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!


C. N. Nevets said...

Two brilliant rules!

Tasha Alexander said...

This is why I have always hated Augustus with a deep and burning passion. Don't even get me started on the man.

Gary Corby said...

Nevets, yep, I'm keeping variations of rule 2 in mind for book touring. Luckily Vicky's passed on her hard won lesson.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Tasha! Looking forward to seeing you and Andrew in a couple of weeks.

I'm tempted to get you started, just so I can hear how to properly denounce someone. Come to think of it, I can't recall anyone who's said they liked Augustus.

Tracy Barrett said...

Students continue getting this kind of misinformation from their schoolbooks! They're still told that people in Columbus' time thought that the world was flat, and other such nonsense. It's important to give them the straight scoop, as you do!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Everytime I get a tidbit from Vicky's book, I get greedy for more.

Must. Have. This. Book.

(Four kids? Really? What's next? She cooked dinner every night for hubby? :-)

vickileon.com said...

Vicky, Gary, valuable post--and eye-opening lessons to be learned re the longterm stickiness of pejorative labels. wow. I'm a charter member (well, maybe just a root-for person, writing about her since the 1990s) of the reclaim Cleo Seven's name club. Anyone can join--and should. Especially those on the FRONT LINES---educators! bravo, you two..

Gary Corby said...

Tracy, yes. To this day, people can argue about some really quite basic things in history books. It's amazing that it should even be possible!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Cathy. I didn't realize it was four kids either. Glad we have Vicky to sort us out.

Gary Corby said...

It's all kudos to Vicky, Vicki. All I did was supply the blog.

In passing, I wonder, is there some rule that says people who write brilliantly amusing ancient history fact books must have names that sound like "Vicki"?

Ashes said...

Great post, Vicki! I loved your "teachable moment" where you asked the kids how they "take down" a girl they find threatening....sadly.....gender politics havn't changed all that much. *sigh of regret* I think you struck a blow for the sisterhood, though.Bravo! History is written by the victors, right? Takes a while to get over their "version".

Karen Strong said...

Definitely agree that most people think of Cleopatra that way. A seductress instead of a strong woman trying to protect her country/kingdom/family.

It's sort of sad sometimes that history's truth can be swayed by the "winners."

I've learned so much about Cleopatra through your work.

Interesting post.

Sean Wright said...

Its amazing what lies can be perpetrated and organisations built on the vagaries of history.

Thanks for the post Vicki.

Gary, find a grade school teacher you can run your book tour routine through with first, should save you embarrassment or tricky situations

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks for all your comments! And thanks, Gary, for giving me the opportunity to rant...I mean, talk about my favorite gal!

Gary Corby said...

Thank you Vicky for the great post!

Sean, "embarrassment" is my middle name. Except it isn't really, but if it were, it would be embarrassing.

Ashes & Karen, yep! Vicky surely does a great job of writing Cleopatra.

Narukami said...

Excellent article Vicky -- concise and cogent, proving once again that brevity is the soul of all wit.

Unfortunately, I am not that witty or brief...

I do not see this view of Cleopatra as a triumph of Augustan Propaganda as much as an example of the power of Hollywood.

Scholars have long known that history is written by the victors, and re-written by them are their needs change. Michael Grant's excellent 1972 bio of Cleopatra paints the queen as an extremely intelligent ruler, devoted to her people in a way that her ancestors were not, and a politically savvy player who knew she must make a deal with Rome or perish.

Hollywood, on the other hand, has little need or use for history other than as a spring board for their fantasies.

How many people today are certain that:

The Spartans fought wearing only a leather speedo?
Xerxes was a 7' tall androgynous and heavily pierced leader of a slave amy?
Commodus murdered his father (who did not want him to be emperor) and was himself slain in the Colosseum?
That the US Navy captured the Enigma machines and broke the German codes during WWII?
Spartacus was crucified along the Appian Way?
Henry V spared the French captives taken at Agincourt?

And the list goes on....

Of course, Hollywood has always had a schizophrenic relationship with history, or the truth for that matter, so all of this comes as no surprise.

Darryl F Zanuck once opined that, " There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic."

This is somewhat ironic considering Zanuck's own film, The Longest Day, is the most historically accurate film of that famous battle ever made, and that includes the much lauded Saving Private Ryan. However ...

The silver lining here is that sometimes these films will motivate their audiences to seek out the history behind the drama, or the hokum as the case may be.

With two new films about Cleopatra currently in development we can only hope that they drive viewers to authors like Grant, Goldsworthy and Vicky Alvear Shecter.

Narukami said...

And Gary ...

Let me be the first then to say that I like Augustus.

I admire Julius more, but Augustus did achieve what Julius could not -- he provided a method for ruling the Empire that allowed Rome to not only survive but thrive.

As Goldsworthy points out, what is mazing is not that the Rome Empire fell, but that it lasted as long as it did. That is due, in no small part, to the work of Augustus and his associates (Agrippa et.al.)

Perhaps, if Julius had lived, he would have set up as stable a system for imperial rule, but we will never know.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Narukami, well said! Hollywood is a huge part of the problem (I love the line about Spartans fighting in leather speedos--ha!). So true. But Hollywood, in the case of Cleo, relied on both Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw's depictions of the queen, both of whom depended on Plutarch.

So, I think Hollywood just aggravated a problem that already existed.

By the way, I don't "hate" Augustus--I'm actually pretty impressed with all he accomplished, though I think Agrippa gets short-shrift (Agrippa was the military mastermind as well as the architect--literally--of rebuilding Rome's infrastructure).

At any rate, thanks for your thoughtful response! I enjoy these "conversations!"

Unknown said...

Jeepers! Where did those kids learn those words!

Great guest post by one of my fave history bloggers and authors, the wonderful Vicky!

I think Vicky is very gracious in not hating Augustus, I know many Cleo fans that do! I personally have a great respect for what he accomplished as well. Being a politician, opponent of Antony and heir of Caesar would not have been an easy thing for a young person to handle.

I think the message that Agrippa was his capable right arm has filtered strongly through the centuries, and the fact that the (Hadrian rebuilt)Pantheon stands so proudly to this day in testimony to his achievements is a good solid reminder of that.

Kind Regards
H Niyazi