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HISTORY

A Queen for the Ages

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 3, 2009

CLEOPATRA AND ANTONY

Power, Love, and Politics in the Ancient World

This Story

By Diana Preston

Walker. 333 pp. $26

More than two millennia after it took place, the story of Cleopatra has lost none of its grip on the world's imagination. It has inspired great plays (Shakespeare, Shaw and Sardou), novels, poems, movies (Elizabeth Taylor!), works of art, musical compositions both serious (Handel and Samuel Barber) and silly ("Comin' Atcha," by Cleopatra), and of course histories and biographies. Yet for all this rich documentation and interpretation, it remains at least as much legend and mystery as historical record, which has allowed everyone who tells it to play his or her own variations on the many themes it embraces.

The latest to take it on is Diana Preston, a British writer of popular history. On the evidence of "Cleopatra and Antony," I'd say she's a thoroughgoing pro. Her research is careful and deep; her prose is lively and graceful; her sympathy for her central character is strong but wholly without sentimentality; her depiction of the worlds in which Cleopatra lived is detailed, textured and evocative. If there is a better book about Cleopatra for today's reader, I don't know what it is.

She calls her book "Cleopatra and Antony," thus reversing the order as immortalized by Shakespeare. History and legend have usually given priority to the two great men in the Egyptian queen's life, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, but Preston argues that "Cleopatra perhaps deserves first place" because "her tenacity, vision and ambition would have been remarkable in any age but in a female ruler in the ancient world they were unique." She was "a charismatic, cultured, intelligent ruler," yet thanks to the propaganda put about by Octavian -- later the Emperor Augustus but in the fourth decade B.C. Mark Antony's rival for control of the Roman Empire -- she "was transformed into a pleasure-loving houri, the very epitome of fatal beauty and monstrous depravity, bent on bringing animal gods, barbarian decadence and despotism to the sacred halls of Rome's Capitol."

That, Preston persuasively insists, is "propaganda and myth," made all the more difficult to resolve because "the four main classical sources for Cleopatra and Antony -- Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian and Dio Cassius -- were writing respectively some 130, 140, 160 and 230 years after the lovers' death," and because as is "so often the case with ancient history in general and with so much of women's history of any but the most recent period, there are silences to be interpreted." At this task Preston is exceptionally skilled, indeed her interpretations are so subtle and nuanced that they repeatedly sound the proverbial ring of truth. When she tells us how "Cleopatra's mind must have been in turmoil" after the assassination of Caesar, because "she had lost both her main emotional bulwark and her political support," the reader believes her. When she tells us that after the Battle of Actium, in which Octavian turned back Mark Antony's forces and gained the upper hand in the fight for Rome, Antony "needed time, perhaps even a drink, to compose himself," we know she's right.

Cleopatra was 21 years old -- well educated, sophisticated, a virgin -- when Gaius Julius Caesar, "master of the Roman world," visited Alexandria in 48 B.C. She presented herself to him in one of history's most fabled moments -- she was clandestinely transported to his quarters in a rolled up carpet, then "extricated herself from the bag, uncoiling in fetching deshabille before the astonished and soon to be enamored Roman" -- and, Preston speculates, "the young Egyptian queen and the seasoned Roman general became lovers, probably that very night [with] Cleopatra surrendering her virginity in a calculated act to secure her future."

Cleopatra "was probably not conventionally beautiful," but, according to Plutarch, "her presence exerted an inevitable fascination, and her physical attractions, combined with the persuasive charm of her conversation and the aura she sometimes projected around herself in company did have a certain ability to stimulate others." Certainly she stimulated Caesar, who was three decades her senior but became her lover and protector and, soon enough, the father of the son whom she called Caesarion.

Then Caesar was dead, murdered in the Senate on the Ides of March, 44 B.C. Cleopatra managed to safeguard her position in Egypt, at times ruthlessly, but her connection to Rome had been weakened, and she knew that she needed the empire's protection in a world endlessly at war. When, in 41 B.C., Mark Antony came to Tarsus, in what is now Turkey, Cleopatra ventured there to present herself to him. He was "Rome's most powerful general and politician in an age when it had become increasingly difficult to separate the one from the other." He was loved by his men "for his courage, judgment and stamina and also for his generosity," he had "an effortless charm," and he was strikingly handsome.

Cleopatra was 29 when she went to Tarsus, Antony was 40. That she wooed and won him out of cold self-interest is obvious, but their affair became one of history's greatest love stories: "They shared a hunger for life. Excess was for both Cleopatra and Antony a natural, joyful expression of that hunger -- whether making love night and day, feasting on impossible rarities, giving each other fabulous gifts or just playing the fool. Their appetites were well matched, their ambitions on a similarly grand scale, and instinctively they responded to one another. Nobody else would ever be as close to either of them as they would become to the other, although the mutual realization of that truth still lay some way in the future."

Everyone knows the rest of the story. The love affair produced twins, a boy and a girl, and then another son. But Octavian, though some two decades younger than Antony, proved a formidable foe as these two members of the Roman Triumvirate struggled for command of the empire. Antony was the greater general, Octavian the more skilled (and less scrupulous) politician. Antony made numerous tactical errors at the great naval battle off Actium and went back to Egypt with his tail between his legs. Knowing that Octavian was about to triumph, refusing to put himself at his rival's mercy, he committed suicide. Cleopatra, shattered, quickly followed suit.

The story, Preston correctly observes, "offers many contemporary resonances -- the political and cultural tensions between East and West, the nature of empire, the exploitation of the Middle East's wealth, the concealment of personal ambition beneath the watchword of liberty, documents forged, edited or disposed of, special relationships established, constitutional forms and legal niceties both invoked and ignored, private lives exposed for political ends as well as cronyism and personal ambition. Above all, however, there are the passions of powerful leaders and their lasting impact on our imagination, our history and our culture." True enough, and reason enough to read "Cleopatra and Antony," but the chief reason is simple: It's a very good book.

yardleyj@washpost.com




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