Alberto Angela: Cleopatra

November 29, 2022

     I’ve grown to like Alberto Angela’s books over the past few years, after discovering him on a visit to the Roman sites in Provence. I suppose he should be classified as a popular historian, although he seems to take great care to annotate and support what he writes. He makes us aware, from the sources of the time, just how much information about life and the history of the Roman era is actually recorded, as well as by whom and what axes they were grinding, and just how many gaps there are too: like other historians writing about those times, he must necessarily speculate, and he’s always very clear with the reader when he’s doing that.

He’s written about the Roman Empire, daily life in ancient Rome, and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This book is rather different, focussing on historical personalities at the time of the final demise of the republic, and it’s the first one of his that I’ve read in English. I’ll get my gripe over quickly: the proof-reading is shocking, with a serious number of careless errors that should have been corrected before it ever got to print…

What Angela particularly excels at, in my opinion, is his way of bringing the ancient world to life for the reader through a myriad of small details, either from sources or through logical deduction and inference, thus fully contextualising his subject-matter. I was astonished to learn, that if one did the sums from information known, then there might be around two million wrecked boats and ships at the bottom of the Mediterranean! One of the things I gradually came to realise – my recent knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra being through Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, is just how freely the bard adapted his source material, whilst keeping the outlines of the story and the character traits of the principal actors. But his focus was on the personalities and their flaws, and their tragedy.

There are times when Angela is perhaps a little too free with his imagination, too fanciful – he is dealing with Cleopatra after all – although given the fatal attraction between her and Mark Antony, speculation about the exact nature of their relationship is surely allowed. Octavian emerges as a far nastier and ruthless creature than I recalled from my classes in Roman history over half a century ago. The real revelation for me was Cleopatra’s intelligence: she was a very well-educated and powerful woman, a master-strategist, perhaps the most powerful woman in history in terms of her influence and effect: Angela reminds us several times how different the Roman world, and hence ours, might have been if things had gone the other way, and Octavian had not become the god Augustus who founded the Roman empire.

A fascinating read, well worth my eyeball time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: