Virgin Books, £20, 364pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, 464pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Cleopatra: A Life, By Stacy Schiff
Antony and Cleopatra, By Adrian Goldsworthy

They were the couple from hell – he a drunken, idle and sadistic bruiser, she mutton dressed as lamb, and murderous with it. And yet, by some odd alchemy the story of Antony and Cleopatra has been transmuted into the gold of romance. The title of Dryden's tragedy about them, All for Love, or the World Well Lost, says it all. Love trumps power.

Both of them, the bloodstained Triumvir and the Queen of Egypt, a serial killer whose brothers and sisters were her special subject, would have laughed the idea out of court, for power was all they were really interested in. No doubt they were fond of one another, but their partnership was fundamentally political, even if it offered the bonus of expressing itself sexually; they were, so to speak, the Clintons of the ancient world.

Mark Antony came from a good family, but he misspent his youth and for a time was a young nobleman's kept boy. He ran up huge debts and came to the attention of Julius Caesar, who settled them in return for political services rendered.

During the civil war which his patron eventually won, Antony provided convincing evidence of administrative incompetence. He was a brave soldier but no great tactician. In a long military career he only won a single set-piece battle. He had an unquenchable appetite for sex and alcohol, and a slightly surprising taste for domineering women. Bluff and down-to-earth in his manner, he appeared to be loyal to his master; but there was a touch of the Iago about him. Forewarned of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, he omitted to pass the information on.

Antony counted on being Caesar's political heir, but when the dead dictator's adopted son, the teenaged Octavian, arrived on the scene, he had no alternative but to give ground. They entered into an unwilling alliance and carved up the empire between them. Antony took the eastern half. This included Cleopatra, previously Caesar's mistress, and he stepped unhesitatingly into his great predecessor's bedroom slippers.

Eventually they both went down to defeat in a war with the cool and collected Octavian. What their long-term aims were is hard to say. Some have suggested, fancifully, that they meant to replace Rome with Alexandria as the headquarters of empire. In truth, they had no joint plan. Strategic thinking was not Antony's forte, and he probably saw himself simply as a successful Roman politician. As for the Queen, her only ambition was to restore her kingdom's lost glories.

A modern scholar once claimed that Cleopatra ranks with Hannibal among Rome's most dangerous enemies. Hardly; she was never remotely in a position to be a serious threat. A Macedonian Greek, she was the daughter of the absurd Ptolemy XII "Auletes" (the nickname means flute-player, and probably also fellator – in other words, it was an ancient term for playing the pink oboe).

Cleopatra was the first of the Ptolemaic pharaohs to learn Egyptian, but she followed their practice of using Egypt as a cash cow. Although no great beauty, she was endowed with charm, intelligence and a talent to amuse. Threatened by the superpower of the age, she defended her country's independence by making herself indispensable, personally as well as politically, in quick succession to two of Rome's leading men. This brought immediate dividends, but for a state to base its policy on the careers, indeed the physical survival, of individual humans is to take a big gamble. Cleopatra lost twice. Her relationship with Caesar ended on the Ides of March. She recovered from this setback, but once her second paramour turned out to be a busted flush, the game was up.

Antony even managed to botch his suicide, the sword missing his heart. It is unclear how the last Pharaoh ended her life, but we can be sure of one thing. The asp, or Egyptian cobra, had nothing to do with it. It is typically about eight feet long – rather large to hide in a basket of figs, as the most popular account of her death has it, and inconvenient to apply to the breast. However, whichever method of dying she chose, she could not escape the bitter reality that her astonishing career had been all in vain. Egypt lost its freedom, only regaining it in the 20th century.

The main problem facing the historian of the Roman Republic during its death throes in the first century BC is that there is an excess of material – too many events, too many dramatis personae, too much plot. So far as Hellenistic Egypt is concerned, this difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that nearly all the men are called Ptolemy and most of the women either Cleopatra or Arsinoe. It is almost impossible to draw a family tree of the ruling dynasty because they enthusiatically practiced incest; brother married sister, father daughter, uncle niece. The writer who simplifies will irritate the scholar, but too much information will bore the reader.

Stacy Schiff falls into the first category. Her life of Cleopatra is slightly soft-focused, as if she has applied Vaseline to the lens. It leaves the impression that, like a student taking an exam, she knows only a little more than what she writes. Sometimes she nods; to say, as she does, that Roman women were without legal rights is incorrect, although they were not allowed to hold political office. That said, she has done her homework and writes elegantly and wittily, creating truly evocative word pictures.

Her description of Alexandria teems with diverse life, whereas Adrian Goldsworthy gives an uninspiring account of the city. His prose fails to fly and uninstructed readers may occasionally get stuck in dense narrative thickets, but, a judicious scholar, he knows his subject backwards. Above all, Goldsworthy understands military matters. His battle of Actium is, rightly, no battle at all, but an attempt by Antony and Cleopatra to escape their doom by breaking out of a disastrous sea blockade; whereas Schiff is not much interested in boys' wargames and does less than justice to the tactical brilliance of Octavian's admiral, Agrippa. However, in their different ways, each of these authors has thrown light on the facts behind the legend, in so far as they can now be retrieved.

But who created the legend in the first place? None other than Octavian, later Rome's first emperor Augustus. He enjoyed the services of a talented public relations team (including two geniuses, the poets Virgil and Horace), which painted the completely inaccurate portrait of a noble Roman made effeminate by sexual passion and of an oriental queen who was little better than a whore. Opinion in Rome was duly shocked.

Posterity, in the form of another genius, William Shakespeare, cleaned up the story, overlaying lechery with love. Bathed in the glow of incomparable poetry, Antony and Cleopatra joined the immortals.

For those who have eyes to see, though, these books reveal the pair as the low, dishonest politicians they really were.

Anthony Everitt's life of Hadrian is published by Random House USA

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'