Wednesday, 18 March 2009

the black cleopatra meme

over the past few days I've tweeted a number of links which we can call the black cleopatra meme - basically what was cleopatra's skin colour?

The tweets were
so thinking about this I realised that the question wasn't about a long dead Egyptian queen's skin colour and more about our attitudes to it.

The Greeks, and GreacoRoman culture in general wasn't fazed by skin colour. They were more interested if you could speak good attic Greek or formal Latin (preferably both), knew the classics and could throw the odd epigram about. There are jokes about Roman emperors who spoke with provincial accents but none about their skin colour despite the fact that Septimius Severus was probably an ethnic Libyan and as for Philip the Arab ...

In GreacoRoman eyses you were either a member of the culture, the koine, or you weren't, in which case you were a babarian, probably smelled, wore trousers and worshipped strange gods.

The Egyptians were different. Clearly civilised, cultured, but had some very odd beliefs and sexual practices. Cleopatra, as the offspring of the GreacoEgyptian aristocracy probably spoke good Greek, knew her classics, counted as civilised, but had a whiff of exoticism about her.

She may have been darker than your average Alexandrian, but due to her Greek heritage she probably wasn't nubian black.

Her contemporaries probably wouldn't have cared.

So why do we?

Part of it is probably because the Cleopatra/Ceasar/Mark Antony story is a truly fantastic story, but is there a degree of prurience, is it because we find the idea of a black aristocracy strange, perhaps unsettling? And what does that say about us and our allegedly relaxed non-racist inclusive attitudes?

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