Love Stories That Changed the World: Part 1: Antony and Cleopatra

OK; silly Orientalist fantasy, but its pretty


On a calm day in summer, 41 BCE, a Pharaonic barge glides up river towards the town of Tarsus in modern-day Turkey. No ordinary barge, this one is retrofitted for spectacle, not cargo — that comes in its wake, with a host of supply vessels forming a waterborne entourage. Its sails are of purple, a royal color in the ancient world. Crowds start gathering on each bank as the music emanating from the barge reaches them in the town and in their fields. On board is Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

These gathering crowds witnessed Cleopatra “sailing up the river Cydnus,” says Plutarch, the Greek historian of Rome, “in a barge with a poop of gold… while her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of the flute, accompanied by pipes and lutes.” For a crew, the most beautiful of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting were on hand, dressed as Nerieds — sea nymphs — and graces, some at the tiller, others stationed at the rigging. Boys from the royal household disported themselves as cupids, fanning the queen, who reclined beneath a canopy of golden cloth. Along with the music, clouds of incense and perfume wafted across the river, making the royal riverine procession a feast for the senses.

To add to the novelty of the situation, Cleopatra was a foreign queen, who had come some seven hundred miles by sea to pay her respects to both her leader and the Tarsans’ — the latest Roman dictator, one Mark Antony. If the women on board the barge were nereids, and the boys cupids — or Eros if you were Greek — Cleopatra was playing the role of their mother, the goddess Venus, goddess of Love, no less. Where better, then, to start our review of historic love stories than with a leader who occupied this role between heaven and earth, cavorting as she had come to, with another titan of the ancient world, who also liked to think of himself as divine?

This was no eccentric fantasy of Cleopatra’s; she probably did not literally consider herself to be Venus (although we can have no real knowledge about what she did or did not believe, all we know of her is second hand at best); on the contrary, she was performing political theater as much as religion, even if the two were largely interchangeable in the ancient world, and as such she was speaking Antony’s language.

The Roman triumvir, one of the three most powerful people on earth (including the other triumvirs, Octavian and Lepidus, but excluding the emperor of Han China), not only considered himself descended directly from the Greek mythological hero Hercules, but had been parading through “Asia” (part of today’s Turkey) on a victory-march-cum-fundraiser, as the Greek god Dionysus. Antony was fresh from his defeat of Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, at Phillipi in Greece the year before. He and Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, had together defeated the Republicans, tightening their grip over the entire Roman world.

Although united against Caesar’s murderers, Antony and Octavian shared no love. To Antony, Octavian was a mere boy, an upstart. Caesar’s affection for him, and his bestowing of his estate upon him, was a mistake and an insult to Antony who had fought with Caesar (with some distinction) for years. To Octavian, Antony was a brute, and a competitor for power.

Antony, now in his early forties, was in many ways a brute: He was still a rough-hewn, square-jawed specimen of a man whose reputation was legendary among soldiers. His character, says Plutarch, was “essentially slow and simple… As for the kind of coarse and insolent banter which he liked to exchange, this carried its own remedy with it, for anyone could return his ribaldry with interest, and he enjoyed being laughed at quite as much as laughing at others.” Known to be the kind of commander who fraternized with his men, Antony wore his tunic belted low over his hips, carried a large sword by his side, and favored a heavy cloak. He enjoyed bawdy jokes, had a “weakness” for women, and tended towards generosity. One story has him giving money to a friend in need. A meddlesome servant worried that he did not properly understand the value of the gift, so he laid it out in gold in Antony’s house. Antony, walking past the pile of riches, asked “What’s all this?” and learning of its purpose, exclaimed, “Is that all it is? Well then, double it!”

When it came to power, however, Antony was certainly not high-minded. Being a life-long soldier, and enjoying the pleasures that wealth allowed, he was not overly concerned with abstract notions such as democracy. Even if he was a “people’s man,” he was just as happy to rule them — single-handedly if necessary — as he was to get drunk with them. To many of the senators and those of a more republican frame of mind, then, Antony was a wild card and a degenerate oaf. Senators remembered his offenses to decency, such as the time when, in a morning session at the Forum, Antony had risen to speak, and still being inebriated from his nighttime revels, threw up into his toga. Cicero, the republic’s tireless defender, wrote entire diatribes against him (The Phillipics) enumerating his faults, calling him among other things, “a drink-sodden, sex-ridden wreck. Never a day passes in that ill-reputed house of yours without orgies of the most repulsive kind.” When Antony’s fortunes were at their height, a few years later, he had Cicero executed in a particularly cold blooded and widespread purge. But it was not only Antony’s debauchery that offended Cicero, it was his affront to Rome and his blatantly power-obsessed behavior: “What a disgusting, intolerable sensualist the man is, as well as a vicious, unsavory crook!”

Antony had been one of the major supporters of Julius Caesar during his campaign in Gaul. He had read Caesar’s letters from the wars aloud in the Forum, and won Caesar many supporters at home, to the chagrin of Caesar’s nemesis, Pompey. Ultimately, the political climate in Rome became too hot for Antony, as the senate began to fear Caesar’s alarming power and popularity, spreading as he literally bought supporters high and low. He fled to join Caesar, who soon after wheeled his troops around, crossed the Rubicon, the river separating Cisalpine Gaul from Italy, and marched his war machine into Rome — a criminal offense in the eyes of the senate, who had decreed that generals check their armies at Italy’s front door. Pompey and his fellow senators were as fearful of Caesar as they were critical, and powerless to oppose him. All fled the city, allowing Caesar to march in unopposed, and the civil war was begun.

Pursuing Pompey to Spain, then to Greece, Caesar had prosecuted his war for dominance, leaving Antony in Rome to run the place. Antony’s tribunate under Caesar effectively eviscerated the Senate, as Plutarch said: “once a dictator has been chosen there remains only the tribunate; all the other offices of state cease to function.” But Antony flunked civic administration in Plutarch’s opinion: “He was too lazy to deal with complaints and too impatient to listen to those who wanted to enlist his help, while at the same time he became notorious for his intrigues with other men’s wives.”

He lorded it over the senate and scandalized the senators. “They were disgusted at his ill-timed drunkenness, his extravagant spending, his gross intrigues with women, his days spent in sleeping off his debauches, or wandering about with an aching head and befuddled wits, and his nights spent in revels…” He travelled around Rome with groups of actors and women of ill-repute; when he left the city he rode in a chariot pulled by lions (less efficient than horses but cooler), set up pavilions along his route for “reveling,” and he was in the habit of billeting his courtesans and entertainer friends in the homes of the people, at the citizens’ expense. In Plutarch’s opinion it was Antony who gave Caesar’s tyrannical rule a bad name, which otherwise — when run by Caesar — was reasonably tolerable.

Once Antony and Octavian were in control of the city they moved to solidify the rest of the empire, and that meant going after Brutus and Cassius who had fled, but between them maintained the support of multiple legions of Roman soldiers. Antony had carried the day at Phillipi in October of 42 BCE, crushing Caesar’s assassins. Octavian, his comrade in arms for now, was decidedly less relevant to that victory, having been sick, and betook himself home to Rome immediately afterwards to convalesce.

Antony’s mission after Phillipi was to collect money and land with which to reward his soldiers. When Antony arrived in Ephesus, on the southeastern Turkish coast, he had to play the role of chief tax collector. But he was well disguised: men dressed as satyrs and pans, and women dressed as bacchantes marched before him, appealing to a Hellenistic sense of celebration, and bowing to the universal habit of ancient rulers — that of pretending to divinity. The city was filled with ivy wreaths and music from pipes and flutes floated in the air. But as many people who saw him as Dionysus the Benefactor and Bringer of Joy, just as many saw him as the god’s dark alter-ego, Dionysus the Cruel and Eater of Flesh. It was pointless to resist the rapacious, wealth-generating machine that was the Roman elite, even if one man (the orator Hybreas) is said to have sarcastically lamented his fate, when Antony levied a second tax on his city: “If you can take tribute from us twice a year, no doubt you can give us two summers and two harvests.”

Nonetheless, in order to ingratiate themselves with him as Plutarch says, “Wherever he went, local rulers flocked to honor him,” adding salaciously, “while their wives would vie with one another in offering gifts and exploiting their beauty, and would sacrifice their honor for his pleasure.” Antony was free to grab property at will, redistributing it to his cronies and flatterers.

When he reached Tarsus, Antony decided it was time to summon Cleopatra. There was unfinished business between Rome and the Ptolemies. Was it true Cleopatra had aided Cassius against Antony and Octavian? Why did the naval assistance she had promised never arrive? It was time for the Egyptian queen to chose sides, and explain herself. All of this was key, as Egypt was the largest — and richest — grain producer in the eastern Mediterranean, a key consideration bearing in mind Rome’s growing poor population and its thousands of legionaries who needed to be fed, and paid, with wheat.

This may have been the first time the two met, although it is very possible their paths had crossed in 55, when the senate had supported the re-installation of Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII (Auletes), on the Alexandrian throne after a coup had unseated him. Antony had been instrumental in that operation, and was remembered in Alexandria for his just treatment of the Egyptians. Then Cleopatra had been barely a teenager, and Antony a cavalry officer in his late twenties.

Now, a fully adult queen, Cleopatra received Antony’s summons to Tarsus, but sat on it awhile, no doubt out of cunning, not laziness. The queen was a wily strategist, if she had not been, she would not have been alive at this point. She realized that her every political move these days guaranteed the viability of her dynasty, possibly her very life. There was no escaping the Roman civil wars; you chose sides, and if you bet on the wrong horse — as Cleopatra ultimately did — you were ruined. She may well have known of Antony’s reputation as a lover of all things Greek, and of all things women, and concluded that being a woman, and being part of Alexander’s legacy, stood her in good stead with Antony, and decided upon seduction as the most effective diplomatic strategy.

It was Julius Caesar who had installed her on the throne, after being charmed by her wit and wiles — she 21 and he 52 — when they met in 48 BCE. Caesar had gone to Alexandria, like Antony now, to shake the Egyptians down. But in Caesar’s case the money was due to Rome (read “Caesar”) from Cleopatra’s father who had borrowed it from the senate. Now Caesar needed funds to fuel his civil war against Pompey. Fortunately for him he found that the Egyptians had summarily dispatched Pompey, his great rival — unceremoniously decapitating him on a lonely stretch of beach, as he asked for assistance — but unfortunately, he also found himself in the midst of a civil war, in a foreign city, besieged in the palace by the forces of Cleopatra’s twelve-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, guided by the ambitious eunuch, Pothinas.

Ptolemy and Cleopatra had inherited the throne jointly from their father, but the family made it a practice, like so many dynasties before and after them, to kill each other in the pursuit of power, so they were unlikely to be able to share the prize. After six months being besieged inside the royal palace, (the “Alexandrian War”), Caesar defeated Ptolemy’s forces, made Cleopatra queen, then, according to Appian, “took a long voyage on the Nile to look at the country with a flotilla of 400 ships, in the company of Cleopatra, and enjoyed himself with her in other ways as well.” Those other ways produced a male child (Caesarion), whose mere presence in the world was to keep Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, up at nights, until he finally severed the boy’s head from his body, and was able to get some rest.

Caesar’s assassination on March 15, 44 BCE, precipitated a descent into more civil war. For over a decade the republic was torn apart repeatedly by warring generals, all with claims to power, and all controlling private armies. Cleopatra and a host of other “client” kings and queens (such as Herod of Judea), were left watching in dismay as the Roman tornado swirled around the Mediterranean and threatened to engulf them all. This was the crucible in which the republic morphed into the empire, under Octavian, later to crown himself Emperor Augustus.

But if Antony was summoning Cleopatra to Tarsus in order to wrap her knuckles, she was going to pull out all the stops to impress him. Not only was she the former mistress of the dead dictator — Antony’s former boss — but she was mother to his son. Cleopatra would also remind the representative of this upstart nation, Rome, that she was the immortal leader of the oldest civilization on earth. No, she was not going to scurry to Antony to be scolded like a miscreant (although judging by how things turned out, a spanking might have been acceptable); she would take her time in doing him the honor of visiting him, and she would arrive, as she made very clear, as an equal.

Antony sat in the market place in Tarsus that day, no doubt having planned for her to come to find him, seated like the potentate that he was, awaiting her. But people began to drain away from the busy center of town, as news of the approaching barge arrived, until, Plutarch says, Antony was all alone on his raised dais. Presumably it was at this point that he abandoned the wait, and also sauntered down to the river to see what all the fuss was about, as word had spread that “Venus had arrived to revel with Bacchus for the happiness of Asia.”

“Such being Antony’s nature,” Plutarch writes, “the love for Cleopatra which now entered his life, came as the final and crowning mischief which could befall him. It excited to the point of madness many passions which had hitherto lain concealed, or at least dormant, and it stifled or corrupted all those redeeming qualities in him which were still capable of resisting temptation.” Antony encountered her, Plutarch says, “at the age when a woman’s beauty is at its most superb and her mind at its most mature.” Cleopatra was twenty eight.

Antony’s blindness to everything not-Cleopatra is echoed also by Appian, writing almost 200 years after the events: “The moment he saw her, Antonius lost his head to her like a young man, although he was forty years old….so straight away the attention that Antonius had until now devoted to every matter was completely blunted and whatever Cleopatra demanded was done.”

The Romans had their own reasons for painting Antony as a sap and Cleopatra as a demon. But beyond propagandistic hysteria, this is ultimately a story about power, one that has been told many times before in different historical contexts. And herein lies one of the major themes of this story: the struggle between the public and the private: how can people in power, people with responsibility, balance the often overwhelming force of emotions with the need for level-headed attention to politics? How can one simultaneously be swept away in love, and move the ship of state forward with the steady hand of a captain?