Friday, October 9, 2009

Review of the book Cleopatra and Anthony by Diana Preston

I was asked by the publisher to review Diana Preston’s book Cleopatra and Anthony and express my opinion on this non-fiction story of Rome and Egypt. Most everyone knows the tale of Octavian’s rival and his love affair with the Queen of Egypt, which followed her earlier affair with Julius Caesar, but there is much detail beneath the legend and the story told by Shakespeare.

Anthony, along with Lepidus and Octavian, became second triumvirs of Rome during the period between the fall of the Republic and the rise of Octavian as Caesar Augustus. After disposing of Lepidus, Octavian was ready to take on Anthony directly in a fight for control of Rome, and defeated him at the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C. Anthony, his spirit broken, committed suicide when he thought Cleopatra was dead. The Queen of the Nile, shrewd in her own right, had successfully used her personality and her body to help maintain the autonomy of Egypt and protect her family against the growing power of Rome. It was only when she realized that she would have no power over Octavian and would become a spectacle of ridicule that she decided to end her own life.

Diana Preston reverses the title and the roles of the Roman general and the Queen of Egypt – making her the strong, politically savvy ruler while Anthony plays the role as the frustrated, decadent general. This is certainly a twist on the old story, but probably appropriate because Cleopatra was more than a just a temptress and symbol of Egyptian excess. For most of history she has received credit only for seducing two famous Romans and not for her accomplishments as a politician. The book is successful in highlighting the activities of Cleopatra as she tries to hold her world together, much of the time abandoned by Anthony while he was married Octavian’s sister in an attempt to keep his relationship with Octavian intact.

What I don’t like about the book is the style. The writing has this staccato-like rhythm that rolls out fact after fact like a machine gun. We’re about to have the Battle of Actium so let’s talk about Roman ships and how their made. The calendar is mentioned and we launch into the Julian modifications. Events become the launching pad to digress into cultural detail that sits below the surface action. I was also put off by the number of references to the primary sources used by the author – too many “according to Appian” and “Plutarch states that”. It’s as if the author is concerned we won’t trust her facts so she feels the need to include copious references in the middle of the narrative.

My third complaint is about the use of vocabulary which includes modern words and colloquialisms rather than traditional wording. Here are a some examples.

“Too late, the sweating Romans realized they were under attack, dropped their spades, and grabbed their swords.”

“Cicero would sneeringly deride him as resembling a prizefighter.”

“Convinced that Anthony had not been a safe pair of hands, Caesar, for the moment at least, dropped him.”

This kind of narrative is jarring to me and seems out of place. Perhaps this style reflects a new kind of writing which combines historical narrative, techniques of the novel, and popular culture. If others like the style that’s fine. I guess I’m just old fashioned.

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