Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra is Colleen McCullough's 2007 novel that wraps up her epic (and I do mean epic) 'Masters of Rome' series.  While it is good to bring a sense of closure to the series, I think that this novel lacked some of the spark of the previous volumes.  Perhaps McCullough lost a bit of her muse with the death of Julius Caesar in the last volume, The October Horse (though his specter hangs over the entire novel).

[To be fair, it should be noted that McCullough considers the Roman Republic to have ended with the defeat of Caesar's assassins in 42 BC and originally intended to conclude her series with The October Horse.  She buckled to pressure and wrote Antony and Cleopatra to appease her legions (pun definitely intended) of fans.]

The novel opens in 41 BC in the aftermath of the Battle of Phillipi.  Two years before, the Roman world has been divided into two parts (well, to be technical, there are three, but who counts the oft-overlooked Lepidus anyway?):  the west, controlled by Octavian, and the east, by Mark Antony.  The delicate balance of power that has kept the two from each other's throats since the death of Julius Caesar is slowly unraveling.

Octavian struggles to consolidate his power in Italia in the face of growing discontent over the price of wheat, inflated by the constant raiding of that piratical nuisance, Sextus Pompey.  In the east, Mark Antony is intent on leading a campaign against the Parthian empire which he hopes will bring him untold wealth along with the prestige he needs to stand above Octavian once and for all.  Into the mix comes Cleopatra, pharaoh of Egypt and once lover of Julius Caesar, who has her own designs on power in the Mediterranean region.  She recognizes in Mark Antony a tool she can use to promote her own interests (i.e. making her son by Julius Caesar king of Rome) and sets out to ensnare him with first wealth and, later, her feminine wiles.

Antony and Cleopatra is a solid conclusion to the Masters of Rome series--without a doubt it upholds the high standard I've come to expect from McCullough.  The history is well researched.  The characters jump off the page.  At the same time, it lacked the spark of the previous volumes until the very climax of the story (hence the somewhat lower hamster rating).

So there you have it:  after seven books comprising several thousand pages, the events of 110-27 BC come to a conclusion!  Big thanks (and much respect) to Mrs. McCullough for making the events and people of the twilight of the Roman Republic come to life.  Her 'Masters of Rome' series is truly a masterful achievement that I would recommend without hesitation (at least to those with some measure of literary stamina) .

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