Rebecca's Reviews > Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough
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's review
Jan 28, 2008

really liked it
Read in February, 2008

The seventh book in the Founders of Rome series is as juicily entertaining as ever, although (much like the second season of HBO's "Rome") it occasionally feels like McCullough's writing on fast-forward, covering major events in a few gossipy but abrupt paragraphs. This has the advantage of packing events in and moving the narrative along nicely, and the disadvantage of depriving the characters of what could have been a much greater degree of complexity. No doubt part of the problem lies in the fact that McCullough simply has not succeeded in creating another character as alluring as the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the flawed and feral aristocrat who dominated the first half of the series. By now, her kid-glove treatment of her beloved blond Caesars - Julius and Octavian, as well as an ever-perfect series of Julian women always radiantly happy to be married off for political gain - has come to seem a tad saccharine. By presenting us with this family of Aryan supermen who can do no wrong, McCullough bypasses all the sweaty politicking, double-dealing, and outright buggery (figurative and literal) that are well-attested in the sources, ironically buying into the very same propaganda that Octavian elaborated to whitewash them. Meanwhile, her Antony, smeared by the same two-thousand-year-old brush, appears as a relative nonentity, weak, indecisive, and ruled by his appetites, while her Cleopatra, rather improbably, is portrayed as totally dominated not by Antony but by her son Caesarion, a miniature clone of his father right down to the inevitable blond curls and precocious displays of genius. None of which should put any geniune lover of Roman history off from reading this book for a minute. There's much to be learned from it, from Antony and Octavian's long struggle to wrest control of Rome's grain supply from Sextus Pompeius, a son of Pompey the Great turned Mediterranean pirate, to satisfying asides about what to do with retiring veterans, settling German tribes on the Rhine, and the annoyances of riding without stirrups, that should delight anyone versed in the archaeological and historical sources. And in between the flourishes that show how impressively McCullough has done her homework, something of major interest is always happening, in the tradition of the best soap operas. It's just that this particular soap opera could have been better, if the Caesars hadn't been so squeaky clean.
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