Mark Antony: Popular Tribune to Fallen Consul
By Dr. Joshua J. Mark
Professor of Philosophy
Marcus Antonius (l. 83-30 BCE, known popularly as Mark Antony) was a Roman general and statesman best known for his love affair with Cleopatra VII (l. c.69-30 BCE) of Egypt. As Julius Caesar’s friend and right-hand man, he gave the funeral oration after Caesar’s assassination which turned the tide of popular opinion against the assassins.
As part of the Second Triumvirate of Rome (43-33 BCE), he ruled uneasily with Octavian Caesar (l. 63 BCE-14 CE, later Augustus Caesar, r. 27 BCE-14 CE) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (l. 89-12 BCE), famously fell in love with Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and, after his defeat at the Battle of Actium (31 BCE), committed suicide in 30 BCE. With no other contenders for power, Octavian became Rome’s first emperor as Augustus Caesar and the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.
Youth and Rise to Power
Antony was born 14 January, 83 BCE to Marcus Antonius Creticus and Julia of the Caesars (l. 104-c.39 BCE), Julius Caesar’s cousin. He was instructed in rhetoric by his mother and grandmother, Julia Minor (sister of Julius Caesar), and, by all accounts, was given to education and philosophy in particular, until he became friends with the young Pubilius Clodius Pulcher and another young man named Curio. Plutarch relates:
Antony gave brilliant promise in his youth, they say, until his intimate friendship with Curio fell upon him like a pest. For Curio himself was unrestrained in his pleasures, and in order to make Antony more manageable, engaged him in drinking bouts, and with women, and in immoderate and extravagant expenditures. This involved Antony in a heavy debt and one that was excessive for his years — a debt of two hundred and fifty talents. (Life of Antony)
This sum of two hundred and fifty talents would be the equivalent of five million dollars today and this he owed before the age of twenty. Dodging his creditors, Antony slipped away to Greece where he spent his time studying oratory and military exercises.
He was persuaded by the Roman general Aulus Gabinius to join an expedition against Syria, in which Antony proved an able commander of cavalry, and then continued on with Gabinius to put down revolts against Ptolemy XII in Egypt. At this time he may have first met his later wife, Cleopatra VII, who would have been about fourteen years old.
Rising quickly to prominence in Gabinius’ ranks, Antony was promoted and called by Julius Caesar to join his forces in Gaul in 54 BCE. Here, as in the east, Antony proved himself a brilliant commander but his appetite for luxury, drink and sexual excesses alienated him from Caesar and the other officers. The common soldiers, however, embraced Antony. Plutarch writes:
What might seem to some very insupportable, his vaunting, his raillery, his drinking in public, sitting down by the men as they were taking their food, and eating, as he stood, off the common soldiers’ tables, made him the delight and pleasure of the army. In love affairs, also, he was very agreeable: he gained many friends by the assistance he gave them in theirs, and took other people’s raillery upon his own with good-humour. And his generous ways, his open and lavish hand in gifts and favours to his friends and fellow-soldiers, did a great deal for him in his first advance to power. (Life of Antony)
In spite of his hedonism, Antony continued to be of great assistance to Caesar in the conquest of Gaul and, in 50 BCE, Caesar supported Antony in his election as tribune.
Antony as Tribune
In the senate, Antony was a fierce supporter of Caesar’s policies. Antony’s long-time friend, Curio, had moved away from the aristocratic party and aligned himself with Caesar’s populist party, using his eloquence in oratory to convince others to do the same. Antony and Curio faced constant frustration and rejection by the senate in anything having to do with Caesar and, in 49 BCE, they fled Rome for Gaul and Caesar’s camp, dressed as servants, to inform him of how he and his supporters were being treated at Rome. Caesar took this affront to the young tribune and the orator as his excuse to march on Rome in defiance of the senate’s orders, instigated by Pompey the Great (l. c.106-48 BCE), that Caesar disband his army and return to Rome as a private citizen.
After taking Rome without a fight, Caesar turned his attention to Pompey’s forces in Spain and left Antony to rule the city. Though an effective military leader, Antony had little skill as a politician. Plutarch states, “He was too lazy to pay attention to the complaints of persons who were injured; he listened impatiently to petitions; and he had an ill name for familiarity with other people’s wives.”
Although an incompetent administrator, Antony was still able enough to keep the supply lines open to Caesar’s forces and continually send reinforcements. In 48 BCE, Antony joined Caesar in Greece, leaving Lepidus to care for Rome and, at the Battle of Pharsalus, commanded Caesar’s left wing of cavalry, helping to defeat the forces of Pompey the Great.
Following the battle, Caesar followed the fleeing Pompey to Egypt and Antony returned to Rome where he neglected his administrative duties regularly to the point of bringing disgrace upon Caesar’s newly-won rule. As a result, Antony was removed from his position upon Caesar’s return from the east, and power conferred upon Lepidus. Two years later, however, Antony was again a part of Caesar’s close circle.
Antony and Octavian
In 44 BCE, after Caesar’s assassination, Antony took the opportunity as speaker at the dictator’s funeral to turn the tide of popular opinion against the conspirators and drive them from Rome. Antony seems to have had no intention of pursuing or punishing Caesar’s assassins until the appearance in Rome of Caesar’s nineteen-year-old heir, Gaius Octavius Thurinus (Octavian), who demanded the assassins be brought to justice.
Octavian’s arrival, and legal claim as Caesar’s heir, was an unpleasant development for Antony and the two men were instantly at odds with each other. Octavian insisted that Caesar’s will be followed to the letter, including dispensing the monies which were to be given to the people of Rome; Antony disagreed with this as he also took offense at a `boy’ (as Antony would frequently call Octavian) offering him advice on anything.
Outmaneuvered by Octavian politically and intellectually, Antony fled with his legions to Gaul where his forces were defeated by Octavian’s. At a truce, Antony, Octavian and Lepidus formed The Second Triumvirate in 43 BCE and agreed to partitioning Rome’s holdings among them to rule jointly. Lepidus was given Africa to rule, Octavian the west, from Rome, and Antony the east.
Antony and Cleopatra
After defeating the armies of Brutus (l.23-42 BCE) and Cassius (l.c.85-42 BCE) at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, Octavian returned to Rome and Antony went east where, at Tarsus in 41 BCE, he summoned the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII to appear before him. He planned on charging Cleopatra with sedition against Rome (for aiding and abetting Cassius and Brutus) in order to fine her a substantial sum to help pay his army. Cleopatra, however, manipulated her entrance to Tarsus in such a way that she immediately cast a spell over Antony which he would never be able to break. As Plutarch describes:
She received several letters, both from Antony and from his friends, to summon her, but she took no account of these orders; and at last, as if in mockery of them, she came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. […] On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good-humour and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equaled for beauty. (Life of Antony)
Antony and Cleopatra immediately began their famous love affair (though he was at that time married to Fulvia) and he considered her his wife even before legally marrying her. In 40 BCE, Fulvia died and, in an effort to try to cement the further deteriorating relationship between the two rulers, Octavian and Antony agreed that Antony would marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia (even though, that same year, Cleopatra gave birth to Antony’s children, the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene).
The relationship between Octavian and Antony deteriorated further as the years passed and Antony continued his relationship with Cleopatra while married to Octavia. In 37 BCE, Antony sent Octavia back to Rome and, in 35 BCE, when Octavia came with troops, supplies and funds to meet Antony in Athens, he refused to meet her and had her again sent home.
Leaving Athens on campaign, Antony successfully subdued and annexed Armenia to Rome. Instead of returning to the city of Rome for his triumph, however, Antony held his parade and celebration in Alexandria with Cleopatra at his side. He formally ceded territories to Cleopatra and their children and proclaimed Caesarion (Cleopatra’s older child by Julius Caesar) the true, legitimate heir to Caesar, thus publicly challenging Octavian’s claim and right to rule.
The Battle of Actium and Death
Octavian, acting swiftly as usual, read a document in the senate, allegedly Antony’s will, which, he claimed, proved Antony was preparing to take over Rome and which gave away precious Roman resources to Cleopatra and her children. Wisely deciding to avoid declaring war on Antony (which could have alienated some members of the senate and the populace) Octavian maipulated the senate into declaring war on Cleopatra.
The forces of Antony and Cleopatra met those of Octavian, under the leadership of the General Agrippa, at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE where they were defeated by Agrippa’s superior tactics and their own ineptness at waging war on the sea. For the next year, Antony would fight a series of small, futile battles with Octavian until, in 30 BCE, upon hearing that Cleopatra was dead, he stabbed himself.
The rumor was false, however, and, dying, he was brought to Cleopatra where he died in her arms. She killed herself shortly afterwards through poison. Octavian had Caesar’s and Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, strangled to death. The children of Antony and Cleopatra were brought to Rome where, after being paraded behind an effigy of their mother in Octavian’s triumph, they were raised by Octavia along with her own children by Antony, one of which, Antonia Major, would later be grandmother of the emperor Nero. Octavian was now the sole power of Rome and, in 27 BCE, was given the title Augustus (“illustrious one”), becoming the first emperor of the Roman Empire.
- The Internet Classics Archive | Antony by Plutarch Accessed 1 Dec 2016.
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- Mellor, R. The Historians of Ancient Rome. Routledge, 2010.
- Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives. Harvard University Press, 1967.
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 12.20.2011, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.