When Historical “Facts” Aren’t So Factual

Vicky Alvear Shecter is far too modest. Vicky's a regular commenter on this blog, but I'm sure lots of people don't realize she's the author of two fantastic biographies. Alexander the Great Rocks the World and, only recently, Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen. Her first young adult novel, Cleopatra's Moon, is out in summer 2011. When it comes to ancient history she knows what she's talking about. Vicky's a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. So I imposed on her to do a guest post, and here it is.

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:


“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.

And yet, when it comes to Cleopatra, the facts don’t jibe. Most modern scholars now believe that the queen had only two relationships her whole life—both with Roman leaders with whom she politically aligned for the preservation of her crown and kingdom: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

All agree that Augustus masterminded a smear campaign against the queen of Egypt so thorough, we still automatically accept it today. We picture her as a seductress instead of as a brilliant politician who kept her kingdom from being eaten alive by Rome for twenty years. We imagine her as a femme fatale instead of the devoted mother of four children. That’s right., four.

In writing Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen—I’ve learned two important lessons:

1) Don’t automatically accept ancient “facts” as facts, and

2) Do not, under any circumstances, ask teens to play a word association game!