tony and Cleopatra are perhaps the most famous romantic couple in history, thanks to Augustan propaganda, Shakespeare and Hollywood, and consequently the actual people and their lives have been seriously distorted. At the same time, Octavian, the winner of the civil war and first emperor, who was in fact far more important to history than the happy couple, has been relegated to relative obscurity and a distinctly unromantic role. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor played Antony and Cleopatra; Octavian was portrayed by Roddy McDowall.
Marcus Antonius was born into as noble family, most likely in 83, (all dates are BC) and was said to have spent his youth in dissipation. He grew up in the later stages of the Roman Revolution (133-30), the hundred year descent of the Republic into political instability and ultimately civil war. In 54 he joined the military staff of one of the major contenders for sole power, his mother’s cousin Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44), and quickly demonstrated his military talents during the course of the Gallic wars. The two men became fast friends, and Caesar supported Antony in his political career, the younger man becoming the proconsul’s right hand man in Rome. In 49 Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, initiating a civil war between him and Pompey the Great (106-48), who was defeated in 48 and fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated by an officer of the boy king Ptolemy XIII (62-47).
Pursuing Pompey, Caesar arrived in Alexandria and supported Cleopatra VII (69-30) in the civil war between her and her younger brother. Ptolemy was killed, and Caesar installed Cleopatra as co-ruler with another brother, Ptolemy XIV (60-44). He dallied a while with the queen and had an illegitimate son, Caesarion. He then went off to defeat the remaining Pompeian forces and return to Rome, where he was joined by Cleopatra, Ptolemy and Caesarion in 46. Two years later Caesar fell to the knives of the assassins, and Cleopatra, who was not popular with the Roman crowd, returned to Egypt, where she killed Ptolemy and made Caesarion her co-ruler.
Meanwhile, back in Rome Antony was primed to step into Caesar’s sandals, rousing the mob against the conspirators, who ultimately fled to Greece and began raising an army. Unfortunately for Antony, Caesar had in his will posthumously adopted as his son his closest legitimate male heir, his grandnephew Octavian, to whom he left his considerable personal fortune. But Octavian was only eighteen, in Greece and completely unknown to the Roman public, and Antony began spending the inheritance and public funds to raise troops. Octavian was dismissed as the “boy,” about whom Cicero said “the boy is to be praised, to be honored, to be set aside.” But the boy had two assets: he had a political talent completely unmatched by his opponents and he had the name of Caesar, something with which he could conjure. Very quickly Caesarian legions and veterans were flocking to his side, to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the son of the soon to be deified Caesar. He was not to be set aside.
For the moment Antony and Octavian needed each other, and in 43 the Second Triumvirate was formed with another of Caesar’s officers, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Lepidus was, however, a lightweight, and he would be retired by Octavian in 36, when he tried to assert his independence. Essentially, Octavian ruled over the western half of the Empire, while Antony went off to the wealthier, though now drained, east to launch an invasion of Parthia, the kingdom currently occupying Mesopotamia and Persia. He was looking for glory, money and most important, a veteran and loyal army to use in the inevitable showdown with Octavian. All Octavian got was an Italy that was financially exhausted and in social turmoil and a surviving son of Pompey who seized Sicily and threatened Rome with starvation. On the other hand, though Gaul had been assigned to Antony, he had the immediate access the legions stationed there, and he surely realized that for all its current problems Italy was the key in the struggle inasmuch as it was the source of men for the legions.
Antony had met Cleopatra after the defeat of the conspirators in 42 at Philippi in Greece and confirmed her position as queen of Egypt, but he had to immediately hasten back to Rome. When he returned to the east, he rejoined Cleopatra and possibly married her in 36, creating an awkward situation since he was already married to Octavian’s sister Octavia. But this made him king of Egypt and provided access to the bulging treasuries of the kingdom, which money he certainly needed. In 36 he began his assault on Parthia, but his ally the Armenian king deserted him, and he was forced to retire to Syria, his military reputation undermined rather than enhanced. A successful expedition to punish Armenia in 34 restored his prestige and was followed by what was the biggest news to come out of the east: the Donations of Alexandria. By virtue of the proconsular power he possessed as a Triumvir Antony gave to Cleopatra and her children Cyprus, Cyrene, Syria-Palestine, Cilicia and Armenia, all but the last being Roman controlled areas.
The Donations provoked a crisis, and in 32 Antony’s supporters fled east and in the following year Octavian obtained a declaration of war against Cleopatra. Antony divorced Octavia, collected his scattered troop and began shipping them to Greece. The two forces met near Actium on the east coast of Greece, and after a long delay Antony engaged Octavian’s fleet, only to flee with Cleopatra to Egypt when his men began to mutiny. By the middle of 30 Antony finally accepted that the game was over and committed suicide, while Cleopatra awaited Octavian and the chance to beguile the new ruler of the Roman world. But the future emperor had other plans, and Cleopatra took the noble way out (the asp is a fiction). Rome appropriated Egypt.
The age-old story that Antony fell head over heels in love with the incredibly beautiful Cleopatra and was seduced into betraying Rome and his own interests is essentially the creation of Octavian’s propaganda. The “boy” turned out to be a master of public relations and in his struggle with Antony launched the first national propaganda campaign in history. The conflict was not with Antony, who was a good Roman, but with the foreign queen who had seduced him, just as Dido had captivated Aeneas. So this was not a civil war but a war against the seductress, who with poor Antony’s help was going to seize the Roman Empire and rule it from Alexandria. The Donations of Alexandria of course played right into Octavian’s hands. This traditional tale is mostly rubbish.
Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra was certainly not based on her looks. As the coin portraits and statuary reveal, she was at best a plain woman and may have had a sizable honker. And after all, Caesar and Antony could have any pretty face they desired, if that was their game. No, it was her mind that attracted these powerful men. She was a full-blooded Macedonia Greek, well educated, charming and possessing a formidable wit; she was the only Ptolemaic ruler to learn Egyptian. To be sure, they produced three children, but the relationship was founded on the fact each had something the other desperately wanted. Antony needed money, lots of it, to pay his troops, and Ptolemaic Egypt was extremely wealthy. He could of course march in and simply take it, but even though Cleopatra’s mercenary army would have no chance whatsoever, there might be complications that Octavian could take advantage of. Better to have the queen give it to him, which for her own reasons she was willing to do.
What Cleopatra wanted and what Antony could supply was to recreate the Ptolemaic empire and return to her control territories from which she could recruit the all-important Greek soldiers. She was shrewd enough to realize her kingdom could only continue to exist through the sufferance of Rome, and first Caesar, then Antony were the tickets to that sufferance. What Antony required – we will never know exactly how he felt about Cleopatra – was Egypt’s treasury, and the idea that he intended to rule Rome from Alexandria with his Ptolemaic queen is nonsense. Not only was Italy the only source of recruits for the legions, but more compelling, Antony was a Roman. He would accept nothing less than ruling Rome, and he knew the Roman people would accept nothing else. His fatal mistake was allowing Cleopatra, who was probably afraid of losing him, to accompany him to Actium, since she was very unpopular with his troops, who began to believe Octavian’s propaganda.
In the end, if Plutarch and Cassius Dio are to be believed, Cleopatra showed her true feelings. When it was clear that Antony’s remaining troops were deserting and his position was hopeless, she had word sent to him that she had committed suicide, and he fell on his sword. With the loser gone, she awaited the winner.
Cleopatra VII was a fitting end to the Ptolemaic dynasty, its finest ruler since the first three kings. Finally, though Antony was the far more colorful and romantic character, there is no reason to believe that he – or anyone else – could have had anywhere near the success that Octavian would have in facilitating Rome’s transition from republic to military autocracy. If Antony was romance, Octavian/Augustus was history.