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Antony and Cleopatra

This is purportedly the last in the Masters of Rome series. It was published in 2007, so you can see that it takes me a while to get to things.

There are two reasons why I read the book–I generally like Colleen McCullough but much more importantly, my favorite period of history is the time of the Caesars. This is the subject of her series.

There were seven in the series, and I believe that I read them all, though I can’t confirm that by locating them in my library. Some were sold off years ago when I purged my library rather drastically.

Since I’ve read a good deal of history regarding this period, I’m very familiar with the story of Antony and Cleopatra in general. Like the rest of the series, it is what is known as a “historical novel.”

Ms. McCullough has clearly researched her subject very well, and interjects plenty of “local flavor” through this and all in the series. She explains the topography and demographics of the area, the histories of the various local client kingdoms and as well as the players. For those who have a working knowledge of Herod or Brutus or Mithridates, she fleshes out the characters and makes them come alive in a way that the usual regular histories don’t usually attempt to do.

Of course, this is with good reason, since historical novels do what historians cannot, they take liberties with the facts and extrapolate what “might have been said,” and “what might have been thought.” This is dangerous ground for the historian, but for the historical novelist, it is the food from which the dish is constructed.

Ms. McCullough, it seems to me, has not done the kind of job that she did, say with The Thornbirds, a really wonderful novel that introduced me to her as a writer.

This novel is at times fairly boring, where her treatments of the time of Julius Caesar for instance, I thought was much better.

I’d not particularly recommend it to the average reader who, but to anyone who is a fan of the period, it gives some interesting alternative ideas to the events of that time. Her rather unique ending, with Antony not finding his queen already dead from the asp bite and then following her in death, but instead having her remain alive for weeks thereafter was a surprise.

Also the treatment of Caesarion is something you will not find in any history.There is no history that indicates that Caesarion was an “active” ruler at the time of his death,  and certainly not the image of Alexander the Great in the making. It is also unclear when and where he was killed, although it is sure that it was at the order of Octavian, though most certainly not at his actual hand.

So, like any historical novel, it must be taken with the usual grains of salt. It was worth reading, certainly as an end of to an otherwise reasonably good series, but on its own, I’d probably not encourage anyone to pick if up.

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