ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA,
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.