The latest volume in McCullough’s ancient Rome series tracks Antony’s precarious alliances with his lover, Cleopatra, and his nemesis, Octavian.
McCullough (On, Off, 2006, etc.) begins the story in 41 BCE, after the battle of Philippi where Octavian, Antony and Lepidus defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius. With Lepidus dispatched to Africa, Octavian and Antony—distrustful co-rulers—have divided the Western and Eastern provinces between them. Octavian’s main concern is the piracy of Sextus Pompeius, a renegade aristocrat who has taken over Sicily and embargoed Rome’s grain trade, the lynchpin of the economy. Antony procrastinates and dreams of defeating the Parthians, clearing the way for a Roman passage to India. He summons Cleopatra to account for her support of Cassius, and after a tryst aboard her royal galleon, Antony is ensnared for life by the too-skinny, odd-looking Egyptian queen. Marital diplomacy ensues: Octavian marries Scribonia, an in-law of Sextus. After first wife Fulvia opens her veins, Antony marries Octavia, sister of Octavian. Although the marriage is a happy one, Antony is mostly absent, still plotting conquest in Asia Minor. He loses four legions and his mammoth supply train in a failed campaign against the Parthian city of Phraaspa. In a post-defeat alcoholic daze, Antony signs over large portions of Syria and Judea to Cleopatra. Meeting Livia Drusilla by chance, Octavian realizes they are soul mates and engineers their divorces from their respective spouses. With the help of his bosom friend, master strategist and engineer Agrippa, Octavian defangs Sextus, ensuring Rome’s prosperity and undying gratitude. Due largely to Octavian’s spin-doctoring of Cleopatra’s depravity, Antony loses political support in Rome. Only one thing can topple Octavian now, and Livia knows it.
Outsized personages richly recast against a convincing backdrop will keep readers riveted throughout Antony’s slow unraveling and ultimate sacrifice, and Octavian’s methodical ascent.