The History of Antony and Cleopatra

Historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s Antony and Cleopatra was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. In his book, he debunked their story of all the frills it had accumulated through the centuries and got down to available facts.

If you ever wondered what really happened to Antony and Cleopatra, this book might be as near to the truth as you might get. Goldsworthy went back to the oldest available sources; he analysed and dissected them to the point where even they show up as untrustworthy. The result is a no nonsense account of a political alliance.

Stripped down to human size, Antony shows up as the competent if unexceptional military leader he was, while Cleopatra tried to preserve Egypt’s part independence from Rome and her personal tax income. There was no trace of the star struck queen who lost her kingdom for love; quite contrariwise, she had chosen the two most powerful men of her time to make her the most powerful woman alive. She failed, though.

Cleopatra was queen of Egypt at the sufferance of Rome and that together with first one and then the other of her brothers. Her family history showed that personal survival was synonymous with political power; her forbears had murdered brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers to consolidate power. Cleopatra was a chip of the old block.

Indeed, in the long line of Greek Pharaohs in the line of Ptolemy Goldsworthy’s book is an excellent guide through the muddle. He tried and mostly succeeded in making sense of all the conflicting information on parentage, murder, deposition, and deception that led up to Cleopatra’s reign. With all the help, don’t worry about still getting lost if you don’t have the list handy.

Antony on the other hand came from an old Plebeian family and entered into a triumvirate with the aristocratic Lepidus and social upstart Octavian. The power sharing soon conflicted with the ambitions of the members. After Lepidus was eliminated, it was time for the other two to face off in a decider. Antony lost and committed suicide, and Cleopatra would follow suit once she found that she was unable to negotiate with Octavian (later Augustus).

Cleopatra was a goddess in Egypt and the receptacle of all fears of a monarchy in Rome. Antony on the other hand had rock star status in Rome. It is easy to see why Octavian used the entanglement of Antony with Cleopatra to discredit him with the Romans prior to eliminating him. He then had a further 40 years to make the most of the rumours he started. It is rather ironic that Octavian’s obsession with discrediting Antony has made legends of two people who would have been marginalized by history.

Goldsworthy keeps an extremely matter of fact tone throughout his book. He also shows nicely why ‘historical’ sources should be mistrusted for several reasons; Plutarch and Cassius Dio both wrote 100 to 200 years after the fact; even if they had access to firsthand accounts (which is not proven), these accounts are unknown and might have been nothing more than Octavian’s propaganda.

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  1. Posted August 21, 2010 at 10:37 am

    They should make a film about Cleopatra. ;-)

    One based on the facts were sure of would be different I think.

  2. Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Sounds like a great book. It’s interesting how history so often romanticizes a fact turning it into legend.

  3. Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Good one.


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