Now in Paperback: Antony and Cleopatra
Yale University Press, 2010
Stacy Schiff’s recent best-selling biography proved resoundingly that there’s life yet in Queen Cleopatra, but to read Adrian Goldsworthy’s Antony and Cleopatra (now out in paperback from Yale), Schiff could only do that by performing a little – or a lot – of historical sleight-of-hand. Goldsworthy has now written a small shelf of first-rate books concentrating on the ancient world, including his Caesar, which is one of those annoying books that somehow get better as time passes. In Antony and Cleopatra (an unavoidable postscript to Caesar, though fully enjoyable on its own), this most straightforward of our modern historians isn’t gentle with the Queen of the Nile – or with those (including Schiff?) who seek to enhance her significance to make it match her allure. While commenting on the fact that we possess no ancient biographies of the queen and only histories written in the wake of Rome’s victories over her, Goldsworthy is blunt:
There is a reason why this is so. Whether we like it or not, Cleopatra was not really that important. Her world was one utterly dominated by Rome, in which her kingdom had at best a precarious independence.
“Cleopatra only had importance in the wider world through her Roman lovers,” he continues, just in case anybody missed the point. His Cleopatra is well-educated, certainly, and he persists in calling her beautiful even though Plutarch says she wasn’t and her contemporary coins make her look like a harridan. But for Goldsworthy, the woman was a pawn playing a dangerous delaying game with many of the more powerful pieces on the board (until she encountered Octavian, a zealous bishop who didn’t confuse wanting what she had with wanting her) but possessing virtually no power herself. It’s an unfashionable interpretation that perhaps gives too little credit to the fact that Cleopatra managed to stay on her throne – borrowed or otherwise – for twenty years during which far more powerful warlords and intriguers lost their lives, and Goldsworthy’s pursuit of it leaves a bit of a dramatic vacancy in a book called Antony and Cleopatra.
The vacancy isn’t filled by the “Antony” part! Rather delightfully, our author seems to have no more patience for Mark Antony (his spelling) than he does for the glamorous queen. The standard interpretation of Caesar’s lieutenant as a hard-driving man of action derailed by his love of this exotic woman is familiar to readers from the two most famous dramatic representations of this story, Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra” and the Joseph Mankiewicz 1963 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But Goldsworthy has hardly finished pouring cold water all over Cleopatra than he gives her lover a good drenching too:
Antony was not a very good general, in spite of his own public image and the portrayal of him in our ancient sources and modern myth … He showed some skill as a politician and administrator, but had only limited ability as a soldier …
Again, one might quibble that compared to the majority of Roman politicians who strapped on breastplates and went campaigning, Antony possibly deserves more credit, but it would be hopeless. This book, like every book about this legendary pair (including some modern histories far less successful than this one), works in the shadow of Julius Caesar, against whose renown Antony can’t help but forever look second-rate (and against whose memory Cleopatra must forever seem disloyal). Goldsworthy is superb on marshalling the facts and making sometimes inspired suppositions in their absence, but since he’s already spent time writing about the most famous Roman of them all, he knows with easy resignation that sometimes historians don’t get the last word:
Neither Antony nor Cleopatra lived a quiet life. They will continue to fascinate, their story being retold and reinvented by each new generation. The same is almost as true of their most famous fictional portrayal, as new productions of Shakespeare’s play adopt different styles and presentations. Nothing any historian could say will ever stop this process, nor should it.
Even so, historians will have their say about all this high-drama stuff, sifting the latest evidence and positioning the latest research. Fans of the period and its foremost celebrity couple shouldn’t miss Goldsworthy’s book, now in a sturdy, elegant paperback – it’s one of the few genuinely interesting recent accounts, perhaps in large part because its two famous subjects would have hated it.