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Antony and Cleopatra
by Adrian Goldsworthy
Just last week I was alerted to a radio interview of Adrian Goldsworthy on NPR's Talk of the Nation: The True Story Of 'Antony And Cleopatra', which is accompanied by an excerpt from the book. Here is some of what he writes:
"The story of Antony and Cleopatra is one of love, but also one of politics, war and ambition. The actual events were intensely dramatic - hence the appeal to novelists, dramatists and screenwriters. Looking at the facts as far as we know or can confidently guess them only reinforces the drama. So does the acknowledgment of what we do not know, for many of the mysteries remain fascinating in themselves. A closer look at the truth exposes an episode of human history more remarkable than any invention. It may not be the story we expect, or even perhaps like to believe, but is one of lives lived intensely at a time when the world was changing profoundly."
"[Antony and Cleopatra] have always had a special place in my interest in the ancient past, and yet the desire to write about them is fairly recent. A lot has been written, most especially about the queen, and it seemed unlikely that there could be much more worth saying. Then, a few years ago, I fulfilled a long-held ambition by working on Caesar: The Life of a Colossus, which amongst other things involved looking in far more detail at his affair with Cleopatra, as well as Antony's political association with him."
"Some of what I found surprised me, and — though this was less unexpected — there were vast differences to the popular impression of the story. If it was valuable to look at Caesar's career with a straightforward chronology, and to emphasise the human element in his own behaviour and that of his associates and opponents, it soon became clear that most other aspects of the period would benefit from the same approach."
This approach also is a very careful one; as the author writes, "There is much we simply do not know about both Antony and Cleopatra — and indeed most other figures from this period. The gaps should not be filled by confident assertions drawn from the author's own mental picture of Cleopatra as she ought to have been."
I like the new (revived?) practice of writing about Ancient history for the general reader. Adrian Goldsworthy is a master of this genre, and "Antony and Cleopatra" does not disappoint.
The author advises his readers that this is not a history of Ancient Rome and Egypt but a biography, and that he will only relate those events that are directly related to the lives of the protagonists. However, he creates enough of an historical and social background to give the general reader a good understanding of where we are – and maybe an increased interest in the Ancient world per se. I have to admit that I tend to scan these kinds of overview such as in Chapters I and II, but in "Antony and Cleopatra" I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.
Mr. Goldsworthy's approach is very similar to the one he used in Caesar: Life of a Colossus. We are led chronologically through both lives and the related events. The list of chapters below gives an idea of the scope involved.
Chapters I through III introduce Egypt, the Ptolemies, and Rome to the reader down to the time of the respective births of Antony and Cleopatra; IV and V discuss their immediate ancestors, and then we get to their actual lives and the events they lived through. VI through XV cover the period from Antony's and Cleopatra's youth through her relationship with Caesar and his assassination in 44 BCE. There follows the struggle for Caesar's succession, the creation of the Triumvirate and the battle of Philippi ending another civil war, and in Chapter XX, "Dionysus and Aphrodite," the protagonists finally meet.
Mr. Goldsworthy from the outset tells us that Cleopatra was not really important in the big scheme of things, hers was a client kingdom and like all others not really fully independent. Antony was a Roman senator who contrary to what Plutarch says had very little military service beyond the civil wars, although he was a popular military leader. Indeed, though he acquitted himself admirably at Pharsalus, subsequently – and maybe even in Gaul earlier – Caesar employed him largely as an administrator. All this may have shaped his later military successes or the lack thereof. At Philippi, all four generals were equally inexperienced. Thus the Parthian campaign was in fact Antony's first real test, and it went disastrously wrong, which did not bear well for Actium, where he was indeed outmaneuvered all the way; and his leaving his troops tarnished his reputation with his contemporaries forever. Antony's career and the sources make it obvious that he was not a pleasant person and any idealistic view of the triumvir should be discarded: "At no point in his career did Antony suggest strong commitment to any particular reforms. All of his legislation as consul and triumvir was designed first and foremost to bring tangible advantage to himself and his close allies. He does not appear to have wanted to change the state, but simply to have as much power and wealth as possible. In this Antony's ambitions were highly traditional, even if his methods were extreme. The same could be said of many senators in the last decades of the Republic." Being an Antonius, from a prominent family, he would have considered such power his due.
Cleopatra similarly felt being exceptional, ruling over the largest kingdom in the Greco-Roman world, but she was dependent on Rome; actually, she may not have felt secure in the long run without the support of whoever served her best. Ptolemies more often than not killed each other, queens could not rule alone, and she even may have foreseen future threats from Caesarion and her other sons. Her father's example must have been constantly before her eyes. At no time was she ever a threat to Rome; this was Roman propaganda in order to hide what was actually another civil war. In Mr. Goldsworthy's view, Cleopatra and Caesar, and Cleopatra and Antony, needed each other politically at one point or other, more so of course on Cleopatra's side, but nonetheless mutual attraction and love seems to have been genuine for each pair.
Having said all this, the story of Antony and Cleopatra as portrayed here is no less fascinating than if they were the romantic characters their afterlife makes us believe. Mr. Goldsworthy's exhaustive examination of their lives and his easy writing style make them real life personae and fascinating characters. There is enough drama without the propaganda and the later inventions, from companionship, high living and pageantry to the final tragedy.
All battles, as comes easy to the author as a military historian, are treated in a thorough and informative fashion, with detailed examination of unknown factors and modern speculations. And generally speaking for the entire book, there is a constant and careful weighing of evidence, more important than ever in story that has become so corrupted through the ages.
All in all an excellent read, and one is surely looking forward to Mr. Goldsworthy's next project. The one negative I can see is the tendency to present earlier explored subjects as newly stated facts in another chapter, which makes chapters sometimes look like independent essays.
The book is nicely illustrated and has maps, battle diagrams, family trees, a glossary and a chronology.
I The Two Lands
II The 'She‑Wolf': Rome's Republic
III The Ptolemies
IV The Orator, the Spendthrift and the Pirates
V The Oboe Player
VII The Return of the King
IX 'The New Sibling‑Loving Gods'
XII Civil War
XIV Master of Horse
XV Not King, But Caesar
XVII 'One of Three'
XX Dionysus and Aphrodite
XXIII 'Lover of Her Fatherland'
XXIV 'India and Asia Tremble': The Grand Expedition
XXV Queen of Kings
XXVI 'Is She My Wife?'
XXIX 'A Fine Deed'
Conclusion: History and the Great Romance
And do not miss the radio interview!© 2010 Irene B. Hahn
Antony and Cleopatra
by Adrian Goldsworthy
Hardcover, 480 pages
Yale University Press 2010
List Price: U.S.$35.00
Also by Adrian Goldsworthy:
Articles & Essays by group members & friends
Roman History Reading Group