The BBC invents its own Cleopatra.


Here’s what passes for historical scholarship in mainstream culture — from the BBC:

Cleopatra, the last Egyptian Pharaoh, renowned for her beauty, was part African, says a BBC team which believes it has found her sister’s tomb….

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[R]emains of the queen’s sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother had an “African” skeleton….

That’s the conclusion of Hilke Thur of the Austrian Academy of Sciences:

It is unique in the life of an archaeologist to find the tomb and the skeleton of a member of Ptolemaic dynasty. The results of the forensic examination and the fact that the facial reconstruction shows that Arsinoe had an African mother is a real sensation which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra’s family and the relationship of the sisters Cleopatra and Arsinoe.

Now that would be exciting news, since anyone lightly familiar with antiquity knows that Cleopatra was ethnically Greek — Macedonian, really — not African. When Alexander the Great died unexpectedly on his Persian campaign in 323 B.C., his generals decided to stay and form their own mini-empires in the region. So Seleucus trotted off to found the Seleucid Empire around Syria, Antigonus went to Asia Minor, and Ptolemy — Cleopatra’s forefather —  headed to Egypt.

On what basis, then, can Thur claim Egyptian ancestry for Ptolemy’s offspring? Well, she argues that since Arsinoe has “African” features, she and Cleopatra must have had a native Egyptian mother. That sounds good… until you take a closer look.

Two points the BBC article neglects:

1. Dr. Thur has no compelling reason to identify the remains as those of Arsinoe, beyond the fact that they were found in an octagonal tomb in Ephesus. Arsinoe was associated with the lighthouse of Alexandria — an octagonal structure — and we know from Josephus that she was murdered in Ephesus (“She had her sister Arsinoe slain, by the means of Antony, when she was a supplicant at Diana’s temple at Ephesus.” Antiq. 15:4), so it’s certainly a possibility. But that isn’t much to build a case on.

2. Arsinoe’s alleged “African” features are revealed through a facial reconstruction. That’s quite a trick, since the skeleton they’re working from has no skull. The cranium was removed and promptly lost during World War II. The “reconstruction,” if it can even be called that, comes from measurements scribbled down in the 1920s — before the advent of modern forensic science. Basic skull dimensions can accomodate a range of ethnic and racial types; this is evidence of nothing.

So… an octagonal tomb, some carbon dating of the bones, and a facial reconstruction of a skull that no longer exists: That’s basically their case. While that may not satisfy those finicky historians who insist on the use of actual evidence and reason, it’s more than enough to get researchers their own BBC special, which will air next week. Apparently, the network has run out of Lost Gospels of Jesus to pimp during ratings week, so we’ll have to be satisfied with, “Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer.”


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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