Cleopatra: The Last Pharaoh

More than two millennia after her death, Cleopatra VII remains an enigma and an object of fascination. The last Ptolemaic ruler of Hellenistic Egypt and the most influential woman of her times, Cleopatra amassed enormous wealth and power. She lived dangerously and died sensationally. Ever since, she has been an iconic figure, continually re-imagined through the cultural prisms of successive ages.

Presented with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute.

Friday, May 5, 7:30 – 9:30 pm

Cleopatra: The Last Pharaoh / Stacy Schiff. Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. She was married twice, each time to a brother: she waged a brutal civil war against the first and poisoned the second. She dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men—Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, with both of whom she had children. Famous long before she was notorious, she has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Even before the Roman intrigues she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their spectacular ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.

Performance: Cleopatra at the Opera: Excerpts from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Of the numerous operas inspired by Cleopatra’s life and legends, the arguably most successful is George Frideric Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) of 1724. Its heroine Cleopatra proves herself to be a multifaceted and fascinating character who uses her beauty, wit and wiles to seduce Caesar in order to gain power, but then falls in love with him. Together they combat her brother, the would-be Pharaoh Ptolemy, and win for her the throne of Egypt. Live performances of excerpts from the opera will bring alive this fabled love affair as viewed with Eighteenth-Century eyes. Introduced by Clifford (Kip) Cranna (SF Opera). Sara Duchovnay (soprano) and Mariya Kaganskaya (mezzo-soprano), accompanied by Steven Harmon (french horn) and Andrew Wang (piano).

Saturday, May 6, 10:00 am – noon and 1:30 – 4:00 pm

Cleopatra’s Alexandria / Grant Parker (Classics, Stanford). When she wasn’t being Caesar’s mistress or Antony’s wife, Cleopatra ruled Egypt for twenty-one years. She headed an enormous imperial bureaucracy that received and sent ambassadors from as far away as India, levied taxes, oversaw the harvest, sales, and distribution of cereal crops, built temples, and acted as high priestess in the sacred rituals of the Egyptians. Her capital city was Alexandria, the first city of the Mediterranean until the rise of Rome; the greatest center of learning (including mathematics and medicine) in the Western world; an entrepot for trade with India, Africa, the Levant and with Greece, Italy, Sicily and Spain. Ancient documents (one of which may even contain her signature) provide insights into how she negotiated the last years of her country’s independence.  

Cleopatra’s Mark on Rome / Lisa Pieraccini (Classics, UC Berkeley)The name Cleopatra conjures up much in the popular imagination today–a powerful Egyptian queen who was the lover and wife of two of Rome’s most famous leading men. She is known as the ruler of the east who combined her personal and public affairs with the west. But what do we really know about her relationships with Caesar, Mark Antony and the city of Rome? What happened to her children by both Caesar and Mark Antony? What artistic mark did she leave in Rome – the city that celebrated both her visit during the time of Julius Caesar as well as her death after the battle of Actium?

 Performance: Mark Antony and Cleopatra: A Chamber Cantata by Antonio Scarlatti. Among the countless composers who were attracted to the story of Cleopatra was the great master of the Italian Baroque Antonio Scarlatti (1660-1725). His brief chamber cantata Marc Antonio e Cleopatra gives us a glimpse of two famous rulers torn between their loving devotion and the call to battle to defeat their enemies. Tender sentiments mix with vocal acrobatics in this gem of a chamber duet inspired by history — and legend. Introduced by Kip Cranna. Two vocalists: Mariya Kaganskaya (mezzo-soprano), Sara Duchovnay (soprano), and Andrew Wang (piano).

Death Becomes Her: The Suicide of Cleopatra in Western Culture / Robert Gurval (Classics, UCLA) The suicide of Cleopatra has bequeathed to western culture one of the most famous and memorable death scenes in literature, drama and the visual arts of painting, sculpture and film. The traditional story derives chiefly from the rich narrative of Plutarch’s biography of Mark Antony. Its action is driven by multiple themes of deception, deliberation, and death. The climactic moment, of course, is the bite of the asp. Surveying the literary and visual representations of Cleopatra’s dramatic death, from Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women to the mini-series HBO Rome in the 21st century, this illustrated lecture will explore the potent symbolism of the suicide in classical antiquity and subsequent eras. It will try to answer the question whether her final act of dying by the serpent’s bite redeems Cleopatra and Death becomes Her.

Panel discussion with the lecturers

Download the postcard here: HW Cleopatra Postcard FINAL