Assassin's Creed Origins is an attempt to create a believable world based on historical Egypt in the first century BCE. But while the game is strong on visual realism, there's one area where it diverges badly from historical accuracy: its portrayal of Cleopatra.
In Ubisoft's latest historical drama, Cleopatra is tough, smart and ruthless. But she is often clothed in slinky, revealing outfits. She is a femme fatale: exotic, sensual, flirtatious and beautiful.
According to leading classicists working today, the woman we see in the game is almost certainly nothing like the real Cleopatra, most especially the way she behaves around men.
"Much of what we know about Cleopatra is [Roman] propaganda," says Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge and author of recent best-seller SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. "It was put about by Augustus after his war with Mark Antony, to discredit them both, and partly to show Antony in thrall to, and misled by, a seductive queen. I very, very much doubt that she was remotely flirtatious."
"In unthinkingly accepting Cleopatra as a wanton or promiscuous woman, we are falling for Roman male propaganda which chose to depict her in this way," says archaeologist and Egyptologist, Joyce Tyldesley. "The truth is, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that she was conspicuously promiscuous, or that she behaved in any way differently to any other Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt." Tyldesley's books include Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, which highlights the queen’s skills as a ruler. Cleopatra is said to have been able to speak nine languages.
"Her only known sexual relationships were important political alliances," says Geraldine Pinch, an author of fiction and non-fiction books about ancient Egypt. "The idea of Cleopatra as a voracious man-eater is a much later development in the legend and basically the product of overheated Western male imaginations. Origins is just carrying on this tradition."
Origins offers an opportunity for players to inhabit the world of ancient Egypt. It succeeds in creating a colorful world of cities, villages, docks and monuments. The Nile is richly populated with teeming wildlife and diverse peoples.
The game's story hooks into real events, as witnessed by two fictional assassins who work for Cleopatra. Julius Caesar is in Alexandria on the heels of his Roman enemy Pompey. The boy pharaoh Ptolemy is weak and surrounded by corrupt men. He shows poor judgment. His sister Cleopatra seeks the throne. Caesar looks for influence. Cleopatra and Caesar become lovers and, more importantly, allies.
Ancient historians like Plutarch, Suetonius and Cassius Dio remain our best sources for the life of Cleopatra, although they wrote many years after Cleopatra’s death. There are some contemporary notes. Horace’s poem revels in her death and the defeat of her “crowd of deeply-corrupted creatures, sick with turpitude.” Wily political operator Cicero wrote caustically of his detestation of her, and her “arrogance.”
Ubisoft drives home Cleopatra's character in an early scene. She hosts a lavish party on a veranda. Most of her guests are cheerful, soldierly men. She declares that she will sleep with any man at the party, so long as he agrees to be executed afterwards. This raises laughs and jokes. It seems the offer has been made before, and accepted by an admirer, willing to pay her price.
"Pure, unadulterated bullshit," says Debra Macleod, author of Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins, which features Cleopatra as a key figure. "We're talking about someone who was a queen, who most likely slept with two men in her entire life. She really was the victim of a smear campaign after her defeat by by Augustus and that's perpetuated today in Hollywood and in games, unfortunately.”
"She would definitely not have offered to have slept with random men," says Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. "She was a divine queen, a quasi goddess. If she had sex with anyone, it would be purely for the protection of her country."
"Cleopatra was a devoted mother of four," says Pinch. "She would not have behaved in this way at a social event. She was ruthless in disposing of enemies, and she certainly threw lavish parties to impress the Romans but there is no early evidence to suggest that she took random lovers. Her only known sexual relationships were important political alliances."
In Western art, Cleopatra is often portrayed semi-clothed. Popular imagination and comedy skits usually place her in a bath of milk. The 1963 movie Cleopatra was marketed in sexually suggestive terms and includes vaguely scandalous scenes. Even so, Elizabeth Taylor portrays a smart, haughty woman who plays her hand skillfully, even when her ambitious plans go awry.
Alongside highly sexual scenes, Origins takes the time to show Cleopatra’s abilities as a leader as she fights her enemies, deploying assassins and soldiers to aid her cause, while manipulating public opinion. Even so, her sexual power is painted as a central part of her leadership, as suggested in that first scene, when she demonstrates her ability to have her admirers executed. This matching of sex and power was a central theme in later Roman propaganda against Cleopatra, which cast her as an exotic temptress, rather than as a political operator who understood the value of alliances.
"By our standards these were not necessarily 'good' or 'moral' people," says Tyldesley. "But there is nothing to suggest that Cleopatra was any different to the rest of her family. Unfortunately, we seem fascinated by the idea of her as a powerful and sexually active woman."
A Ubisoft spokesperson declined to comment on this story.