Friday, December 17, 2010

2010.12.44

Version at BMCR home site

Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. ix, 470. ISBN 9780300165340. $35.00.

Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University

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Adrian Goldsworthy is the author of an impressive stream of titles on Roman history that fall into the category of books that are sometimes unjustly disparaged as “popular.”1 I say “sometimes” because Goldsworthy’s topic is indeed one of the more popularized subjects in classics; the bibliography on Cleopatra is enormous, and it is rare for a year or two to go by without some new title on Egypt’s famous queen, many of them quite unsatisfactory or, at best, largely derivative of past work.2 Besides the market for Cleopatra books, there are her frequent appearances in film, television, and documentary.

It would almost seem that there is nothing new to say about her; insofar as there might be room for investigation, Antony’s career before he met her would seem to be the likely subject for a fresh examination of the evidence. Goldsworthy admirably succeeds in highlighting the “lost years” of Antony’s life, and in offering an appraisal of the extant sources on Cleopatra that provides much of interest both to students and scholars. Far from being a book that an expert on late Republican and early imperial Rome might dismiss as “popular,” Goldsworthy’s history should be considered essential reading for anyone interested in the rise of Octavian and the birth of the principate. Goldsworthy’s book is more history than biography, though the opening chapters imitate Plutarch’s parallel lives, as Antony’s Rome, Cleopatra’s Egypt, and the early lives of the famous pair are successively examined.

Goldsworthy’s book is written in engaging prose that flows with charm and flair. His prose talents are considerable. Admirably, the notes are heavy with citations from original sources. For those who want them, there are references to other secondary works on the period and the two main subjects in question, but the citations in no way overwhelm the reader or obscure Goldsworthy’s pursuit of the “truth” of what happened in Rome under the spell of the strange trinity of Antony, Octavian, and Cleopatra. For “truth” is Goldsworthy’s stated goal in the opening movements of this book. One of the truths that is revealed in its pages is at variance with much of the other “popular” work on the period: Cleopatra was not, in the final analysis, all that important – especially in comparison to Antony. Goldsworthy is blunt: “Whether we like it or not, Cleopatra was not really that important.” Even those who might be inclined to disagree with this conclusion can at least find in Goldsworthy’s pages a balance to the great mass of work on the famous pair that sees Antony as pawn of a manipulatively dangerous, seductively powerful queen – a view that is more a product of Augustan propaganda than sober reflection on the extant evidence. For Goldsworthy, “Cleopatra was more intelligent, and certainly far better educated, than Antony.” But ultimately she was not Roman.3 Goldsworthy quietly addresses two recurrent topics of ethnic controversy; his Cleopatra is Macedonian, which for Goldsworthy means she is “Greek,” and she is not African.

While readers of all levels can profit from Goldsworthy’s book, it has most use for undergraduate and graduate students of Roman history. This book, like its predecessors, is suitable for classroom use or even for students preparing for comprehensive examinations who are looking for a convenient overview of the period in question. Goldsworthy has almost created a new genre of classics/ancient history titles: works that comfortably inhabit a middle ground between the unscholarly and the hyper-scholarly.

Goldsworthy is especially careful to debunk false conclusions about Cleopatra in particular (his section on her appearance should be required reading in courses on women in antiquity). Goldsworthy’s plain, unadorned prose is both clear and challenging; he does not hesitate to declare, “that the obsession with Cleopatra’s looks is unusual, and not entirely healthy.” Goldsworthy also handles well the oft-repeated claim that Cleopatra certainly or at least probably knew Latin.

Antony’s ill-fated expedition to Parthia is one of the more difficult sections of Plutarch’s life, and Goldsworthy’s account is of particular value for its lucidity and comprehensiveness. Goldsworthy’s stated objective is to examine closely the crucial thirteen years from the death of Caesar to Actium; he is correct in his observation that courses on the period often gloss over these very full years, and his book goes a long way to correcting the omission. Goldsworthy shows a great command of the relevant bibliography; throughout his book, episodes that have traditionally received short shrift are given fuller attention and vice versa, even in those instances where the conclusion must be that the problem cannot be settled.4 In the case of some of the minor characters in the Antony and Cleopatra drama (Fulvia, Arsinoe), one realizes that Goldsworthy’s reticence is a result of the dearth of information we have. For throughout, Goldsworthy remains grounded in his sources, though always willing to make thought-provoking, controversial, plain statements of his views. Even when the evidence is scanty, Goldsworthy never prevaricates.

There is little if anything on Cleopatra’s depiction in Roman literature (there are some good notes on her appearance in Lucan and some stray references on relevant passages in Virgil, though nothing approaching sustained commentary). Such examination would have been welcome, though this is already a (necessarily) long book. An overview of the creation of Augustan propaganda (essentially the beginning of the popular treatment of Cleopatra that has endured to our day), however desirable, might be difficult to divorce from a larger consideration of Cleopatra’s post mortem image, a topic that has already been the subject of a considerable bibliography.5 The archaeological evidence is discussed in greater detail than the literary, with a frank assessment of what (often paltry) evidence we can glean from the available material.

Octavian is rather kept in the background for much of this volume; he is the next subject Goldsworthy is tackling, and throughout the present book there is a clear understanding that the Augustan principate that emerged was fashioned in part from the actions of Antony (especially) and Cleopatra. One might have wished for more attention to the surviving fragments of Antony’s anti-Octavian propaganda. Since Plutarch is one of our only sources for much of the material covered in this volume, some consideration of source criticism would have helped to ameliorate the impression one sometimes has in “popular” histories that one source is as good as another. Goldsworthy solves that problem by offering his own cogent and sensible appraisals of the evidence, which often means that the learned readily understand why certain conclusions are what they are; students might need some guidance.

Maps appear throughout the text; at the center of the (beautifully produced) volume there is a collection of color illustrations of artwork and relevant archaeological sites. The schemata of the battles of Pharsalus and Philippi are among the clearest illustrations of those engagements I have seen; there is a similar illustration for Actium (Goldsworthy’s description of the battle is wonderfully lucid, especially given that it is no easy task to attempt to describe exactly what happened on that autumn day). There are family trees and a chronology; these are of great use (particularly the former); a (selective) glossary is also provided. The headwords for the index are especially detailed.

By the end of this book, the reader is left with the sense that Antony and Cleopatra are both still ghostly enigmas. This is less the result of any failure on Goldsworthy’s part than the consequence of the truly unsatisfactory nature of our evidence. In the absence of new discoveries, Goldsworthy’s appraisal may well represent the best we can do.

Goldsworthy is to be congratulated for a fine addition to a seemingly bloated bibliography; we now await his forthcoming work on Augustus. Yale University Press is to be commended for producing Goldsworthy’s recent titles in this important field of scholarly “popular” ancient history. The present volume is really a sequel to Goldsworthy’s Caesar, and it will be good to see an Augustus as the last volume in a trilogy.

1. Note especially the recent Caesar: The Life of a Colossus, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, and How Rome Fell, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
2. Both title and subtitle of Preston’s Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World, New York: Walker & Company, 2009, reveal the emphases of much of the competition for Goldsworthy’s book in the “popular” market: very little on Antony, and sensational on Cleopatra.
3. Goldsworthy’s Cleopatra is Antony’s intellectual superior, though possibly Caesar and Augustus’ inferior: “Cleopatra was clever and well-educated, but unlike Caesar and Augustus the nature of her intelligence remains elusive, and it is very hard to see how her mind worked or fairly assess her intellect.” (p. 4). Most of Goldsworthy’s conclusions about Cleopatra’s intellectual prowess comes from comparison with Antony, where she comes off as significantly more gifted.
4. A good example of Goldsworthy’s relationship to his predecessors is his admirable coverage of Cleopatra’s end, where “just the facts” are clearly stated, together with brief commentary. Here and throughout, the reader will not find page after page that reaches exactly the same or almost the same conclusion as every other writer on the topic.
5. See, for example, Wyke, Maria, Caesar: A Life in Western Culture, London: Granta Books, 2007, which offers a scholar’s examination of Cleopatra in film and other media.

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