Peter Jones,The Sunday Telegraph, October 28 2007
It would appear quite remarkable that, as Southern points out, no one since the bard has thought to narrate the story of Antony and Cleopatra together, until she chose to do so – and even the bard staged it. It would surely have made a cracking tale: Antony, close ally of Julius Caesar, who became the bitter enemy of Caesar’s appointed successor the young Octavian, and his lover Cleopatra, the bewitching last ruler of Greek Egypt (probably without an ounce of Egyptian blood in her). Defeated by Octavian at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, the pair committed suicide a year later, he before Octavian ever got to them, she when it became clear that Octavian wanted her to live only so that he could show her off at his triumph.
But is it so surprising? Shakespeare and subsequent film-makers, under no obligation to show the slightest interest in history, saw in the story an irresistible ‘tragedy’ of true lurve, perfect subject matter for stage and screen - exotic costumes, buckets of blood, forests of manly knees.
But for the historian, lurve is a tricky subject to handle anyway, especially when the lovers’ affair was the subject of such powerful political spin from Octavian’s propaganda machine. Further, our sources provide no evidence (bar post eventum speculation) of any secret blossoming between Antony and Cleopatra when Julius Caesar was having his way with the Egyptian queen from 48BC to his death in 44BC (indeed, the sources barely mention them together at all).
It is only in 41 BC that the relationship explodes in a vast sundae of schmaltz when the two meet in Cleopatra’s royal barge in southern Turkey, and for the same reasons as Caesar’s liaison: both needed the fabulously wealthy Egypt under their own thumbs, while Cleopatra saw the advantages of having mighty Rome on her side.
Finally, it is the consequences of the affair that are so important – the end of the Roman republic and emergence of Octavian as Augustus, first emperor of the Roman world. To focus simply on the relationship between the two lovers is to miss the wood for the trees.
Southern’s biography of the couple rather makes the point. She has already written on them separately and this combined biography, which uses a lot of material from her earlier books anyway, does not open up any new angle. Nevertheless, if one wants a combined biography, this detailed and lively read will do very well.
It made me ponder the question: what if Antony had won? Augustus was not the greatest bundle of fun, a dour, characterless man of reptilian cunning; Antony an altogether sunnier figure, a superb leader of men, all parties and hangovers. Not a million miles, in fact, from the candidates duelling over the hand of the gorgeous Lady London in the forthcoming mayoral election …so perhaps we may soon find out.