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The Toybox

people for the conservation of limited amounts of indignation

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book: antony and cleopatra by colleen mccullough
children of dune - leto 1
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.


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 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 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.

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Anthony and Cleopatra was the most depressing of the lot for me, too, precisely because over the course of the series, she taught us to cherish the idea of Rome even more than that of Caesar himself (which is saying something for me, too). The October Horse was terrible—because really, there could be no closure after the death of a man like Caesar, and I spent half the book too busy cursing Cato (and co., sure but mostly, UGH CATO DIAFF) to care that much for what would happen to Rome. I'd never much cared for Octavian, Anthony or Cleopatra, and part of me was glad that Colleen wouldn't write the world falling apart and the Republic dying to bring about the pax.

And then Anthony and Cleopatra came along, and it was all so un-Roman. These people could never have been born in any other order: Sulla had to come after Marius; Pompeius, after Sulla; Caesar, after Pompeius; Octavian, after Caesar. They destroyed it all little by little, and (in some cases) with so much regard for the mos maiorum and for the preservation of their idea of Rome (which was completely different for each of them, of course) that it's astounding, in hindsight, to notice how they mined its very foundations. Two hundred years earlier, Anthony and Octavian's conflict could never have happened in Rome; before Marius' mules, no one Roman man, princeps or no, could have controlled the Empire so thoroughly. I couldn't help flashing back to Scaurus, or even Marius at times; they would've died if they saw what Octavian transformed Rome into.

Re: your final point—but that's the irony, isn't it, that you end the series knowing that politics will never be as excellent as they were in 200 BC, and that mankind's progress always leads to worse, stupider ideas. That even if you're a genius with genuine love for your people/army/country/gods and try your damnedest to bring about good things, you will still fail and/or fall.

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. - So, so true.

tl;dr: depressing deathfic is depressing indeed.

It really was. And I wish we could, I don't know, hit the beginning of Imperial Rome because it's not really fair we got the death but not the birth. I mean, The Julio-Claudians were kind of horrifying, but seriously fun and see the start of what would be the Roman Empire.

Interesting on the Head Count and the army though; it was a very modern idea of equality brought about before they were ready to go that far. And the Republic had developed a long way, but in a very interestingly stagnant way. One of the few things that make me think hard about them is the combination of snobbery and Romanness, that to a Roman even a head count prostitute was superior in birth due to her being Roman.

I keep wondering how inevitable the decline was or if someone could have shifted it. A part of me thinks Caesar alone could have with force of personality--and he was getting there--but he really, really shouldn't have been born yet. Like, he needed to be twenty years earlier or twenty years later or something. It was like, the perfect man doing the right job at five seconds before anyone was ready for him to do it.

Thank you for your review. I had been tempted by this book BUT NO NO NO NOT READING.

*cough* If you like Roman stuff, though, Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa mysteries are superb. Gordianus rocks, and they have canon m/m and fantastic female characters and just have wowed me, you can tell. I would be happy to buy you the first one or two or three if you like. Are you good with amazon.com? If so, cool - just send me your mailing address and I'll get them to you. If not, I'll find a way. I'm pretty sure that Borders carries them, and if not, I've got a fabulous local bookstore that I can order books through. They'll think I'm crazy - but then everyone does *g*.

Clicked the link out of curiosity.

I think the key phrase to convince anyone to read is right on the main page there.

Roman Sherlock Homes.


I'm convinced. Thanks (on my part at least) for the recommendation!

It's--in retrospect, I'm glad I read it, just to meet Octavia and Livia Drusilla if nothing else, because man, Octavian and Livia Drusilla are the single most entertaining couple ever. They're really indescribably in love with each other, which is what scares me a little, because that kind of love is the kind you worry about ending in an Oliver Stone movie except without any sexual tension. I mean....*blank* I do not even know how to describe it.

I mean, literally, their sexual hijinks are plotting for power. It's not even a metaphor. That's what they do. To be honest, comparatively speaking, sex would be like, a disappointment to them.

ALso, book! I added it to my shopping list! Thanks!

Hello, McCullough brain-twin! (You laugh, but seriously, I just ordered that book about twenty minutes ago, *and* I just finished watching the last episode of Rome, which I've been putting off watching for about a week because OMG, that means the show is over, and Antony dies. :( :( :( Freaky!)

I haven't read anything below the spoiler-cut (which is probably ridiculous, because what possible spoiler could there be, at this point? And added to that, I just watched the end of Rome, where I was bawling at both the death scenes, and bear in mind that I very much didn't care about the series's iterations of Antony or Cleopatra before that episode), but. I really agreed with everything you said about the previous books, and I want to go into it completely unbiased.

I completely agree with you about there not being very many well-written books about this period at all. She's basically the Georgette Heyer* of this genre -- once you've read her, 99% of anything else in the same style is dreck.

Anyway. More on this when I've actually read the book.

Edited at 2010-01-02 04:52 am (UTC)

I recently saw something on tv where they examined the story using modern CSI type tactics and concluded that she was not likely to have killed herself and that octavian was a master at propaganda, so that most likely he killed her and then made up a lie.

I'm trying to remember the most recent book in that series I've read -- I think there was one called Caesar's Women or some such? That's probably as far up as I'd gotten. At some point I should gather up the one or two I've actually got on the shelf, gather up the rest at a library, and start rereading from the start of the series up to the books I never got to, all in one stretch.

But right now I'm about half-remembering the first half of the series and then comparing it to the HBO/BBC series Rome, as having covered the same events you're referencing (at least up to the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, the latter of whose casting BTW did not please me), but definitely with a different slant and if you've never seen it, it's worth a shot. (The shipperage is a little different, though -- it posits that Octavian did sleep with his sister at one point, and later on emphasizes Octavia/Agrippa with no Octavian/Agrippa.)

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