Antony and Cleopatra

Written by Colleen McCullough
Review by Michael I. Shoop

In this sprawling seventh novel, the latest in her Masters of Rome series, author McCullough recounts the gigantic power struggle for dominance in the Mediterranean after the death of Julius Caesar. Spanning the years from 41 to 27 BC, the story focuses mainly on the political maneuverings and relationships of three larger-than-life figures: the handsome and charismatic Mark Antony, the brilliantly methodical Octavian, and the seductive and power-seeking Cleopatra of Egypt.

Rivals to rule over Rome and its ever-expanding empire, Antony and Octavian, Caesar’s legal heir, quickly realize that their joint governance of Roman lands will not work, and each becomes obsessed with gaining control over Caesar’s legacy. After his unsuccessful campaigns against Parthia in the East, Antony becomes ensnared by the charms of the wealthy queen Cleopatra, who is determined to make her son by Caesar, Caesarion, king of Rome. No slacker himself, Octavian has been busily scheming and manipulating others to consolidate his power in Rome and Italia, as well as to discredit Antony. A collision between the parties is imminent and unavoidable. With the Mediterranean their battleground and Rome the prize, the stakes are high, and defeat will mean dishonor and death.

McCullough moves the story along at a rapid pace: her descriptions of Antony’s disastrous march to Phraaspa and her rendering of the Battle of Actium are riveting. She takes pains to bring to life even her minor characters: the long-suffering Octavia, the coldly calculating Livia, the youthfully promising Caesarion, the loyal Marcus Agrippa. A page-turner filled with high drama, tragedy, and interesting psychological insight, McCullough’s meticulous research and masterful storytelling combine to provide a fresh perspective on an old and familiar story.