Cleopatra was of Greek descent and not a native Egyptian. She was the second daughter of King Ptolemy XII and the last sovereign of her dynasty, which had been founded by Alexander’s general, Ptolemy, in 326 BC. She came to power in 51 BC, at the age of seventeen, and was married to her youngest brother, Ptolemy XIII. He attempted to murder her and seize power for himself but she escaped and returned later to challenge his rule.
Neither Cleopatra nor Ptolemy could gain a decisive advantage until the Romans entered the picture. Cleopatra and Ptolemy’s struggle for power coincided with the Roman generals Pompey and Caesar’s own rivalry and, after his defeat at the battle of Pharsalus, Pompey fled to Egypt hoping to seek sanctuary.
Ptolemy miscalculated; he hoped to please Caesar by having Pompey beheaded, but Caesar was sickened by the dishonorable manner of Pompey death and sided with Cleopatra. Ptolemy then attacked the small Roman garrison on the Island of Pharos, intending to drive Caesar out of Egypt.
Caesar set fire to the Egyptian fleet in the harbor but the flames spread to the city and the great library, which held over a million unique books, the largest collection in the ancient world. It was destroyed, Ptolemy was drowned during the battle and Cleopatra became the undisputed ruler of Egypt.
Caesar was the dictator of Rome, and although Egypt was rich, Rome was a world military power. This fact wasn’t lost on Cleopatra, so she pursued the great man. For his part, Caesar needed money and Egypt could supply his needs. So, out of both a strong personal attraction and mutual interest, the two became lovers. Together, they sailed up the Nile visiting the ancient monuments, and Caesar was fascinated by ancient Egypt whose history was, at that time, over two thousand four hundred years older than Rome’s.
Cleopatra is a fascinating historical figure. She was the first of her family to learn the Egyptian language, she was the first human to be deified in a Roman temple and the last true Pharaoh of Egypt. Handel’s depiction of this time in Egypt is largely historically accurate. He wrote eight demanding arias for Cleopatra. In this production, each aria will be performed by a different soprano in this tribute to an extraordinary woman.
Cleopatra, Opera Projects Sydney
Saturday 27th of August at 7.30pm
Sunday 28th of August at 4pm
Sarah Ampil, Whitney Erickson, Joelene Griffith, Jessica Harper, Tessa Hayward, Angela Hogan, Panayiota Kalatzis, Sarah Kemeny, Daniela Leska, Nyssa Milligan, Elizabeth Smalley, Danita Weatherstone, Bernice Zandona
Historical accounts of Cleopatra tell of a beautiful, highly educated woman who was schooled in physics, alchemy, and astronomy, and could speak many languages. Her voice, said the Greek biographer Plutarch, “was like an instrument of many strings, which could pass from one language to another.”