Spin doctor: (informal)  a person who provides a favourable slant to an item of news, potentially unpopular policy, etc, esp on behalf of a political personality or party (Collins English dictionary)

The phrase ‘spin doctor’ came into common usage during the 1980’s, and is derived from the term ‘spinning a yarn’. Because the phrase is recent one, there is a tendency to think of ‘spin’ – or media manipulation – as a twentieth century phenomenon, something conceived by Goebbels and refined with slightly less sinister purpose by Bill Clinton’s campaign advisers.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Queen Cleopatra, the Queen of Spin.

Here was a woman who understood that style meant more than substance. She practised media manipulation long before there was a media as we know it.

Although she was probably part Greek, part Syrian, she knew her power base lay in the chora, Egypt’s peasant heartland. So when Julius Caesar first helped her cement her authority in the country, the first thing she did was hit the campaign trail, sailing down the Nile so everyone could see her with her powerful backer.

What image did she show her new nation? She dressed as Isis, goddess of all Egypt, even to the finest detail. The subliminal message to everyone was clear; I may have powerful foreign backers, but I’m your queen, Everyman’s queen. In effect she nailed down the blue collar vote. She secured the heartlands and the priesthood as her power base, and never lost it.

Later in her reign, when she went to meet Anthony at Tarsus, she put on another show. Anthony had been hailed as the new Dionysios, a god in his own right. After Caesar’s death, she needed his support and his influence. She did not intend to seduce him with anything as unreliable as pillow talk. This was a man who could have any woman he wanted, and frequently did.

Instead she sailed into Tarsus in a galley with gold tipped oars, purple sails and servants dressed as nymphs hanging from the rigging. The sails had been impregnated with rich perfumes so that the wind announced her arrival long before she docked at the quay. Cleopatra herself sat on the deck under an elaborate canopy dressed once more as Isis, Queen of the Ocean, announcing with this astonishing spectacle to the whole Mediterranean world that she had come to meet Anthony not as a supplicant, but as fellow divinity. It worked. Anthony didn’t love her because she was base; he loved her because she had a power base. He returned with her to Alexandria and a deal was struck.

The facts of history intimate that yes, in the end, he loved her. Their story is a poignant one. But that wasn’t how it started.

Can you get the donkeys so I can run my bath?

It is ironic that such an astute political manipulator should have been ultimately portrayed by Shakespeare and Shaw and then Hollywood as the ultimate femme fatale, a byword for decadence. It’s like history remembering Hilary Clinton as Marilyn Monroe.

Cleopatra didn’t die for love though Anthony died in her arms. She simply met her nemisis. The Roman emperor Augustus was just as astute at turning public opinion. He denounced her as a sultry temptress to the Roman senate, in order to turn the tables on Anthony, who was his rival for power in Rome. He ‘leaked’ rumours about her bathing in asses’ milk and having sex with her slaves in order to make Anthony look ridiculous. And it worked. It worked so well in fact that his propaganda still informs most popular opinion about her, even two thousand years later.


‘Wait till you see me in a gold shimmery dress.” (photograph: Matthew Reichbach)

“YES WE CAN build a boat with purple sails.”

In the next few months the spin doctors will be hard at work in the US, as the Presidential race heats up. So when Romney dresses in his golden robes and Barack sails down the Nile try not to feel too jaded; remember it was all done before, long ago, by Cleopatra and Augustus.

They just did it without television.

CLEOPATRA: When We Were Gods

About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
This entry was posted in HISTORY and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. susielindau says:

    Too funny! I hate the spin and am glad that I don’t watch much TV these days! However, I would love to see Romney and Obama in their finest while rowing down the Nile!
    Great post!

  2. Debra Kristi says:

    This is the time I try to listen closely, not so much to their words, but to them. I want to hear their sincerity or bull. I listen to my gut a lot too. It twists often and that speaks volumes to me. I never look forward to this time of year.

    Ha! When I first read ‘spin doctor’ the first thing that came to mind was a dj in a night club. LOL! DJ Spin Doctor! Hahaha

    • You’re dead right. I think the best way to listen to a politician is with the TV on mute. Eyes and body language sometimes paints quite a different picture. Cleopatra deliberately positioned herself in different guises to different people – it’s interesting to see how contemporary politicians do the very same thing. The more things change, the more they stay the same!

  3. “Can you get the donkeys so I can run my bath?” Great caption.
    The femme fatale stuff is propaganda? Fascinating.

    • What is fascinating to me Sara is how propaganda sticks. Augustus made her out to be a femme fatale to get at Marc Anthony, and two thousand years later film makers are sticking with the story. I do like the story about her sleeping with crocodiles though – that showed real imagination. If you make love to a crocodile you’d better make it snappy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s