Cleopatra VII: a dean’s lessons on fake news from ancient history

A film publicity stilf of a 1930s white across in Eygption costume, paired with
A film publicity stilf of a 1930s white across in Eygption costume, paired with a collage of ancient coins

As Sheila Ager wraps up her term as Dean of Arts, she reflects on what another leader’s story teaches us about the limits of knowledge

If you ask Dr. Sheila Ager, Dean of Arts, and a full professor in Classical Studies, what drew her to study ancient history, her answer comes quickly. "The stories! I loved the stories."

Growing up in Ottawa, Ager was enchanted by stories from Greek mythology. A Grade 11 Ancient History course set her on the path to study Greek history. In a field awash in scholarship focused on wars, she researched Hellenistic diplomacy and conflict resolution. Eventually, though, the story of Cleopatra VII - "the one we all know from the movies" - drew her in a new research direction. "I suppose, to tell you the truth, that’s why I went down this road. It’s the stories."

History and mythmaking

But stories seen through a historian’s eye take on a new meaning. Cleopatra’s story offers a unique opportunity to study the intersection of history and mythmaking that, Ager says, is especially important now. 

"Her story is such a blatant and compelling example of what fake news can do," says Ager. 

The seductive, often-underclad Cleopatra of Western culture - from Shakespeare, Victorian paintings, and film portrayals by Theda Bara and Elizabeth Taylor - is the product of propaganda, Ager explains. At a time of political upheaval in the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar’s heir Octavian and his allies portrayed the Egyptian queen as lascivious, unnatural, and dangerous because of her relationship with his rival for power, the Roman general Marc Antony. It’s an excellent example of history being written by the winners: after declaring war on and defeating Cleopatra and Antony, Octavian became the Emperor Augustus, transforming the republic into an empire. 

Ager calls this targeted propaganda campaign the "big Roman screen we have over Cleopatra. Trying to find her underneath it all’is an extremely interesting enterprise." But historians face a challenge in uncovering the historical Cleopatra: contemporary Egyptian art and official messaging were "incredibly formulaic - it won’t tell you anything about the person."

Follow the money (or the coins)

The best way back to Cleopatra, says Ager, is through the physical evidence, not the literary sources. "The only way I feel she speaks to us directly is her coinage," she says. "In her coin portraiture she doesn’t wear the veil, as queens almost always do. Instead she exposes the diadem, the symbol of royalty for a king or a queen. She’s making an assertion about who she is."

Cleopatra VII was the product of the Ptolemaic dynasty that, unusually for the time, shared authority between the king and queen, Ager explains. Her Greco-Egyptian culture associated feminine sexuality, beauty, and maternity with fertility and bounty. She attempted to cement Roman alliances by having children with first Julius Caesar and, following his death, Marc Antony, who made Alexandria his base of operations in the eastern Mediterranean. But she remained unmarried, keeping Egypt in Egyptian hands and controlling the future of her own dynasty.

These traces of Cleopatra’s context and actions suggest a different Cleopatra, and a different way history might have played out. "She and Antony issued coinage with their heads on opposite sides of the coin, and to me that speaks beautifully to what she and he both would have thought of as a partnership," says Ager: "He with Roman military might, she with the wealth of Egypt behind her. 

"Between them, Antony and Cleopatra probably did envision a sharing of culture that could benefit the populations not just of Rome but of the whole Eastern Mediterranean."

Understanding the limits of knowledge

But, Ager cautions, it’s important to understand the limits of knowledge, and resist the impulse to come up with our own forms of unsupported storytelling. "In many respects, the Roman screen is all we have. I don’t think deconstructing the myth honestly enables us to see what kind of a leader she was through the course of her career. Yes, try to break through the demonizing, but let’s be cautious about what we assume should fill the void. 

"We need to be able to live with what we don’t know, without trying to rush to fill the vacuum." 

CTA: Watch Sheila Ager’s 2023 talk, Monarch, Mother, Murderer, Monstrosity? Reflections on Cleopatra

CTA: Donate to the Sheila Ager Scholarship , in recognition of her outstanding service as dean and many other senior administration roles.

Feature image: Ancient coins depicting Cleopatra juxtaposed with a film promotional image of Claudette Colbert from the 1934 Cecile B. Demille movie. Images used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.
Heather Bean