Cleopatra on the way to Actium.
Sunday, January 4, 2009

Anthony and Cleopatra

This is Colleen McCullough’s novel, not the Shakespeare play. McCullough gives a picture of Antony that is noticeably different from that of Shakespeare, and I think than Plutarch gives. Her Antony is not a loyal friend of Caesar’s, but a rather ambiguous character, as far as his loyalties outside of himself.

Herod the Great appears in the novel, and a point is made that he is not considered as Jewish because his mother was an Arab (9). This is a little confusing here. If Herod, had a bris, and was even marginally observant, wouldn’t he be a Jew? Wikipedia says that Herod wasn’t considered a Jew by some because of the Hellenistic cultural affinities of the Herodian circle. Can anybody out there provide more enlightenment on this point?

One minor thing, and one which was pointed out to McCullough in previous books, is that she keeps misusing irrumator. Since this involves sex, and I send notices to people who might not appreciate too much clarity, I’ll try to be as euphemistic as possible. Bill Clinton was an irrumator. Monica Lewinsky was not.

McCullough at one point gives Caesarion’s height as 4.5 cubits. There were, according to this article, various kinds of cubits, each somewhat different in length. The one most of us know is roughly 18 inches. That would make Caesarion about 6’9” tall, or the height of an NBA player. That’s not likely.

Caesarion is also described as being like his father, and as having his father’s brilliance. Not likely. There have been runs of genius in families, such as the Curies, and the Huxleys, but military or political genius is very rare in families.

McCullough gives a portrait of Antony that is not at all similar to Shakespeare’s. The impression of Antony that I carry away from Shakespeare is that he was quite definitely of Caesar’s party, and that he was besotted from the beginning with Cleopatra.

McCullough is also at pains to denigrate Cleopatra’s physical beauty. While Plutarch does not emphasize her physical beauty, the portraits on the Wikipedia page devoted to her, some of which may be contemporaneous, do not show her to be as ugly (266) as McCullough draws her.

Okay, so McCullough in taking on Caesar, in her earlier books in the series, and Antony and Cleopatra, has taken on the biggest name in English lit, how does she stack up? Well, she’s no Shakespeare, and I think his image of Rome will be dominant for a while yet. On the other hand she delivers a story that provides a fair amount of historical information, most of which is, as far as I know, accurate and well researched. On the other hand, some of her dialog is flat, and her interpretation of some events, Antony’s actions before Caesar’s assassination, or the battle of Actium, may be questionable. Overall it’s an entertaining read, and will keep you happily occupied.

Next up, Livy on The War With Hannibal.