Marc Antony and Cleopatra are probably the most famous romantically linked couple in the Western tradition. They have captured the imagainations of millions down to the present day due to the sheer drama of their situations, the tremendously high stakes that they played for with their lives, the power of their mutual passion for one another, and the exoticism of mysterious, ancient Egypt. The Roman general and the Egyptian queen have inspired a tragedy by Shakespeare and overblown, hammy films featuring Claudette Colbert, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton.
One unfortuante result of this attention, however, is that the mythical Antony and Cleopatra have largely supplanted the actual historical figures. In the modern mind, Cleopatra is usually seen as a sensual, promiscuous creature, given over to debauchery and shameless pagan rites, while Antony is depicted as a degenerate sot entirely in thrall to the seductive, emasculating Cleopatra. The fact that these inaccurate and misleading characterizations still largely prevail is in large part due to the extremely effective propaganda campaign that was carried out against Antony and Cleopatra by their most deadly rival, Julius Caesar's nephew and adopted son, Octavian, later Augustus, first emperor of Rome.
Mr. Preston's book is therefore welcome in that it largely debunks these myths and does a straightforward job of presenting Cleopatra and Antony as they really were (that is, as best as that can be determined in reliance on the existing historical record). Rather than a wanton, heathen slattern, Cleopatra is shown as a highly educated, extremely intelligent and capable woman in an age when women were supposed to have no role at all other than as childbearers and domestic helpmeets. Similarly, a rounded portrait is given of Antony who, despite his gross appetites and vanity, was a gifted and esteemed Roman politician and military leader, the architect of victory at the Battle of Philippi where Caesar's murderers were defeated.
In addition to providing us with accurate portraits of the book's subjects, the author also pithily describes the many ins and outs of both Roman domestic politics and international relations during this period of antiquity. There is also some interesting, informed speculation on such questions as what the course of history might have been if Antony and Cleopatra had prevailed rather than Octavian (whose victory was not at all preordained) and what Cleopatra actually looked like (not the irresistible sylph of myth or the hook-nosed harpy that some scholars have argued for based on the evidence of a few coins).
Unlike other authors on subjects of this type, Diane Preston does not appear to strictly deal with the classics and Antiquity. She instead is what was once known as a "popularizer," doing research and writing books on a number of topics from the Boxer Rebellion in China, to the sinking of the Lusitania in WWI, to other diverse subjects. Her clear prose and level-headed analysis work very well in the context of ancient history, as they undoubtedly do in other contexts as well. I recommend this book specifically to anyone interested in the ancient world and generally to anyone who would like to read a good, memorable account of two of the most interesting people in history.