The Rise of Mark Antony
The Roman general Mark Antony was born in Rome in approximately 83 B.C.E. As a young man he distinguished himself as a cavalry commander in Judea and Egypt. He was a military leader in the Gallic Wars of 58–50 B.C.E. and a staunch supporter of Julius Caesar. During the civil war against Pompey (49–45 B.C.E.), Antony was Caesar’s second in command.
Following Caesar’s assassination in March 44 B.C.E., the Roman republic had three rivals for power: Antony,Marcus Lepidus, and Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian Caesar (historically, he is known as Octavian rather than Octavius as in Shakespeare’s play). Antony was defeated in one battle but escaped to Gaul and then marched with Lepidus to Rome, where the eighteen-year-old Octavian had taken power. In 43 B.C.E., the three men called a truce and became a ruling triumvirate. Octavian and Antony then set out for the east in pursuit of Caesar’s assassins. Octavian was sick and did not participate in the battle at Philippi in Macedonia in 42 B.C.E., in which Antony triumphed over Cassius and Brutus, both of whom committed suicide. The territories controlled by Rome were then split up amongst the triumvars. Antony received Gaul and the east; Lepidus was given Africa; and Octavian was given Sardinia, Spain, and Sicily.
Antony was not only an effective military leader, he was also extremely popular with his troops. He was warm-hearted and not aloof; he would sit down to eat and drink with his men from the common soldiers’ tables. He was also known for his generosity to his friends, and for his good humor. Resourceful in adversity, Antony was an inspiration to his men. After being defeated at a battle at Modena, for example, Antony and his army encountered famine on their retreat. But Antony, who was used to luxurious living, made no fuss about having to drink foul water and feed on wild fruit, roots, and even the bark of trees. This incident is recorded by the Roman historian Plutarch, in his work The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, which is Shakespeare’s source for Antony and Cleopatra. Antony’s stoic acceptance of this difficult situation is mentioned in the play in act 1, scene 4, when Octavius, complaining about Antony’s dalliance with Cleopatra, recalls his rival’s former greatness.
Plutarch described Antony’s physical appearance in this way: ‘‘He had also a very good and noble appearance; his beard was well grown, his forehead large, and his nose aquiline, giving him altogether a bold, masculine look that reminded people of the face of Hercules in paintings and sculptures.’’ Although Antony’s virtues were many, Plutarch also comments that he was given to folly and extravagance. It appears that Antony was known for his love of luxury and his penchant for self-indulgent amusement when times were easy.
The establishment of the triumvirate did not result in universal peace. In 41–40 B.C.E., Antony’s ex-wife, Fulvia, was co-leader, with Antony’s brother, of a rebellion against Octavian. Fulvia was forced to surrender and was exiled to Sicyon, where she died awaiting Antony’s return.
Antony, meanwhile, traveling to the east to subdue rebellions and conquer Parthia, met Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 41 B.C.E. He summoned her to meet him in Cilicia, ready to accuse her of aiding Cassius and Brutus in the war against him. Cleopatra sailed up the river Cydnus adorned as the goddess Aphrodite, and Antony immediately fell under her spell. She quickly became his mistress, and in December 40 B.C.E. bore him twins, Alexander Helios (sun) and Cleopatra Selene (moon).
Not long after this, Octavian was faced with a rebellion by Sextus Pompeius (Pompey). Antony returned to Rome and patched up his uneasy relations with Octavian by marrying Octavian’s sister, Octavia. Antony then traveled to Greece with his new wife, intent on continuing his campaign against the Parthians. But Octavian, still dealing with the threat from Pompey, was unable to send him any forces, so in 37 B.C.E., Antony returned to Alexandria, hoping that the wealthy Cleopatra would support his cause. Antony then settled in Alexandria and married Cleopatra (even though he was still married to Octavia). She bore him another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus.
Cleopatra was born in 69 B.C.E. in Alexandria, the third daughter of the king Ptolemy XII. She became queen in 51 B.C.E., at first sharing the throne with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. After a civil war, in which Julius Caesar aided Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIII was drowned and a younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, became co-ruler.
During his stay in Egypt, from 48 B.C.E. to 47 B.C.E., Caesar took Cleopatra as a lover, and she gave birth to his child, Caesarion. As Cleopatra says in the play of Caesar, ‘‘When thou wast here above the ground, I was / A morsel for a monarch.’’ Cleopatra wanted Caesar to name Caesarion as his heir, but Caesar named Octavius instead.
Although she was queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was, in fact, Macedonian. The Romans called her Egyptian as a term of abuse. Cleopatra’s language and culture was Greek; she was a highly educated woman who spoke seven languages and was one of the few of the Ptolemies to learn the Egyptian language. Her subjects considered her to be the daughter of the sun god, Re, and some saw her as the future leader of a great uprising of Asia against Rome. Plutarch, while presenting a largely negative view of Cleopatra, did acknowledge her as a fascinating woman: ‘‘The attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice.’’
Struggle between Antony and Octavian
In Rome, Octavian deposed of Lepidus in 36 B.C.E., and after that his relations with Antony steadily deteriorated. Eager to remove his one remaining rival, Octavian systematically defamed Antony’s character, saying he was a drunkard who had fallen under the sway of a wicked woman and had forgotten his Roman duties. The Roman senate unleashed an attack on Cleopatra, calling her a sorceress who had bewitched Antony with drugs, sold herself out of a lust for power, and worshipped bestial gods. As Chester G. Starr puts it in A History of the Ancient World, ‘‘Cleopatra was magnified into a threat to the survival of Roman ways and Roman mastery, and so assumed the image of femme fatale which has ever since been her memory.’’
In 34 B.C.E., in a public ceremony in Alexandria, Antony distributed the kingdoms of the east to his children. Cleopatra was named Queen of Kings and Queen of Egypt, and her son Caesarion was declared the legitimate son and heir of Caesar. Needless to say, this was not well received in Rome, since the claim made for Caesarion was a threat to the legitimacy of Octavian as Caesar’s rightful heir.
War between the two sides now became only a matter of time. Antony accused Octavian of usurping power, while Octavian countercharged Antony with treason. In 32 B.C.E., the senate stripped Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra. Both Roman consuls and three hundred of the one thousand Roman senators declared their support for Antony and went to meet him and Cleopatra in Greece. In that year also, Antony divorced Octavia.
Battle of Actium
On September 2, 31 B.C.E., the decisive naval battle of Actium took place near the Roman colony of Actium in Greece, on the Ionian Sea. Octavian’s fleet was commanded by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Antony, supported by Cleopatra’s fleet, attempted to lead 220 warships out of the gulf to the open seas, where Octavian’s fleet attempted to block them. Antony’s ships were large but undermanned because of an outbreak of malaria, and morale was low because supply lines had been cut. In contrast, Octavian possessed smaller, nimbler ships that could outmaneuver Antony’s, and his men were better trained and in better condition.
When it became clear that Octavian’s fleet was gaining the upper hand, Cleopatra’s fleet retreated. Antony followed her lead and deserted the battle, while the ships he left behind were either captured or sunk. Antony fled to Egypt, but his military strength was reduced by massive desertions. Octavian pursued him, invading Egypt. Although Antony managed to win a skirmish at Alexandria on July 30, 30 B.C.E., he again suffered from desertions, leaving him with no means of resisting Octavian’s advance. Believing that Cleopatra was dead, Antony decided to take his own life. Plutarch records how Antony died in Cleopatra’s presence, after the two were reconciled, and Shakespeare closely follows Plutarch’s account. Cleopatra attempted to negotiate terms of surrender with Octavian, but then, after learning from Cornelius Dolabella that Octavian intended to take her as a captive to Rome, she committed suicide on August 12, 30 B.C.E. According to Plutarch, Octavian was disappointed by her death, ‘‘yet could not but admire the greatness of her spirit, and gave order that her body should be buried by Antony with royal splendour and magnificence.’’
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007