Soon after news broke that Gal Gadot will portray Cleopatra, a debate emerged about not whether the Israeli actress was capable to play part, but whether a white woman should be playing the Queen of the Nile at all. Newsweek spoke to some experts on ancient Egypt to find out what the prevailing theory is regarding Cleopatra’s ethnicity.
The debate about what exactly Cleopatra looked like isn’t really a new one. Shakespeare dramatically described her beauty, while ancient artwork often depicts her as rather plain. A coin discovered in 2007 from 32BC depicts her as somewhat homely. On the big screen, she’s been played most notably by white women–and glamorous ones, at that: Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, and, most memorable of all, Elizabeth Taylor.
Of the matter of her ethnicity, there is still quite a bit of debate. “Cleopatra VII was white—of Macedonian descent, as were all of the Ptolemy rulers, who lived in Egypt,” said Kathryn Bard, Professor of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Boston University.
Prof. Bard’s conclusion has long been the most widely accepted thought on Cleopatra’s background, which holds that she, like all of Egypt’s Alexandria-based rulers, was descended from Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy I Soter.
Dr. Ashton addressed the decision of casting Gadot for the new Cleopatra picture, saying the “film makers should have considered an actor of mixed ancestry to play the role of Cleopatra and that this would have been a valid choice.”
“Many institutions and industries are finally recognising the importance of correctly acknowledging the presence and achievements of people of African heritage,” she continued. “This would have been a perfect opportunity for the Film Industry to promote Cleopatra’s position as an African ruler of dual ancestry.”