I’ve been a fan of Adrian Goldsworthy’s since his How Rome Fell so impressed me with its amazing scholarship. Now, Goldsworthy tackles another ancient Roman subject that has teased the imagination of the public for generations: Antony and Cleopatra. For most of us, Cleopatra looks like Elizabeth Taylor; that movie is the extent of most common knowledge of the two ancient lovers. I have no idea how historically accurate the movie was (at least compared to the scholarship at the time of its production), but I’d be willing to guess that there is a lot in Goldsworthy’s book that people not particularly interested in history don’t know.
As with How Rome Fell (the author is best known for Caesar: Life of a Colossus), the depth of Goldsworthy’s research is remarkable. He covers not just the lives of these two players but also the Roman world in which they grew up, along with a brief history of their families - the Ptolemaic royal family descended from Alexander the Great and that resulted in Cleopatra’s family line, and of Antony’s well-known aristocratic family.
Little is known about either childhood, but he gives us what he can, clearly noting where something is supported by historical document or whether it’s suggested or inferred from what is known of the time period. Where supposition and speculation are involved, Goldsworthy never presents it as fact but as differing theories. It’s interesting to explore these historical gray areas, but I like a historian who will present his view while not averring that his view is obvious fact.
For example, some people consider Cleopatra as almost a tramp, a purely sexual figure (perhaps because of the image the movie presents), but Goldsworthy makes a strong case for the theory that Caesar and Antony were her only two lovers, and that their relationships involved love as well as political gamesmanship. Caesar and Antony were the most powerful men of their age (Antony rose in prominence after Caesar’s assassination), and Cleopatra realized that tiny Egypt could be easily absorbed by the burgeoning Roman Empire if she didn’t enlist Roman aid. Yet Goldsworthy feels that their history is more than just that.
Antony and Cleopatra thoroughly details the history of these two lovers as well as the political machinations of at the time. Civil wars were breaking out in Rome throughout Antony’s lifetime as ambitious men vied for power, and Antony became part of a trio of leaders with Octavian and Lepidus (a truly minor figure compared to the other two men) that was designed to end the conflicts. Instead, it precipitated Antony’s downfall in the eventual face-off against each other for ultimate power. Antony and Cleopatra’s decline is almost poignant in Goldsworthy’s telling, even as he dispels some myths about her death - as well as pointing out which other legends may or may not be true. For example, snakes or their poison may have been involved, but it’s highly unlikely that an asp bit her on the breast.
One thing I missed (and maybe it wasn’t included due to the fact that little information is available) is how Cleopatra could spend so much time away from Egypt and still run things. She spent months with Antony in Greece and months with Caesar in Rome, yet there’s no indication that the Egyptians even missed her. Perhaps Goldsworthy avoids the subject because there is no way to know what happened, or perhaps it’s the same as when any Roman Emperor spent his entire reign on the field of battle. Either way, I would have liked to have known more.
Antony and Cleopatra is well-documented, with numerous notes in the back of the book for each chapter (probably my favorite notation system, considering the fact that nobody seems to use footnotes anymore). Goldsworthy utilizes many sources, both original and secondary, making this an admirably detailed account. Goldsworthy covers all aspects of the lives of these two prominent people, from the personal and political machinations between them to the attempted military exploits of Antony as he tried (and failed) to demonstrate to the Roman people that he was a competent general.
Antony and Cleopatra is an excellent historical overview of their lives that may help put into perspective some of the pop culture images we hold of these two tragic figures. It’s also a fascinating read.