Finished this last night. Ever since I read The First Man in Rome I've been in awe of the research that McCullough puts into her books. She has chronicled the decline and fall of the Roman Republic from the time of Gaius Marius, through Sulla and Caesar and, finally, to Octavian/Augustus. Fascinating stuff.
Antony and Cleopatra is as much about the rise of Octavian as it is about Antony and Cleopatra.
There is nothing flattering in this portrait of two people trying desperately to hang on to power.
Antony is portrayed as a man plagued by doubt, lazy, a supreme procrastinator. He has a chronic inability to pay attention to important details and suffers from a fairly major drinking problem, which he manages to control at times but succumbs completely to when it all gets too hard. He is a man who can win battles but not the war.
Cleopatra is portrayed as a tiny, ugly woman completely consumed by her ambition to make her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, King of Kings. King of the World. That Caesarion doesn't want this and is more than happy to settle for being Pharaoh of Egypt is ignored by his mother with disastrous results.
The relationship between Antony and Cleopatra begins as one of mutual need. He needs her money to pay for his campaigns in the east. She needs his influence in Rome and is prepared to back him in order to topple Octavian and, thereby, clear the way for Caesarion.
They do, eventually, fall in love but by then it's all too late. Both end up committing suicide. The way McCullough details the declining psychological state of both Antony and Cleopatra, particularly as their respective ambitions are thwarted time and time again, is wonderfully done.
Octavian, meanwhile, slowly but surely turns Rome against Antony. He comes across as a master of propaganda, of spin. He uses Antony's relationship with Cleopatra, who he dubs the Queen of Beasts, to destroy Antony's reputation as a true Roman. He eventually meets Caesarion in Egypt and murders him on the spot. He recognises that Caesarion, the spitting image of his father, cannot be allowed to enter Rome as the people would accept him immediately as the true heir of his father (Octavian is Caesar's son by adoption only). Julius Caesar has, by this time, been raised to the status of a god. If the people of Rome were exposed to the god's son they would bestow on him the same status. Cleopatra's ambitions would be fulfilled. The emphasis, though, is that Octavian is working always for the greater good of Rome, not for his own personal power. That he attains supreme power in the end is a bonus rather than a fulfilment of desire. According to McCullough anyway.
The series spans seven, very large, books. The First Man in Rome tells the story of Gaius Marius, the outsider who revolutionised the structure of the Roman army. He does become the First Man but is never fully accepted by the Roman establishment. The Grass Crown details the rise of Cornelius Sulla to First Man status. A complete reprobate. Fortune's Favourites, Caesar's Women, Caesar and The October Horse chronicle the rise and ultimate fall of Gaius Julius Caesar from childhood to assassination. Truly one of the giants of history. Antony and Cleopatra brings the Roman Republic to an end with the rise of Octavian to the position of Rome's first emperor, Augustus.
It's a fascinating story.