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Antony & Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough

March 21, 2013

Today Carrie from The Mad Reviewer is guest-posting on Antony & Cleopatra.

Antony & Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough(Cover picture courtesy of eBooks by Sainsbury’s.)

Caesar is dead, and Rome is, again, divided. Lepidus has retreated to Africa, while Antony rules the opulent East, and Octavian claims the West, the heart of Rome, as his domain. Though this tense truce holds civil war at bay, Rome seems ripe for an emperor — a true Julian heir to lay claim to Caesar’s legacy. With the bearing of a hero, and the riches of the East at his disposal, Antony seems poised to take the prize. Like a true warrior-king, he is a seasoned general whose lust for power burns alongside a passion for women, feasts, and Chian wine. His rival, Octavian, seems a less convincing candidate: the slight, golden-haired boy is as controlled as Antony is indulgent and as cool-headed and clear-eyed as Antony is impulsive. Indeed, the two are well matched only in ambition.

And though politics and war are decidedly the provinces of men in ancient Rome, women are adept at using their wits and charms to gain influence outside their traditional sphere. Cleopatra, the ruthless, golden-eyed queen, welcomes Antony to her court and her bed but keeps her heart well guarded. A ruler first and a woman second, Cleopatra has but one desire: to place her child on his father, Julius Caesar’s, vacant throne. Octavian, too, has a strong woman by his side: his exquisite wife, raven-haired Livia Drusilla, who learns to wield quiet power to help her husband in his quest for ascendancy. As the plot races toward its inevitable conclusion — with battles on land and sea — conspiracy and murder, love and politics become irrevocably entwined.

McCullough’s knowledge of Roman history is detailed and extensive. Her masterful and meticulously researched narrative is filled with a cast of historical characters whose motives, passions, flaws, and insecurities are vividly imagined and expertly drawn. The grandeur of ancient Rome comes to life as a timeless human drama plays out against the dramatic backdrop of the Republic’s final days.

I have sort of mixed feelings about Antony & Cleopatra.  On one hand, it has amazing historical detail and Colleen McCullough has brought historical figures out of legend and made them real.  On the other hand, it would be difficult to read this book if you had no background in Roman history and there is a lot of telling rather than showing.

I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on Roman history, but I’m pretty sure that thanks to Mike Duncan and The History of Rome podcast I know more than the average person on the street.  However, even I had a hard time following all of the Roman names and little events that Colleen McCullough included in this sweeping, 700+ page novel.  Of course the main players like Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian get the most page time, but there are some very minor characters that get the spotlight as well.  And if you aren’t at all familiar with Roman history, all the names and events are going to seem like a bunch of tedious, completely unnecessary details.  Antony & Cleopatra is incredibly historically accurate, with Colleen McCullough filling in gaps in the historical record with plausible scenarios, but sometimes it is accurate at the expense of the story.

If you are familiar with Roman history and are a huge Caesarian or Antonian supporter, this book may shatter the image of your favourite horse, so to speak.  Octavian is power-hungry and politically savvy with a bit of a soft side for his beloved Livia Drusilla.  Antony is a great general but indulges too much in wine, thus allowing himself to be manipulated by Cleopatra.  Frankly, there are no incredibly flattering portrayals of, well…anyone.  But are the portrayals realistic?

Absolutely.

The main thing I personally had issues with was the telling instead of showing.  I didn’t really encounter that problem with the other Colleen McCullough book I read (The Song of Troy), but Antony & Cleopatra was full of author interjections.  It’s only kind of annoying to have an author show how Antony was being manipulated by Cleopatra using wine and his own personality faults, but to have the author interrupt the narrative to reiterate this point is most definitely annoying.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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