Sunday, August 15, 2010

Goldsworthy, Weidenfeld and Nicolson: ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

Peter Jones reviews
by Adrian Goldsworthy, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 470pp £25

From The Tablet, August 14 2010

The main problem for the historian, as Goldsworthy observes, is that the story of Antony and Cleopatra is squeezed between two towering figures: Julius Caesar on the one side, and on the other, Caesar’s callow, nineteen year old successor Octavian who would, as a result of his civil war against Antony and Cleopatra, emerge as the first Roman emperor Augustus. It is easy to forget Cleopatra’s inherent problems in Egypt, and the importance of Antony himself as a major player in Roman politics.

Further, as Goldsworthy rightly insists, Octavian vs. A-C was not a case of honest, noble Roman vs. sex- and drink-crazed foreigners. Certainly, that is the way Octavian tried to spin it, significantly declaring war (when it came in 32 BC) on Cleopatra, but not Antony. But Cleopatra was in fact a loyal Roman ally, and Antony was supported—we are told—by 300 out of 1,000 senators. It was a civil, not a foreign, war.

Antony (born 83 BC) was a distant relative of Julius Caesar, and grew up at a time when the Republic was falling apart: force prevailed, it was every man for himself, the prize to the most powerful. Antony learned his lesson well. After a wild youth and some useful military service out East, Antony joined Caesar in Gaul c. 54 BC. Caesar was renowned for his generosity to his soldiers, and Antony was heavily in debt. From now on he climbed the political ladder as Caesar’s man.

Cleopatra VII, Greek through and through, was born in 69 BC into a collapsing, but still fantastically wealthy, kingdom. Her family, stretching back some 250 years when Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals, first took over Egypt, were incestuous autocrats, punctuating the years with spells of murderous infighting. They were never afraid to seek foreign help to retain power; indeed, Ptolemy X had already bequeathed Egypt to Rome in his will (!), but Romans had reacted cautiously. Egypt was no threat, nor on their radar. But money talks, and in 59 BC Ptolemy XII paid Pompey and Caesar the equivalent of billions to make Egypt an official ‘friend and ally’.

Cleopatra became queen at 19 in 51 BC. She too desperately needed the Roman connection even to stay alive, let alone remain in power. In 48 BC Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt in pursuit of his (already murdered) rival Pompey. Problem solved.

But not for long. When Caesar lodged her in Rome with their son Caesarion in 46 BC, she did not go down especially well (Cicero thought her a disdainful cow). After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, she returned to Egypt, there to reassert her authority again, partly with the judicious exterminations of rivals. But, as before, only Rome could keep her secure.

Antony, who must surely have met Cleopatra during Caesar’s dalliance, was now in the mix for power. Civil war loomed, but eventually he and Octavian reached agreement to share power. Ruthless massacres of political enemies (including Cicero) and seizure of assets to pay for the army ensued—a reign of terror—and Brutus and Cassius defeated at Philippi. After all this, the empire, especially the eastern half where much of the fighting had taken place, needed order and stability restored. Antony was delegated to the job. In 41 BC he summoned Cleopatra to do business. She knew her fate was in his hands. ‘The barge she sat in..’—and that was that.

Was it love? Lust in fancy dress? Simple expediency? Whatever it was, Antony needed Egypt’s wealth and therefore the queen’s loyalty as much she needed him. The rough, tough soldier, adored by his men, and the elegant, sophisticated queen, were now a couple, and despite Octavian’s best efforts to split them, that is how they remained.

But Antony lost it. His excessive demonstrations of political commitment to Cleopatra handed the political momentum to Octavian. Further, while Antony saw himself as a professional fighting man, in fact he was not experienced with large armies. He did not plan or prepare well, and was not quick on his feet when things went wrong. So when the break with Octavian finally occurred in 32 BC, there was to be only one winner.

After providing a clear, succinct background to events, Goldsworthy’s tactic is to weave the two stories into a single thread by moving seamlessly back and forth from Rome to Egypt. It works beautifully. His mastery of the sources is commendable, his historical judgement sure-footed and, as ever, he brings a winning lucidity to the description of often quite complex situations—the perfect accompaniment to any, especially Mediterranean, holiday.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Simon Price and Peter Thonemann: THE BIRTH OF CLASSICAL EUROPE

From The Sunday Telegraph August 8 2010

Peter Jones reviews THE BIRTH OF CLASSICAL EUROPE: A History from Troy to Augustine, By Simon Price and Peter Thonemann, Allen Lane 398pp £25

In a recent election broadcast from Arbroath in Scotland, it was pointed out that, for all its proud nationalistic history, the locals were far more interested in who would save their jobs than the fortunes of the SNP. In other words, a strong sense of history can be irrelevant to people’s sense of where their real needs and interests lie.

On the other hand, when one looks at the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is clear that no resolution will be reached until both sides agree to forget their history, both recent and ancient. Unshakeable convictions about ‘rights’ to territory, historically accurate or not, are at the very heart of the problem.

One of the major themes of Price-Thonemann’s account of the ‘birth’ of classical Europe is the extent to which these societies’ memories of their history (true or false) helped to create a ‘communal identity’. As the authors demonstrate in fascinating detail, Greek and Roman elites put an enormous amount of effort into calling up or re-inventing the past to suit the present. For example, after Cleisthenes invented democracy in Athens in 507 BC, Athenians soon began ascribing elements of it to an early (to us mythical) founding hero Theseus. In 196 BC, Lampsacus (a town near the Dardanelles) tried to strike up an alliance with Marseilles on entirely bogus claims to historical links with it (which is why historians were regularly members of diplomatic embassies). Both Greek and Roman elites were always harking back to the Trojan War. This invocation of the past is a defining feature of ancient elite mentality.

But it does raise the question how far such a ‘communal identity’ was anything more than simply an elite identity. For example, when the Persians defeated Roman armies in the 3rdC AD, they boasted that they were reliving the glories of their great kings Darius and Xerxes eight hundred years earlier. Price-Thonemann argue that this sort of political image-making ‘profoundly (my italics) shaped’ the Persian world. But in what way did it make an actual difference to anyone other than the elites who created it? Or bring classical Europe to ‘birth’?

Another major theme applies particularly to the Romans and asks how far they tried to impose their own identity on the vast empire they eventually came to control. The answer is: hardly at all.

Greek provinces in the East, rightly proud of the classical ‘glory that was Greece’, did not fully buy into the Roman way. Romans did nothing about it. They did not, for example, try to impose Latin.

In the West, provincials fell over themselves to sign up, quite unprompted, as the Latin-based Romance languages testify. When Roman moulded pottery became wildly popular, Gallic potters in a huge production centre in France started churning out imitations, signing themselves with Latin names (‘Felix’ and ‘Primus’) on their pots to prove their ‘authenticity’ when we know their Celtic names were Matugenos and Cintusmos.

The Aedui, a Gallic tribe, started Romanising their town almost immediately after Caesar’s conquest in the 50s BC. But c.15 BC they decided that was not good enough, moved twenty kilometres away to modern Autun, and constructed a complete ‘Roman’ town covering 200 hectares. No one told them to. It was their own decision.

And all the time this was going on, a sense was gradually developing of the differing identities that made the West ‘European’ but the East ‘Asian’, though in time both identities were submerged under the term ‘Roman’.

This is to scratch the surface of a book rich in illustrative details and examples of its themes from all over the ancient world, from medallions of Roman emperors excavated in the Mekong delta of south Vietnam to Danish burials full of high-class Roman imports.

But it must be stressed that it is not a text-book. While the account is told chronologically, there is little by way of strong narrative structure, and the authors seem determined to avoid the big set-pieces. There is, for example, little on Marathon or Thermopylae, the Peloponnesian War, Hannibal, or any but a handful of Roman emperors, let alone literature and the arts.

But for those who know the broad outlines of classical history, this controversial interpretation of what one might mean by the ‘birth’ of classical Europe contains much of very great interest on the themes with which it deals.