“Fool! Don’t you see now that I could have poisoned you a hundred times had I been able to live without you.” Cleopatra
A summer vacation ritual of mine is to crack the covers of a couple of Shakespeare plays and read them aloud while enjoying a glass of vino on the deck. As I was reading ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, I began to wonder about the woman who captured the hearts of men, writers, artists and composers, and through her epic story, inspired them to create great works of art. The biographer Plutarch wrote: “Her beauty was not incomparable but the attraction of her person…joining with the charm of her conversation was something bewitching… Her voice was like an instrument of many strings.”
Graun: Tra le procelle assorto (Cesare e Cleopatra) Isabel Bayrakdarian; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Jeanne Lamon
Cleopatra was the last sovereign of the Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt since the death of Alexander the Great. She was born in 69 BC in Alexandria, Egypt. When she was 18, her father died and she was left with her 12 year old brother, Ptolemy XIII, to rule Egypt. There had been other siblings who would have inherited power, if they hadn’t all died, and in some cases, not a natural death! Egyptian laws of succession meant that she had no choice but to marry her brother Ptolemy, though it didn’t mean she had to like him! It was HER portrait on the Egyptian coins, not his. It was HER name on the official documents, not his. It was SHE who ruled this populous country.
The Original Soundtrack to the movie Cleopatra by Alex North
But this period of Cleopatra’s reign was long after Egypt’s ‘heyday’. Famine was rampant, and the mantle of world power had long since shifted to Rome. Rome was winning the battles and the wars and it would take a strong ruler to keep the Romans at bay – a ruler with a quick and shrewd mind, who spoke many languages, who was schooled in medicine, philosophy, literature and music. It would take a leader with a consuming thirst for power – a leader like Cleopatra. But Cleopatra’s dream of power would have to wait. Her ambitions had alienated some powerful court officials and they made sure the throne fell to her brother, and not to her. Cleopatra had to flee Alexandria to save her life. But on the horizon, accompanied by 300 legionnaires and 800 cavalry was none other that Julius Caesar. He thought he was bringing stability to the Egyptian capital, but that was before Julius Caesar met Cleopatra!
Miklós Rózsa ‘Overture & Praeludium’ from the Soundtrack to “Julius Caesar”
Cleopatra was on a mission. She wanted her throne back, and she knew that to get it she had to stay in Rome’s and Caesar’s good books. How could she win Caesar’s support if he didn’t know her? If her brothers or his supporters so much as saw her anywhere near him, she’d be dead. Cleopatra was never afraid of a battle, but this was not the time. She dispensed with armor and took instead, a carpet. Wearing little else, she had herself rolled into a carpet and smuggled directly into Caesar’s quarters. The gift of the carpet was a surprise to him, but not nearly as much as the delightful contents. Her unveiling was such a success that, shall we say, Caesar decided to leave other matters to wait and found good use for his new floor covering without wasting any time. The result was a new woman in the palace, a happier Caesar, and to the happy couple’s delight – a child to call their own.
Giulio Cesare In Egitto, HWV 17, Act III Scene 9: Caro! Bella! Piu Amabile Belta (Cleopatra, Cesare)Suzie Leblanc, (soprano) Daniel Taylor, (countertenor) Arion & Stephen Stubbs
When Julius Caesar returned to Rome, a four day celebration was held to celebrate his victories in battle. Cleopatra followed him. On Caesar’s orders a statue of gold was erected in her honour in the temple of Venus Genetrix. She lived in Caesar’s villa though many Romans didn’t approve of his new partner, Caesar’s wife for instance.
Here was the arrival of a harlot who publicly claimed her son Caesarion as Ceasar’s. The Republicans were fit to be tied with this foreign Queen who called herself a GOD. In 44 BC on the Ides of March, Caesar’s life came to an end. He was murdered as a result of a conspiracy set in motion by his Senators. With his death, Rome was in a state of unrest. Cleopatra knew she had to get home ASAP and reclaim her throne.
After the death of Julius Cesare, Rome’s dominions were governed by three men known as the Triumvirate – Antony, Octavian and Lepidus. While Rome was looking after their own affairs, Cleopatra never did lose sight of her dream – that her son Caesarion, whom she had with Julius Caesar, would one day rule over all. She would wait and in the meantime get Egypt’s affairs in order. It was much easier for her to govern Egypt while in Egypt. After all, not only was she head of state – she was a Goddess – the Goddess Isis. Her power was divine and her sacred instrument was the flute.
Claude Debussy Syrinx – Emmanuel Pahud, flute Directed by Stéphan Aubé
Cleopatra first met Mark Antony when she was 14 and he was stationed in Egypt as a young staff officer. She remembered him. And now she was no longer a green girl in her ‘salad days’ but a woman of 28 or 29 and very sure of her powers. Mark Antony sent for her in Tarsus. Here was the opportunity she was waiting for. He was one of three rulers of the great Roman Empire – why not convince Mark Antony to be one ruler, and she be his queen, and most importantly, that her son be their successor.
Talk about getting ready for a date. In 41 BC Cleopatra planned her trip to Tarsus most carefully. Antony whose head always turned for a beautiful face would certainly have taken more then a second look. Shakespeare Act 2 Scene 2:
“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made The water which they beat to follow faster, As amorous of their strokes. For her own person, It beggared all description: she did lie In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue, O’erpicturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature. On each side her Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids, With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, And what they undid did.”
Cleopatra and her Egypt cast their spells on the rough, roguish soldier. She was Isis and he was her Dionysus. Rome fumed at his behaviour. Imagine deserting his Roman wife Octavia, Octavian’s sister, marrying Cleopatra, having children with her, issuing coins with her head on one side and his on another.
Ludvig Norman – Antonius och Cleopatra – Ouverture, Op.57
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver, Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made The water which they beat to follow faster, As amorous of their strokes. For her own person, It beggar’d all description: she did lie In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue, O’erpicturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature: on each side her Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids, With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, And what they undid did.
- Cleopatra, the film that killed off big-budget epics (guardian.co.uk)
- ‘Cleopatra’: 25 Things You Didn’t Know About the Elizabeth Taylor Classic (news.moviefone.com)
- Cleopatra – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Liz Taylor and Richard Burton on the Set of ‘Cleopatra’: Rare and Classic Photos (life.time.com)