Anthony and Cleopatra is the last of seven novels, collectively called the Masters of Rome series, covering the end of the Roman Republic in all its twisted glory. The result of this herculean task, is a legacy of some of the best researched historical fiction of this time; meticulously covering politics, battles, people, religious rites, traditions, trade, architecture, etc. The best books of the series draw the reader in with fascinating characters, Machiavellian plots, and scintillating detail. The worst give the reader the sense of reading an entertaining history book. Which is not, necessarily, a bad thing. McCullough had intended to end the saga with The October Horse, but avid fans prevailed and she concluded with this novel, which shows the end of the Republic and beginning of Empire.
I found Anthony and Cleopatra to be one of the weaker books in the series, but still enjoyable. McCullough’s admiration for Caesar was evident in every book in which he appears. Now that he’s dead, she seems to have lost her inspiration. Octavian (Caesar’s heir and grand-nephew) is decidedly colder than Caesar, more cerebral; not good at battles, but superb at politics and manipulation. Agrippa, one of the more admirable and interesting characters, is his battle arm and sounding board; a loyal and shrewd friend who is popular with the people and the army. Although the book is titled Antony and Cleopatra, McCullough gives just as much ink to their rivals as to the titular characters. A good thing, because I knew less about their story.
Neither Antony, nor Cleopatra, come off well in this narrative. From early in the series Anthony is portrayed as brutish and limited; elevated only by his relationship with Caesar. In this story he is a depressive drunk, driven by his physical passions; an egoist with an over-inflated sense of entitlement and his own skills as a general. He’s easily manipulated by sycophants and beautiful women. Cleopatra is portrayed as the ultimate scheming Eastern monarch who uses her wealth and power to ensnare Antony with the sole purpose of using him to put her eldest son Caesarion (fathered by Caesar) on the throne of Rome; a throne which didn’t exist because Rome was still (in name) a republic. In this story, Cleopatra is robbed of any credit for her intelligence, political acumen, or many accomplishments as a ruler. Anything good is Caesar’s doing, anything wrong is hers. From pages 23-24 where we first meet Cleopatra:
"Chin on her hand, Cleopatra watched Caesarion as he bent over his wax tablets. Sosigenes at his right hand, supervising. Not that her son needed him; Caesarion was seldom wrong and never mistaken. The leaden weight of grief shifted in her chest, made her swallow painfully, to look at Caesar’s son was to look at Caesar, who at this age would have been Caesarion’s image: tall graceful, golden-haired, long bumpy nose, full humorous lips with delicate creases in their corners. Oh, Caesar, Caesar! How have I lived without you?…And always, she thought, I made the wrong decisions….Without Caesar to guide me, I proved myself a poor ruler."
McCullough tries to make up for the lack of suspense in this well-known story, by populating the book with dozens of secondary characters, exploring the twisted politics of all the various rulers, and providing wonderful and telling details that transport the reader to that faraway time and place. She is brilliant at showing us how people thought and acted in those times; their motivations, superstitions, the philosophy and culture that shaped their lives; and how different it was from our own. Unlike many novels of this time, the women don’t disappear. Not only Cleopatra, but Antony’s earlier wives come across as tough and shrewd. And where would Octavian be without his mate Livia or his sister Octavia? The misogyny of Roman men is a key element in the story and even blamed (to some extent) for the Antony’s downfall. Cleopatra was a female ruler with great power and wealth. Antony’s male Roman advisers resented her and ultimately defected. In the end, I wasn’t happy with the portrayal of Cleopatra, but McCullough’s version is well routed in the research and is true to her narrative.
In summary, I enjoyed the book, but not as much as the earlier ones. I have nothing but admiration for the McCullough’s accomplishment with this series, but some readers might find her writing tough going. For people who like a complicated story, multiple characters and meticulous details, I recommend the series. Reading from the beginning is best, but Antony and Cleopatra can stand on its own. If you want a more rounded take on Cleopatra, I’d recommend the biography Cleopatra: a Life by Stacy Schiff (reviewed here.)
The Masters of Rome series:
- The First Man in Rome (1990); The rise of General Marius, (110–100 BC)
- The Grass Crown (1991); Marius, Sulla and the Social War (97–86 BC)
- Fortune’s Favorites (1993); Sulla’s dictatorship, Caesar’s youth (83–69 BC)
- Caesar’s Women (1997); Caesar’ early politics in Rome (67–59 BC)
- Caesar (1998); Caesar in Gaul and the Civil War (54–48 BC)
- The October Horse (2002); Caesar in Egypt, his death and the Battle of Phillipi (48–41 BC)
- Antony and Cleopatra (2007); The second triumvirate and end of the republic (41–27 BC)
- Title: Antony and Cleopatra
- Author: Colleen McCullough
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2007
- Format: Hardback, 567 pgs. (also available in paperback, ebook and audio book)
- ISBN: 978-1-4165-5294-9
- Price: $26.95