A Plain Blunt Man
I’ve decided to give a short review of Mark Antony, A Plain Blunt Man by Paolo de Ruggiero, released last year by Pen & Sword. I’m a bit wary of doing this as I have no history qualifications whatsoever, but the author of this book is (according to his bio in the book jacket) a business executive at a multi national corporation, rather than an academic, so I feel like I may as well have a go. While not an academic, de Ruggiero says he did grow up in Rome in a family of academics and has been passionate about Roman history all his life. For better or worse that passion definitely shows throughout the book.
This biography of Mark Antony aims to give a narrative of his life while placing his acts in context and reappraising the accounts of contemporary historians to show that the common image of Antony as brawn over brains is a harsh and inaccurate one. Right from the introduction the books sets out in favour of Mark Antony, giving a brief overview of the historiography and why they may or may not be trusted – Velleius is picked out as particularly bias as he owed his career to the Julio-Claudians, while Appian and Cassius Dio are considered particularly useful for the wealth of information they give. He also briefly covers a few of the common misconceptions he hopes to clear up about Antony – that he lacked organizational skills as a leader, that he was dominated by strong women, that he abandoned Rome to become an oriental king, and that he was lazy, arrogant, immoral and generally a bad apple. The author’s enthusiasm shows straight away and starts the book on a high.
Unfortunately the next section, getting the reader up to speed on Mark Antony’s early life and the environment in Rome as he started his career, is the weakest section of the book. It’s an exciting period of history and the author managed to catch some of that energy, but overall it comes across as poorly laid out and a little unbalanced. Topics seem to arrive one after another in a blur of information, without any logical order. He covers both the unstable political situation that Antony would have been moving in, the military expansion he would have took part in as a soldier and the family life that he would have been brought up in but at times they balance seems a little off – there is a surprisingly brief description of Marius and Sulla followed by a more lengthy explanation of the Roman provincial corruption typified by Verres, then jumping forward to Cataline. It’s easy to understand why this is so – it’s made clear that M.A. Creticus, Mark Antony’s father, suffered similar disgrace and failure as the governor of Crete, but it makes for a shaky introduction to the Roman world. There are also a number of awkward phrasings and anachronisms (referring to the populares as left wing) that occur, but these could probably be put down to iffy translation.
This soon calms down though and once Caesar dies (spoiler alert) things really start to take off. He first describes how Antony helps to hold together the Roman state in the aftermath, which might have otherwise descended immediately into chaos, and uses his oratorical skills at the funeral oration to swing public opinion away from the Liberators (or Caesaricides). In this he portrays Mark Antony as something more than a bluff soldier, as a very capable politician who played a brilliant diplomatic strategy to gather power on himself in this period. The funeral oration then leads into Cicero’s Philippics, which de Ruggiero picks his way through with a critical eye. Being keen to rehabilitate Antony, de Ruggiero doesn’t exactly seem even handed here but Cicero wasn’t exactly fair and balanced either, so it makes for quite an entertaining section.
I don’t want to suggest that things are all one sided – the author paints a lovely picture of Antony’s retreat from Mutina where his army (according to Plutarch) suffered horrible weather conditions and supply shortages through the gentle hills of Piedmont in May. But still, exaggerated or not, this recovery is used to show Antony’s ability to bounce back from defeat and the book goes on to describe the formation of the Triumvirate and the defeat of the Liberators at Philippi. This is well described, giving a rounded description of how and why things played out as they did.
Finally Cleopatra appears as the Triumvirate divide the world and Antony goes East. Now the author shows the care that was perhaps missing from the early introduction, the different locations and characters – Octavian, Lepidus, Sextus Pompey, Herod the Great, Octavia and more are followed through these years as they consolidate and campaign. This is both accessible and full of details, covering details like Antony’s Parthian campaigns, the rival kings of Judea and Antony’s reorganization of the Roman East. Antony’s “native” behaviour is explained as part of a more acceptable and sustainable form of imperialism than the one eventually emerged – whether one agrees with this or not, the motives and implications of this are covered well. Eventually though things between Antony and Octavian escalate and Mark Antony finds himself stuck in a bad situation with no clear way out, he loses the battle of Actium (suggested here as an attempted tactical retreat) and, demoralised, his army and power slips away before finally he and his Egyptian queen meet their famous end.
Unfortunately the book also finishes with a little bit of a whimper. There’s a final epilogue summarizing what happened next to Antony’s children and relatives. This slips back a little to the problems from the introduction, it’s good stuff and there’s a few amusing stories but it’s not laid out particularly well and it ends quite abruptly once he’s covered everyone. Some sort of conclusion might have been nice, if only to let me down gently.
Overall it’s a very enjoyable book but with some very noticeable flaws. The editing and the organization could be improved at places, but for a first book this is probably forgivable. The author is apparently working on a biography of Seneca next, and if he can tighten up the structure a bit while keeping the passion of this book then it could be worth looking out for.