‘Historical Roasts: Cleopatra’ Review: A Surprisingly Sharp Take on Cleopatra’s Life, Loves and Power

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have high hopes when I sat down to watch Historical Roasts’ Cleopatra episode. I’d previously watched two episodes – President Abraham Lincoln and Queen’s Freddie Mercury – and found them to be brash, overly simplified portrayals of two complex figures. The jokes mainly centred around Mary Todd Lincoln’s addiction and mental health problems, and Mercury’s sexuality. They were, to say the least, a little old hat (or bonnet, if you’d prefer).

I get it: it’s comedy not a documentary. However, it’s not impossible to be funny and acknowledge that our understanding of these figures is based on years of misinformation and prejudice. So, it was with heavy heart that I sat down (with a medicinal bottle of wine – how very Mary Todd…) to watch the Cleopatra episode. 

However, I was pleasantly surprised by what Historical Roasts had to say on the life and times of Cleopatra.

Roastmaster General Jeff Ross opened the episode by acknowledging that powerful women are often omitted from our history books – an uncomfortable fact which is one of the reasons why Ancient Herstories exists. Similarly, the introduction of Cleopatra as “one of the most badass women ever to live” and “one of the great mysteries of history” showed an element of understanding the complexities of this fascinating figure.

The guests roasting Cleopatra (played by Ayden Mayeri) included: Julius Caesar (Ryan Phillippe), Mark Antony (Ken Marino), Isis (Bridget Everett), and William Shakespeare (Rory Scovel).

Phillippe played Caesar as a jilted lover, jealous of Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s relationship, and it was quite refreshing to see Caesar presented as anything other than the great imperator. 

I was also impressed by the fact that someone has clearly researched Cleopatra carefully. It wasn’t just the big events that were mentioned, but smaller details which really surprised me, such as the drowning of Cleopatra’s eldest brother and the statue Caesar erected of Cleopatra in the Temple of Venus, Rome. 

Historical Roasts stuck to Plutarch’s controversial account of Cleopatra being smuggled to see Caesar for the first time in a rug – after all, who doesn’t love that story? – but there were some serious red flags when Caesar and Mark Antony were described as Cleopatra’s “husbands” and Octavian as the “emperor”.

What was also incredible was that no one went on ad nauseum about Cleopatra’s beauty. Her wit, armies, and political savvy were mentioned, alongside frequent references to her alleged sexual proclivity, but not her beauty. This is noteworthy as Cleopatra’s ‘beauty’ is something which continues to elicit debate despite the fact that we talk so much more (as Historical Roasts’ episode shows) about her power and other qualities. 

That said, there were plenty of references to Cleopatra’s sex life, something which the ancient authors used to attack powerful women generally. There were the unusual incest jokes as Cleopatra, as generations of Ptolemies had before her, married her two brothers at different times to strengthen their appearance as co-regents. However, what Historical Roasts didn’t mention was that Cleopatra’s brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, were in their early teens when Cleopatra married them. HR probably would have gotten some incredibly gross mileage out of this fact… 

However, from the mouth of Cleopatra herself, there was the acknowledgement that our knowledge of Cleopatra has been warped by our sources: men writing second hand accounts, who labelled Cleopatra as a “whore queen”, and forgot to stress her other qualities – the good and the bad. As Historical Roasts’ version of Cleopatra said, “that’s just lazy writing”, and I can’t help but agree! 

One major issue I had with the episode is that, although the appearance of the goddess Isis was flamboyant and good fun, there were real women in Cleopatra’s life who may have been good options to roast: her sisters Berenice and Arsinoë.  

On a final note, the eyeliner game was on point, and the costumes were pleasingly gaudy – who isn’t a huge fan of the loin cloth? 

All in all, a good effort in which Historical Roasts presented Cleopatra as an iconic powerhouse who “showed future generations that women could not only rule the world but make the rules.”

Find out more about Cleopatra on Ancient Herstories when we launch in September!

Elinor

About ancientherstories

Maria Haley and Elinor Cosgrave blog and illustrate empowering women of antiquity - the famous, infamous and forgotten. Launching September 2019.

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