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Revolution in Rome

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

Marc Antony, His World and His Contemporaries. By Jack Lindsay. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.75. Cleopatra, The Story of a Queen. By Emil Ludwig. Translated by Bernard Miall. New York: The Viking Press. $3.50. Augustus. By John Buchan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Company. $4.50.

The fundamental problem of the nature of history could hardly be more clearly illustrated than by three recent biographies of Marc Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus. By laborious research scholars have established for the period of Rome’s Civil Wars a set of accepted facts and have laid out the story me es eigentlich gewesen, “as it actually happened.” The three writers here concerned have mastered these facts; yet in their relation of the events and in their interpretation of the meaning and significance of both events and personalities, where the subjective interests of the authors have had full sway, they exhibit amazing differences—and at the same time, it must be remarked, as striking similarities. Jack Lindsay’s “Marc Antony,” steeped in Marxism, treats the events as an example of the struggle between classes, the “haves” and the “have nots.” In “Cleopatra,” Emil Ludwig is primarily interested in psychology, and he interprets the period through a study of the characters of the leading actors. In “Augustus,” John Buchan, trained in the English school and a statesman in his own right, is interested in the administrative and economic aspects of the breakdown of the Roman republic and in the programs for rebuilding the Roman state and the Roman world developed by Julius Caesar and Augustus. In spite of these differences of approach, the three authors agree in their estimates of the chief characters: the genius of Caesar, the ability of Cleopatra, the weakness of Antony, and the wisdom of Augustus. Furthermore, it is worthy of more than passing notice, at a time when all the emphasis of historical interpretation is being placed upon mass movements, that these books should appear labeled as biographies, as if the characters and careers of individuals were after all the determining elements of history.

On closer examination Mr. Lindsay’s “Marc Antony” is found to be more in accord with the current theory than its title would indicate. The central theme of the book is, as we have noted, not its titular hero but the “social struggles in which Marcus Antonius was so important an actor,” After a brief treatment of the early life of Antony, of the background of Roman history, and of the first stages of the revolution, the author allows Antony to disappear for a time and begins the main story with the rise of Catiline and his contest with the conservative forces led by Cicero. Mr. Lindsay’s interpretation of these men and events presents a most interesting challenge to one trained in the traditional story. Catiline emerges as the champion of the oppressed against the senatorial landlords and the money-lending capitalists. Many pages are devoted to an endeavor to clear Catiline of those charges so familiar to all who in their youth struggled through Cicero’s orations. Mr. Lindsay attempts the same reconstruction with Clodius, and plays up the weakness of Pompey, the time-serving vacillations of Cicero, the greediness of Crassus, and the dire reactionary machinations of Cato, “the boozy, hectoring Junker.” Out of the confusion of the last decade of the republic emerged Cassar, intelligent, far-seeing, “champion of the whole Empire against the exploiters” — not a Fascist but rather a dictator of the proletariat. Mr. Lindsay vigorously denies that Caesar had dreams of an eastern empire and of Alexandrian greatness. Cleopatra receives the treatment that the sources clearly prove she deserves as a conscientious and exceedingly able ruler, in some respects the greatest as well as the last of the Ptolemies. According to Mr. Lindsay, she was animated by a dynastic dream in her desire to make her son, Cassation, ruler of the world with the assistance of Antony and his Roman legions. Antony needed her assistance for the Parthian War and certainly preferred her to Octavia, whose very purity was a challenge to his own desires. But not until after the failure of his Parthian expedition did he fall in love with the queen and in his weakness become willing to serve as her defender. Meanwhile Octavian, skilled and cautious, had found a balance for political and economic forces in the West and so became the champion of Rome against the East. Clever propaganda sealed his victory in Rome and Actium completed his triumph. The flight of Cleopatra and Antony, so long disputed, is explained as nothing more than the following of a plan of retirement prepared against defeat. Their deaths followed in due order and Octavian, become Augustus, emerged as master of the world.

Mr. Lindsay is a master of the sources to the extent of using his own excellent translations; there are few slips, and these only the hypercritical will notice. Long study of Cicero’s writings seems to have given him an affection for that ancient that, in spite of his condemnation of Cicero’s policies and individual acts, he cannot quite overcome or conceal. Mr. Lindsay’s interpretations are worthy of serious consideration, and many of them of commendation. He has, however, an unfortunate tendency to generalize and moralize along Marxian lines. The book would be stronger without its many obvious preconceptions, which do much to weaken the confidence of the reader in the author’s explanations of individual events.

It is a relaxation to turn from Mr. Lindsay’s stimulating polemic to Emil Ludwig’s charming presentation of the life of Cleopatra. This book has little to add to the oft-told tale of this most romantic of queens; but it is so beautifully written and so well translated that it is a pleasure to read it. From the first page to the last the book is dominated by the personality of the queen who, dead nearly two thousand years, still commands her due meed of admiration or of mortal enmity. By a clever literary device Mr. Ludwig presents the dramatis persona? of the Roman scene as they appeared before Cleopatra, though by so doing he violates elements of chronology and even of historical fact. There are several unnecessary weaknesses in the book as history—confusion in names, errors in chronology, and the like. Yet as the relation and interpretation of one of the great stories of the past it has charm and fascination.

Relaxation yields to relief and satisfaction when the reviewer turns to John Buchan’s “Augustus.” Here is a book written by a man with a thorough mastery of the sources and literature of his subject, and experienced both in the writing of history and in the management of affairs. “Augustus” is a historian’s history, albeit written in an interesting style with verve and vigor. The story begins with the boyhood of Octavian under the mighty Caesar. The author, after an ultra-conservative remark that “the corn-dole had pauperized [Rome’s] citizens,” discusses the Csesarian program of a unified empire in which Rome should be the greatest of many cities in an empire built on a basis of reason and humanity but ruled by one man under a single administrative system. But the conservative forces of the past were too much for the great Julius. Mr. Buchan follows the career of the youthful Octavian sympathetically: he condones or explains his mistakes and excesses on the grounds of necessity or youthful lack of judgment, and he takes pride in his successes. The familiar story follows. Octavian, aided by Agrippa, a man of great ability who willingly took second place in the name of friendship, restored peace and order to the West. Antony, “the classic instance of the second-rate man who is offered a first-rate destiny and who, in stumbling after it, loses his way in the world,” failed in the East. Cleopatra remains the able queen of Egypt, possessed of an alert intelligence and an unconquerable spirit, dreaming, however, not of world rule but of the restoration of Egypt under Roman protection. The flight from Actium, as in our other authors, is treated as the product of defeat, not of treachery and cowardice.

After Actium Augustus rebuilt the world, a process of great interest to our own disordered times. “He desired sue-cess, not victory.” Believing firmly in the greatness of Rome, he restored Roman power over the provinces; relying upon the aristocracy, he placed Senators in offices of command and a rehabilitated Senate in a position of power. For himself he took titles and powers not in violation of republican tradition. That he attempted to set up a division of power, a diarchy, between himself and the Senate, or a disguised monarchy, the author quite rightly denies. The Senate was to rule the empire with himself as its leader, possessed of the tribunician power for civil affairs and the proconsular power for military command. The estimate of Augustus’s character with which the book closes is worthy of careful reading. Mr. Buchan attributes to him “iron self-command, infinite patience, and an infallible judgment of facts and men.” By sheer force of character this “least romantic of great men” was able to transform himself from a “cold self-contained youth” into “the friend of all the world.” His constitution for the empire “remains one of the major products of the human intelligence.” And it is well to remember with the author, in these days of regimentation, that Augustus believed in law, but that he also believed in and endeavored to preserve for men that decent measure of freedom which is essential to the well-being of a citizen. Mr. Buchan’s conclusion is more in accord with modern American thought than is Lindsay’s Marxian doctrine.

These three books are convincing proof that whatever of science there may be in the gathering of the facts of history, their delineation is indeed a work of art wherein the subjective element of the artist holds full sway. History lives only as men experience it in their minds and hearts. Every man is his own historian.


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