Passionate, dramatic, epic: the love story of Anthony and Cleopatra is arguably the most famous and enduring of all time. What sets this story apart from those of other great lovers, like Romeo and Juliet, is that at its heart lies truth: Anthony and Cleopatra did exist, and they did love each other with a burning, consuming passion. Yet their truth has morphed into legend, as so many imaginations through the centuries have been captured by their story and inspired to weave fiction from fact.
So what are the facts, as a starting point?
Cleopatra (69–30 BC) was the last ruler of Egypt, before the country was incorporated into the Roman Empire. She was proud of her Egyptian heritage, seeing herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess. Yet she was not Egyptian through and through: she was of a Greek family who had ruled Egypt since the time of Alexander the Great.
Cleopatra was helped to become sole ruler of Egypt by the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, whose mistress she become, bearing his son, Ptolemy Caesar, nine months after their first secret meeting. When Caesar was assassinated, she turned her attention to his right-hand man, Marcus Antonius (83–30 BC), who along with two other men had assumed the dictatorship in Rome. Their political aspirations were well-matched, and with Mark Anthony placed in charge of Egypt, he co-ruled with Cleopatra in the pursuit of great power and glory.
Anthony was married four times, latterly to Octavia, the sister of the future Roman Emperor Augustus. Marriage then for leaders was about political alliance, not love; but it was love that brought Anthony to Cleopatra’s side time and again, and she bore him three children. Soon, Anthony and Augustus could no longer see eye to eye, and civil war erupted, which culminated in Augustus declaring war on Cleopatra and declaring Anthony to be a traitor. At the Battle of Actium in the Ionian Sea, Augustus defeated Anthony’s forces, and he fled to Egypt and Cleopatra.
Ruthless ambition and pride had united Anthony and Cleopatra thus far, but now came the moment in history that made this love affair so memorable: the two committed suicide. First Anthony, knowing that he could not escape Augustus’s reach and believing that Cleopatra had already taken her life, stabbed himself in the stomach. As he lay awaiting death, however, he learned that his love was alive, and he was brought to her – to die in her arms. After the burial rites, Cleopatra then chose to join him in death, through the poison of an asp which she provoked into biting her. They are believed to lie together still in a mausoleum near the temple of Taposiris Magna, southwest of Alexandria.
Quite a story, don’t you think? No wonder it has inspired so many creative minds over the years, some sticking to the facts as recorded at the time, but most taking poetic licence to represent the compelling and epic love of these formidable figureheads. Here are just two of the many depictions of Anthony and Cleopatra that have brought so much colour and emotion to our cultural landscapes.
William Shakespeare wrote a tragedy based on the famous lovers, called Antony and Cleopatra and set in Rome and Egypt. It was first performed at the Globe Theatre in the early 17th century. The relationship between the two protagonists underlies all the action, and is based on an angst-ridden combination of passion and manipulation. Power and fame are of absolute importance – and invincibility, which is why, to Shakespeare’s mind, Antony and Cleopatra take their own lives, ensuring that their love will become legendary and that they will be remembered as heroic, noble and sacrificing. Not, in fact, a tragic ending, but one infused with a mastery of one’s fate. So says Cleopatra upon Anthony’s death:
We’ll bury him, and then, what’s brave, what’s noble,
Let’s do ’t after the high Roman fashion
And make death proud to take us.
The film Cleopatra, released in 1963, has gone down in history as being absolutely epic, the most expensive and ambitious movie created to that point (it cost 44 million dollars to make, and despite being the highest-grossing film at the box office that year, it did not make a profit and plunged 20th Century-Fox into a financial quagmire). It’s a sumptuous, grand, dramatic biography of Cleopatra’s life, and most especially her love affairs with Caesar and Anthony.
It is the relationship with Anthony that really stands out, however, for the chemistry between the actors is so fiery. Here’s a snippet of one of their scenes:
Cleopatra: You come before me as a suppliant.
Antony: If you choose to regard me as such.
Cleopatra: I do. You will therefore assume the position of a suppliant before this throne. You will kneel.
Antony: I will what?
Cleopatra: On your knees!
Antony: You dare ask the Proconsul of the Roman Empire?
Cleopatra: I asked it of Julius Caesar. I demand it of you!
The spark so evident on screen was compelling because it was burning brightly off screen too. While filming Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton engaged in an adulterous affair that created an almighty scandal; as Vanity Fair put it, “Never before had celebrity scandal pushed so far into global consciousness”. One wonders what the real Cleopatra would have made of that. I imagine, somehow, she would have been undaunted, her head held high.
What do you make of Anthony and Cleopatra’s love story? Is it a story of love, in fact, to inspire us, or one of power plays and possession and lust? I would love to hear your thoughts.
What is the timeless appeal of a literary hero like Fitzwilliam Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? The answer: he is the archetypal Romantic hero.
Rewind to the first half of the 19th century. Europe is going through great changes: the Industrial Revolution is transforming forever how people live and work, the Age of Enlightenment is introducing new ways of thinking. The result is that the traditional hero, the man who conformed and upheld social order, was pushed aside by a new, far more exciting and attractive man: the Romantic hero.
The Romantic hero has these qualities:
• He is an individual, a maverick, a self-made man who is unafraid to stand alone (consequently, he may be rejected and ostracised by society, and deemed defiant or arrogant).
• He is introspective, a thinker, which may render him brooding or misanthropic or melancholic.
• He is drawn to nature and has an interest in and respect for history.
• He is driven by emotion, and is a deeply impassioned man.
Darcy is, of course, a classic example, but there are many more in literature, such as Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (Byronic heroes, in fact, so-named after Lord Byron). But you don’t have to look back to 19th-century literature to find Romantic heroes; they abound in modern-day novels. Mark Darcy of Bridget Jones’s Diary is an obvious example, but in fact Romantic heroes are to be found in all kinds of books – Harry Potter is one such hero.
Romantic heroes are prominent in fiction quite simply because we identify with them and connect to them; they make us aspire and dream and hope. My own heroes are inspired by the Romantic heroes I have ‘met’ in literary worlds rather than people I have met in the real world. Here are the heroes of my novels:
• Rafe of Burning Embers
• Paolo of The Echoes of Love
• Salvador of Indiscretion
• Andrés and Leandro of Masquerade
• Ruy of Legacy
Although each is different in his own way, they can all be defined as Romantic heroes.
These men are determined individuals who have made their own way in the world – they are successful businessmen. But they are not conventional; Ruy, for example, has set up a cancer-treatment clinic that is pioneering complementary therapies.
Although these heroes project auras of strength, resilience and power, as the heroines discover, they are men who have rich inner worlds of thought and emotion. Romantic heroes are typically mysterious, and my heroes carry heavy burdens in the form of secrets that torment them.
Most of all, these men are passionate. They are men who feel very deeply and for whom the emotional landscape can be beautiful but also dark and treacherous. What matters most for them is love: only that can light the landscape and chase away the shadows.
I cannot imagine writing my heroes differently, writing a hero who is a conformist, for example, who is all about action, not thought, and who does not feel much of anything. Quelle horreur!
What do you think of Romantic heroes? Are they very far removed from reality? Why do we connect so well to their characters? Who is your favourite Romantic literary hero? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Meet the heroines of my novels:
Burning Embers: Coral, 25. At the age of nine her parents, expatriate settlers in Kenya, divorced, and Coral’s mother took her back to England, forcing her to separate from her father. She spent her whole childhood missing him, and their home in Mombasa, from the lonely rooms of her boarding school. Even at home, she was lonely, as her mother remarried and started a new family with her husband. All Coral wants is to return ‘home’. But her father dies shortly before she does so, and the story opens with Coral returning to Mpingo, the plantation she has now inherited, alone.
The Echoes of Love: Venetia, 28. She grew up in England, the daughter of an overbearing, old-fashioned father, Sir William, and a lovely but passive mother. A romance in her late teens had seen her fall out with her parents; her father was vehemently against the match, because the man, Judd, was ‘not of their class’. While Venetia had, eventually, reconciled with her parents, she had then lost her mother, and she decided to remove herself from her father’s dominance by moving to Venice, Italy, to work for her godmother’s architect firm.
Indiscretion: Alexandra, 25. She was born in Andalucía, Spain, to a Spaniard and an Englishwoman, but at the age of three they split up and her mother brought her back to England. Two years later, her mother left Alexandra with her Aunt Geraldine to pursue a new love affair – and was killed in a car accident. Alonso, Alexandra’s father, did not send for her; subsequently, she grew up in England with her well-meaning but dour and dry maiden aunt. The story begins with Alonso finally asking Alexandra to travel to Andalucía and meet her Spanish family there.
Legacy: Luna, 25. Daughter of Montgomery Ward, a well-known American business tycoon, and Adalia Herrera, a beautiful Spanish socialite. Her parents split up when she was seven. Adalia took the daughter from her first marriage, Luna’s half-sister Juliet, with her to Spain, while Montgomery kept Luna in California – and immediately packed her off to boarding school. Luna never saw her mother or sister again: when she was twelve, news came that Juliet had died in a car accident, and her mother, already an alcoholic by then, drank herself to death shortly afterwards.
Each of my heroines, then, is admirably strong-willed and determined to choose their own path in life, whether that leads away from family or toward it.
Each is also alone. Of course, were you to ask Coral and Venetia and Alexandra and Luna, they would no doubt strongly deny being lonely. These are, after all, women who pride themselves on being independent. But deep down, they are achingly alone, and have been for many years.
Why write lonely heroines? Because it brings so much more emotional need to the story. Take Coral, for example, who is alone on her plantation, the mistress of all. Were she part of a big, happy family, an extensive support network, the whole mood of the story would shift; it would be less poignant, I feel, when she and Rafe come together.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a book missing from the list above. Masquerade, the second book in my Andalucían Nights trilogy, is a little different, because the heroine, Luz, is not alone. She is the daughter of Alexandra and Salvador (from Indiscretion). It was essential for the series that the heroine be their daughter, and because they are wonderful, attentive, loving parents, it follows that Luz is a different kind of heroine: bolder, more secure. The loneliness wrought by a difficult childhood is still a theme in the book, however. In Masquerade, I turn the tables: I would love to explain how, but that would spoil the twist…
For me, in any story I write, the antidote to a character’s loneliness is family. So my ultimate aim in writing a love story is not merely to tell a story of romance, of the early days of flirting and dates and stolen kisses, but to tell a story of a family being created – a family that will not break apart, but will endure. That is true love.
‘Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.’ So wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, prolific writer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. After all, isn’t the point of writing to express oneself? Whatever you write, it is infused with your essence, your particular take on life, your experiences and wisdom and longings and desires.
Certainly, my own fiction takes readers on journeys to places I have myself visited; read The Echoes of Love and you get a sense of how I see Venice, Italy; read my Andalucían Nights trilogy and you see why I love this region of Spain and its fiery, vibrant spirit.
You also come to know, through my writing, that I have a passion for music and drama and literature, for philosophy and mythology, for architecture and for beautiful scenery; and of course that I am a dreamer, a romantic, and eternally hopeful in the power of love to be restorative, binding and inspiring.
But what of my heroines? Are they in fact me? When I look in the mirror, do I see not only Hannah but also Coral of Burning Embers, Venetia of The Echoes of Love, and Alexandra, Luz and Luna of Andalucían Nights?
In the spring edition of The Author (the magazine for members of the British Society of Authors), writer Amanda Craig considers this question in an article entitled ‘Not I?’. She opens by considering the case last year of a journalist revealing the identity of the writer behind the pen name Elena Ferrante (see my article on the issue). The journalist in question felt there was a story to be told because the writer isn’t of the same background as her heroine. But why assume that would even be the case?
As Amanda Craig explains in the article, the assumption that a writer somehow is their hero/heroine is common. She relates stories of writers, herself included, facing personal judgment because of flaws and traits in characters, not themselves.
This is a very real issue for writers, and it’s one I face myself every time I write a new novel. I devise a heroine, making her real in my imagination, with a detailed backstory; but as I do so, I am always aware that she is tied to me, that my readers may assume she is me. That is not so difficult when you come to write of a character’s strengths – her intelligence, for example, or hardworking nature – but it can be more challenging when you are exploring her weaknesses, such as naivety or a tendency to react emotionally without thinking.
Are my heroines reflections of me? No. I don’t write autobiographies; I write novels. But as the Author article puts it: ‘… if the facts of our own lives are different, the feelings are less likely to be.’ Were I to meet each of my heroines in real life, we would connect to each other on an emotional level. I understand their feelings; I have experienced their feelings.
To return to Goethe’s quotation, we could say that every author in some way portrays his feelings in his works. To write a book with emotional resonance, you must be prepared to share something of your own experience of pain, of grief, of fear – and also of passion, of love, and of hope. In that sense, you have to be prepared to look in the mirror – which, as Sylvia Plath wrote, will ‘see [you] back, and reflect it faithfully’ – but look past the physical, right into the eyes: the windows of the soul.
What’s the single most important element of a romance novel? Love. Not only must the love story that unfolds between the hero and heroine be compelling and moving and epic, but it must also cause the reader to fall in love a little herself.
What is the reason for the phenomenal success of romances like Twilight and Fifty Shades and Outlander, and even, going back in time, Pride and Prejudice? Edward Cullen, Christian Gray, Jamie Fraser and Mr Darcy. These are heroes with whom women the world over have fallen in love; these are heroes women wish were real.
When I sit down to start writing a new romance novel, I have many considerations to take into account, but prominent among these is that I need to write a hero who makes the pulse race and the knees weak. My ethos as an author is to write from the heart, to write for myself, not in an attempt to chase a trend or please a market, and so I always create a hero that I find very attractive myself.
After a lifetime of romantic daydreaming, I have no problem at all dreaming up all the qualities of my hero that make him swoon-worthy. All of my heroes differ significantly in looks and personality. Invariably, though, a hero is handsome, usually with a rugged edge, and he takes care of his physique, which is strong (deep down, I think all women respond to strength). He is intelligent, hard-working and tenacious; he is confident; he has a good sense of himself. He is, of course, very sensual and virile and passionate.
Have I ticked the swoon-worthy box yet? I think so. But that is not the end: the hero is not fully formed and ready to stride into the action of the story.
The romance novelist’s job is not only to create a hero who’s so attractive readers will wish him to life; it’s to create a hero who is that attractive but also realistic, believable, true to life. It’s no good dreaming up a hero who is utter perfection, who can do no wrong. He would be completely unbelievable, impossible to fall for. How could the heroine, a flawed human as we all are, have a hope of building a future with a god?
Love is not about perfection, it’s about balance, and so a love story must be based on balance, between fantasy and reality, wish and truth.
In each of my novels, my heroes are swoon-worthy, then, but they are also realistically imperfect. A hero may be arrogant. He may be egotistical. He may be secretive. He may be tormented by feelings he is frightened to confront. In Burning Embers, for example, Rafe carries a darkness in his soul that torments him. In Masquerade, Andres has difficulty assimilating different aspects of himself. In Legacy, Ruy is so caught up in powerful attraction he struggles to see clearly.
Heroes like this are tangible. They make a love story believable. Perhaps, you think as reader, you could meet someone like Ruy in a flamenco bar in Barcelona. Perhaps a guy like Rafe would offer you the ‘kindness of strangers’ on a ship bound for Mombasa.
I think it’s that ability to believe in romance, that dreams really can come true, that makes reading romance novels such a pleasure – not merely an escape, but a restoration of hope.
I will leave you with an iconic romance scenes brought to life by Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, which perfectly encapsulates how a hero must be swoon-worthy and yet also flawed – in this case, delightfully awkward. Enjoy!