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Antony and Cleopatra

Published in History Today

Antony and Cleopatra
Adrian Goldsworthy
Orion   470pp   £25
ISBN 978 0297845676

As its title indicates, Adrian Goldsworthy’s book is a double biography focusing on the increasingly entwined lives of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Julius Caesar, who played such an important role in the lives of both and who is the subject of an earlier biography by Goldsworthy, features as a strong off-stage character.

The twin stories mean that there is a huge amount of potentially confusing background material to cover. The author manages this skilfully, switching from the Egyptian royal court at Alexandria to Rome and back again with consummate ease. For those unfamiliar with this context a set of family trees is provided making the complex relationships clear – in spite of the fact that almost everyone is called either Antonius/Antonia (Rome) or Ptolemy/Cleopatra (Alexandria). Also made clear is the important role of Alexandria as a Hellenistic, Greek-speaking city, so foreign to the native Egyptians that it was referred to as ‘Alexandria next to Egypt’.

Goldsworthy deliberately sets out to debunk the Cleopatra legend. He is, however, prepared to leave one myth intact, accepting with little supporting evidence that the queen was ‘certainly pretty and may have been beautiful’. From the outset he makes the point that Cleopatra and Mark Antony were neither particularly likable nor particularly successful. From the strict historian’s viewpoint this is indeed the case; dying after an ignominious defeat, they failed to change the world in any profound way. Yet together, as this well-written biography shows, the two failures have become more than the sum of their parts. They have been transformed into the world’s most famous lovers.

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