Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ave Marcus Antonius!

I am always on the lookout for new historical novels or novelists that I have not yet had a chance to read. After reading an article on historical fiction in the Historical Novels Review, I had a few names of past writers that I took with me to my local library. The trip was quite successful.

One of the authors I came across was Allan Massie, who writes the rugby column for the Scotsman. As it turns out, Mr. Massie has written several novels of ancient Rome including, Augustus, Tiberius, Antony, Caesar, Caligula and Nero's Heirs. Not all of them were available but of the ones that were, I decided to begin with Antony.

Gore Vidal says of Allan Massie that he is "Master of the long-ago historical novel." Well, you would have to read more to decide that for yourself but I can say, having just finished Antony, that Mr. Massie has taken an exceptionally unique approach. The novel is Antony's memoir, written after the battle of Actium but before Octavian (later Augustus) takes Aegyptus. Most everyone knows the story of Antony and Cleopatra so I won't go into it here. The character that Massie creates of Antony is of the type of man that was able to approach the greatness of an Alexander. Where the latter heralded the beginning of the Hellenistic age, so did Antony prove to be the final hero of that same age. He was victorious in battle, loved by Rome and by his Legions, and known the world over as the possible provider of a golden age and even as Dionysos incarnate. Truly an amazing character that Mr. Massie has managed to portray with humour, bravery, honour and pathos. Godlike and yet vulnerably human as well.

I would certainly recommend this book just for its portrayal of Antony however, the picture painted of Cleopatra is certainly unflattering. This historian in me was cringing whenever Mr. Massie's version of her would appear as she is a spoiled, conniving woman who just comes across as stupid. This flies in the face of what historians such as Michael Grant and writer/historians such as Steven Saylor have been saying which is that Cleopatra was nowhere near stupid but was a highly intelligent woman who spoke countless languages, had a keener political insight that even Caesar himself and had a vision of the future that required an equally great partner such as she had in Caesar or Antony. To balance out Massie's sad adaptation of Cleopatra, one should definitely read Michael Grant's biography of her which is not too long but loaded with helpful information and great research.

Truth is, we all have different perceptions of how things should or should not be, even in hindsight. Unless a personal diary emerged from either Antony or Cleopatra, we will likely never know the true story of their rise and fall, their loves and hates. The reality may not be Shakespeare but it may not be that far off either. Remember, history is almost always written by the victors and in this instance, the victor was Octavian, later Augustus, who had launched a masterful propaganda campaign against Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, one of the greatest Romans of the age. Perhaps this is an example of how fiction can indeed become history?

Despite a couple of little dislikes, I will definitely pick up another of Mr. Massie's Roman novels. The other novelist I picked up at the library was Alfred Duggan who wrote some Roman novels earlier in the 20th century. I now have Mr. Duggan's novel, Family Favourites which is about the Severan Emperor Elagabalus who was one of the successors of Septimius Severus and Caracalla in whose reigns my own novels are set. I'll let you all know how that one turns out.
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