From books to movies, television shows to video games, it seems that Cleopatra just can’t catch a break. Popular culture still insists on depicting her as the so-called “Whore of the Nile,” thus perpetuating the smear campaign started by Octavian after he defeated her (and Marc Antony) some two millennia ago.
In my book Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins, Cleopatra is a key character and one that I tried to depict in an engaging yet respectful way. That’s because, like the Vestals themselves, Cleopatra was a powerful woman, and history has a way of reducing powerful women to their sexuality. After all, it was, and unfortunately still is, an effective way to strip women of their power and importance.
Few thinking people would disagree that it’s long past time to more accurately depict women like the Vestals and Cleopatra in popular culture. Yet as always, change happens in fits and starts. We have progress in the form of a wonderful book like Stacy Shiff’s biographical Cleopatra: A Life. And then we have a setback like the depiction of Cleopatra in video games like Assassin’s Creed Origins.
Happily, though, these stereotypical and historically inaccurate sexualized depictions of Cleopatra are no longer going unchallenged. I am very thankful that Colin Campell, a prominent games journalist, wrote an article called Assassins’ Creed Origins’ Promiscuous Cleopatra is Just Plain Wrong. I was very happy to contribute to it (although I apologize for my colourful language – hey, I get worked up about these things!). It’s a good read, so please click over if you have a few moments.
I suppose the theory behind sexualized depictions of powerful women is that it makes them, or the story, more interesting. I could not disagree more. Re-telling the same (inaccurate) story isn’t just unimaginative and unfair, it’s boring. And to me (and maybe I’m wrong here), it’s also insulting to the intelligence of the audience – or the gamer – as it insinuates they don’t have the ability to see women like Cleopatra or the Vestals in a different light. They do. We all do. So let’s hope media companies and moviemakers catch up to us soon