Son of a disgraced father, stepson of an executed conspirator, Marcus Antonius has an uphill battle to attain prestige in Rome. This coming-of-age story shows how the fervent youth becomes a spoiled teenager, squandering his patrimony on wine and women and becoming indebted to loan sharks to the tune of 200 talents (FWIW, that’s a lot…). His distant cousin on his mother’s side, Julius Caesar, gives him a second chance, sending him to Greece to achieve an education, but there is no margin for error or folly this time. Using his native intelligence and aptitude for strategy, Marcus manages to secure a military post, helping quell an uprising in Judea before crossing the deserts of Arabia to help a pampered and vindictive pharaoh regain his throne. While there, Marcus encounters Ptolemy’s darling daughter, the Lotus Flower Cleopatra, and establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with in the twilight days of the Roman Republic.
This book was a fascinating look at the life of Mark Antony. I’ve always enjoyed his role in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (“But Brutus is an honorable man…”), but I didn’t know much about him. The opening scenes of the book, occurring during Spartacus’ revolt, do a brilliant job setting the stage for what Roman society looks like, including the immense divide between free and slave. Marcus’ descent into debauchery in his teenage years is deftly portrayed as is his family’s unfortunate connection to the Catiline conspiracy. Julius Caesar comes alive as a sympathetic but inflexible character, determined to reward Marcus according to his merit.
When Caesar ships Marcus off to Greece, our hero finally gains the willpower to conquer his own hedonism. The military makes a man out of him, and he gains the skills necessary to be a leader. During his campaigns, Marcus proves capable of navigating the complicated politics of Judea and Egypt, giving us hints of the sophisticated politician he will one day become (“O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers…”)
This book is a brilliant start to the Antonius trilogy. Brook Allen captures the milieu and personages of the late Roman Republic without shying away from the brutality of the age and without serving up modern, anachronistic characters in token togas. I’m looking forward to the next title in the series.