If you enjoyed Netflix’s docudrama Queen Cleopatra, you might be in the mood for a fully fictionalised dramatization of Cleopatra’s story, or for something else set around the same time period and following some of the same people. If so, we have got you covered!
We’ve given each of these series an “accuracy rating” to indicate how near or far they are to reality, but these should be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt, as a general guideline only. Real life ancient history’s relationship to TV and film versions of it is pretty much the same as the relationship between George RR Martin’s Fire and Blood and the TV adaptation House of the Dragon. Fire and Blood is a pretend history, and it provides several different versions of events from different sources, with little to no indication which one is the “truth.” The TV adaptation has to choose one of the available options, or make up something else that fills in the blanks.
Just about all of ancient history is like that. And TV and film versions do exactly the same thing as House of the Dragon – they choose their favourite version of events, or they make up something that more or less fits in between the established story, and that’s what goes on screen. You could watch two completely different versions of the same story and they could be just as “accurate” as each other, because they’ve picked two different sources for their version of events. So “accuracy” is a bit of a loose term in any show or film about ancient history, including all those listed below.
A co-production by the BBC and HBO, Rome is one of the best screen versions of the titular ancient city around. Blending the traditional story of the power struggle in the Senate with the misadventures of two of Caesar’s soldiers, it is just the right degree of gritty and simultaneously campy resulting in a fantastically entertaining whizz through the collapse of the Roman Republic.
It is also one of the best screen depictions of Cleopatra – perhaps the best. Most versions of Cleopatra play her up as a sultry sex goddess, seducing first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony with her big eyes, alluring physique and enticing smile. But Greco-Roman historian Plutarch said about Cleopatra that “her beauty… was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence… had something stimulating about it.”
Cleopatra’s attraction was in her intelligence, her education (she could speak several languages) and her wit and conversation, not her physical appearance. Actress Lyndsey Marshal is a beautiful woman, but in early scenes Rome often puts her in a short-cropped hairstyle (designed to go under a wig), a sack-cloth of a dress, and minimal make-up. It is Marshal’s charm and intelligence that attracts both men (and possibly her access to recreational drugs, in Antony’s case).
The biggest problem with this series’ depiction of Cleopatra is that the series was cancelled when they were partway through making season two. The show-runners decided to quickly re-write the last few episodes of the season, wrapping up their season two storyline and then condensing the whole of what would have been seasons three and four into two episodes. This is the part of the story that most heavily features Cleopatra, and her entire relationship with Antony – a marriage and three children – is rushed over in a mad dash to get to their inevitable tragic end.
Watch if you like: A bit of grit in your period dramas.
Accuracy rating: There’s some artistic licence here, especially in what Cleopatra gets up to with the fictional Titus Pullo, but the general outline more or less matches the histories. 6/10
Most notable inaccuracy: There are a few to choose from, but Mister Moral Laws, Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, sleeping with his sister stands out.
When it was released in 1963, this epic was the most expensive film ever made. It featured hundreds of extras, shooting was delayed due to star Elizabeth Taylor’s health problems, and when they did manage to film, Taylor and co-star Richard Burton began a relationship that was scandalous to the press at the time, because they were both married to other people. It ended up with a somewhat mixed critical reception, and because it had been so expensive, it took three years to break even.
The film is extremely long and a bit overblown, but it really benefits from being watched on television, especially on a modern big screen in high quality. The story divides into two fairly neat halves, the first being the story of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and the second half the story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Watched over a couple of nights, it makes a perfect two-part miniseries.
And modern televisions can show off the sheer spectacle of the film in a way that only used to be possible in a cinema. This film was not made using modern visual effects – when it looks like there are hundreds of people on screen during Cleopatra’s spectacular entry into Rome, that is because there are hundreds of people in the shot. When she floats down the river on a huge barge, she is really sitting on a real boat. This kind of thing looks great on a modern TV and gives it an epic scope and feel that the TV versions are often missing.
Watch if you like: Glitz, glamour, classic Hollywood.
Accuracy rating: Underneath all the surface spectacle, the story isn’t a million miles from the histories. 8/10
Most notable inaccuracy: We’re reasonably confident that Cleopatra did not watch the assassination of Julius Caesar in a vision in a fire.
Believe it or not, this is a Hallmark movie (or miniseries, technically, originally aired on ABC) about Cleopatra. Even more surprisingly, it’s actually pretty decent. This series suffers from a lowish budget, and everything is ludicrously romanticised. But Leonor Valera’s Cleopatra is intelligent as well as passionate and while Timothy Dalton as Caesar and Billy Zane as Mark Antony have somewhat contrasting acting styles (and accents), that actually works in its favour, as it emphasises the differences between them.
The film is nothing if not ambitious, actually showing battle scenes other TV versions skirt around. And although Cleopatra’s love for Caesar and Antony is played up, the political side of her relationships with both is not ignored either. The biggest downside is the cheesy musical score and some of the love scenes, which have gone for some very TV-movie flowing curtains, soft cameras, and cheesy dialogue. Like Rome, it also tries to insert some optimism into the downbeat ending by ageing down Cleopatra and Caesar’s son Caesarion and having him escape.
Watch if you like: Cheese. Lots of it.
Accuracy rating: Surprisingly good for something that comes across as so cheesy. Overly romanticised, but it gets props for including details like the fire at the Library of Alexandria during Caesar’s siege. 7/10.
Most notable inaccuracy: Octavian was a teenager living in Greece at the time of Caesar’s assassination, was not involved in the plot, and probably was not trying to have Cleopatra or Caesarion murdered – even if that does seem in character for him.
Carry on Cleo
This is one of the better Carry Ons. The Carry On films are a series of bawdy comedies made between 1958 and 1978 (with a failed attempt at revival in 1992). They featured British comedic legends including Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Joan Sims, Barbara Windsor and many others in a variety of roles and settings. Their period drama spoofs were some of the best entries in the franchise, as the broad outline of the history gave them some real characterisation to hang the jokes on. Sort of.
Carry on Cleo is a direct spoof of Cleopatra, made the year after it came out, and even re-using some of the same costumes. It is as much about the Elizabeth-Taylor-starring film as it is about Cleopatra herself, and her character here (played by Amanda Barrie) is almost unrecognisable as her historical self. She does come across as more intelligent and calculating than either Kenneth Williams’ Julius Caesar or Sid James’ Mark Antony, but that is a very, very low bar.
The fun of this film is in switching your brain off, grabbing a beverage of your choice, and enjoying some very silly, Christmas-cracker-level humour. If you’ve ever heard someone gleefully quote “Infamy! Infamy! They’re all got it in for me!” and wanted to know where that comes from – this is it.
Watch if you like: Very outdated campy humour.
Accuracy rating: Um, Caesar gets stabbed by Brutus. That is probably the only bit of the film that really happened. 1/10
Most notable inaccuracy: In the opening scenes, the Celtic Britons are living in caves, haven’t invented the wheel yet, and there are apparently dinosaurs still roaming the island. And it’s mostly downhill from there…
If you’re interested in how a family of Greeks ended up the last Pharaohs of Egypt, then you could do worse than watching this 2004 Oliver Stone film. Like Cleopatra, it’s long and bloated and probably better watched in sections over a couple of nights. There are also some odd directorial choices, like the scene drenched in red light as some kind of arty blood symbolism.
But this film is a pretty decent introduction to the story of Alexander the Great. We know far less about Alexander than we do about Cleopatra because none of the histories written at the time have survived, but for audiences unfamiliar with details like the murder of his father, his relationships with Hephastion or Roxana, or how his general Ptolemy ended up Pharaoh of Egypt, this is a decently entertaining biopic. And it’s narrated by Antony Hopkins’ Old Ptolemy, giving it a direct link to the later story of Cleopatra.
Watch if you like: War films, battle scenes, relationship dramas.
Accuracy rating: It’s hard to rate accuracy on anything involving Alexander, but this is a good attempt at something as close to accurate as possible. 9/10.
Most notable inaccuracy: Colin Farrell’s hideous blond wig.
This STARZ series follows the story of the slave revolt led by Spartacus in the early first century CE in three main seasons, subtitled Blood and Sand, Vengeance, and War of the Damned. There is also a short prequel season, Gods of the Arena.
Historically speaking, Julius Caesar had nothing to do with the defeat of the Spartacus revolt. But his two great political allies/rivals, Crassus and Pompey, were both involved, with Crassus doing the heavy lifting. So the Spartacus showrunners decided, why not throw Caesar in there as well. It may be entirely unhistorical, but it does give us a rare opportunity to see a TV version of young Julius Caesar.
In his younger days, Julius Caesar went into hiding to escape murder by a political enemy, was kidnapped by pirates, and may or may not have had a affair with the King of Bithynia. None of this tends to make it into depictions of him as a confident older man in his later years. None of those details make it into Spartacus either, but at least here we can see a bit of the fiery character who made friends with his kidnappers while telling them that he would have them all killed later, and was true to his word.
Watch if you like: Graphic violence, the movie 300.
Accuracy rating: Not great, but we’ll give them some allowance for the fact the historical sources on Spartacus are terrible too. 3/10.
Most notable inaccuracy: Well, Caesar being there at all.
If you watch STARZ’s Spartacus, then BBC/HBO’s Rome, then I, Claudius, you’ll get an almost coherent sort-of history of Rome in the first century BCE and the first century CE. I, Claudius, an adaptation of Robert Graves’ novel, picks up seven years after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, and their shadow looms over the opening scenes, even as Octavian – now the Emperor Augustus – cements his position and adopts a new persona as a humble, first-among-equals, I-want-a-Republic-really leader.
I, Claudius’ main drawback is that it is a 1970s BBC period drama. This means that every scene is set in a small room on a soundstage, while actors who have been trained by the Royal Shakespeare Company to project to the back of the theatre shout at each other and mug for the camera. But don’t let that put you off. Stylistic issues aside, this is a compelling imperial soap opera full of poison, intrigue and twisted relationships. It is one of George RR Martin’s favourite TV shows – that tells you more or less what to expect.
Also you get to see Patrick Stewart with hair!
Watch if you like: House of the Dragon.
Accuracy rating: Nearly all of it comes directly from ancient primary sources. The only problem is, the primary sources themselves are a collection of gossip, rumour, and low-key misogyny. 9/10.
Most notable inaccuracy: There’s a scene involving some truly disturbing cannibalism that is purely out of the twisted mind of writer Jack Pulman.
If you want to show your kids Queen Cleopatra but think it might not be quite suitable for them, Horrible Histories’ ‘Crafty Cleopatra Special’ features a catchy song, entertaining fun facts, and a kid-friendly version of events. If you like your history even less accurate than Carry on Cleo, you might like to watch the episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess featuring Cleopatra (‘The King of Assassins’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’) and there are several more episodes featuring Caesar, including the whole incident with the pirates (Xena is one of the pirates, of course). Or if you like your entertainment interactive, several of Cleopatra’s most famous moments are featured in Assassin’s Creed: Origins.
*A note on casting: Cleopatra’s ancestry was primarily Greek, with some Persian. The identity of her paternal grandmother is not certain; she might have been Greek, Egyptian, Black, Persian, Berber, or any other culture in contact with Greek-occupied Egypt. So any fictional representation can cast an actress who appears Greek, Egyptian, Persian, Black, Berber or any combination of the above and make a reasonable claim to historical accuracy.