What I’m Reading: “The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium” by Barry Strauss

“The War That Made the Roman Empire” by ancient-military historian Barry Strauss is written with an eye for detail on how the famous last stand of Antony and Cleopatra was fought and won by Octavian, and retold with a wistful, delightful “what if” nostalgia. What if Antony and Cleopatra won and the ancient world of both Hellenistic Greece and Ancient Egypt more permeated the modern world to date? This atmosphere was quite delightful.

Strauss spins a good yarn about the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar, the battle for supremacy between Octavian, who won and became Augustus Caesar, and Antony, who lost along with Ancient Egypt’s last pharaoh, Cleopatra. She, of course, was a Greek decedent of a general of Alexander the Great – Ptolemy. Strauss presents a story told before, but with more accent on Cleopatra and the importance of Alexandria, which at the time had the Mediterranean world’s greatest library, and was a multicultural epicenter of culture and learning.

In Strauss’ telling, Cleopatra’s political ambitions and religious-like presence among Antony and his Roman army paints a dramatic tapestry, as Antony too marched under the banner of Dionysus. At the same time, Strauss hints her military and diplomatic presence made some Romans at best uncomfortable as Antony and Octavian vied for power.

Of course, these military generals and pharaohs were brutal. Strauss does a good job of telling the story too of chaos unleashed by warring Roman military generals; the landscape that became the sea battle of Actium on Sept. 2, 31 AD; and recounts the tactics and strategies until Anthony and Cleopatra (and the ships and soldiers that could) fled. Fleeing to Egypt, their time in the sun was running out.

Published by Simon & Schuster in 2022, Strauss’ book is excellent. It will particularly delight those with, dare I say, romantic leanings away from Rome and deeper into antiquity toward Ancient Egypt and/or Ancient Greece.

I’m also about to finish Barry Strauss’ The Spartacus War (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Here the events primarily take place in 73 AD to 71 AD on the Italian peninsula when an unknown gladiator, named Spartacus, along with a few hundred or so others, break out of a gladiatorial school where they are enslaved to live, fight, and eventually die. They gather enough supporters and other runaways to form a marauding piecemeal army of 20,000 to 60,000 or so, roaming and fighting around the Italian countryside, and almost crossing over to Sicily, before finally cornered and destroyed by a Roman army led by Crassus.

Strauss here does an excellent job in balancing a narrative facts with gaps, and walking the reader through what can and cannot be told about it. Reading this book, one feels history being woven and unwoven, so to speak.

One aspect of this tale is the chaos existing in Italy and in Rome during a time of civil war and warring generals, and the oppressive slave-society structure of Roman countryside estates. If there is a silver lining, it is to cherish peace.

G. H. Mosson