Antony and Cleopatra

Peter Heather revels in the true story of a legendary classical romance

Antony and Cleopatra
Author: Adrian Goldsworthy
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Reviewed by: Peter Heather
Price (RRP): £25

Antony and Cleopatra are two of the most famous lovers of antiquity. Hence most of the readers of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Antony and Cleopatra will be coming to the book with intellectual baggage, even if they don’t know any Roman history.

In my case, as perhaps for many, that baggage is firmly Shakespearean, but this makes me exactly the kind of reader Goldsworthy has in mind. He wants to surprise his readers, taking us back to real historical personages in precise historical contexts.

For the most part he succeeds admirably in this beautifully illustrated investigation. The first surprise is that Cleopatra was not really Egyptian, but the offspring of a Macedonian dynasty founded by one of Alexander’s generals, which maintained much of its Greek identity in Alexandria, its Greek capital city, over two and a half centuries.

Goldsworthy tells this story of this dynasty with huge skill, successfully navigating the narratival rapids posed by the fact that almost every member of it was called Ptolemy, Cleopatra, or Arsinoe: all properly Macedonian names.

In all, it is an exotic family story of incest, greed, and assassination, whose collective impact is to prompt further surprise: that Cleopatra was not only beautiful but obviously smart. Why, after 250 years of sustained in-breeding, she didn’t dribble and have six fingers is completely beyond me.

Carefully interweaved into this extraordinary tale is another: the rise of Rome from tatty city state to a Mediterranean domination which reached its apogee under Julius Caesar, and the struggle for power that the dictator’s murder let loose. For this is the historical context to our lovers’ story: Antony and his rival Octavian being the last men standing in the savage civil wars which followed the Ides of March. 

All of these tales are well told, not only on the military front where Goldsworthy’s touch is sure (I don’t think his accounts of Antony’s successes and failures at Philippi and Actium could be bettered), but also when it comes to the love interest.

Here the task is harder because little survives at first hand (although a recently found papyrus may preserve Cleopatra’s autograph), and most of what we do have is history as written uncompromisingly by the victor: Octavian having every interest in portraying Antony as putty in the hands of a scheming foreign queen. 

Nonetheless, Goldsworthy does an excellent job of distilling all that you can of the unfolding love story, which produced three children (where are they in Shakespeare??), on whom – something which really startled me – Antony’s will proposed to settle most of the eastern Mediterranean so recently subdued by Roman force of arms. 

Within all this, a final level of surprise is how much of the myth is already there in the sources. Shakespeare’s “the barge she sat in” turns out to have its roots in Plutarch, while the personally bold, hard-living Antony who is strategically naïve but given to grand gestures – like challenging Octavian to single-combat – who emerges from Goldsworthy’s account will be entirely recognisable to readers of the bard.

Peter Heather is professor of history at King’s College London

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