Book Review by Ursus
Antony and Cleopatra: the world’s greatest pair of historic lovers, an evil temptress and a love-struck drunkard doomed to defeat. Or so we think. Our sources on these individuals were written in the wake of their defeat at the hands of an implacable enemy.
Shakespeare’s famous play then ennobled the tale into a literary romance that resonated throughout Western literature. Patricia Southern tries to cut through these centuries of hype and alleged slander by offering, in her view, a more impartial assessment of the Late Republic’s most infamous lovers.
Southern studied history and archaeology at the University of London. She is the author of The Roman Army: a Social and Institutional History and The Roman Empire: From Severus to Constantine, as well as biographies on Caesar and Augustus. She is currently working on a major new Roman History for Tempus Publishing.
Southern had previously written separate biographies of both Marc Antony and Cleopatra. Since the later lives of these two individuals overlap to a great degree (insofar as the primary sources are concerned), Southern's publisher offered the reasonable suggestion that the stories of the two individuals be combined in one volume. Southern asserts such a dual biography is the only of its kind since Shakespeare wrote his famous play. As far as I know this assertion is true, but how much an achievement it may be is open to question. Having read Southern's biography on Cleopatra, I can tell you entire passages from that book have simply been transposed word for word to this volume, and I suspect the same is true of her biography on Antony. This means if you have read both of Southern's previous biographies, you probably have no need of reading this work.
However, Southern claims in her preface that the book is directed to those who have little exposure to these two towering figures. The book is intended as an introduction to their history and the sources whence they are derived. The author admonishes us that the sources on Cleopatra are relatively scarce, and the sources on both are biased. She attempts to portray both in as balanced a light as possible, rescuing them from hostile Augustan propaganda and Ciceronian tirades.
The work begins with a short introduction on the Roman political landscape as it existed in the late Republic. The next two chapters detail the respective upbringings of Antony and Cleopatra from childhood to 47 BCE. From there the story picks up pace as the two figures are united by their connection to Caesar and the politics of the late Republic. What follows then are essentially the tale of the civil war and the conquest of Egypt as seen from the eyes of these two protagonists. Other individuals that figure prominently are, as you might have guessed, Octavian, Cicero, Marcus Lepidus and Sextus Pompei.
In the author's reckoning, Antony was a capable soldier and fair administrator. He was certainly someone invested with a zeal for life, betrayed by his appetites for food, drink and women. He was also an emotional man, at least in comparison to the cold and calculating Octavian. However, Southern does not see these qualities as constituting vices that impeded Antony's effectiveness as a Roman statesman, at least not until the dismal aftermath of Actium rendered his situation hopeless.
Antony's early military escapades in Syria, Egypt and Gaul speak of daring. His assumption of power in the immediate wake of Caesar's assassination was both restrained and level-headed. His organization and administration of the East was done with equity and strategic foresight. Even his invasion of Parthia, though disastrous in the end, was well planned. In short, Southern claims his alleged deficiencies have no basis and are the result of one of history's most successful character assassinations. His greatest strategic mistake from which he never recovered was allowing Antony access to the entire Western half of the empire with its potential for military recruitment.
Cleopatra does not seem to have been the physical beauty of legend. She was nonetheless possessed of a remarkable intelligence and charm (and, so it was said, a golden voice). Cleopatra could be ruthless at times, but her upbringing in the murderous Ptolemaic regime could hardly have inspired her to be otherwise. To her credit, she was the only Ptolemy that deigned to learn the native Egyptian language. Southern doubts the Augustan propaganda that Cleopatra had as her goal world domination and the destruction of Rome. She merely wanted a strong Egypt, a secure throne, and a promising future for her children. In short she wanted to return to the heyday of Ptolemaic Egypt. It was only Rome's ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, coupled with Ptolemaic debts to Roman moneylenders, that brought her into conflict with the city on the Tiber.
Southern sees the relationship between the two individuals as one of equals, mixing both romance and politics. Cleopatra offered Antony the wealth of Egypt and a secure base in the East. Antony offered Cleopatra Roman legions and political clout. While Antony may have loved Cleopatra, Southern does not see him as a love struck fool bewitched by an evil temptress. Antony was a Roman statesman in full control of his emotions and quite willing to deny Cleopatra's requests when they were unreasonable. In the author's view, Antony and Cleopatra were simply a great match for each other on a variety of levels.
Southern's prose is quite suited to the general reader: intelligent and lucid without academic pretension. She even makes a few witty quips here and there. She carries the biographies along at an exciting but informative pace. There are twenty pages of notes in the back of the book helping to elucidate key data. There is also a note on the sources, and a bibliography of ancient and modern works on the individuals studied. Eight pages in the middle of the book offer maps, photos, and replicas of coins from antiquity. There is however one negative element that is unforgivable: editing errors. Many words and sentences are crammed together unnaturally, thus detracting from the book's readability. It is as though this book was rushed through production for the market. One hopes the mistakes will be corrected for the paperbook version.
In short, Southern offers a readable assessment of Antony and Cleopatra for those who have little scholarly exposure to them. I recommend it on that level. In the final analysis, one has to decide for oneself whether or not to buy this revision of these two figures. I feel at times the author is too kind to their motives, and too willing to explain away their vices as slander. After all, with the wealth of the East in their hands, Antony and Cleopatra had a very reasonable chance of overthrowing Octavian and ruling a new empire from Alexandria. But they lost, and history will never be kind to losers.