Teaching Cleopatra: Six Classroom Activities

Rachel Mairs

Cleopatras Banner 2

(Top left-bottom right: Yanna McIntosh, Elizabeth Taylor, Theda Bara, Beyoncé, Claudette Colbert, Tamara Dobson, Kim Kardashian West, Denis O’Hare.)

Since 2017, I have run a module called ‘Cleopatras’ (the plural is intentional) in the Department of Classics at the University of Reading.  It is a 10-credit module, with ten hours of contact time, open to second and third year undergraduates.  Class sizes are capped at around 25 students, to allow for better discussion, which means that I have sometimes run the module twice in a single academic year. Since it is relevant to the content of the module, I should state that almost all of my students are white, and speak English as their only language, and there are slightly more women than men.  Students are not required to purchase any specific books, but I advise them that – if they do want to buy their own copies of something from the reading list – they will get the most use out of Prudence Jones’ Cleopatra: A Source Book and Francesca Royster’s Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon.

In addition to the official ‘assessable learning outcomes’, I have several further goals for the module:

  • To get students to realise (if they did not already) that the ancient Mediterranean world was ethnically, racially and linguistically diverse (when the timing coincides, we can also work Black History Month activities into the module);
  • To make students seriously consider what is at stake in the reception of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome in the modern world (e.g. the weaponisation of ancient history by competing modern political ideologies, and recent approaches to Cleopatra and her dynasty in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world);
  • To show how popular culture (e.g. music videos, fashion magazines, films and television shows with no intellectual pretensions) can be the subject of serious and interesting scholarly analysis.

This module is a work in progress.  Every time I run it, I change it, sometimes fundamentally.  I am not going to offer a syllabus or full reading list here, but I would like to share six activities I use in class, with some reflection on what I want them to achieve, and what kinds of results and feedback I typically get.

  1. Who was Cleopatra?

Who Was Cleopatra

My students are mostly on Classics, Ancient History or Archaeology undergraduate degree programmes, although I do get some from other subject areas.  It is really useful for me to get an idea at the very beginning of the course of what their baseline knowledge of Cleopatra is, and what preconceptions they have.  I deliberately do not ask students to write their names on their papers.  Students typically know the answers to 2 (Egypt, but not the date) and 4 (suicide by asp). About 50% know 3 (Ptolemaic). Few answer 5, 6 and 7 correctly. Common responses to 1 are ‘Egyptian’, ‘exotic’, ‘seductress’ (or similar), ‘famous’ and ‘powerful’. The most common answer to 8 is ‘Elizabeth Taylor’, but around 20% of the class are unable to name any.  We revisit this exercise in the final class, and students are able to reflect on not just how their knowledge of ‘facts’ about Cleopatra has changed, but how their perception of these ‘facts’ has too.  For example, being able to answer 7 with ‘Greek’ is one thing, but knowing that Plutarch called Cleopatra the first of her line to learn the Egyptian language opens the door to discussing much more complex political and cultural topics.

  1. A Knowing Wink

Cleo Wink.png

(© 20th Century Fox)

In class, we watch two different cinematic depictions of the same event: Cleopatra’s triumphant entry into Rome.  By this stage in the course, students are familiar with the Roman sources on Cleopatra – and their biases.  We have also compared and contrasted some different stagings of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and looked at how Shakespeare used his primary source material: Thomas North’s (1879) translation of Plutarch’s Lives.

We watch the entry into Rome from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra, starring Claudette Colbert, and the same episode from the 1963 Cleopatra starring Eizabeth Taylor and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  We watch the scenes once all the way through in silence, then again as we discuss them, pausing and interjecting.  Both scenes are fascinating (and can be found easily on YouTube), and every time I run this module we find something new.  Some questions I typically use to get the discussion rolling are:

  • How do the Roman women in the audience react to Cleopatra?
  • How are black people presented? What does this representation say a) about Cleopatra; b) about the position of African Americans at the time the film was made?
  • What is specifically Egyptian about the imagery surrounding Cleopatra? What is the immediate source of this imagery?
  • Do these scenes display a camp aesthetic? Why does Cleopatra wink at the end of the 1963 scene?  What else is subversive in these depictions?
  • What expectations do the film makers have about the background knowledge of their audience about the ancient world? (Everyone always laughs when an actor in the 1934 scene intones ‘Beware the Idea of March!’)
  • What difference did the Hays Code make to how filmmakers depicted Cleopatra?
  1. Foremothers

This is a new activity, which I have not yet run in class (anyone reading from my 2020 cohort: this is your opportunity to get a head start!).  It was inspired by discussions at Racing the Classics II, the Women’s Classical Committee UK and Writing Black Women’s Lives at the Rothermere American Institute.  I would like to thank friends and colleagues at all of these events for the chance to learn from them.

For some students, depending on where you teach, Afrocentric scholarship may be something completely new.  Some may push back; some may simply not understand, because of their own life experiences, why the idea of Cleopatra as a black woman is so important and empowering to so many people.  Some may even have difficulty understanding the symbolic and emotional importance of Cleopatra as an intelligent, politically-astute female ruler.  This exercise is therefore designed to get students to think about, and share, why Cleopatra is significant to them.

For homework, students should read Shelley Haley’s seminal 1993 article “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-empowering”.  They should also read the 2016 BBC article ‘Be Cleopatra not a Kardashian, girls advised’.

The beginnings of Haley’s intellectual journey can be used as a starting point for class discussion:

“Yet, throughout my college and graduate school experience, buried deep in the recesses of my mind was the voice of my grandmother, Ethel Clemons Haley, saying, “Remember, no matter what you learn in school, Cleopatra was black.” Now where did she get an idea like that? Schooled only as far as the seventh grade, never having learned any foreign language, just a domestic servant, a cook, she obviously had no knowledge about Cleopatra or classics or anything else intellectual. So I, the great teacher, used to tell her about the Ptolemies and how they were Greek and how Cleopatra was a Ptolemy and so she was Greek. At one point I even showed her the genealogical tables of the Cambridge Ancient History. “See,” I said, “Cleopatra was Greek!” “Oh,” she said, “and who wrote those books?” I dismissed her question with exasperation and returned to the study of the ancient sources, confident that what I had been taught to see was indeed what was there to be seen.”

Some questions to keep the discussion going:

  • What did your family and friends say when you told them you were taking a module on Cleopatra? Did any of them have particular views on her identity, like Professor Haley’s grandmother?
  • How and why did Professor Haley’s views about Cleopatra’s identity change? Have your own ideas changed?
  • Is Cleopatra a ‘good role model’? Do you agree or disagree with the points made in the BBC article?
  • Was Cleopatra a feminist?
  1. Feed the Trolls

This exercise requires a bit of advance preparation. You need to have a plan for how you, as the notional authority figure in the room (whose job may or may not be secure), are going to handle (diffuse/confront) any racist language or ideas that come up in class discussion.   If you are a white teacher, in particular, reflect on your own responsibilities: both to ‘shut up and listen’ and to step in and hold people accountable (this is a difficult balance, and I do not have any easy answers on how to achieve it).  Be sensitive to the atmosphere in the room, and be particularly on guard against individual students being vulnerable or under attack.  Take advantage of codes of conduct and teaching resources, such as those produced by Teaching Tolerance.   You should arrange to make yourself available, in private, for students who want to talk about what happened in class.  Take on board feedback, particularly from students of colour, and use it to improve your teaching.

The homework I set the week before is as follows:

Cleopatra and Race

The majority of class time is spent discussing the Oxford University Press blog on ‘Cleopatra’s true racial background’ by Duane Roller.

OUP Blog.png

I chose this blog and its comments section because it lacks a lot of the worst features – use of racist and misogynist slurs, ad hominem/mulierem insults, pseudoscholarship – of many online discussions of Cleopatra’s race (although there is a bit of Macedonia vs Greece nationalistic back-and-forth), while still tackling the big issues.  What the comments section of this blog does contain is a lot of apparently ‘reasonable’ ‘well-meaning’ people making superficially plausible, but deep-down, rather problematic points about the construction and claiming of racial identities.  I wanted students to learn how to identify the biases and prejudices in the seemingly scientific and ‘reasonable’.  I also think that the blog post itself is an excellent example of solid, open-minded scholarship which nevertheless misses some very fundamental points:

“To sum up: it is quite possible that Cleopatra was pure Macedonian Greek. But it is probable that she had some Egyptian blood, although the amount is uncertain. Certainly it was no more than half, and probably less. The best evidence is that she was three-quarters Macedonian Greek and one-quarter Egyptian. There is no room for anything else, certainly not for any black African blood.

“Yet all this argumentation is rather silly. What is important about Cleopatra is that she became one of the most powerful rulers of her era. She was a skilled linguist, a naval commander, an expert administrator, a religious leader who was seen by some as a messianic figure, and a worthy opponent of the Romans. She was worshipped in Egypt for at over 400 years after her death. Race seems irrelevant in such a situation, and it goes without saying that people should be judged by their abilities, not their race. But sadly, even in twenty-first century America, this is far from the case. It is unlikely that Cleopatra cared about her racial makeup, but people over 2000 years later still obsess about it, thus trivializing her accomplishments.”

Discussions about Cleopatra’s race are not ‘silly’.  The repeated use of the term ‘blood’ is also deeply troubling, in ways which I do not have the space to go into fully here.  Race, ethnicity and identity are things which people construct.  Ascribing a racial identity on the basis of ‘blood’ takes us back to the Bad Old Days of ‘scientific racism‘.  Check out the comments section: Kate, Shara and George (you may not get it, but you’re a good ally, George) make particularly good points.

  1. Jazz Cleopatra

Josephine Baker.png(Josephine Baker: ‘Jazz Cleopatra’, ‘Nefertiti of Now’, with her cheetah.  Photograph by Piaz Studios of Paris, Early 1930’s. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

In advance of this exercise, I set students to read Stacy Schiff’s Pulitzer-winning Cleopatra: A Life.  They also have to read one more Cleopatra biography of their choice. As well as biographies of the historical Cleopatra, this could include works about someone who played or was inspired by Cleopatra (Josephine Baker, Elizabeth Taylor, Edmonia Lewis).  We divide into groups of five or six students.

Cleo BiographyWe take about fifteen minutes (you could spend a much shorter or longer time on this task) before coming together to share our biography ideas.  I circulate among the groups to answer questions or prompt them if they are ‘stuck’. At least one group usually teases me by pitching the kind of postmodern Cleopatra biography they think aligns with my own scholarly preoccupations (“Rachel, we thought you’d give us a good mark if we put Beyoncé on the cover”).

  1. Cleopatra with a K

I got this one very wrong to begin with.  The first time I ran the Cleopatras module, I made fun of Kim Kardashian dressing up as ‘Kleopatra’ for a Harper’s Bazaar interview.  An anonymous student feedback report on the module pointed out, absolutely correctly, that I shouldn’t have belittled a media-savvy, image-manipulating businesswoman, and I certainly shouldn’t have done it in a class on Cleopatra.

There are numerous ways in which we can look at the popularisation and the commercialisation of the Cleopatra image. I’ve had great class discussions about everything from twentieth-century cosmetics advertising to Sonia Delaunay’s costumes for the Ballets Russes.  To steer class debate away from simple inventory of examples of Cleopatra’s image in popular culture, I set a few basic questions:

Cleo Pop CultureBut let me come back to ‘Cleopatra with a K’ – which is where I tend to end the module – because the 2010 magazine photoshoot I so unjustly mocked turns out to be the perfect way of summing up how ideas about Cleopatra have been transmitted and creatively manipulated.

Kleopatra.png(© Harper’s Bazaar.)

When I show this image to students in the final week of the course and ask them what they see, they have become attuned to some very different signals than they might have picked up in the first week of class. They now see not Cleopatra, but – to use Francesca Royster’s formulation – ‘Liz-Taylor-as-Cleopatra’. Some will recognise the chair from the tomb furniture of Tutankhanum, a much, much earlier ruler of Egypt.  Students tend to comment on the sexualised and racialised nature of the image.  Some may recognise the name of the photographer Terry Richardson, currently under investigation for multiple claims of sexual assault, and ask who is truly in control of/in this photograph.  Most will point out that Kardashian’s Armenian heritage is relevant, and examine how we got to this exoticised image of a generically ‘ethnic’ queen.

In this same issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Kim Kardashian interviews Elizabeth Taylor.  In this interview and elsewhere, Kardashian has repeatedly stated that she considers Taylor an inspiration.  It is more specifically ‘Liz-Taylor-as-Cleopatra’ that she has turned to time and again, such as in a 2015 photoshoot, where make-up artist Pat McGrath created a look that was “Kim Kardashian channeling Elizabeth Taylor channeling Cleopatra”.  This is an opportunity to take students back to our discussion of the costume and production design of the 1963 Cleopatra, including the neglected contribution of Egyptian filmmaker Shadi Abdel Salam.  This takes us further back to the influence of Shakespeare on the 1963 film, and still further back to Plutarch.  Although students may initially be unconvinced of the value of critical analysis of ‘Cleopatra with a K’, the exercise is a good opportunity to reflect on where our most persistent images of Cleopatra come from and what is gained and lost along the way.

Further Reading:

Haley, Shelley P. (1993) “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-empowering,” in Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Classics, 23–43. New York: Routledge.

Haley, Shelley P. (2009) ‘Be Not Afraid of the Dark: Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies’, in L. Nasrallah and E. Schüssler Fiorenza (eds.), Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies, 27-49. Minneapolis, MN.

Jones, Prudence J. (2006) Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Royster, Francesca T. (2003) Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

I would like to thank the Quartet for their perceptive comments on earlier drafts of this post.

One thought on “Teaching Cleopatra: Six Classroom Activities

  1. The University of Reading offers around two dozen online courses available to the public through Future Learn – I know it would be additional work for you, but how brilliant for ‘Cleopatras’ to someday be offered!


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