Antony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy
Book Review by Philip Matyszak
The author remarked about this book 'everyone knows of Antony and Cleopatra, but they see the story as they think it should have been'. We know that story. It's the one from the theatre of Shakespeare, or Elizabeth Taylor's career-defining role in film. It's where the dashing and impetuous Antony is seduced by the decadent beauty of Cleopatra and ends up throwing the world away for love. 'The triple pillar of the world transform'd into a strumpet's fool' as Shakespeare himself puts it (with more than a little help from Plutarch). In the end the star-crossed lovers die tragically but heroically, leaving their cold, scheming nemesis with his victory.
Goldsworthy's Antony & Cleopatra is indeed a stirring tale of two lives lived intensely in dramatic times. But it is not the story which 'everyone already knows'. Instead Goldsworthy has meticulously gone back through the ancient sources and stripped away two thousand years of over-heated fantasy, bringing us perhaps as close to the true story as we are likely to get. The first part of the book deals with the separate lives of the young Antony and Cleopatra, and shuttles between Rome and Alexandria to weave the story into a single fabric. The pair only get to meet in chapter twenty of a twenty-nine chapter book. The book also contains a number of maps and photographs to illustrate the scenes of the action, some taken from the author's own photo collection. The final two plates are a pair of lurid artworks from the nineteenth century, a tongue-in-cheek salute to Cleopatra's colourful legend.
To let the narrative flow, Goldsworthy has put many of the technical details supporting his research into over seventy pages of appendices, index and bibliography at the end of the book. Since he expressly states that he is writing biography, the author only touches on the major events of the time insofar as they affected Antony and Cleopatra. Those unfamiliar with the period will therefore need to refer to the detailed timeline included on pp401 - 408. Even those very familiar with the period will find some of the author's conclusions intriguing, not least because they challenge assumptions which many have always taken for granted.
Let's start with Mark Antony, or Marcus Antonius, which is how his contemporaries knew him. Not much is left of the gallant commander once Goldsworthy has got through with him. The real Mark Antony was a Roman aristocrat, certain that his birth entitled him to a high position in the state. He would have bridled at the suggestion that he was Julius Caesar's inferior. As he saw it, Caesar was the older man who had therefore advanced further with his career. As any decent Roman should, Caesar included persons of 'quality' in his retinue, and such individuals should expect to rise in their turn to become equally brilliant.
The fact that Antony lacked the qualities to be another Caesar is made painfully clear through Goldsworthy's analysis. He points out that the 'gallant soldier' did not actually do much fighting in his early career. Antony's value to Caesar lay in the political clout of Antony's aristocratic name rather than any military ability he possessed. Caesar kept Antony in mainly administrative positions until he could put him somewhere really useful - on the Tribunes bench in Rome. Antony's greatest military triumph was at the battle of Phillipi against Caesar's assassins; but this victory was won by his veteran army fighting less experienced levies. When Antony did get to campaign against serious opposition, the Parthians handed him a beating. As to the 'gallant' part of Antony's description, Goldsworthy uses a number of ancient sources to show that his contemporaries regarded Antony as an uncultured boor with an inappropriate taste for wine, parties, loose women and freestyle vomiting.
However, Antony was a hard-headed politician and after Caesar's death he proved that he was competent enough to have got by in any but the extraordinary times he found himself in. Like Antony the soldier, Antony the politician was mediocre when the times demanded brilliance. When Antony did make bold moves on the military or political front, those moves were generally towards disaster.
And what of Cleopatra? The sultry seductress of the Nile gets second billing in this story, because, as Goldsworthy bluntly puts it 'she really was not that important'. Egypt was a client kingdom which had been under Roman domination for generations. In terms of the gigantic struggle being waged for control of the Roman empire, Egypt was a significant factor, but nowhere near a decisive one. And the queen herself was a careful politician, desperate to keep her crown since losing it would probably cost her life - just as contending for the throne had already cost the lives of rival members of Cleopatra's family.
We are told of the internecine and sometimes literally incestuous power struggles of the Egyptian court, and in the process something of the real Cleopatra appears. The decadent sybarite turns out to be a hands-on administrator with a talent for languages, who despite being somewhat plain-looking could fascinate by her charm and intelligence. It appears that Antony's lover was a socially-accomplished geek with necessarily homicidal tendencies.
As we might expect of a historian of Goldsworthy's calibre, the military side of this history is impressive. One of the treats of the book for the military enthusiast is Goldsworthy's handling of both Antony's Parthian campaign and the strange and puzzling battle of Actium. The aftermath of that battle, the focus of much drama in the ancient sources is handled more prosaically, and Goldsworthy suggests that far from being upset by Cleopatra's suicide, Octavian found it rather convenient.
The queen would have been a brilliant ornament to a Roman triumph, but something of a problem afterward. That Octavian did not have anything against Antony and Cleopatra personally is shown by the fact that the couple's children were well-cared for by the new regime. Killing the queen would not have helped the image Octavian was building as 'Augustus, father of the empire', so it was much better for Cleopatra to remove herself.
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Strangely enough, the Antony and Cleopatra who emerge from this book are in their own way just as fascinating as the semi-fictional star-crossed lovers of popular legend. And that this legend needs a corrective dose of reality is shown in the controversy surrounding the cinematic production of 'Cleopatra: a life' where some uninformed individuals have taken exception to the fact that the title role is not played by a black actress. Goldsworthy's account of the lives - and deaths - of history's most famous lovers will set the record straight on this and many other issues. Overall the book is another triumph for Goldsworthy, and one which neatly bridges the gap between his epic biography of Caesar, and the life of Augustus which he is currently writing.