Short Teaching Module: Cleopatra, Gender, Beauty and Power in Egypt and Rome
Our most important early sources on Cleopatra are Roman histories, which are problematic in their reliability. Cleopatra held the status as the “enemy” for Romans, which created a bias among Roman authors. Moreover, Rome’s patriarchal culture influenced writers’ views of a powerful female ruler. Roman historians viewed Cleopatra negatively, which has influenced later historical and cultural depictions of Cleopatra from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor. The first source provides some insight into Roman views of the “proper” woman, which help illuminate the following three sources and their depictions of Cleopatra. These sources are excellent examples for teaching students about “sourcing” historical texts. They show how Roman historians disparaged Cleopatra for her gender and power, and assumed her beauty given her relationships with Caesar and Antony.
WHY I TAUGHT THE SOURCE
Utilizing Cleopatra’s life as a lens for learning about the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome (and Hellenistic Egypt) provides a tangible and gripping narrative that grounds a daunting topic. Moreover, Cleopatra’s story allows students to encounter crucial themes in world history, such as gender and power. Finally, the nature of the sources we have at hand to study Cleopatra’s life permits a class to dig deeply into “sourcing” as a historical thinking skill.
These sources were written by Roman historians decades, and sometimes centuries, after Cleopatra’s life. The sources, therefore, actually play a dual role by serving as our earliest texts but also allowing us to see the ways that historians created even these ancient sources. They allow us to see sources as historical products and even ancient texts as part of a historiographical conversation.
Cleopatra’s life also illuminates notions of beauty and sexuality, especially as it relates to women in power. Learning about how a powerful woman thousands of years ago was attacked for her sexuality, and through her sexuality, provides windows for young men and women to understand the complicated nature of public discourse around appearance and sexuality for figures in power today, especially women.
An ancient world module on Egypt and Rome that focuses on Cleopatra’s life and themes of gender, beauty, and power always proves to be far more interesting and relatable than a traditional overview. By interrogating these sources, students really grapple with how history is produced and how portrayals of famous historical figures may end up far from the truth. More importantly, the focus on gender and beauty and the ways in which Cleopatra’s legacy has tragically suffered because of the strength of her antagonistic biographers helps students make important comparisons to their own lives and the difficulties faced by female politicians today.
Plutarch’s Advice to a Bride and Groom reveals the author’s views that submissiveness is the proper behavior for a Roman patrician’s wife, which reflects the general gender norm of ancient Roman culture. The wife ought to mimic the husband’s mood at all times: to be happy when he is happy and serious when he is serious. The wife ought to lose her own personality and become a reflection of her husband.
This source is a part of the Cleopatra, Gender, Beauty and Power in Egypt and Rome teaching module.
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HOW I INTRODUCE THE SOURCE
One of the fascinating aspects of studying Cleopatra is the wealth of pop culture sources that refer to her life, which I can use to spark student interest and to function as comparisons in our analysis. Shakespeare, of course, wrote the play Antony and Cleopatra. The band The Lumineers recorded a song called “Cleopatra.” Elizabeth Taylor famously played Cleopatra in the 1963 film adaptation. Lastly, I also use clips from HBO’s more recent series “Rome.”
Prior to reading these sources, we use these clips to identify commonly held beliefs about Cleopatra, which often result in ideas about her beauty and seductive powers. Throughout the unit of study, we refer back to how films, plays, and songs have portrayed Cleopatra and compare those depictions of the Egyptian Queen to those of the Roman sources. Students try to explain why there might be similarities and differences between those portrayals and what they might reveal about those who produced the sources.
As historical context for these sources, students must first learn about Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty, the conflict between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemey XIII, and the civil war in Rome that brought Pompey and then Julius Caesar to Egypt’s shores. Stacey Schiff’s highly readable biography, Cleopatra: A Life, is an excellent recent secondary source for grasping the background of the story.
READING THE SOURCES
Plutarch’s Advice to a Bride and Groom helps students understand Rome’s misogynistic views toward women (even by the standards of the ancient world), thereby providing a framework for young historians to evaluate Roman sources that discuss Cleopatra. Plutarch was born in Greece but became a Roman citizen and he lived more than a century after Cleopatra’s death. It is important for students to grasp the significant amount of time that lapsed between Cleopatra’s life and the earliest records we have of her reign and to consider how that might affect our historiography of her life. Key guiding questions: What are Plutarch’s views about women and marriage? How should a “proper” woman behave? How might this affect his view of Cleopatra?
Cassio Dio, A Roman historian who lived about two centuries after Cleopatra, was the author of the second source. Of the Roman historians who wrote about Cleopatra’s life, Dio was one of the most consistently antagonistic toward her. Dio’s depiction of Cleopatra’s fateful meeting with Caesar emphasizes a few common tropes that gained traction in portrayals over the following two thousand years: Cleopatra’s beauty, seductiveness, and penchant for scheming. We see Dio envisioning Cleopatra as the cunning agent who uses her beauty to gain control over Caesar in a Samson/Delilah type of relationship. More reliable sources, however, describe Cleopatra’s appearance as ordinary and the force of her attractiveness laying in her personality. In other words, Dio assumes that for Caesar to have fallen for Cleopatra he must have been tricked and overcome by her physical beauty, rather than having been taken by her charisma. Key guiding questions: According to Dio, what caused the alliance between Caesar and Cleopatra? How does Dio describe Cleopatra’s motivations and actions? How might Dio’s writings have affected later depictions of Cleopatra? Students might also grapple with the ethical implications of Cleopatra’s choices. Do we, even today, judge her more harshly for her actions than we do Caesar? Was she acting for herself or for her people? What was the basis of a marriage among political dynasties in the ancient world? What were her options in this situation?
The third source is Plutarch’s description of Antony’s meeting with Cleopatra. By this point, students have already learned about Plutarch and, through his “Advice to a Bride and Groom” should have an understanding of how he might portray Cleopatra. With Cleopatra, Plutarch is writing about a powerful woman who views herself as equal to her partners and who acts thusly. She is willing to use her wealth, charm, and attractiveness to gain political alliances. Here, students may consider many of the same guiding questions as they did with Dio’s source while also comparing Dio and Plutarch’s descriptions of Cleopatra, her traits, her actions, and her motivations.
The fourth source, Horace’s “Cleopatra Ode” is one of the only sources we have written by an author who lived contemporaneously to Cleopatra. Horace was a Roman lyric poet with very strong ties to Octavian, the Roman who defeated Antony and Cleopatra, which led to her death and his coronation as Emperor Augustus. Horace’s “Cleopatra Ode” allows the student to interrogate ideas of bias and reasons why a Roman court poet might depict Cleopatra in an extremely negative light. Key guiding questions for his text are: What are Horace’s views about Cleopatra? What might explain the words Horace uses to describe Cleopatra?