The History and Legend of Antony and Cleopatra
In the history of Rome figures of women are rare, because only men dominated there, imposing everywhere the brute force, the roughness, and the egoism that lie at the base of their nature: they honoured themater familias because she bore children and kept the slaves from stealing the flour from the bin and drinking the wine from the amphore on the sly. They despised the woman who made of her beauty and vivacity an adornment of social life, a prize sought after and disputed by the men. However, in this virile history there does appear, on a sudden, the figure of a woman, strange and wonderful, a kind of living Venus. Plutarch thus describes the arrival of Cleopatra at Tarsus and her first meeting with Antony:
She was sailing tranquilly along the Cydnus, on a bark with a
golden stern, with sails of purple and oars of silver, and the
dip of the oars was rhythmed to the sound of flutes, blending
with music of lyres. She herself, the Queen, wondrously
clad as Venus is pictured, was lying under an awning gold
embroidered. Boys dressed as Cupids stood at her side, gently
waving fans to refresh her; her maidens, every one beautiful
and clad as a Naiad or a Grace, directed the boat, some at
the rudder, others at the ropes. Both banks of the stream were
sweet with the perfumes burning on the vessel.
Posterity is yet dazzled by this ship, refulgent with purple and gold and melodious with flutes and lyres. If we are spellbound by Plutarch's description, it does not seem strange to us that Antony should be - he who could not only behold in person that wonderful Venus, but could dine with her tete-a-tete, in a splendour of torches indescribable. Surely this is a setting in no wise improbable for the beginning of the famous romance of the love of Antony and Cleopatra, and its development as probable as its beginning; the follies committed by Antony for the seductive Queen of the Orient, the divorce of Octavia, the war for love of Cleopatra, kindled in the whole Empire, and the miserable catastrophe. Are there not to be seen in recent centuries many men of power putting their greatness to risk and sometimes to ruin for love of a woman? Are not the love letters of great statesmen - for instance, those of Mirabeau and of Gambetta - admitted to the semi-official part of modern history-writing? And so also Antony could love a queen and, like so many modern statesmen, commit follies for her. A French critic of my book, burning his ships behind him, has said that Antony was a Roman Boulanger.
The romance pleases: art takes it as subject and re-takes it; but that does not keep off the brutal hands of criticism. Before all, it should be observed that moderns feel and interpret the romance of Antony and Cleopatra in a way very different from that of the ancients. From Shakespeare to De Heredia and Henri Houssaye, artists and historians have described with sympathy, even almost idealised, this passion that throws away in a lightning flash every human greatness, to pursue the mantle of a fleeing woman; they find in the follies of Antony something profoundly human that moves them, fascinates them, and makes them indulgent. To the ancients, on the contrary, the amours of Antony and Cleopatra were but a dishonourable degeneration of the passion. They have no excuse for the man whom love for a woman impelled to desert in battle, to abandon soldiers, friends, relatives, to conspire against the greatness of Rome.
This very same difference of interpretation recurs in the history of the amours of Caesar. Modern writers regard what the ancients tell us of the numerous loves - real or imaginary - of Caesar, as almost a new laurel with which to decorate his figure. On the contrary, the ancients recounted and spread abroad, and perhaps in part invented, these storiettes of gallantry for quite opposite reasons - as source of dishonour, to discredit him, to demonstrate that Caesar was effeminate, that he could not give guarantee of knowing how to lead the armies and to fulfil the virile and arduous duties that awaited every eminent Roman. There is in our way of thinking a vein of romanticism wanting in the ancient mind. We see in love a certain forgetfulness of ourselves, a certain blindness of egoism and the more material passions, a kind of power of self-abnegation, which, inasmuch as it is unconscious, confers a certain nobility and dignity; therefore we are indulgent to mistakes and follies committed for the sake of passion, while the ancients were very severe. We pardon with a certain compassion the man who for love of a woman has not hesitated to bury himself under the ruin of his own greatness; the ancients, on the contrary, considered him the most dangerous and despicable of the insane.