The True Story Of 'Antony And Cleopatra' Antony and Cleopatra are among history's most famous lovers. The story of their affair, their war, their defeat and, finally, their suicides has been told and retold for centuries. Now, Adrian Goldsworthy, author of Antony and Cleopatra, uncovers the couple's true story.
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The True Story Of 'Antony And Cleopatra'

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The True Story Of 'Antony And Cleopatra'

The True Story Of 'Antony And Cleopatra'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Antony and Cleopatra may be the most famous lovers in history and important actors in one of the great dramas in the ancient world, the struggle for power that followed the murder of Julius Caesar.

For 2,000 years, people have retold and reinvented the story of the love affair between the gruff Roman soldier and the exotic queen of Egypt, the war they fought for the ultimate prize, their defeat at the Battle of Actium and the bite of the asp that brought the story to an end.

Trouble is much of what we think we know is based more on Hollywood than history.

(Soundbite of film, "Cleopatra")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELIZABETH TAYLOR (Actor): (As Cleopatra) Time has passed so quickly.

Mr. RICHARD BURTON (Actor): (As Antony) Your necklace seems to be made of gold coins, coins of Caesar.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) Do you find it attractive?

Mr. BURTON: (As Antony) Oh, very.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) And I find what you're wearing most becoming. Greek, isn't it?

Mr. BURTON: (As Antony) I have a fondness for almost all Greek things.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) As an almost all-Greek thing, I'm flattered.

CONAN: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, of course, from 1963.

In this new book, historian Adrian Goldsworthy returned to the real story and tried to uncover the flesh and blood couple obscured by time and myth. Why do these people continue to fascinate after 2,000 years?

Tell us what part of this story fascinates you. 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Adrian Goldsworthy joins us from the BBC studios in Cardiff. His book is titled "Antony and Cleopatra," and it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. ADRIAN GOLDSWORTHY (Author, "Antony and Cleopatra"): It's very nice to be invited along, thank you.

CONAN: And as you point out in your book, Antony and Cleopatra lost and ultimately had very little influence. Why is their story so famous when it might have ended up as a footnote?

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: I think it's the drama, the fact that these two people are politically so important, and they're lovers. So you get the combination. You know, there are famous romances, but they're not necessarily between two key players in a power struggle that's shaping the Roman Republic, that's going to go on to dominate the world for the next 500 years. So it has a bit of everything in it.

CONAN: And there is also the sense of eras ending and new things beginning, that this was a tipping point in a lot of ways.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Well, that's the thing. They're all overshadowed, really, by Octavian, the man who will become Caesar Augustus, the first true emperor, you know, Julius Caesar's adopted son, his real great-nephew.

And he's going to create the system that will shape world history for such a long time. So they are they're the losers in that struggle, but they are right there were it's happening.

CONAN: And it is not inevitable that Octavian would've emerged triumphant.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Oh, no, certainly not. It surprised everyone. I mean, the sheer fact that this kid of, you know, he's not much more than 18 when Caesar is murdered, and he steps into the center of Roman politics at an age when no one would be taken seriously.

On top of that, he's unhealthy. You know, he keeps on falling ill, and everybody's expecting him to die. It's amazing that he lasts out until his 70s and rules Rome for 45 years. So, you know, no one would have guessed that.

CONAN: And it seemed that Antony, the man of vigor, a man who took great pride in his appearance, hiked his toga up to show off his muscled legs, that that guy would have been the guy who ended up thrown in the ditch.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Well, that's the thing. He's the sort of the big, the healthy, the established man. And, you know, he claims descent from Hercules. You know, you can't get much more sort of butch and masculine than that, basically. And actually Antony's trying to prove it all the time.

And he grows a beard, and he wears, you know, lion skin sometimes, does all this stuff and flashes his thighs at everybody and all this sort of thing. But it's a weakness in that it's, politically, he doesn't have Augustus's savvy, his skill.

And Antony, as well, I think he ends up believing his own myth. You know, he keeps on making these speeches. He keeps on telling everybody how great he is and how great a warrior and a soldier he is. But the reality just doesn't live up to it.

CONAN: You point out in fact we think of him as a soldier because we remember all the stories. In fact, he was much more of a politician, a standard Roman of his class and day and not a particularly good soldier.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: No, that's the thing. I mean, by Roman standards, he actually spends very, very little time with the army. And his only real successes are either against some very second-rate opposition in sort of rebellions in the provinces, but mainly it's fighting other Romans.

So you're in a civil war. Nearly everybody is rather amateur, they're inexperienced. The armies are big, but they're clumsy. So the fact that you win that, that you beat people like Brutus and Cassius, who are even more inept than you are, doesn't really prove a lot.

But thing is, he believes it. You know, he markets himself. He is the strong man. He is the military man. The young Octavian is just this sickly kid who's maybe a coward as well, and goes and hides in a marsh when there's a day of battle and all this sort of thing. But Antony believes it, unfortunately. I think he's like a lot of politicians. He hears his own speeches, hears his own propaganda and starts thinking, well, it must be true then because I keep saying it.

CONAN: And one of the reasons we talk a lot about Antony here, Cleopatra usually gets star billing in all of these discussions, yet Antony, by far, you argue, the more important person.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Yes, I mean, Cleopatra has the glamour. You know, you can recognize the image of Cleopatra even if it owes more to Elizabeth Taylor than it does to reality. So she tends to overshadow him in the same way Caesar overshadows him. You know, he is genuinely the great soldier, the great statesman, the great man. Antony isn't either.

But you have to remember that Cleopatra is queen of a kingdom that has been dominated by the Romans for 100 years before she comes to power. You have to the only way you can stay king or queen is with Roman backing. She can't fight the Romans. She's very much a client, an allied state that has to make the best of it and try and sort of come to terms with this power. But it's the Roman Republic that runs the world, or all of the Mediterranean, that area. And it's the people who control the Republic, and that can only be male, Roman aristocrats and Roman senators.

So, you know, Cleopatra is struggling, really, to stay in power and to stay alive. And it's Antony, it's Octavian, it's the Romans who shape the world.

CONAN: And her family, the Ptolemys, the successors to Alexander, the Macedonians or Greeks who took over that country after the death of Alexander, well, they were busy knocking each other off.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Yes, it's amazing the family lasts as long as it does. I mean, Cleopatra's the last one to rule, and the family controls the kingdom based on Egypt for nearly 300 years. And they keep on producing large numbers of children, which is just as well because they keep killing each other as well, as you say.

And it's, you know, they make it, they make the blood of the family special so that you have to be a Ptolemy before you can think of becoming king or queen. They don't just marry aristocrats or anyone like this. So they start marrying brothers to sisters, uncles to nieces, all this sort of thing. But it means that because anybody in the family can be king or queen, you can't trust them.

So I mean, Cleopatra is involved in bumping off two brothers and a sister, and she knows that she couldn't trust any of them. They'd do the same to her. Once the children get old enough, even they are a threat. You know, you simply cannot trust anyone who's a Ptolemy.

CONAN: And generally, you end up marrying your brother.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Yeah, exactly. So I mean, it's quite surprising, really, that they didn't all have webbed feet and, you know, six toes and all this sort of stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Their genetic information was not as complete as ours these days.

We're talking with Adrian Goldsworthy about his new book, "Antony and Cleopatra." If you have questions about the world's most famous lovers and what you think you know about them, and if you've ever wondered why their story continues to fascinate after all these years, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, And let's start with Peter(ph), Peter with us from Avalon in New Jersey.

PETER (Caller): Oh, hi. My question was Professor Goldsworthy mentioned Antony's supposed descent from Hercules. And of course, Julius Caesar claimed descent from the goddess Venus. And Cleopatra is more or less descended from Alexander the Great or from his step-brother. And moreover, the pharaohs were sort of god-kings of Egypt.

And I'm just curious in terms of what the belief system was at the time. Were these people regarded by their contemporaries as demigods or as actually related to divine beings? Was that taken seriously?

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: It's quite complicated because obviously, they keep telling you I'm descended from the god, or I am a living god or goddess. I mean, Cleopatra's father styled himself the new Dionysus, and she talks of herself as Isis and has all sorts of statues and proclamations about this. Antony likes dressing up as Dionysus, as well, as well as the Hercules connection. So they're very keen to persuade you that they are special, that they are more than human.

But of course, it's more complicated because this is an ancient world where there are lots and lots of gods and goddesses. You know, for us, we're used to the monotheistic idea there's God, there's man, and it's a very clear division. But the whole sort of in the tenure of Greek myth is that you have Hercules, who starts as a man, though the son of a God, but works his way up to some sort of semi-divine status.

So it's a bit more muddied. It's a bit less clear. But on the one hand, people are quite happy if you're paying them to go out and cheer you and worship you as a god and all this sort of thing. But how far it actually convinces them that you're worth following if things go wrong is more difficult. I mean, Antony and Cleopatra, they're both claiming descent from the gods, and yet they both lose, and everybody abandons them. So it doesn't necessarily work all the time.

CONAN: And you have to say that the favorite part of Dionysus's garb that Antony liked was probably the wine cup.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Oh, yeah, very definitely, yes, always ready for a good party, as far as Antony is concerned. And, you know, it's a bit striking. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the book hasn't survived. But the only thing that he ever wrote that was published was a book on his drinking. So that gives you an idea of his...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And we don't get the impression he was writing about 12 steps.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Oh, no. No, no, no. This is more the sort of frat-boy approach to let's have a good night and also, but, you know, it's never done me any harm sort of thing. That was the idea.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the call.

PETER: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to this is Denise(ph), Denise with us from San Francisco.

DENISE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking the call. I was wondering if she, Cleopatra, had any children with, say, her, you know, brothers or whoever she if she produced any children, and did her and Mark Antony have any children?

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Right. Well, we're slightly unsure as to whether or not Cleopatra formally married her two brothers. She's joint ruler with them both. However, they're both several years younger than her. You know, the first time she marries her older brother, he's only 11, even though she's already an adult. So the odds are if it does - if the marriages occurred, they probably weren't consummated.

She has one son that Caesar's probably the father, Ptolemy Caesarian, and then three children with Mark Antony that tend to sort of drop out of Shakespeare and all the movies. You know, they get forgotten about. They're not part of the drama, not part of the romance.

But she has a twin boy and a girl with him called the Sun and the Moon, and then other son, Ptolemy Philadelphus, a few years later, all of whom survive. Those three survive on. One of them, the daughter actually marries a North African king later on and founds a dynasty there. So Cleopatra's descendants rule on for another 100 years, sort of along the coast of North Africa.

CONAN: And indeed, some of Antony's descendents become emperors of Rome.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Oh yes, there's three of them. I mean, you've got Caligula, Claudius and Nero. So, on the basis that two of them are pretty mad and fairly bad, that's not necessarily a good average. But, you know, we tend to have a nice view of Claudius, probably because of Robert Graves in "I, Claudius" as much as anything. But he wasn't as dangerous or homicidal as the other two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Denise, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

DENISE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Adrian Goldsworthy, the author most recently of "Antony and Cleopatra," out today from Yale University Press, with us from the studios of the BBC in Cardiff.

If you'd like to join our conversation, what do you want to know about the world's most famous lovers? Why does their story continue to fascinate, two millennia after their suicides? 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking about the real story of Antony and Cleopatra. Through the ages, writers, scholars and romantics have often portrayed Cleopatra as a benevolent leader and Antony as passionate, but a bit simple. Like so many other things we think we know about the two lovers, not so true.

Adrian Goldsworthy corrects those and other myths in excerpt from his book at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. The name of his new book is "Antony and Cleopatra."

So why do these people continue to fascinate after all these years? What do you want to know about these famous lovers? 800-989-8255. Email: And let's see if we can go next to this is Nick, Nick with us from Grand Rapids.

NICK (Caller): Hi, yes. How are you guys doing? Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

NICK: Well, I recently took a class on this actual specific subject of Cleopatra and her interaction with a bunch of Roman things, and I kind of just wanted to question a I'm not quite sure if it is a myth, the story of how she rolled herself naked in a very large carpet and unrolled herself in front of Caesar. I was not quite sure if this was actually true, or if this was just some story that was told back in the day. And I will take my answer off the air. Thanks.

CONAN: All right, Nick. Thanks very much. Always a very good scene in the movies, Adrian Goldsworthy.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: It's great stuff. I'm afraid we've got to definitely kill off the naked idea. That's not mentioned at all. There's one Greek source, a chap called Plutarch, who tells us that she was brought to Julius Caesar secretly and sneaked into the palace because her brother's soldiers are besieging it, and they're, you know, they're ready to kill her because she's the rival. He wants to get rid of her.

It probably wasn't a carpet. Looking at the Greek, the most likely thing is something like a laundry bag. So maybe they sort of undid the top, and it just fell down as she stood up.

It's slightly sort of weirdly like a dancer popping out of a cake or something like. It's always, like, that idea. But we're told that she took great care to present herself to look both beautiful, but also pitiful.

You know, she wanted Caesar's sympathy, and she happened to know that Caesar was a great womanizer, so that, you know, that's the best way to get his sympathy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So it's there. Caesar probably knew she was coming. It's unlikely that -because they'd certainly been corresponding with each other. He needs her as a political tool against her brother, who's besieging him in the palace. So he needs someone to try and play off against the brother to say, look, I can turn to someone else. I can make them queen of Egypt instead of you. So you better start dealing with me. You better start talking to me.

So it's there, but it's like everything in Cleopatra's life and her affairs with the Romans. It's this heady mixture. The romance is there, but all the time, it's about politics. It's about power. And Caesar, Cleopatra, Antony, all of them, they're very much political animals. And however much they're enjoying this, however exciting the whole thing is, they have a clear political agenda all the way through.

CONAN: Let's go next to this is, - let's see if I can push the button -Michael, Michael with us from Denver.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, how are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well.

MICHAEL: If Cleopatra was a Greek Egyptian and Antony was a Roman, and of course Caesar was Roman, what language did they speak to each other? And how do we know?

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: We know that Cleopatra's first language is Greek. And any Roman like Caesar or Mark Antony - an educated, aristocratic Roman of that day and age - grows up to be fluently bilingual. Now, Cleopatra spoke in...

MICHAEL: In Greek and Latin.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: In Greek and Latin. Sorry, yes. Now, Cleopatra we know spoke another eight or nine languages apart from Greek, one of which was Egyptian, and she was the first one of her family after all those centuries to bother to learn the local language.

But there's no mention of Latin. So whilst we're confident that she is, you know, she's a very bright, very clever woman, she probably could have learned Latin if she wanted to, and maybe she did. It's never mentioned.

But she could have communicated perfectly with Caesar, with Antony, with everybody else in Greek, because Greek is the language of culture, of civilization, of the highest form of education.

In Alexandria there, her capital has the philosophers, the museum, the Great Library. It's very much the center of not just education, but Greek education.

So to prove that you're civilized, which people like Antony and Caesar like, and even in the, you know, the little clip we had from the old Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor movie, you know, it's the almost entirely Greek thing. You know, it's very - it is very important to them. That's something that's exciting to a Roman, because they do feel a little bit inferior.

MICHAEL: Okay, well, thank you much.

CONAN: Thank you, Michael. Here's an email from Jill in Baton Rouge: Can the author comment on the truth of what I believe I read in Plutarch about Antony and Cleopatra, the two went fishing, and as Antony was a land general of the Roman Empire and knew little of fishing, he had his soldiers jump into the water and put fish onto his line.

Cleopatra knew this was happening and jokingly sent down some men of her own to put dead fish on his line. So when he reeled them in, they were dead. Is this true? A very funny aspect of the love affair and the political situation.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: It's a story Plutarch tells very well, and the fish aren't just dead. They're you know, they've been smoked and preserved and brought all the way from the Black Sea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: So they've come from hundreds and hundreds of miles away, and she's supposed to make this joke about, you know, it's your business to take nations and cities rather than just fish.

But it's emphasized all the time, that Cleopatra does - takes a lot of effort to be amusing, to be lively, to you know, Antony's very keen on showing off his muscles, on showing off his exercising. So she goes to watch him in the gymnasium.

It's a very Greek thing to do, but, you know, he wants an audience. And they dress up as slaves or poor people and servants and wander the streets of Alexandria at night, pretending their ordinary and presumably making sure that, you know, everybody realizes well, they're not that ordinary.

So it's all part of this entertaining the man. She needs him because she needs Roman backing to cling onto power, and he represents Rome in that area. But it's part of how she gets that is very much done on a personal level, as well as the political level of giving him the money, giving him the grain, giving him the resources he wants from her kingdom.

CONAN: Let's go next to Alexis(ph), Alexis with us from Sacramento.

ALEXIS (Caller): Yes, thank you, John. A fellow Greek. Yes, my grandmother always told me I was more civilized than most.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALEXIS: So what keeps me fascinated is what I considered one of the great mysteries of history: Why did Antony put that huge army and fleet together to battle Octavian and then run away from them and back to her and leave them to be decimated?

CONAN: The Battle of Actium, 31 B.C.

ALEXIS: Right.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: I think if you look at Antony's earlier military career, it actually fits with a lot of the things he's done there. He doesn't really know what to do. So he gets such a big army that he thinks I'll win because I've got a big army and a big navy.

I also suspect that by that time, he's come close to having a nervous breakdown. I mean, he's in 36 B.C., he invades the Parthian Empire and tries to win the great military glory of fighting a foreign enemy that, you know, he needs as a Roman to prove himself because he's only ever fought other Romans before.

And the whole thing is a complete catastrophe. He loses about a third of his army, and he makes lots of mistakes. He contemplates suicide on the retreat. You know, he only just gets out of this.

And from that time on, he almost never leaves Cleopatra, and he seems to need to have her to tell him what to do and to keep him from - keep his resolve up.

So although he's very willing and very ready to fight Octavian - you know, it isn't just a one-sided struggle, both sides want this civil war, and they want the power he doesn't seem to know what to do, and he doesn't really have a plan.

And because Octavian has at his disposal a chap called Agrippa, who is clearly a very gifted, both admiral and general by this time, and he really just takes Antony apart, systematically.

And the final culmination comes when Antony flees with Cleopatra. You know, her ships break through, they go off. He doesn't go back and fight with the rest of the navy. He abandons his army on land. Once he does that, by Roman standards, he had failed utterly, and there is no way back from that.

And it's very difficult to explain why he did that without some sense that he's just, he's broken by this point. He can't really cope with the fact that he isn't winning all the time, that he isn't the man he keeps telling himself he has been; that he isn't this great soldier, this great military man - because you shouldn't, as a Roman aristocrat, ever abandon your soldiers. You can lose, but you've got to stay with them and try and fight again the next day. But you don't run away from them.

CONAN: Alexis, thank you.

ALEXIS: And still - it's still true. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay, bye-bye. Here's an interesting email from Paul(ph): Does the author think Antony and Cleopatra, had they won at Actium, would the Roman Empire under their rule have had a more Greek flavor and eastern Mediterranean focus?

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: I personally doubt it. I think Antony probably would've been murdered within a few years, because he wasn't very tactful in his way of demonstrating power.

You know, when Caesar had left him in charge in Italy during the civil war, Antony decides to experiment with riding around in a chariot pulled by lions and all this sort of thing, which, you know, must have led to an insurance claim if that didn't work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: And he parades around with his mistress, who's an actress, in an open litter. He turns up for public business with a bad hangover and is sick into somebody's lap. You know, it's all this sort of he's not tactful. He doesn't have much of a clue.

And Caesar was murdered because his power was too blatant. Octavian succeeds because very, very slowly, he sort of veils the power he possesses. He is a military dictator, but he creates this impression that you still have the constitution working, that the senate is still important, the laws still work, all of these things. And he gives them peace.

Antony doesn't show any sign throughout his career of having any firm political ideas. He's simply an opportunist.

CONAN: And it's interesting. You contrast him with both Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, Octavian, in that Julius Caesar was said to have killed a million in his military campaigns and enslaved as many more. Yet while he was in power ruled pretty well and was given to generosity, as well.

Octavian, a very well, not a very nice man, and not well-liked, yet he also ruled for a long time and awfully well.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: That's the thing, and particularly with Octavian, it's very, very hard to like him, and a lot of scholars don't today. And it's sometimes because we dislike him so much that we start feeling sorry for Antony, and we don't look at what he actually did.

And his achievements are very little. Antony gets into politics because his family is well established. His name is famous. He's born believing that he has a right to be at the head of the republic, but he doesn't feel he has to do anything to prove it. He doesn't have to obey the conventions.

Somebody like Caesar, who comes from an ancient family that hasn't been doing so well, is struggling all the time to prove that he deserves it. But I think both Caesar and Octavian, yes, they are very ruthless individuals, and you probably wouldn't want to live next door to them. But they do have a vision. They do have an idea of making the state better for everybody. And, I mean, it's striking, when Caesar is murdered, Brutus and Cassius go off crying, you know, as in the Shakespeare piece, freedom, liberty is dead. They expect the people to be happy, and they're not. They didn't see him as a tyrant or a dictator. It's only the aristocracy that does.

Whereas, you know, with Antony, he's just not that popular, and he doesn't really have very much to offer. He doesn't try and make people's lives better. So - and I can't see if he'd established himself in Rome. If he'd brought Cleopatra there and tried to rule with her, then that was political suicide, as well. So I think the idea that somehow they offered a different take on the empire, it was a much softer or Greeker or rather gentler empire, is largely a myth. I don't think Antony offered anything at all, and I don't think Cleopatra had the power to offer anything, however bright and capable she was.

CONAN: Here's an email from Ashley in Conway, Arkansas: I recently read an article on Herod the Great featured in National Geographic, in which Cleopatra was described as having made attempts to seduce Herod and regularly manipulating her husband in order to gain more lands for her own empire.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Yeah. It's a story, but we have to be a little bit careful because the source of this story is Herod himself, later on in his memoirs, which haven't survived, that get quoted. So, you know, it's later on, long after Cleopatra's gone, he's saying, well, you know, this really famous, great, beautiful woman tried to seduce me. But I resisted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: I was too pure of heart to - you know, for a man who's bumped off most of his own family, as well. This is sort of not, you know, too much to talk about his character. But they are very closely related.

And it's quite interesting that Cleopatra, time and again, tries to get Antony to give her Judea in Herod's kingdom, but he doesn't. So he's not completely under her sway, even at the most, you know, the highest state of the affair. And Herod, because he's a reliable ruler, he's good for the Romans, you know, he keeps control, he does just what they want, Antony likes him. Antony keeps him in power. But Cleopatra keeps on interfering through Herod's mother-in-law, and all this sort of thing, into the politics of the place. And she clearly has her eye on it, because back a century or two ago, her ancestors had ruled all of that coastline, and she wants to get that back, but she's never allowed it.

CONAN: Adrian Goldsworthy's new book is "Antony and Cleopatra."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Jim, Jim with us from Denver.

JIM (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I wondered as to the extent to which the fascination with Antony and Cleopatra derives not just from the obvious sort of power and power succession - money, frankly, sex, character or logical idiosyncrasy kinds of elements - but as well from the more overarching context of the time in which Rome was being compelled from being a republic and a representational republic in certain respects to becoming an authoritarian empire.

And if there is a fascination that moves, sort of, in people's subliminal states of thinking in terms of a comparison between that time and potential directions for our own time, in relation to our own democracy and Western democracies generally, and if there's a more abstract origin for the continuing fascination with both persons in the context of the times in which they lived.

CONAN: This is something you've written about, Adrian Goldsworthy.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Yes. I mean, I think it is very true, because you're looking at an era of huge change. And it does fascinate us to look and to see how that can happen, how a state that was not as healthy a democracy in a modern form as we might understand, nevertheless, by ancient standards, you've got elections. Your magistrates are chosen. They hold power for a limited time. You know, the electorate counts, even if it's not all of the population that can actually vote, and women can vote, and you've got slavery and all this sort of thing. Nevertheless, Rome is a democracy of sorts. And yet, it ends up as a military dictatorship.

But one of the striking things is that even by the time Antony is born, Roman politics is already falling apart. You've had - the first civil war has occurred. You know, in 88 B.C., for the first time, Roman legions marched on the city of Rome, seized power by force, and one politician has his way through military might. You have more and more political violence through the next decade. So Antony grows up in a world when he's never actually seen the republic working properly. And I think for quite a few of his generation, they lose respect for it because they're told that, you know, if we behave properly, if we follow these rules, we have this wonderful, great state. But they can't actually see it.

So I think it was a fascination. But, if anything, a reassuring aspect is that the Roman Republic died in extremely violent conflict, in political violence, assassination, civil war. So whilst we may look and we are very right to be concerned, I think, at all times, by the state of our own countries and our own democracies, we're nowhere near as bad. And I suppose you've got to go back, if you think of the founding fathers in America creating a Constitution to avoid just this situation, to avoid a Caesar. You know, when you think of the praise for George Washington, that, unlike Caesar, he resigns power and he doesn't keep standing as president.

So there's a conscious looking back at this period - and it's not just today, it's been over the centuries - where we look back and we try and avoid the same mistake.

JIM: Just as importantly, Washington didn't insist on standing in power as general, either.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Yes. Exactly.

JIM: And that was a tremendous lesson, as well. And I love your juxtaposition with the founders - and Washington, in particular - with what, by contrast, happened with the demise of the Roman Republic. Thank you so much. I look forward to reading your book.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Thank you.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call. Just have a few seconds left, but Sarah writes an email: Can you clear up the issue of Cleopatra's suicide? Was it an asp or poison?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: One or the other, probably...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: about as good as we can get. They didn't even know at the time. The story of the snake bite and the asp circulated very, very quickly. It seems to be the one that Octavian Augustus presents as the official version. But whether she got the venom from a snake directly - because then you start to argue, because two of her maids killed themselves, as well. And, you know, could one snake provide all that poison and all this? Sometimes, I think people can get a little bit obsessed. It's almost like the studies of, you know, Hitler's last days in the bunker, and you forget the story that got him there. And that's really the critical thing.

CONAN: Adrian Goldsworthy tells that story in his new book "Anthony and Cleopatra," out today. He joined us from the studios of the BBC in Cardiff, Wales. Thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: Thanks very much. It's been fun.

CONAN: Coming up, a power play for succession - well, this one in Pyongyang, North Korea. So far as we know, sex and romance does not play a big part in it. But stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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