Saturday, December 4, 2010

Adrian Goldsworthy's "Antony and Cleopatra"

Adrian Goldsworthy is a preeminent historian of the ancient world. The author of many books, including How Rome Fell, Caesar, The Roman Army at War, and In the Name of Rome, he lectures widely and consults on historical documentaries produced by the History Channel, National Geographic, and the BBC.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Antony and Cleopatra, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Antony and Cleopatra gives a good flavour of the book, in spite of the fact that it does not actually mention Cleopatra, because it reveals just how difficult and dangerous it was for a woman to rule Egypt. In 58 BC a palace coup chased her father, King Ptolemy XII, out of the kingdom and replaced him with his eldest daughter Berenice. The system made it impossible for a queen to rule without a male consort, and this prompted a desperate search for a husband among the decayed Hellenistic dynasties, for Cleopatra's family was Greek, both ethnically and culturally.
Finally, a man with the prestigious name of Seleucus and a very loose claim to royalty was brought to Alexandria and married to the queen. The robust Alexandrian sense of humour quickly nicknamed him ‘Salt-fish seller’. Berenice was equally unimpressed, and tolerated her new husband’s crude manner for just a few days before having him strangled. As a replacement her ministers now located a certain Archelaus, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of Mithridates of Pontus, but was actually the child of one of his generals. He too had been living in the Roman province of Syria, but was able to get away and went to Egypt. The new consort proved acceptable to Berenice.
In 56 BC Ptolemy XII's bribed a Roman governor to restore him to his throne by military force. Berenice was executed by her father. The most dangerous enemies for the Ptolemaic dynasty came from their own murderous family. Cleopatra had one brother killed by Caesar, poisoned her other brother, and persuaded Mark Antony to execute her last remaining sibling, a younger sister called Arsinoe. Only a member of the Ptolemaic family could rule their kingdom, but this also meant that any relation was a real or potential threat. Cleopatra was driven into exile in 49 BC, and would have remained there or been killed in her early twenties had Caesar not arrived.

Cleopatra and all her family relied on Roman support to keep them in power. Rome dominated the Mediterranean World, and Cleopatra never contemplated fighting against Rome. Her career was based around securing Roman backing, and it was no coincidence that her lovers were Caesar and Antony - in each case the most powerful man in the Roman Republic. The problem was that power at Rome kept shifting, and in the end Cleopatra fell when Antony was defeated. It was convenient for Octavian to portray this as a way against the 'evil' and eastern Cleopatra, but it was never anything other than a Roman civil war.

At the bottom of the page we read of Antony's first military experience at the age of twenty-six - very old for a Roman. Antony is remembered as a great soldier, and that was how his own propaganda portrayed him. The truth was very different. He spent little time with the army, and rose more through political opportunism and the prestige of his family. Antony was a poor general, and the failure of his attack on Parthia doomed him politically.
Read the Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra, and learn more about the book and author at Adrian Goldsworthy's website.

The Page 99 Test: How Rome Fell.

--Marshal Zeringue