Book review: Antony and Cleopatra

A&CAdrian Goldsworthy (1969) is primarily known for his authoritative publications on the Roman army. A few years ago, he switched to Roman history in general, with a special interest in political history. Since then, Goldsworthy has written a superb biography of Gaius Julius Caesar, Caesar: The Life of a Colossus (2006), as well as The Fall of the West (2009), about the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. He then wrote a series of historical novels set during the Napoleonic Wars, before returning to classical history in 2014, when he published Augustus: First Emperor of Rome. Antony & Cleopatra, the book I discuss here, focuses on one of the most famous love couples in history: Roman politician and soldier Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony, as he is usually called in English) and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen. Antony & Cleopatra is first of all a political history, which describes in detail the role which both protagonists played in the downfall of Ptolemaic Egypt and the collapse of the Roman Republic in the first century BCE. As a writer, Goldsworthy is often driven by a strong urge to debunk myths. And over the years quite a few myths have sprung up with regard to Marc Antony and Cleopatra. The two most important misconceptions dispelled by Goldsworthy in his book are the assumption that Cleopatra was a genuinely Egyptian queen and the thought that she played an important role in history. In fact, she wasn’t and she didn’t.

Cleopatra

Goldsworthy convincingly demonstrates that the way that Cleopatra is portrayed in films like Cleopatra (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor is completely historically inaccurate. Just by looking at her name we can easily tell that she was not a full-blooded Egyptian woman: Cleopatra was a descendant of Ptolemaios (Ptolemy), one Alexander the Great’s ablest generals. This Greco-Macedonian conqueror added Egypt, which had been ruled by the Persians for nearly two centuries, to his Empire in 332 BCE. The rulers of the Ptolemaic Empire, which by the way comprised more than just Egypt, were culturally Greek. The Greek aristocracy of Egypt and the native Egyptians seldom mixed. Some native Egyptians succeeded in obtaining high positions at the royal court and took on Greek names for themselves, however our sources clearly state that Cleopatra was the first ruler capable of speaking the native Egyptian language. This sole fact, however, does not make her Egyptian. She was a culturally thoroughly Greek queen of an Empire founded by a Greco-Macedonian general.

A priestess of Isis, personifying the province of Egypt (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

A priestess of Isis, personifying the province of Egypt (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

The second misconception is also thoroughly dealt with. Cleopatra is often seen as the heroic defender of Egypt’s liberty and independence against an aggressive and imperialist Rome. According to Goldsworthy, interpretations like these stem from our 20th and 21st century aversion to empires in general. After all, empires are tantamount to bloodshed, and quite a lot of it. Goldsworthy believes this aversion to be justified by today’s standards, but firmly states that it is not correct to judge the past by modern standards. In Cleopatra’s case, the judgment is moreover manifestly ill-founded, if only because her own dynasty emerged from the division of staunchly imperialistic Alexander the Great’s empire among his generals. Besides, Cleopatra herself displayed expansionist tendencies on more than one occasion and was quite willing to employ Roman military support for her own benefit. She used Julius Caesar to claim back her throne from her brother, but especially Marc Antony to reclaim lost territories and gain influence over regions such as Judaea. One important conclusion reached by Goldsworthy is that the Ptolemids of Egypt had become utterly dependent on Rome long before Cleopatra was born, both politically and militarily. Cleopatra was without a doubt a fascinating historical figure, but it simply cannot be argued that she was of great importance to the history of the world.

Marc Antony

Antony and his wife Octavia, sister of Caesar Octavian, on a coin (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Antony and his wife Octavia, sister of Caesar Octavian, on a coin (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Her lover Marc Antony is often depicted as a great general and a mediocre politician, who was completely spellbound by his Eastern queen and bowed to her every command. Goldsworthy argues that the first position – Antony was a great general – is hardly borne out by the available evidence. Antony performed reasonably well as a subordinate commander to more gifted generals like Julius Caesar, but often failed when he held commands of his own. An example of his failure is his ill-fated invasion of Media (in present-day Azerbaijan) during a campaign against the Parthians. And when he was in fact successful as a general, it was more often a case of luck. As a politician, on the other hand, Antony does not seem to have performed more poorly than many of his contemporaries. The simple fact is, Antony eventually lost the Civil War to Caesar Octavian, who went on to become the emperor Augustus. This explains why he is shown in bad light in the histories that were written under the auspices of the latter (which were later used as material for other histories etc.). Likewise, the fact that Antony was no friend of Cicero (to put it mildly), of whom some 800 letters survive, has hardly done his case any good. Goldsworthy in any case very much doubts whether Antony was truly Cleopatra’s puppet on a string. The simple truth is that she was much more dependent on him than vice versa.

Roman politics

Goldworthy dedicates a lot of space in his book to a detailed description of the competitiveness of Roman politics. Competition for high offices was extremely fierce, especially in the first century BCE and especially for the highest of offices: the consulship. In our own time, politicians are paid for performing their official duties, yet in Republican Rome it was exactly the opposite. A candidate for a certain office was expected to invest huge sums of money during his electoral campaign. The money was spent on canvassing and enticing key figures within the Roman electorate. There were in fact campaign financing rules. Some of these covered the crime of ambitus, which roughly translates as electoral corruption; our word ‘ambition’ is linguistically related to ambitus.

The Senate House on the Forum Romanum.

The Senate House on the Forum Romanum.

Both the winners and the losers usually ended up with huge debts. The winners therefore tried to win an assignment as governor of a rich province from the Senate, a position they could hold when their term of office as praetor or consul had ended. For the losers, open rebellion was sometimes the only option, for instance in the case of that other sworn enemy of Cicero, Catilina. Notwithstanding the fact that Marc Antony was in a way a victim of hostile and unfair propaganda, he was without a doubt known for his astronomic debts and extravagant lifestyle. Goldsworthy does not fail to point this out, paying a lot of attention to Antony’s mistress Cytheris for example. Many prominent Roman politicians had mistresses. These women were often highly educated, well-versed in poetry and music and usually quite knowledgeably with regard to Roman politics. They offered their lovers more than just sexual pleasure. In fact, the intellectual challenge they had in store was arguably far more important.

Conclusion

Antony and Cleopatra is a well-written book that captivates its reader from the first to the last page. Goldsworthy deserves a compliment for his approach, which tries to leave out emotions as much as possible. I do raise a few points of criticism. Goldsworthy’s description of Roman constitutional law is at times a bit sloppy. The book also contains a few factual errors and some dubious claims. On page 216, for instance, Goldsworthy states that Caesar Octavian’s birthday was in August (“Now the youth, who turned nineteen in August, was not simply Caesar, but the son of the Divine Julius”). Even though we remember Caesar Octavian as the emperor Augustus, the correct date is 23 September (he did die in August).

The claim that Brutus – one of the conspirators who killed Caesar – was originally engaged to Caesar’s daughter Julia, is, as far as I can tell, just that: a claim. There is no solid evidence to back it up, yet it is presented as hard fact rather than just a possibility. The captions of maps and pictures in the book regretfully contain many spelling errors, which is quite annoying. A picture of Cicero has a caption that states that the orator was responsible for the death of Antony’s stepfather Lepidus. This should of course be Lentulus (Sura). In spite of these shortcomings, I eagerly look forward to Goldsworthy’s next book.

This is a slightly adapted English translation of a review I wrote back in 2010. The original text in Dutch can be found here.

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