Cleopatra’s Family: The Ptolemies


Afro-centrists illustrate that Cleopatra – who ruled as Cleopatra VII, was black – largely basing their opinion on the fact that she was African and had an unknown grandmother – the unnamed concubine of her grandfather Ptolemy IX Soter II. However, the royal line that Cleopatra was born into was of Greek origin, and dated back to the life of her ancestor Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian general who had served under Alexander the Great, and became ruler of Egypt in 323 BC.

Cleopatra’s Parents

Cleopatra was born in Alexandria in 69 BC to Ptolemy XII Auletes, who ruled Egypt from 80 to 58 BC and then again from 55 to 51 BC. Her mother remains controversial, but Cleopatra was known to have referred to Ptolemy Alexander as her grandfather, and therefore Ptolemy XII’s wife, Cleopatra V Tryphaena is the likeliest candidate.

With reference to the family tree enclosed, intermarrying within Cleopatra’s family was so prevalent that she only had two ancestors alive 120 years before her birth. Her father Ptolemy XII Auletes was born illegitimate in 117 BC to Ptolemy IX Soter II and the unknown grandmother – but besides this, Cleopatra’s parents were completely related to each other.

Family Relationships in the Ptolemaic Dynasty

The Ptolemaic family tree is highly complicated, and when Ptolemy XII Auletes married Cleopatra V Tryphaena, he was marrying his half-niece – because she was the daughter of his half-sister-double-cousin, Queen Berenice III, Cleopatra V Tryphaena was also his first-cousin – being the daughter of his uncle, Ptolemy X Alexander.

These brother-sister and uncle-niece marriages had continued through the Ptolemaic dynasty for 120 years before Cleopatra was born, and intermarrying was so constant in the later dynasty, that it is only with the marriage of Ptolemy V Epiphanes and Cleopatra I that the Ptolemies had ever married out of their family, Cleopatra I of Egypt was a Princess of the Seleucid Empire – centred around ancient Syria and Babylon, and their rulers were mostly descended from Greeks.

The Earlier Ptolemies

Ptolemy V was born to a brother-sister union, and his double-grandfather Ptolemy III Euergetes I was purely of Greek stock – descended from Macedon noblemen who rose to prominence under Alexander the Great. Ptolemy V’s double-grandmother Berenice II was the daughter of Magus of Cyrene – a city in modern-day Libya, Magus was half-brother to Ptolemy III’s father – Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and was born to Macedon parents. Ptolemy III Euergetes and Berenice II were therefore half-first-cousins.

The Seleucids

The first of the seven Egyptian queens named Cleopatra was the future Queen Cleopatra I, who was probably born at Antioch around 204 BC. She was a daughter of Antiochus III The Great and Laodice III, she was also a third cousin of Ptolemy V Epiphanes – the Egyptian ruler who she later married.

The Seleucid Empire was ruled by a dynasty known as the Seleucids who were of Macedonian Greek descent, just like their enemies – the Ptolemies, as both powers were the successors of those who had been installed as rulers by Alexander the Great. Cleopatra I’s ancestors included the Kings of Macedon, Macedonian nobility and one particular ancestor was Spitamenes – a 4th Century Baron in modern-day Persia, but as his name suggests – he was of Greek descent also.

The Kings of Pontus

Cleopatra I’s maternal grandfather, Mithridates II of Pontus ruled the Kingdom of Pontus – an area comprising the northern shores of modern-day Turkey, but Mithridates and his dynasty were by no means Asian. The rich fertile plains of Pontus and its coastline were dominated by cities founded by Greeks colonists – but the inhabitants lived in coexistence with the native tribal population.

The capital of Egypt under the Ptolemies was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC when he liberated Egypt from Persian rule. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Ptolemy became ruler of Egypt under the name Ptolemy I Soter. He declared Alexandria as his new capital and the recently founded Egyptian metropolis was populated by native Egyptians and Jews – but the aristocracy was Greek.

Cleopatra’s Unknown Grandmother

Ptolemy XII Auletes was born as an illegitimate royal child, his mother may have been a member of the Greek aristocracy, or she may have been a slave from the palace – she could therefore have been native Egyptian or black, and it is quite possible that she was of mixed race.

It is believed that the younger siblings of Antony’s Cleopatra: Princess Arsinoe, and Ptolemies XIII and XIV – whom she married respectively – were born by a different mother. With the discovery of the remains of Arsinoe at Ephesus (modern day Turkey) – where she was entombed after Cleopatra contrived her murder – it has been established that the forensic analysis indicated that Arsinoe possessed a degree of mixed Greco-African heritage – suggesting that the legendary Cleopatra may have had some north-African blood.