconography, there is the dating of the wall paintings. The style of wall paintings at the House of the Orchard has been dated to 69-79 CE on account of the style of the wall paintings; so 100 years after the birth of Cleopatra. It is not a contemporary piece even if it were to represent the ruler (there is no definitive evidence to suggest that it does).

Furthermore, the Egyptianizing reliefs at the House of the Orchard are uniform in style (see Figure 4) and are substantially different from the style of the unidentified female bust. The biggest problem in identifying these images as Cleopatra remains the hair band. It’s style is completely different to the royal diadem or fillet found on coins and statues of Cleopatra (see Figure 3 for the Vatican portrait).

Figure 3 Detail of a sculpture representing . Vatican Museums, Pius-Clementine Museum.

Identifying ancient portraits

There are a number of ways to identify an ancient Roman portrait. This is not an exact science and the process requires knowledge of the period as well as the provenance (find spot).

  1. Inscription- not always as straight forward as it might first appear because the inscription could have been added later, or someone could have re-used part or all of a statue/sculpture.
  2. Location- if a particular sculpture was found in a location that was only used for a set period of time, it might be possible to associated a representation with a particular donor or ruler. The problem with this method is that statues were often reused for building material.
  3. Comparison with coin portraits- coins typically have the name of the ruler inscribed around their image and have been used for many years in Classical archaeology and art history to identify representations. The main issue with this method is that coin portraits are small, they are stamped on the metal of the coin using a die, which can become worn or distorted. Nevertheless this has been the main method of identifying royal and imperial portraits.
  4. Iconography- coins can also be useful when it comes to linking specific symbols with a particular ruler. This is particularly true in regards to Hellenistic rulers (including the Ptolemies).
Egyptianizing wall painting.
Figure 4 House of the Orchard, Pompeii. Egyptianizing wall painting.

It’s not always that simple…

The problem is that wealthy Romans who commissioned portraits of themselves were often shown with a likeness of the Emperor and his family. This is why it is essential not to use one of the aforementioned methods of identification but to consider them all. Crucially, royal or imperial status carried specific iconographic features. Hence, the problem with identifying the “portraits” at the start of this post with Cleopatra.

The fundamental issue remains the fact that these images are from private houses and were made after the death of Cleopatra in a foreign country. Over the past week they have been used by some emotively and politically to support the belief that Cleopatra had a pale complexion. Neither of the wall paintings has the appropriate iconography to represent a Hellenistic royal.

There are two motivations to associate these paintings with Cleopatra. The first is to counteract the suggestion that Cleopatra may have been partly of Egyptian ancestry (her mother/grandmother). The second is rooted in the belief that the Ancient Nile Valley population were not indigenous African people. I have written about such responses in a previous post cognitive dissonance. Over the next few blog posts I will be adopting a critical approach to review representations that have been identified as Cleopatra.


Herbig, R. (1962). Nugae Pompeianorum: unbekannte Wandmalereien des dritten pompejanischen Stils (Vol. 1). Ernst Wasmuth.

Pugliese Carratelli G. & Baldassarre I. (1990). Pompei : pitture e mosaici. Istituto della enciclopedia italiana.

Walker S. & Higgs P. (2001). Cleopatra of Egypt : from history to myth. British Museum; Princeton University Press.