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Mark Antony

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Background Information

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Marcus Antonius
Bust of Mark Antony ( Vatican Museums)
Allegiance Roman Republic
Years of service 54–30 BC
Rank General
Commands held Roman army
Battles/wars Gallic Wars
Caesar's civil war
Battle of Mutina
Battle of Philippi
Battle of Actium

Marcus Antonius (in latin: M·ANTONIVS·M·F·M·N) (c. January 14, 83 BC– August 1, 30 BC), known in English as Mark Antony, was a Roman politician and General. He was an important supporter of Gaius Julius Caesar as a military commander and administrator, being the son of one of Caesar's paternal cousins. After Caesar's assassination, Antony formed an official political alliance with Octavian (Augustus) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, known to historians today as the Second Triumvirate.

The triumvirate broke up in 33 BC. Disagreement between Octavian and Antony erupted into civil war, the Final War of the Roman Republic, in 31 BC. Antony was defeated by Octavian at the naval Battle of Actium, and in a brief land battle at Alexandria. He committed suicide, and his lover, the Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, killed herself shortly thereafter.

Early life

Antony was born in Rome, around 83 BC. His father was his namesake and died at a young age. His mother, Julia Antonia, was a cousin of Caesar. Marcus and his brothers eventually acquired a stepfather when their mother married Publius Cornelius Lentulus (Sura), a politician involved in and executed during the Catiline Conspiracy of 63 BC.

Antony's early life was characterized by a lack of parental guidance. According to historians like Plutarch, he spent his teenage years wandering the streets of Rome with his brothers and friends, Publius Clodius Pulcher among them. The connection was eventually severed by a disagreement arising from his relations with Clodius's wife, Fulvia. While they were friends, they embarked on a rather wild life, frequenting gambling houses, drinking too much, and involving themselves in scandalous love affairs. Plutarch mentions the rumor that before Antony reached 20 years of age, he was already indebted to the sum of 250 talents.

After this period of recklessness, Antony fled to Greece to escape his creditors and to study rhetoric. After a short time spent in attendance on the philosophers at Athens, he was summoned by Aulus Gabinius, proconsul of Syria, to take part in the campaigns against Aristobulus in Judea, and in support of Ptolemy XII Auletes in Egypt. In the ensuing campaign, he demonstrated his abilities as a cavalry commander and distinguished himself with bravery and courage.

Supporter of Caesar

In 54 BC, Antony became a member of the staff of Caesar's armies in Gaul and early Germany. He again proved to be a competent military leader in the Gallic Wars, but his personality caused instability wherever he went. Antony and Caesar were said to be best of friends. Antony made himself ever available to assist Caesar in carrying out his military campaigns.

Nevertheless, raised by Caesar's influence to the offices of quaestor, augur, and tribune of the plebians (50 BC), he supported the cause of his patron with great energy. Caesar's two proconsular commands, during a period of ten years, were expiring in 50 BC, and he wanted to return to Rome for the consular elections. But resistance from the conservative faction of the Roman Senate, led by Pompey, demanded that Caesar resign his proconsulship and the command of his armies before being allowed to seek re-election to the consulship.

This Caesar would not do, as such an act would at least temporarily render him a private citizen and thereby leave him open to prosecution for his acts while proconsul. It would also place him at the mercy of Pompey's armies. Antony resorted to violence in defending Caesar's decision and in supporting his re-election to the consulship, ending up in his being expelled from the Senate. He left Rome and joined Caesar & his armies at the banks of the Rubicon, the tiny river that marked the southern limit of his proconsular authority. With all hopes of a peaceful solution for the conflict with Pompey gone, Caesar led his armies across the river into Italy and marched on Rome, starting the last Republican civil war. During this time Antony was Caesar's second in command. As proof of Caesar's confidence in him Antony was charged with leading the mighty left wing of the army in all engagements with the legions of General Pompey.

Artist's impression of Mark Antony from a bust

When Caesar became dictator, Antony was made Master of the Horse, the dictator's right hand man, and in this capacity he remained in Italy as the peninsula's administrator in 47 BC, while Caesar was fighting the last Pompeians, who had taken refuge in the province of Africa. But Antony's skills as administrator were a poor match to those as General, and he seized the opportunity of indulging in the most extravagant excesses, depicted by Cicero in the Philippics. In 46 BC he seems to have taken offense because Caesar insisted on payment for the property of Pompey which Antony professedly had purchased, but had in fact simply appropriated. Conflict soon arose, and, as on other occasions, Antony resorted to violence. Hundreds of citizens were killed and Rome herself descended into a state of anarchy. Caesar was most displeased with the whole affair and removed Antony from all political responsibilities. The two men did not see each other for two years. The estrangement was not of long continuance, for we find Antony meeting the dictator at Narbo (45 BC) and rejecting the suggestion of Trebonius that he should join in the conspiracy that was already afoot. Reconciliation arrived in 44 BC, when Antony was chosen as partner for Caesar's fifth consulship.

Whatever conflicts existed between the two men, Antony remained faithful to Caesar at all times. On February 15, 44 BC, during the Lupercalia festival, Antony publicly offered Caesar a diadem. This was an event fraught with meaning: a diadem was a symbol of a king, and in refusing it, Caesar demonstrated that he did not intend to assume the throne.

On March 14, 44 BC, Antony was alarmed by a talk he had with a Senator named Casca, who told him the gods would make a strike against Caesar in the Roman Forum. Fearing the worst, the next day he went down to warn the dictator but the Liberatores reached Caesar first and he was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC, the date known as the Ides of March. In the turmoil that surrounded the event, Antony escaped Rome dressed as a slave, fearing that the dictator's assassination would be the start of a bloodbath among his supporters. When this did not occur, he soon returned to Rome, discussing a truce with the assassins' faction. For a while, Antony, as consul of the year, seemed to pursue peace and the end of the political tension. Following a speech by Cicero in the Senate, an amnesty was agreed for the assassins.

Then came the day of Caesar's funeral. As Caesar's ever-present second in command, partner in consulship and cousin, Antony was the natural choice to make the funeral eulogy. In his speech, he sprang his accusations of murder and ensured a permanent breach with the conspirators. Showing a talent for rhetoric and dramatic interpretation, Antony snatched the toga from Caesar's body to show the crowd the stab wounds, pointing at each and naming the authors, publicly shaming them. During the eulogy he also read Caesar's will, which left most of his property to the people of Rome, demonstrating that, contrary to the conspirator's assertions, Caesar had no intention of forming a royal dynasty. Public opinion turned, and that night, the Roman populace attacked the assassins' houses, forcing them to flee for their lives.

Enemy of the state and triumvirate

Roman aureus bearing the portraits of Mark Antony (left) and Octavian (right). Struck in 41 BC, this coin was issued to celebrate the establishment of the Second Triumvirate by Octavian, Antony and Marcus Lepidus in 43 BC. Both sides bear the inscription "III VIR R P C", meaning "One of Three Men for the Regulation of the Republic".

Antony surrounded himself with a bodyguard of Caesar's veterans and forced the senate to transfer to him the province of Cisalpine Gaul, which was then administered by Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, one of the conspirators. Brutus refused to surrender the province and Antony set out to attack him in October 44 BC, besieging him at Mutina. Encouraged by Cicero, the Senate granted Octavian imperium (commanding power), which made his command of troops legal and sent him to relieve the siege, along with Hirtius and Pansa, the consuls for 43 BC. In April 43, Antony's forces were defeated at the Battles of Forum Gallorum and Mutina, forcing Antony to retreat to Transalpine Gaul. However, both consuls were killed, leaving Octavian in sole command of their armies.

The senate attempted to give command of the consular legions to Decimus Brutus, but Octavian refused to surrender them. In July, an embassy from Octavian entered Rome and demanded that he receive the consulship. When this was refused, he marched on the city with eight legions. He encountered no military opposition and was elected consul with his relative Quintus Pedius as colleague. Meanwhile, Antony formed an alliance with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, another leading Caesarian.

When they knew that Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius had assembled an army in Greece in order to march on Rome, Antony, Octavian and Lepidus allied together to stop Caesar's assassins. After the battle, a new arrangement was made between the members of the Second Triumvirate: while Octavian returned to Rome, Antony went to Egypt where he allied himself with the Queen Cleopatra, the former lover of Julius Caesar and mother of Caesar's infant son, Caesarion. Lepidus went on to govern Hispania and the province of Africa.

Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1883)

The Parthian Empire had supported Brutus and Cassius in the civil war, sending forces which fought with them at Philippi; following Antony and Octavian's victory, the Parthians invaded Roman territory, occupying Syria, advancing into Asia Minor and installing Antigonus as puppet king in Judaea to replace the pro-Roman Hyrcanus. Antony sent his general Ventidius to oppose this invasion. Ventidius won a series of victories against the Parthians, killing the crown prince Pacorus and expelling them from the Roman territories they had seized. Antony now planned to retaliate by invading Parthia, and secured an agreement from Octavian to supply him with extra troops for his campaign. With this military purpose on his mind, Antony sailed to Greece with his new wife, where he behaved in a most extravagant manner, assuming the attributes of the Greek god Dionysus (39 BC). But the rebellion in Sicily of Sextus Pompeius, the last of the Pompeians, kept the army promised to Antony in Italy. With his plans again disrupted, Antony and Octavian quarreled once more. This time with the help of his wife Octavia (Octavian's sister), a new treaty was signed in Tarentum in 38 BC. The triumvirate was renewed for a period of another five years (ending in 33 BC) and Octavian promised again to send legions to the East.

But by now, Antony was skeptical of Octavian's true support of his Parthian cause. Leaving Octavia pregnant with her second child Antonia in Rome, he sailed to Alexandria, where he expected funding from Cleopatra, the mother of his twins. The queen of Egypt lent him the money he needed for the army, and after capturing Jerusalem and surrounding areas in 37 BC, he installed Herod as puppet king of Judaea, replacing the Parthian appointee Antigonus. Antony then invaded Parthian territory with an army of about 100,000 Roman and allied troops but the campaign proved a disaster. After defeats in battle, the desertion of his Armenian allies and his failure to capture Parthian strongholds convinced Antony to retreat, his army was further depleted by the hardships of its retreat through Armenia in the depths of winter, losing more than a quarter of its strength in the course of the campaign.

Meanwhile, in Rome, the triumvirate was no more. Lepidus was forced to resign after an ill-judged political move. Now in sole power, Octavian was occupied in wooing the traditional Republican aristocracy to his side. He married Livia and started to attack Antony in order to raise himself to power. He argued that Antony was a man of low morals to have left his faithful wife abandoned in Rome with the children to be with the promiscuous queen of Egypt. Antony was accused of everything, but most of all, of "becoming native", an unforgivable crime to the proud Romans. Several times Antony was summoned to Rome, but remained in Alexandria with Cleopatra.

A map of the Donations of Alexandria (by Mark Antony to Cleopatra and her children) in 34 BC

Again with Egyptian money, Antony invaded Armenia, this time successfully. In the return, a mock Roman Triumph was celebrated in the streets of Alexandria. The parade through the city was a pastiche of Rome's most important military celebration. For the finale, the whole city was summoned to hear a very important political statement. Surrounded by Cleopatra and her children, Antony was about to put an end to his alliance with Octavian. He distributed kingdoms between his children: Alexander Helios was named king of Armenia, Media and Parthia (which were never conquered by Rome), his twin Selene got Cyrenaica and Libya, and the young Ptolemy Philadelphus was awarded Syria and Cilicia. As for Cleopatra, she was proclaimed Queen of Kings and Queen of Egypt, to rule with Caesarion (Ptolemy XV Caesar, son of Julius Caesar), King of Kings and King of Egypt. Most important of all, Caesarion was declared legitimate son and heir of Caesar. These proclamations were known as the Donations of Alexandria and caused a fatal breach in Antony's relations with Rome.

Distributing insignificant lands among the children of Cleopatra was not a peace move, but it was not a serious problem either. What did seriously threaten Octavian's political position, however, was the acknowledgment of Caesarion as legitimate and heir to Caesar's name. Octavian's base of power was his link with Caesar through adoption, which granted him much-needed popularity and loyalty of the legions. To see this convenient situation attacked by a child borne by the richest woman in the world was something Octavian could not accept. The triumvirate expired on the last day of 33 BC and was not renewed. Another civil war was beginning.

The Battle of Actium, by Lorenzo Castro, 1672, National Maritime Museum, London

During 33 and 32 BC, a propaganda war was fought in the political arena of Rome, with accusations flying between sides. Antony (in Egypt) divorced Octavia and accused Octavian of being a social upstart, of usurping power, and of forging the adoption papers by Caesar. Octavian responded with treason charges: of illegally keeping provinces that should be given to other men by lots, as was Rome's tradition, and of starting wars against foreign nations (Armenia and Parthia) without the consent of the Senate. Antony was also held responsible for Sextus Pompeius' execution with no trial. In 32 BC, the Senate deprived him of his powers and declared war against Cleopatra. Both consuls (Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Gaius Sosius) and a third of the Senate abandoned Rome to meet Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.

In 31 BC, the war started. Octavian's loyal and talented general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa captured the Greek city and naval port of Methone, loyal to Antony. The enormous popularity of Octavian with the legions secured the defection of the provinces of Cyrenaica and Greece to his side. On September 2, the naval battle of Actium took place. Antony and Cleopatra's navy was destroyed, and they were forced to escape to Egypt with 60 ships.

Octavian, now close to absolute power, did not intend to give them rest. In August 30 BC, assisted by Agrippa, he invaded Egypt. With no other refuge to escape to, Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself with his sword in the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had already done so (30 BC). Probably within two weeks following his death, Cleopatra committed suicide. Her servants, Iras and Charmion, also killed themselves, and Caesarion was murdered. Antony's daughters by Octavia were spared, as was his son, Iullus Antonius. But his elder son, Marcus Antonius Antyllus, was killed by Octavian's men while pleading for his life in the Caesarium.

Aftermath and legacy

When Antony died, Octavian became uncontested ruler of Rome. In the following years, Octavian, who was known as Augustus after 27 BC, managed to accumulate in his person all administrative, political, and military offices. When Augustus died in 14 AD, his political powers passed to his adopted son Tiberius; the Roman Principate had begun.

The rise of Caesar and the subsequent civil war between his two most powerful adherents effectively ended the credibility of the Roman oligarchy as a governing power and ensured that all future power struggles would centre upon which of two (or more) individuals would achieve supreme control of the government, rather than upon an individual in conflict with the Senate. Thus Antony, as Caesar's key adherent and one of the two men around whom power coalesced following his assassination, was one of the three men chiefly responsible for the fall of the Roman Republic.

Antony's marriages and descendants

Antony had been married in succession to Fadia, Antonia, Fulvia, Octavia and Cleopatra, and left behind him a number of children. Through his daughters by Octavia, he would be ancestor to the Roman Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

  1. Marriage to Fadia, a daughter of a freedman. According to Cicero, Fadia bore Antony several children. Nothing is known about Fadia or their children. Cicero is the only Roman source that mentions Antony’s first wife.
  2. Marriage to first paternal cousin Antonia Hybrida Minor. According to Plutarch Antony threw her out of his house in Rome, because she slept with his friend, the tribune Publius Cornelius Dolabella. This occurred by 47 BC and Antony divorced his wife. By Antonia, he had a daughter
    • Antonia, married the wealthy Greek Pythodoros of Tralles
  3. Marriage to Fulvia, by whom he had two sons
    • Marcus Antonius Antyllus, executed by Octavian in 30 BC
    • Iullus Antonius, married Claudia Marcella Major, daughter of Octavia
  4. Marriage to Octavia Minor, sister of Octavian, later Augustus; they had two daughters
    • Antonia Major, married Domitius; grandmother of the Empress Valeria Messalina and the emperor Nero
    • Antonia Minor, married Drusus, the son of Livia; mother of the Emperor Claudius, grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and Empress Agrippina the Younger, great-grandmother of the emperor Nero
  5. Children with the queen Cleopatra of Egypt, the former lover of Julius Caesar
    • The twins: Alexander Helios & Selene, Selene married the king Juba II of Numidia and later Mauretania - the queen of Syria, Zenobia of Palmyra is descended from Selene and Juba II
    • Ptolemy Philadelphus
  6. Children by Afrania Silana
    • Lucius Afranius Antoninus Creticus
    • Afrania Silana Antonina
    • Marcus Antonius Afranius Silanus Censor
  7. Child by Cornelia Sisenna, wife of M'. Cornelius Scipio Nasica Aemilianus Paullus
    • M'Cornelius Scipio Nasica Paullus
  8. Children by Terentiana Varro
    • Gn. Antonius Marcellus
    • Antonia Marcella
  9. Children by Servilia Rosciana Caepio
    • Op. Antonius Caepio
    • Faust. Antonius Caepio
  10. Children by Scribonia Curia
    • Paullus Antonius Curio
    • Antonia Curio
    • Antonilla Curiatilla
    • Antoniana Paulla
    • Cretica Paulla Antonilla

Fictional portrayals

Fictional works in which the character of Mark Antony plays a central role include:

  • The popular TV series Xena: Warrior Princess;
  • The TV series Rome (see Mark Antony (character));
  • The 1963 film Cleopatra;
  • Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series;
  • The Memoirs of Cleopatra, a novel by Margaret George – May 15, 1997;
  • Cleopatra VII:Daughter of the Nile, a novel by Kimberly Morgan – January 31, 1998.
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