Friday, August 5, 2016

A Little History


A few summers ago I read Stacy's Schiff's excellent biography of Cleopatra. It's a life Hollywood couldn't have dreamed up. The ancient queen, singlehandedly withstood the relentless pressure of the greatest empire in history, mostly by enthralling the supreme warrior of that empire in a prison of eroticism and desire. With Caeser's murder, alas, her destiny reversed. Marc Antony  proved to be an effete champion, and an idiot tactician in choosing  to battle Augustus at sea.

For this reader, Schiff's account of the Battle of Actium is instructive not so much for the details of the battle itself but for the relentless and decisive effect of Augustus' pressure beforehand. Large parts of Antony's force were only in it for the money; as his chances grew dimmer,  the desertions increased in tandem. Cassius Dio writes:

Philadelphus, king of Paphlagonia, and meanwhile Gnaeus Domitius... transferred his allegiance also... he created the impression that it was because of his disapproval of the situation on the side on which he was that he had deserted to the other, for many others followed his example...

In the critical moment Antony fled the battle with Cleopatra, breaking through Agrippa's line for Alexandria. A year later, he paid for his choice with his life.

The anniversary of the battle of Actium is September 2. By then, how large will have grown the abandonment of the Antony of our day? How great will his cowardice prove to be?


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