ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
By Adrian Goldsworthy
Yale University Press, $35, 480 pages
Antony and Cleopatra, the names conjure up a variety of images that include Roman military might, eastern decadence and a pair of tragic star-crossed lovers.
Some of that is actually accurate, but much of it is romanticized fiction. In his latest study of the Roman world, Adrian Goldsworthy takes on the task of separating truth from fiction, and he does a good job of it.
For those not familiar with the background story, the entire book revolves around the lead-up to the assassination of Julius Caesar and the ensuing struggle for his legacy. Marc Antony was one of Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants. Octavian Caesar was his nephew, adopted son and heir. Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, was Caesar’s mistress and bore him a son. All three started as allies in the struggle to avenge Caesar’s death and to wrest what was becoming the Roman Empire out of the hands of his killers.
Predictably, once this was accomplished, the victors fought over the spoils. Antony and Cleopatra, who had become lovers, were eventually defeated in the decisive battle of Actium. Antony committed suicide and Cleopatra followed him soon after. Shakespeare wrote a play about it. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made a movie in the 1960s that has probably done the most to cement our modern image of the Egyptian queen as the most beautiful woman of antiquity.
We know quite a bit about Marc Antony. As a scion of a prominent Roman family, his biography is well recorded. We know much less about Cleopatra. Even though she was the daughter of a king, the Egyptians of the time apparently did not consider the ancestry of women to merit documentation. We definitely know that she was not Egyptian; she was thoroughly Greek.
The Ptolemy dynasty was descended from one of the commanders of Alexander the Great whose empire was divided among his chief generals when he died. The Ptolemy family ruled Egypt, and not badly, until the reign of Cleopatra; she was the last of many queens descended from that family.
Antony became one of Caesar’s chief subordinates, but he was never a particularly good independent commander, and that eventually proved his ruin. However, he did prove to be a talented politician. He was physically brave and could be capable of tactical success under a competent commander, but he lost the two most critical battles of his career essentially through indolence.
In one instance, he retired from the field after apparently winning to enjoy the Roman equivalent of a “happy hour.” His defeated opponents rallied and destroyed the better part of his force. At the critical battle of Actium, he created the opportunity for Cleopatra to escape with her treasure at a point when the fight was in doubt. Rather than seeing the issue through, he fled in pursuit of his queen. His fortunes and reputation never recovered.
Cleopatra owed her grasp on the throne of Egypt to the Romans. Nevertheless, she ruled competently for two decades. She was no Elizabeth Taylor, but she had a combination of charm, force of personality and sexual attraction sufficient to seduce two of the most prominent male personalities of the late Roman republic.
Antony committed suicide as Octavian’s forces closed in on him, and Cleopatra followed. She is supposed to have had herself bitten by a poisonous snake. According to Mr. Goldsworthy’s well-documented account, Octavian made a real attempt to have her revived. This was likely because of his desire to retain her as a useful client, and this speaks well of her competence as a ruler.
Mr. Goldsworthy is a rising star on the historical scene and has a number of well-regarded books to his credit. This will likely add to his growing reputation. In the end, we probably find out more about Antony and Cleopatra than we need to know, but Mr. Goldsworthy is a first-class historian and that is, after all, his job. Antony would never have made a great leader. He was too self-absorbed and pleasure-prone. Octavian became the emperor Augustus and essentially ruled well for many years. The better man won.
In a previous book, Mr. Goldsworthy described Rome’s eventual decline and fall, and he blames the cumulative corrosive effects of civil war for much of Rome’s later misfortunes. This book chronicles the first wave of those disastrous conflicts. His cumulative work represents an ongoing cautionary tale.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who teaches at George Washington University’s Elliot School.