Digital Project Proposal: Cleopatra 2.0

Hey everyone! For my digital project, I would like to take my original print project proposal and turn it into a digital one. I will quickly summarize that proposal here. I essentially want to dive into the social debates surrounding Cleopatra’s representation. In my personal opinion, this seems like a polarizing topic that people are generally invested in. People are constantly going back and forth about her skin color debating whether she was Macedonian, Egyptian, or both. These debates came up again recently when it was announced that Gal Gadot would play Cleopatra in an upcoming film. Here is what Gadot had to say during an interview with BBC Arabic’s Sam Asi, “First of all if you want to be true to the facts then Cleopatra was Macedonian. We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.” Throughout this debate over Cleopatra’s race, people make claims like Gadot based on facts. Well, what are the facts? I want this project to explore the different claims that people make regarding Cleopatra’s race and trace how those claims are based on historical facts or lack thereof.

I originally wanted to trace these debates over a variety of media forms and I would still like to do that for this version as well. I would like to collect tweets using the Twitter API and twarc2. This will allow me to collect tweets that reference Cleopatra. I also want to look through blog posts, scholarly and non-scholarly ones, to consider how historians insert themselves into this public debate. Finally, I wanted to consider the nature of this debate on Reddit using the Pushift Reddit Search tool which will allow me to search for posts and comments about Cleopatra. Here comes the experimental twist.

Using either WordPress or Medium, I want to create a blog that is dedicated to exploring this debate. I could have one blog post dedicated to my search on Twitter and another dedicated to my search on Reddit. However, I want this blog to be styled in a similar way to the blog from the film Julie & Julia. If you haven’t seen the film, Julie decides to write a blog about her journey cooking the French recipes from Julia’s cookbooks. I want my blog to not only explore the debate surrounding Cleopatra’s representation but also explore my methodology and overall process linking the claims of the debate with historical evidence. Public documentation of my documentation of the debate on Cleopatra’s representation could create a trail for other people to explore the debate.

It would be amazing if my search led to the ultimate discovery of Cleopatra’s race, but this is highly unlikely. Overall, this debate seems to get a lot of people interested in the field of Classics (Egyptology should be categorized under Classics in my opinion). This blog has the potential to create discourse around public historical debates. I think it is particularly interesting for public historians to understand the nature of public historical debates and I hope that this blog could provide useful commentary on this debate in particular.

6 Replies to “Digital Project Proposal: Cleopatra 2.0”

  1. Joshua, I’m so happy to see you’re running with this topic! I think it’s a really cool look at how important these historical debates are to people today. I wonder – could you include a post about how people at Cleopatra’s time viewed race? I’ve only taken one class on Ancient history, but I remember that their conception of race was different in some ways from ours today. Maybe some of the scholars you’ll be looking at will include that in their discussions.

    Then again, how much do historical conceptions of race matter in modern debates? The debate over her race today has less to do with how she viewed herself, I think, than how she should be remembered and who can lay claim to her legacy… rambling at this point, but it’s definitely a thorny and very interesting topic!

    1. Based of of conceptions of race, I think Cleopatra first and foremost would consider herself Egyptian. I think most people are worried about her skin color and how she is depicted in media forms today. I do think legacy is a big portion of it too! During the “New Negro” movement, African Americans developed an ancestral connection with Egypt in particular. You can see that in the artwork of Aaron Douglas’ Building More Stately Mansions and Lois Mailou Jones’ The Ascent of Ethiopia.

  2. Hi Joshua!
    I think this is a fascinating project and I really look forward to seeing the final outcome should this be the project you choose to create. I think this could be a program design that other historians also use as a model for other historical debates and think this is a great one to start with using a historical figure many people wonder about especially since it is brought up in media and pop culture even today.

    My question to you is, how could educators use this in a school setting? I think this could be so beneficial and maybe having some ideas for teachers on how students could interact with the website could be a great idea!

    Great job!

  3. I’m obviously extremely excited to see how either of your projects turn out if only because I am extremely biased toward anything of Egyptian intrigue. That being said I disagree that Egyptology fits in the category of “Classics.” I think Ptolemaic Egypt might fit in that mold, but there are 3000+ years of history before that point that makes it difficult to fit Egyptology into one genre of study.
    Anyway. I’m excited to see what you find out because I’m one of those aspiring Egyptologists that thinks Cleopatra is both wholly Egyptian and wholly Macedonian because, yes, she was of Macedonian descent, but the Ptolemaic dynasty lasted 275 years in Egypt and the leaders successively managed to tie Hellenistic and Egyptian customs together, and identity formation is as important as race. Sure she may have been purely Macedonian/Greek (most likely), but the Ptolemys took on the title Pharaoh and ruled as Egyptians using Egyptian dress and art.
    I’m curious to see how the public eye views Cleopatra, especially through the lens of digital media (games/movies), and how she’s portrayed across different mediums.
    Your project reminds me of the doctor who has diagnosed Pharaoh Akehanaten with a rare genetic disorder that made him overproduce estrogen purely based on the artwork we’ve retained from the Amarna period. He stated that he hoped we found Akehanaten’s mummy someday to verify his claims, but until then it has just become commonplace to accept this idea that Amarna style art wasn’t stylized and that Akehanaten just looked like that. It’s impossible to make a claim if we don’t have the body for genetic testing, but in modern history/public mentality it seems like people get an idea about a historical figure and that just becomes the expected representation whether it’s the truth or not.

  4. That’s a really interesting point you’re making and maybe I will find a place to talk about this in one of the blog posts. There’s a difference between identity formation vs. race/origin. I am wondering if anyone will discuss that throughout my research on twitter or other platforms.

  5. Hi Joshua,

    I think your focus on discussions around Cleopatra and race is likely to be quite interesting and I think a blog could be a great platform to work through this as a project. I think your reference to the Julia and Julia blog is a great way to frame the project too. Along with that, I think working in WordPress or in medium could work great as far as a platform goes.

    If you were to run with this as your class project, I think it would be good to think about trying to scope this in terms of the number of posts you would try to do to model how this would then work if you ran it as an ongoing project. That is, I could see you setting it up and launching it and then working to get something like 4-6 posts up over the course of the rest of the semester. For blogs, a key component tends to be getting into a rhythm of regular posting so that you can start to build an audience. So you might end up trying to run a post every week or two once you have the site up and running.

    Overall, I think you are in good shape to go with either the digital project version of this or the print project version. Depending on what you want to get out of the course I think you can be successful with it either way.

    Best, Trevor

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