"Ancient Slut-Shaming": The Cleopatra Myth

New looks at Cleopatra tell us that the more things change, the more they are the same. In a bad way.

Talk of a Cleopatra movie has got people speculating about her probable appearance, likely a far cry from the light-skinned stars who've portrayed her up to now. But that's not the only thing that needs to be reevaluated — our perceptions of the ancient queen, in the view of some scholars, is extremely, well, modern. And that's not a good thing.

Duane W. Roller's Cleopatra: A Biography paints a portrait based on the queen's own writings that those of contemporaries — a novel approach that yields some startling truths. Writes Nikki Terpilowski in the Christian Science Monitor,

Cleopatra is distinguished in Roller's account by her love for her four children and the destiny she strove to create for them...It is obvious in Roller's portrayal of Cleopatra that all of her decisions as Queen of Egypt were made in the best interest of her country. She was obsessed with expanding the area she reigned over and increasing her wealth for her children's future. Nowhere in Roller's profile of the queen is there.

And what of the devious femme fatale of legend and letters? This, in Roller's opinion, as in that of other scholars, was the result of a targeted smear campaign by Roman officials working on Augustus' orders. The Romans, of course, were frequently thwarted during Cleopatra's lifetime by her superior diplomacy.

According to Roller and his research, Cleopatra was the target of one of the very first negative PR campaigns – although later no one remembered it was all public disinformation, designed to re-brand, re-image, and reposition the former Queen of Egypt in history. And the salacious facts about who she slept with, the magic spells she conjured, and questions about who fathered her children, were all designed to remove focus from the indisputable facts of her reign. She was the most powerful ruler of the Ancient East during her time.

The efficacy of this campaign is made dispiritingly clear in a post by biographer Vicky Alvear Shecter, who recounts,

Speaking to high school kids at a Junior Classical League conference last year, I offered a word association game. When I got to "Cleopatra," I got:

"Queen"
"Egypt"
"Slut"
"Whore"

"Wow," I remember thinking. "They went from queenly to unseemly in a matter of seconds!" The spirit of Augustus Caesar must have danced a little jig of victory because 2,000 years after his propaganda war against the queen, we are still maligning her with insults related to her ultimately unknowable (and irrelevant) sex life.

What's worse, little has changed since Augustus worked up Romans into a frenzy of outrage, fear and loathing for a powerful woman.

"Tell me," I asked the teens. "What's the first word you use to disparage a girl you don't like or that you find threatening."

"Slut," they admitted a bit sheepishly. "Whore."

Augustus' model for taking a strong woman down, it seems, went deeper than we could even imagine. We are still acting it out today.

Do the parallels even need to be drawn? Cleopatra, at least, got to achieve power before the smears began; nowadays, it's a necessary gauntlet women run in its pursuit.

What Cleopatra Teaches Us About Gender Equality In Politics [Christian Science Monitor]
When Historical "Facts" Aren't So Factual [Gary Corby]