What if... Egypt had ruled over us

Of all Shakespeare's plays, Antony and Cleopatra is my least favourite. The natural sympathy for the underdog means I have always found it hard to stomach the final scene, with all that drinking and cavorting over the beaten Octavian's dead body. Sometimes, watching the scenes depicting the decisive sea battle at Actium in 31 BC, I wonder what might have happened had Octavian won. Perhaps the rise of Rome might have continued; perhaps today we might even worship different gods.

As it was, however, Actium marked a watershed in western history. As Octavian's Roman galleys sank slowly towards the bottom of the Ionian Sea, Antony and Cleopatra were already on their way back to Alexandria in triumph. And although the war continued for a few more years, all the momentum lay with Egypt.

As Roman power disintegrated, the rise of the eastern Mediterranean proved unstoppable. And when Antony died after a drinking bout ten years later, even the Romans hailed Cleopatra's son Caesarion not merely as Pharaoh but as "Augustus", meaning highness, and "Imperator", meaning supreme commander - or as we would say, emperor.

In the long term, the rise of Egyptian power was always inevitable. Not only did the region have a deep and rich Hellenistic culture, but it had long been known as the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, an economic powerhouse without equal in the classical world. Over the next century, Caesarion and his successors built a massive empire, from Scotland to North Africa. Even now, many of our most venerated traditions - the habit of incest among the political classes, the popularity of astrology, or the cult of gods such as Isis and Serapis - remind us of our Ptolemaic roots; even now, the government spends millions promoting academic philosophy, while we witness endless feuding between Stoics and Epicureans.

There was, however, a darker side to Antony's victory. Over time, the shift of power from Rome to Alexandria seemed to represent the inevitable triumph of African and Middle Eastern culture over the disorganised, weak west and, by the 19th century, with the Egyptian Empire at its height, some Cairo scientists were arguing that white Europeans were genetically predisposed to stupidity, indolence and general inferiority. The Scramble for Europe, in which Egypt, Judea, Abyssinia and Tripoli carved up much of the continent between them, remains one of the darkest pages in modern history.

Even now, white immigrants in much of the Levant have to endure knee-jerk prejudice about supposed laziness and criminality. And there is no point arguing that Cleopatra was actually white; thanks to Hattie McDaniel's performance in the 1939 film, her ethnicity is now fixed in our imaginations.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo