A Noble Ruin: Mark Antony, Civil War, and the Collapse of the Roman Republic

  • By W. Jeffrey Tatum
  • Oxford University Press
  • 496 pp.

This vivid biography pulses with energy and erudition.

A Noble Ruin: Mark Antony, Civil War, and the Collapse of the Roman Republic

The fictional Mark Antony, thanks to William Shakespeare and Twentieth Century Fox, is an intriguing figure in our cultural firmament. But the historical Antony — the flesh-and-blood fellow who walked the earth — remains a murky presence for the non-scholar, especially after a disorderly phalanx of ancient Roman historians’ reporting on his exploits. Whether admirer or detractor, few if any of them approached Antony with untainted objectivity. What we’re left with two millennia later is a slew of conflicting accounts of Antony’s character and his role in world events.

W. Jeffrey Tatum’s A Noble Ruin sets out to strip away all the antique propaganda, both defamatory and boosterish, and aims at the same time to integrate the work of 20th- and 21st-century commentators into an accurate whole. The book succeeds on both scores, giving us a gripping portrait of a figure who, as much as any, embodies the Roman world as it teetered in mid-slide from republic to empire. It’s a dazzling achievement — authoritative, engaging, and marvelously readable.

The historical Mark Antony claimed impressive endowments in lineage, talent, and attitude. Each of these attributes, in itself, was a potent advantage for a Roman in the 1st century BCE. As Tatum sees him, Antony was “big and beautiful and unfailingly confident…he rarely doubted that he had the right stuff for any challenge.” These traits foreshadow both his attainments and his stumbles. Born to the purple, Antony charged through life, assuming control and occasionally exhibiting a subtle, politically aware touch. Still, his impetuosity sometimes flared and often backfired.

And yes, Antony does indeed “bury” the assassinated Caesar and cannily reveal the terms of the dictator’s will, just as Shakespeare portrays the moment. But his real intent, in Tatum’s recounting, is not to raise the Roman rabble, who were already outraged by the murder, but to calm them with Caesar’s generosity and tamp down possible riots in the streets. Antony even backs an amnesty for the “Liberators” (as co-conspirators Cassius and Brutus wished to be called). Afterward, as a member of the Second Triumvirate with Lepidus and Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus), he claims shared power over Rome and its foreign territories.

Two years later, in lockstep with Octavian, Antony defeats the Liberators at the Battle of Philippi. The Second Triumvirate holds sway until the mid-30s BCE, with Antony married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia, and clattering about in the East, commanding victorious legions. When he falls into his infamous attachment to Cleopatra, he divorces Octavia and breaks with her brother. Another civil war results.

Of course, most attention today zeroes in on Antony’s multi-year relationship with Egypt’s queen. (Some accounts treat it as a marriage — counter to traditional Roman practice, as she’s not a citizen.) Tatum provides a compelling overview of these years, lauding Cleopatra as a responsible ruler and skilled administrator of Egypt and the other client states Antony has entrusted to her. He also gives stirring accounts of the couple’s separate scrambling retreats from the disastrous sea battle near Actium and their subsequent deaths (the particulars of which vary from Shakespeare’s account). Antony’s defeat at sea by Octavian ultimately leads to the establishment of the Roman Empire.

Ironically, Antony’s daughter Antonia (with Octavia) gives birth to a child who becomes the Emperor Claudius, and she is also the grandmother of both Caligula and Nero.  

There’s one niggling drawback to the book: Tatum’s text, which is set small throughout, sometimes crowds densely page to page, and it often stretches into long paragraphs, with frequent recourse to Latin phrases. This might deter some readers. However, a counterargument: The author writes confidently and elegantly, and his prose draws the reader along in smooth quickstep. His style has a presence and energy akin to that of a skilled novelist.

For instance, he doesn’t hesitate to supply the likely thoughts of his principals, even if they’re not anchored in a source citation: “Anthony had little doubt he would prevail”; “he knew he would be too formidable for any enemy in Italy to challenge him”; “[Antony] recognized in Cleopatra’s theatricality a solemn and expensive show of regal deference to Rome.”

You might imagine the purist’s reaction to these creative liberties. But the effect is fortuitous for the reader. Despite its length and relative heft, A Noble Ruin glides along with an irresistible momentum that complements its beguiling evocations of people, events, and exotic settings. It deserves to become an enduring go-to volume for the lay reader and, one hopes, the scholar.

Bob Duffy, a retired brand strategist and former academic, reviews frequently for the Independent.

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