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book: antony and cleopatra by colleen mccullough

So I finally finished Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough, which somehow manages to be even more depressing than The October Horse and that's where Caesar died and was not a good time for me. I have no idea how she managed to make this one gutting, but dear God, she really did, and this is with characters I really didn't like. I'd thought I was putting it off for that, but as it turns out, that's not why I didn't want to read it. I kind of wish I hadn't, now. I hate deathfic.

(My reactions when reading The October horse in 2005ish.)



There are three major themes in these books that fascinate me; the exploration of ideas as opposed to the people who live them, the limits of humanity in both their mortality and in their minds, and destructive power of self when it's not first bound to duty.

Antony

The thing with Antony and Cleopatra, though, is what I didn't get from The October Horse: endings. This one was the death of the Republic in all but name; somehow, Caesar's death, while the death of a great man and of all the potential he represented, didn't gut me as much as five hundred something pages that drew out the long death of an idea, and more than that, of the men who forgot it. And yo, I loved Caesar like whoa.

Antony's erosion from peerless Roman nobleman to miserable Egyptian potentate was possibly the most horrible thing I've ever had to read, both the way he slipped between the drunken pleasure-seeker and the man horribly, desperately, destructively, mythically in love with a woman who represented everything Rome wasn't and couldn't be, the changes he made to self to accomodate what she required of him and that he could not stand to live with in himself. They weren't all choices he made in his right mind, no, but they were changes he didn't stop when he was sane and sober enough to take stock, and I don't think anything in the book quite matches the three paragraphs of his divorce from Octavia. Not because it affected him, but because the part of him that was Roman knew very well what that represented; his Julio-Octavian wife was Rome in flesh and bone. He gave her up without regret to kill the Roman, and it's never easy to watch a man fall on his sword.

But oddly, the part that I think about most is how he died, eleven last hours to find in himself the man he'd been and then let go. Antony was the last great Republican Roman, and with him was the understanding that the idea of Rome died with him. He was the last one strong enough to carry it, to live it, and he gave it up.

Antony and Fulvia

One of the most powerful scenes in the book, though only in retrospect, was Antony turning on Fulvia, who he'd pretty much been in love with all his life. This was hard for me, not only because Fulvia was kind of awesome, but also because the Antony that rejected and divorced her wasn't the one who married her and he didn't yet realize it. And a part of me dates Antony's decline from that moment; Fulvia was Roman and even more than that, she was the shrewd perfect partner, bright intelligence, and pretty goddamn immoral as all get out, and I can't say this enough because it's thematic, a Roman woman raised in the same powerful traditions and understandings as he was, and together, they were Roman--horrible warlike people, but living and breathing those same ideas they were soaked in from birth. Unconventional, disliked by many, but a living, breathing symbol of Rome and the idea of Rome. Which makes an interesting argument about Octavia that I'm still thinking of in being the symbol of the idea of Rome-as-becoming-Caesar, not Rome itself, not really, not anymore, but still far from what he became.

Then again, I have a theory that Octavia was the symbol of Caesar-as-Rome and maybe knew it all along.

Cleopatra

Cleopatra was complicated in a lot of ways, but her most powerful adversary wasn't just herself, but the idea of herself, which Caesar could not get across was not a good way to get anything done. It wasn't her divinity that did it, weirdly enough, or her autocracy, or the fact Roman men didn't care for women in power; she was brilliant and vicious and pretty much the superior of everyone around her. But she hit a wall that I think Caesar saw in her and had fought down pretty well in himself, and I think is one of the huge themes of all the books--people, even great people, are limited by their mortality and their own internal limits, but an idea is limitless and lasts forever (and whoo, Octavian proved that shit). She was brought up to be Egypt, but not to subsume herself to it, but instead made it subsume itself to her.

A big thing for Caesar, and something that I think he died for, was that in the end, he was a Roman before he was anything else, and he lived and died for the idea of Rome. For a lot of men, Rome could be an excuse, but for Caesar, it was a reason for living. There was nothing he did, would do, or wanted to do that wasn't for the idea of Rome. Aurelia had ground that into him until his identity was part of that, but not superior to it. He didn't say he was Rome; Rome was him. Precedence matters. He wanted to be the greatest Roman ever, but never, ever superior to Rome, always at her feet and for her greater glory. Always.

Octavian

Octavian is--hmm. The oddest part about him was the fact he wasn't Roman, despite the fact he should have been, seriously, seriously should have been. I have no idea how he missed that. If there's a single mystery to the entire group of novels that can't be explained is Octavian being what he was, except one thing that I keep coming back to, that he loved Caesar like he loved no one but his sister (we'll get to that in a second) and in a weird way, Caesar was his Rome. The Romanness was window-dressing to being like, some purified ideal of Caesarness. Caesar's death was too early for Caesar to work this out for himself, but I do wonder what would have happened if he realized he was Rome for Octavius. With his death, Rome was just a place; Caesar was the idea he carried. And building a universe on an idea personified by a single man is dangerous. There are a lot of reasons Republican Rome lasted as long as it did, and it's because every man thought of himself as part of Rome herself and all was done to her greater glory. For Octavian, all was done to Caesar's greater glory.

Octavian is hard for me on a variety of levels, not least of which is that I have a feeling if he'd just fucked his sister--and I do not say this lightly--he would have been a much less frightening, and probably much happier, human being. Considering the future history of the Julian Imperial family, it's not a huge surprise that the entirety of Octavian's life could be summarized by "really needs to get laid by a family member; could have avoided a lot of problems that way and maybe not passed down that particular characteristic quite so thoroughly". Because really. He made three marriages and fell in love with a woman for her mind with very little interest in her body, and his wives to a one are his sister's literal physical, emotional, and character opposite. I mean, there's like, denial, and then there's writing epic poetry in public to your inability to deal with the fact that Julian men prefer people they shared the nursery with. I am not judging here--look at Caesar. The first love of his life was a girl he married when she was eight and raised by his mother in his home and his greatest loves were Julian women, his aunt and his daughter. The Julian preference is not subtle. Octavian's greatest loves were his great-uncle and father figure (think about that one), his sister, and Agrippa, who from the first subsumed himself to Octavian's will so completely that he might as well have been a part of him.

(Sidenote: to take the divinity thing seriously, there is a weird sort of sense in Caesar's love for Cleopatra. Her youth was part of it but in a very non-skeevy way if that makes sense; his first wife was raised as his sister and beneath his hand as husband, brother, and father as paterfamilias of the family. In all but blood she was Julian, not Cornelian. Cleopatra wasn't divine Julian, but she was born divine and an anointed monarch--again, if you go the divine route, family, and with the same interesting circumstance of being young enough to be daughter and sister as well as lover. Welcome to the fucked-up Julian family dynamics. If you look at Caesar and Cleopatra as incest on the astral plane, then suddenly the Imperial Julians are pretty much inevitable.)

So Octavian, who adored his sister like beyond words and in whom he invested in all of his emotional life, married her off to Antony knowing he would break her heart and then permitting her not to marry again but take a lover while living in his house with all her kids and stepkids, all his third wife's kids, his divorced second wife and his daughter by her (for whom he was already showing the Julian bonding instinct to a startling degree), and Antony's kids by Fulvia and Cleopatra (again, family) while merrily betrothing them off to each other (because hey, no need to take that out of the family nursery).....

Okay, I know I forgot some children in there, but I have a genealogy in my papers, and I can turn that thing three directions and still think, how is this a good idea? Unless you are part of the Greek pantheon? Really, Octavian? Really?

It was--unsettling to read this in a way I didn't expect, because I thought I'd gotten through everything in the earlier books, but no, I think I watched Caesar die again, in the most horrible of ways, slowly and terribly as he took Rome's place as the idea. He wanted Rome the idea to last forever, and as it turns out, he was greater than Rome and couldn't fight that any more than he could stop being Roman himself. And his last successor in that was Antony, who died in Egypt as a Roman for a few short hours knowing exactly what he was and exactly what had been lost.

Damn You, Colleen

This was seriously depressing. I mean, deathfic is bad enough, but this was like, epic deathfic, and without the relief of watching the birth of Imperial Rome, which was fucked up and huge and like an elephant that recreated the world in its image.

So, the moral of the story? Everything dies, even ideas, even good ideas. I wish she'd also reminded us, though, that bad ideas die too, eventually. That good ideas come back. Then I wouldn't feel quite so gutted, like a light went out that will never burn again. I need a drink. Badly.
Tags: books, books: colleen mccullough, books: the masters of rome
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