Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World by Diana Preston
While I was in Philadelphia, there was a presentation in the Constitution Museum on Ancient Rome and the comparisons to America (some of these similarities were a result of the fact that the Founding Fathers were using the Roman Republic as both an example and a warning), and the Franklin was having a special exhibition on Cleopatra. As a result, I really felt the urge to watch Rome again and reread Margaret George's The Memoirs of Cleopatra which is one of my favorite novels, but instead opted to read an actual history.
Overall, this book does a good job of explaining the historical context and politics of the time. She spends a few chapters breaking down the situation in Egypt during the reign of the Ptolemies, and then uses several chapters to discuss the way the Roman Republic had been changing in the past few decades, and how great men had been taking more and more power for themselves to the detriment of the republican ideals, using examples such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and putting Caesar's rise into context. This, of course, leads to Caesar and Cleopatra's eventual meeting and liasion.
Preston does a good job of trying to see through the propaganda that was written against Cleopatra both during and after her lifetime, and explains why certain rumors and slanders are probably untrue based on when they first started becoming popular (for example, the idea that Cleopatra hoped to survive or receive mercy by delivering a dead Marc Antony to Octavian was something that wasn't alluded to till years after her death, and as result, is rather unlikely). And Preston usually attempts to explain why Antony and Cleopatra acted in the ways they did even when in hindsight they must have known they would be alienating people that could be very important allies to them. Still, I didn't always feel like their actions made sense, but they were human so that probably explains it. Plus, it's been over two thousand years and unfortunately things get lost over time.
Still, while it was a good general history of Rome and Egypt of that particular time period, I was a little disappointed. For example, the title is Cleopatra and Antony but the period of time where they are a couple seems to take up the smallest part of the book. Also, since Preston gives Cleopatra precedence in the title, it would have been nice to hear more about her reign within Egypt when on her own (there's some but I wanted more). Instead, the focus was definitely on Rome which, of course, makes sense since Rome had the power to determine Egypt's future, but I still would have liked to hear more about other topics as well.
I hate to admit this but a lot of my knowledge of Roman history (at least the superspecific stuff) comes from historical fiction (and a college class or two). And honestly, it seems like both Margaret George's novel and Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series were very accurate . . . I can't say I liked McCullough's characterization of Cleopatra that much (she's definitely a Octavian fan) but the basic historic details were right. In fact, I'm not sure if I really learned that much from this book other than getting a quick refresher of Roman history, and getting justification in not liking the way Rome portrays Cleopatra, either - though I definitely like that series. Basically, it's good overview to Roman history as the republic transitioned to an empire but it doesn't necessarily spend as much time on Cleopatra and Antony as one might hope from the title (obviously context is important, though).