Cleopatra Lives in High School Halls

Getting teens to care about history is always a challenge. But let someone drop a forbidden word and suddenly they're all ears.

Take, for example, what happens when I talk about a certain Egyptian queen.
"Let's play a word association game," I start. "Tell me the first words that come to mind when I say 'Cleopatra.'"

They usually start out tamely enough, calling out, "queen," or "Egypt" or "Nile." But it doesn't take long before someone tap dances around the words (or says them outright): Slut. Whore.

"Out of curiosity," I ask, "what do you call girls at school that you don't like or who threatens you in some way?"

They usually shift in their seats and smile sheepishly. The braves ones mutter, "Um, the same things."

More than 2,000 years ago, a brilliant Roman politician, Augustus, used sexually demeaning insults as part of a smear campaign to take a strong woman down. It worked. And this tradition is alive and well today -- and most intensely used -- in high school hallways.

Yet the facts of Cleopatra's life don't jibe with the insults. Most modern scholars agree that Cleopatra had only two relationships her whole life -- both with Roman leaders with whom she politically aligned to 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, it would've made TMZ blush. Thanks to him (or rather, his poets), we picture her as a seductress instead of as a clever 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 high school classrooms, I am often shocked at how quickly teens adopt Augustus' strategy for demeaning powerful girls. Hopefully, connecting their own behavior to ancient precedents can make history come alive for them in a deeper, more interesting way.

Whether the topic is name-calling or exploring why we engage in endless wars in the Middle East (also an ancient tradition), the hope is that it could inspire students to ask, "Wait, why are we still doing that?" and, more importantly, "How can we change it?"