New exciting proof that Cleopatra was of African descent and killed her sister!


Yes, if you believe the BBC. The story, reported by AFP, the Times, and the Daily Telegraph, goes like this: In the 1920s a tomb at Ephesus in Turkey was opened which contained a single skeleton. The skull was removed, measured, and subsequently lost. More recently, a team of Austrian archaeologists have reexamined what's left of the skeleton, determining it to be the body of an apparently healthy young

The basis for linking this skeleton to Cleopatra's sister seems to be the octagonal shape of the tomb (echoing the famous lighthouse of Alexandria, apparently. Or, a stopsign. Whichever.) and the fact that Arsinoe was banished to Ephesus before her murder.

Coincidentally, there's a new BBC documentary airing 23 March called (cue the scary music) Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer. Apparently the BBC has been taken over by Fox (Homer S: Portrait of an Assgrabber, anyone?)

The subject is treated suitably skeptically at rogue classicism.

First things first. The Ptolemies (that's Cleopatra's family) had a habit of interbreeding. A pretty major habit. Another symptom of their apparent lack of reproductive creativity is that fact that they used the same family names over and over. So, the Cleopatra in question, the famous one, the last of the pharaohs, the lover of Caesar and Antony, was actually Cleo 7.0 (Cleopatra VII), and her sister was Arsinoe IV.

Here's the conventional family tree, which I've reproduced from Sheila Ager's 2005 paper "Familiarity Breeds: Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty".

Yes the double line means marriage, and yes, that's gross, but it was the style at the time, so let's move on.

Ptolemy XII === Cleopatra V
|                 |                  |                |                  |            
Berenice  Arsinoe IV  Ptolemy XIII == Cleopatra VII == Ptolemy XIV

The typical story says that Cleopatra was descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals, who took over ruling Egypt after Alex's empire broke up.  This would make Cleopatra a Greek queen of an African

The reason why everyone's got their pharaonic headdresses in a knot is the little question mark for Cleopatra's parentage. Strabo wrote that only the first born of Ptolemy XII's children was legitimate, making the title of Cleopatra's mother up for grabs. But then, Strabo might have been confused by the genealogy (and who can blame him?), since Pausanias had earlier written that a different Ptolemy's children were all illegitimate, minus the first born.

Some scholars have suggested that Cleopatra's mother could have been a high-ranking Egyptian priestess, but there's little evidence to back this up. But then, if we're looking for places where Egyptian (or "African") ancestry could have creeped in since the good ol' days back in Greece, there was plenty of lying, cheating and sleeping around going on in this family.

Cleopatra's father and supposed mother both may have been products of extra-marital affairs.

All of this raises the question of what exactly do we mean by "African ancestry"? I mean, if we go back far enough, the entire human species is of African descent, and there was almost certainly interbreeding between Greek and Egyptian populations over the millennia that these two cultures were in contact before Cleopatra was born.

The cranio-facial measurements of "Arsinoe" that were taken (in the 1920s, mind you. No one has actually seen the skull since then) are the basis of the assignment of this African ancestry. The idea is to take measurements of the skull and assign the individual to the ancestral category (or "race", let's be honest) to which they are most similar.

This whole method presupposes that different "racial types" can be discretely identified, which often they can't on the basis of skeletal characteristics alone. A growing trend in anthropology recognises that our idea of race is much more based on cultural characteristics (with a slight input from morphological characteristics such as skin colour), than it is based on any genuine underlying physical differences.

The techniques that have been developed for distinguishing different racial types based on cranio-facial measurements, are often qualitative, rather than purely metric, and I am very interested to see the paper that will be published, detailing exactly which methods were used to compare this skull (which doesn't actually exist anymore) to the reference descriptions that are available.

What's a shame is that there's actually a lot of cool stuff going on in the Ptolemaic dynasty, stuff that would make an episode of Desperate Housewives look like Leave it to Beaver. If the makers of the BBC documentary were looking for something sensational, they need have looked no further than their history books. A few generations earlier, Ptolemy VIII murdered his sister's son, then married the sister, and then raped (or seduced, who can tell, really?) and impregnated the same sister's daughter, whom he subsequently also married. The family is full of stuff like this, so there's no  need to go along grasping at straws, and making huge leaps of faith based on a lack of evidence.

Compared to the rest of her life, the question of whether Cleopatra  had African ancestry is probably the least interesting thing about her.


Ager, S. 2005. Familiarity Breeds: Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty. J. Hell. Stud. 125, 1-34.

Gill, G. W. 1998. Chapter 14: Craniofacial criteria in the skeletal attribution of race. In Reichs KJ (ed.) Forensic Osteology. Charles C. Thomas Publishing: Springfield, IL.