Book Review: Antony and Cleopatra


by Adrian Goldsworthy

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 480+. Illus., maps, stemma, chron., gloss., notes, abbr. biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 030016534X

The Ancient World’s Most Famous Lovers 

Mark Antony and Cleopatra have long been the muses for poems, plays, and even films – most notably the iconic 1963 film Cleopatra – but this riveting book, written by the esteemed Classical historian Adrian Goldsworthy, is perhaps the definitive biography of the pair. Antony and Cleopatra is, however, much more than two biographies inter-meshed with each other; it is also a story of star-crossed dynasties, exploring the ascent of the Roman Republic and the fall of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. In challenging some common misconceptions about the title figures, their nations, and other contemporary leaders, Goldsworthy is able to present his own theses, which may alter public understanding of Antony and Cleopatra entirely, from highlighting the depravity and decline of Antony to revealing Octavian’s hidden respect for Cleopatra.

Goldsworthy prefaces the intertwined stories of Antony and Cleopatra with a few chapters on the rise of the Ptolemies in Egypt, where his first major challenge to existing perceptions occurs. Descended from the Graeco-Macedonian conqueror Ptolemy Soter (r. 305-282 BCE), the Ptolemaic pharaohs were culturally Greek, and Goldsworthy stresses that Egypt was anything but a syncretic society, despite Ptolemaic efforts to bind Egyptian and Greek religions together, such as with the cult of Serapis. This is where Goldsworthy’s first major thesis starts to develop: the impermanence of Ptolemaic rule. He devotes several chapters to explaining the de facto segregation of Greek and Egyptian societies in Ptolemaic Egypt, with the Greeks clustered around Alexandria and the cities of Lower Egypt (as well as some soldiers and landlords on cleruchies in other parts of the country), and the Egyptians continuing their ancient traditions from rural and Upper Egypt. This lack of unity manifested itself in the many civil wars and uprisings which Goldsworthy recounts in some detail. These conflicts not only foreshadowed the fall of the Ptolemaic dynasty, but also the intervention of the growing Mediterranean power, the Romans. Goldsworthy makes the important case that Ptolemaic Egypt was ultimately doomed to fail due to the lack of connection between the Egyptian peasants and their Greek overlords.

Goldsworthy then presents the reader with the Roman general Mark Antony, grandson of a murdered political dissident and the son of a failed general. Goldsworthy introduces the theory that Antony may have met Cleopatra when she was just fourteen years old, during Aulus Gabinius’ campaign in Egypt (55 BCE), suggesting that Antony had already known about Cleopatra before their famous meeting aboard Cleopatra’s luxurious galley at Tarsus in 41 BCE Goldsworthy also challenges the belief that Antony was a great general, as, although he was an able subordinate to the Proconsul of Syria Aulus Gabinius and to the famed triumvir and dictator Julius Caesar, he was unable to prove himself a great general when commanding an army. Even during his days as Caesar’s right-hand man, he proved unable to maintain order in Italy during the civil war with Pompey (49-48 BCE) , and he was without a job from 47 to 44 BCE. Goldsworthy also mentions Antony’s depravity (as a young man he ran up enormous debts in pursuit of wine and women) and lack of political instincts, notably as when he withheld Caesar’s estate from its heir, Octavian, creating a rivalry with a natural ally, which ultimately led to his undoing. Goldsworthy’s points pose a serious challenge to the canard that Cleopatra was a manipulative seductress who brought about the fall of a great Roman general. Antony had already known of Cleopatra, was hardly a great commander or politician, and – as an infamous drunkard – was never too far from falling from grace. Antony, albeit a Roman triumvir, was prepared to give over Rome’s eastern territories to Egypt upon his death, and wished to be buried as Cleopatra’s lover in Alexandria rather than as a great general in Rome.

Goldsworthy delivers one of his most potent challenges to the record when he observes that it is likely Octavian attempted to revive Cleopatra from her poisoning (whether by asp or other means), as he believed that she would be a useful client ruler due to her great ability and prestige in Egypt. That Octavian could show Cleopatra such respect supports the view that the queen’s successes were due to her own brilliance and skills as a ruler, rather than to any supposed manipulation of Antony.

In casting aside unfair depictions of Cleopatra as a master schemer and Antony as a tragic hero, Goldsworthy demonstrates that Cleopatra was the greater of the two, the first truly Egyptian queen (even learning the Egyptian language) since before the Persian conquest of Egypt, and a brilliant administrator, commanding the respect of people as powerful as Octavian. Antony and Cleopatra is very much worth a read for people who wish to learn more about history’s most famous lovers and business partners, and anyone who wishes to learn about the fall of the last Macedonian successor kingdom. This book is simply indispensable when it comes to the wealth of knowledge and new theories that Goldsworthy amply provides.


Note: Antony and Cleopatra is also available in paperback and several e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Jacob Adelhoch    

Buy it at



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close