by Andrew Mason
What was the basis for the alliance behind those two great personalities of antiquity, Marcus Antoninus (Antony) and Cleopatra VII? What drew them together and what were the goals that they strove towards? Did these goals differ? What was Egypt’s role in their famous alliance? How accurate is the traditional image of the pair, inspired largely by Shakespeare (who was merely following Plutarch), of a beguiling, ambitious queen and a love-sick Roman who could refuse her nothing?
Between 46 and 30 B.C Egypt was the “political centre of gravity of the East” because of its mineral wealth and its agricultural ability to produce grain [please see Figure 1 for a map of the East during Cleopatra’s life]. Yet Egypt was not the power it once had been, and Cleopatra’s father Auletes owed his throne to Roman support, much as she gained her throne with the aid of Caesar’s arms [see figure II for a bust of the young queen]. In the opinion of this author, young Cleopatra was determined to use Egypt’s wealth and her own charisma to improve her status as a Roman client Queen and to restore the glory of the Ptolemaic dynasty. To secure herself domestically, Cleopatra appealed directly to the natives of Egypt and to the Hellenistic population of the East in general. In order to inspire loyalty in her people, Greek Cleopatra learnt the Egyptian language (the first of fourteen Ptolemies to do so) and adopted Egyptian religious practices.
Cleopatra’s coinage hailed her as Isis, the ‘New Goddess,’ and she was actively worshipped as such in Egypt. After the ‘Donations of Alexandria’ she was never in public without her Isis robes. Caesar had even recognised Cleopatra as Isis in a triumph held in Rome. Religion was an integral part of Cleopatra’s political propaganda, for the sect of Isis had spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, and to be ‘internationally’ recognised as the goddess gave Cleopatra greater political clout in the East. When Antony became a crucial part of her plans, Cleopatra’s propaganda ensured that he was revered by Greek Egyptians as Dionysus and by native Egyptians as Osiris, the ‘king of kings’ (nswt nswjw).
Apart from coinage [see figure III for examples of Cleopatra’s coins], little Egyptian propaganda survives from this period (in contrast to the enormous amount of Octavian’s propaganda which survives). However the Tassa Farnese, from Alexandria, is a splendid example. The piece shows Isis-Demeter, in a diadem, with the Sphinx. Horus is pictured in the background with grain in his hands, and the Nile is shown renewing the land and crops. Scholars believes the piece to be glorifying the “Isis regime,” for the scene promises a new ‘golden’ era under the rule of Isis-Demeter. Isis represents Cleopatra, and she also represents the dualism of the Hellenistic kingdom, for she is portrayed with Greek and traditional Egyptian features.
Cleopatra and her supporters made much use of prophecies in an attempt to convince the superstitious population of Egypt and of the Roman East that a new age would dawn under the rule of Cleopatra Isis-Venus and Antony Dionysus-Osiris. The Aretologies of Isis, (Kyme version) provides an example of the propaganda directed against Octavian that would have appealed to the Hellenistic East. It reflects the dualism of Hellenism and stresses the power of Isis and of Egypt: “I am Isis, Mistress of Every Land…taught by Hermes…I made with my brother Osiris an end to the Eating of Men…I broke down the governments of tyrants…Hail Egypt that has nourished me.” Her agents also distributed the prophecies of the Sibylline Leaves (dating from the last two centuries B.C and quite distinct from the prophecies of the Sibyl at Rome) : “the wealth that Rome as tribute from Asia taken away / Asia shall thrice as much get back from Rome in some future day.” This prophecy also speaks of an unnamed Queen cropping Latin heads and of the establishment of a “serene peace to all the Asian land,” and a time where “the whole world under a woman’s hand / Ruled and obeyed everywhere shall stand.” Ironically, Octavian was able to exploit such propaganda to suggest that Cleopatra wanted to overthrow Rome itself. Prominent Egyptologist Gunther Hölbl suggests that in fact, Cleopatra never actively desired to establish a world-wide Hellenistic monarchy and that her foremost concern remained the defence of Egyptian sovereignty and of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Hans Volkmann, author of Cleopatra: A Study in Politics and Propaganda, suggests that Cleopatra understood the concept of kairos, the Greek idea that there existed a “fertile hour that waits upon the great man who knows how to use it.” Cleopatra would have perceived such a fertile hour when Antony arrived in the West hailed as Dionysus. She understood that her path to greatness lay chiefly in her ability to influence world leaders, as she had influenced Caesar. Rome now held the world in its sway, and Cleopatra had no desire to be indebted to Rome as her father Auletes had been. The tension between Antony and Octavian must have been known to all, especially to one who hired as many spies and informants as did Cleopatra. The only hope of restoring Ptolemaic greatness would be to side with one of the Romans against the other. Cleopatra knew that Octavian [see Figure IV] claimed to be Caesar’s adopted son, and thus would likely do everything in his power to eliminate her son by Caesar, Caesarion (whom she hoped would rule Egypt as Ptolemy XV – see figure V). Octavian was clearly her enemy. It was serendipitous indeed that of the Triumvirs it was Antony [see figure VI], with his renowned fondness for luxury and for Greek culture in general, who came to rule the East.
When Antony first arrived in the East in 41 B.C he landed at Ephesos. There he was hailed by the population as the New Dionysus and he was welcomed with bacchantes, satyrs and the music of pipes and zithers. Octavian was to spitefully reproach Antony for touring the East as a god, but Roman precedents for his action existed: Caesar had claimed descent from Venus and when Octavian had Caesar deified he claimed to be divius filis, the ‘son of the god.’
Since the expulsion of her last King, Rome had been a republic with a mixed constitution, with the Senate representing the aristocrats and the tribunes of the plebeians representing the people. The political system of monarchy, and especially divine monarchy, was held to be foreign in Rome. However, in the Hellenistic East the blend of Greek and Asiatic cultures equated the king with a living god. Antony was considered a mighty conqueror by the people of Ephesos, for he was the friend of the great Caesar and had vanquished the great Brutus. Thus, it was unsurprising that Ephesos hailed Antony as a god, and with the general’s handsome physique and lust for revelry the identification with Dionysus was natural. Dionysus was a god of Asian origin and prophecies foretelling his rebirth and of the subsequent re-emergence of Asia as a power abounded during this period.
Grasping the important political consequences of this and wishing to ingratiate himself with the Hellenistic East, Antony identified himself with Dionysus and portrayed himself as a “philhellene,” a friend of the Hellenistic peoples and not as a Roman master. Evidence of this can be found on Antony’s coins, which acted as miniature propaganda pieces. After Philippi, Antony struck coins bearing the Sun to appeal to the Hellenistic idea of the sun as a supreme deity. He also portrayed his symbol, a lion pictured with a sword and a star overhead, on his coins. The lion harkened back to Hercules and was also representative of Alexander the Great. The star represented “a sign of the advent of a new dispensation.”
This propaganda shows that Mark Antony had no illusions about the stability of the Triumvirate. Once the Liberators (the name given to Brutus and Cassius’ faction) had been vanquished the ambitious triumvirs immediately began struggling for power amongst themselves. Octavian had the advantage of claiming adopted kinship with the dead dictator, and soon his faction controlled Italy, Spain, Sardinia and Gaul, though the original division of territories had given him only Spain and Sardinia. The Antonine faction was still strong in Rome, and Antony knew that his attempt for power could be successful if he could emulate Caesar’s martial glory. Antony decided to follow Caesar’s plans to avenge the disaster at Carrhae in 53 B.C at the hands of the Parthians. At Carrhae the Parthians had slain the Roman general (and legendary plutocrat) Crassus and legionary standards had fallen to the enemy. To avenge Carrhae Antony needed the support of the East.
In the opinion of this author, Antony knew that by subjugating the last independent Hellenistic kingdom, effacing the dishonour of Carrhae and carrying out Caesar’s final military plans he would give his faction the opportunity to sway the Senate permanently in his favour. Antony understood that such a war would be enormously costly and he needed funds quickly, before Octavian’s power increased further still. In order to gather necessary strength and to secure himself against both Octavian and the Parthians, Antony awarded additional territory and privileges to the major centres of the East such as Athens, Rhodes, Lycia and Tarsus, hoping to ensure their loyalty. Antony also convened the Koinon (or Diet) of Asia at Ephesos, which was attended by delegates from every Eastern community. However, the representatives could not furnish the vast sums Antony required, for clever Cassius (one of the Liberators and the previous Roman ruler of the East), had collected ten years of taxes up front and had utterly beggared most Eastern treasuries. It was only now that Antony showed an interest in the queen of Egypt. It was with an eye on Egyptian wealth that Antony first summoned Cleopatra to visit him at Tarsus, ostensibly to reprimand her for the aid Egypt had given to the Liberators.
Antony and Cleopatra: the Scholars Differ
It is at this point that controversy grips scholarly thought on the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. Hölbl sees Antony and Cleopatra as a unit, working in tandem with common goals and a clear vision: the organisation of a new political order in the East. Lindsay maintains a contrary opinion, namely that both figures were entirely self-interested and merely regarded the other as a means to an end. Thus, Lindsay suggests Cleopatra sought the alliance to regain the old frontiers of the Ptolemaic empire and to secure her dynasty, and Antony sought to use Cleopatra and the East merely as playing pieces in his bid for power in distant Rome. This author tends to prefer the evidence for Lindsay’s assertion, as will be demonstrated anon.
Plutarch, Cassius Dio and Appian followed the official propaganda of the Principate, and can thus be largely discredited. However, it is important to understand that in the Rome of the 30’s Antony was portrayed as a man entirely under the spell of a foul temptress, who had coerced from him large sections of the empire and led him into conflict with Rome. Many modern historians, such as Scullard, Carter and Southern, while recognising that Octavian’s version of events was flawed, suggest that after his failed Parthian expedition Antony did indeed come more and more into Cleopatra’s power. The influence Cleopatra had over him greatly affected Antony’s fate; it cost him support in Rome, it cost him the allegiance of many of his finest commanders and it negatively influenced major tactical decisions.
Volkmann suggests that Cleopatra could have been attempting to use Antony in much the same way that the Parthians had used the Roman general, Labienus [see figure VII]. Labienus had been a supporter of Pompey who had sought refuge at the Parthian court after his cause floundered. Labienus was given command of Roman deserters and Parthian troops and was encouraged to invade Roman Syria, which he did in 40 B.C. The surviving independent Hellenistic monarchs in the new Roman world realised that their survival depended largely on their ability to interfere in Roman politics and to fracture their foe by fostering division. Thus, the Arsacids of Parthia extended aid to Roman republicans in their fight against the Caesarian faction, and Cleopatra likewise sought to profit by using Antony and pitting him against Rome. This was certainly the image that Octavian’s propaganda tried so passionately to convey at the time, and the notion has cannot be entirely discredited.
The Birth of the Alliance
When, in 41 B.C, Cleopatra arrived at Tarsus to meet Antony she did so in an atmosphere of supreme splendour. Her agents spread the rumour that Aphrodite had arrived to revel with Dionysus for the good of Asia and Sokrates of Rhodes in Book III of his Civil War recorded in detail the extensive Dionysian implications of their meetings. Aside from ushering in one of the most famous couplings in history, this meeting involved ruthless diplomacy, and a delicate game of ‘give and take’ was played. In exchange for providing Antony with funds and material, Cleopatra demanded (and was granted) the execution of her sister Arsinoe, the pretender Ptolemy VIV and of the admiral Sarapion, all of whom threatened both her own crown and the throne she hoped to pass to her children.
Cleopatra’s coins and statues do not portray the beauty that myth has assigned her [see figure VIII]. Antony was not swept off his feet by an Elizabeth Taylor-esque nymph. The sexual relationship between them was likely to cement their alliance. The diplomatic use of sex in the ancient world is well documented. If one follows Suetonius and Cicero, the young Caesar gave himself to the King of Bithynia in exchange for ships and men. At a triumph in Rome Caesar’s troops chanted: “Gaul was brought to shame by Caesar; by Nicomedes, he.” Octavian himself was accused of sleeping with prominent men and women in order to further his ambitions. Though Cleopatra and Antony became lovers at Tarsus, it is unlikely they were ‘in love.’ Lindsay believes Cleopatra wanted “an ally in the purpose that consumed her,” the consolidation of her power, the rebuilding of the Ptolemaic empire and, the most whimsical, the assertion of the right of Caesarion to ascend to the position of his father, as undoubted master of the known world.
Antony the Philhellene
After their meeting at Tarsus Antony followed Cleopatra to Egypt, which he entered as a private citizen without any insignia of office. Whereas he entered most of the Eastern client kingdoms as a victorious triumvir, he came to Egypt in the square cut dress of the Greeks, not in the Roman toga, and wearing the Athenian shoes, the phaikasion. Alexandria was likely the foremost city in the Hellenised world, and Antony spent his time visiting Greek and Egyptian temples and the gymnasiums. Antony avoided Latin company and in deference to Cleopatra spent all his time with Greeks. Antony was so enraptured with the spirit of Hellenism that he founded a club, ‘the Inimitable Lovers,’ dedicated to Dionysian rites.
Antony was vigorously strengthening his position in the East with these philhellene gestures, however these same gestures were viciously exploited in Rome by Octavian’s propaganda. Antony was proclaimed an irresponsible ‘Graeculi,’ an insulting term meaning ‘little Greek’ and which implied effeminacy and excess. Ever since the days of Cato the Elder there had been strong conservative elements in Rome who were displeased by the introduction of Greek culture and values into the city. They preferred the traditional, rustic, agrarian Roman ideals of gravitas and dignitas and considered most aspects of Greek and Asiatic culture foreign, superstitious and extravagant.
In 40 B.C Antony was busy defending Syria against Labienus and his Parthian overlords, who were also posing as the defenders of Hellenic culture. In is interesting to note that Labienus, a determined Roman Republican, portrayed himself as a philhellene not necessarily out of conviction, but because posing as a defender of Hellenism was extremely effective propaganda in the East. Antony was perhaps doing no different by posing as Dionysus. However, many Romans had little time for Hellenistic theories of divine kingship, and Octavian manipulated these prejudices so successfully that Antony’s brother, the consul Lucius, felt that action was required. He and his wife Fulvia rose up in arms in defence of the absent triumvir. At Perusia the Antonine forces were crushed and the prisoners treated with utmost barbarity.
If Antony was indeed an easily manipulated, love-sick paramour or an adventurer intent on building a personal Eastern empire, this event would have likely given him the excuse to stay in Egypt with Cleopatra forever. Instead, he immediately left for Brundisium to parley with Octavian. The two generals agreed to extend their alliance and divide the world between them, drawing a line through Scutari in Illyricum and awarding everything east of this line to Antony. In exchange (promptly forgetting Cleopatra), Antony took as his wife Octavian’s sister, Octavia [see figure IX]. Carter suggests that in his more lucid moments Antony was a true practioner of realpolitik. In the opinion of this author, in 40 B.C Antony understood the need to make concessions and realised that his relationship with Cleopatra was a hindrance to his goal of achieving political power in Rome. Antony struck coins with a portrait of Octavia beside his own, and with intertwined serpents or twin cornucopias on the opposite side [see figure X]. The serpents represent a union or alliance between Antony and Octavian, East and West (symbolised by the Treaty of Brundisium), and the cornucopias represent the blossoming of a ‘New Age.’
It is likely Antony still distrusted Octavian’s intentions, for when he arrived in Athens in 39 B.C, with Octavia in tow, he lost no time in applying the lessons he learned from Cleopatra. In some respects Cleopatra had acted as Antony’s mentor, teaching him how to ingratiate himself with his Hellenistic subjects by adopting their religious beliefs and posing as a god, as she had done in Egypt. The Roman now lost no time in officially hailing himself the New Dionysus and constructed a Dionysian cave at Athens for his rites. He ordered that he be proclaimed as Dionysus to the entire East. Meanwhile, Antony’s general in Syria, Ventidus, succeeded in repelling Labienus and the Parthians. Antony stayed with Octavia for almost two years, but she produced no son, funds were still lacking and he had still not achieved his necessary martial glory. Word had also reached him that wealthy Cleopatra had given birth to his twin children, a boy and a girl, in March of 40.
The Renewal of the Alliance
By 37 B.C Antony was frustrated by Octavian’s abuses of the treaty terms of Brundisium. He had been continually denied entrance to Italy, his Gallic legions had been usurped by Octavian and he had given two squadrons of ships to Octavian and had never received the two legions promised in return. In a symbolic gesture Antony sent Octavia back to Rome. Still assured that a successful Parthian campaign would bring him to favour in Rome, Antony once again drifted into an alliance with Cleopatra to procure the necessary material.
The importance of Parthia was simple: Rome could not claim to be master of the oikoumene (or civilised world) until her empire embraced the Hellenised areas of Iran and Northern India, thus encompassing all the lands that had been ruled by Alexander the Great. Antony could claim that a war with Parthia was being waged in Rome’s name, to avenge past defeats, to follow through with Caesar’s plans to conquer the last independent Hellenistic kingdom [see figure XI]. However, Antony also had a deeply personal motive for the campaign. Though Antony’s main objective still appeared to be attaining power in Rome, he and Cleopatra were also laying the foundations for an entirely new political and social order in the Eastern provinces of the Empire.
The names Cleopatra chose for the twins are telling. The boy was known as Alexander Helios, the girl as Cleopatra Selene, thus usurping the title of the Parthian king, ‘brother of the sun and the moon.’ The names evoked the Hellenistic spirit that both Cleopatra and Antony were so eager to identify with; Alexander in memory of the great conqueror, and Helios, in honour of the Hellenistic solar deities and of the Egyptian Ra. These children were obviously being reared to be future monarchs, their very names showed that they were expected to rule over the entire Hellenised East. The Romans accompanying Antony were wary of Cleopatra’s ambitions. Cleopatra was exceedingly unpopular in Rome, and many blamed her for turning both Caesar and Antony from upstanding Roman magistrates into Hellenistic style despots. Though the Antonine faction must have been pleased that Antony had an heir, many felt that Cleopatra would use the children to further her own designs and further alienate Antony from Rome.These followers held that the general should demand and seize any needed supplies from the Egyptians and Antony demurred, for he needed sincere Egyptian co-operation. Moreover, the Egyptian queen was mother to his children. Like Caesar, Antony felt bound to Cleopatra, as she had borne him children. Thus, Cleopatra used conception as a political tool. Cleopatra and Antony were wed in 37 B.C, according to Egyptian rites, though this marriage was invalid in Rome because Antony had not divorced Octavia. This was something that Antony’s Roman allies would not have allowed him to do. As long as Antony was legally married to a Roman of high status, his dalliance with Cleopatra could be excused by his supporters as a matter of political expediency and nothing more.
The Dawn of a ‘New Era’
Cleopatra did however ask for a substantial dowry: the frontiers of the Ptolemaic empire at its greatest extent, under Ptolemy II. In Rome the dispensations Antony made were seen as unconstitutional, as the power over the lands belonged by right to the Senate and not to the triumvir; however, Antony could legitimise his position. Prior to the Parthian invasion of Syria the Roman East had been protected by a buffer zone of client states designed by Pompey to separate Syria, Bithnyia and Asia from the territory of the Parthians. The Parthian invasion of 40 B.C effaced Pompey’s system overnight. Antony decided to usher in a new era with fresh dispensations; Ptolemaic Koele Syria, central Syria, Cyprus (which had been promised her by Caesar), Cilicia, Cyrene, Phoenicia and Palestine (from Egypt’s borders to the river Eleutheros) were all placed under the ‘protection’ of Cleopatra.
As Triumvir for the East, Antony could claim that it was his duty to re-organise the East. Furthermore, Antony could tell detractors that any area which already had stable, loyal government was left untouched; he had strengthened the rulers of Cappadocia, Pontus and Galatia (Archelaus, Polemo and Amyntas respectively), allowed Tyre and Sidon to remain free cities, and refused to allow Cleopatra dominion over King Herod’s Jewish state. Only Cilicia had been under direct Roman control previously, and in the words of classical historian Carter, the province was “unexploitable.” Also, he could argue that he had justly punished the cities of Koele Syria, for they had sided with the Parthians in the war of 40, while he was likewise rewarding the loyal allies of Rome in that war, the Egyptians.
For Cleopatra these dispensations represented a pact which transcended a traditional alliance between Rome and Egypt. By 37 B.C Cleopatra felt secure in her current dynastic possessions and wanted for Egypt a role at the head of an entirely new Eastern order, a legacy she intended to pass on to Caesarion, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. The significance of the dispensations was marked by the fact that Cleopatra began a new system of double dating. Thus the year of the dispensations was Cleopatra’s regnal year 16, which was to be year one of the New Era. This ideal of the New Eastern Order was apparently very useful propaganda, and evidence of the acceptance of this new dating system has been found throughout the Hellenic East, even as far away as Chersonnesos on the Black Sea. The Romans in Antony’s retinue were less impressed: “…generals, administrators, traders, colonized veterans…” all assumed Antony was merely “…play acting for the locals.”
In 36 B.C Antony was finally ready to invade Parthia. Aided by a Parthian defector, Monaeses, and a somewhat unwilling ally, Artavasdes of Armenia, Antony crossed the Parthian border at the head of 100 000 troops (but of this number only two legions were of Roman stock). Antony allowed his siege train to fall to the enemy early in the campaign and was thus unable to take his objective, the city of Praaspa [see figure XII]. At this point Artavasdes deserted Antony’s force with all the cavalry and Antony was forced to retreat. The retreat became a rout in the face of pursuing Parthian horsemen [see figure XIII], as starvation, exhaustion and thirst took their toll. Antony lost 20, 000 troops before he returned to friendly soil. Antony was not discouraged. Instead he chose to blame Artavasdes’s treachery for the defeat, and prided himself on not having suffered Crassus’ fate. For her part, to rally support to their cause, Cleopatra launched an effective state tour of the East in which she wooed supporters and gained fresh accolades.
But Antony could not replace his fallen legionnaires, for Octavian had closed Italy to his recruiting officers. Determined to attack Armenia as a prelude to another invasion of Parthia, Antony turned to Cleopatra and the East, and by refusing an offer of aid from loyal Octavia, he symbolically turned away from the Roman world. As testament to his new Eastern perspective, Antony wed his daughter Antonia, from his first marriage, to Pythodoris of Tralles, a Greek. It must be pointed out that the groom was exceedingly rich, and Antony could have easily married off his daughter merely to gain for his war-chest the monies of his son-in-law. Regardless, the Roman senate was horrified. Antony had also begun constructing a fleet, and here Carter’s claims of realpolitik can be verified. Koele Syria had long supplied the Pharaoh’s shipyard with timber. Now that Octavian had stolen two of his naval squadrons and Agrippa, Octavian’s admiral, controlled the Western Mediterranean Antony needed a strong navy. By giving Cleopatra a stake in his victory with his generous dispensations, and by providing Egypt with access to crucial raw materials, he had guaranteed that Cleopatra would build him a fleet. As the war of words between Octavian and Antony intensified in 35 and 34 B.C, Antony and Cleopatra began building a navy capable of challenging Agrippa.
The Donations of Alexandria
Perhaps it was only the Parthian disaster of 36 that induced him to take his “definite turn from Roman attitudes, customs and prejudices,” and which encouraged him to definitively adopt “Greek and Eastern ways of life.” In 34 B.C, with Egyptian funds, Eastern allies and his capable general Canidius, Antony overcame the Armenians and captured Atavasdes. Antony struck coins celebrating his victory, showing himself wearing the Armenian royal tiara, though wearing crowns was controversial in Rome. He decided to award himself a Roman triumph, but chose to celebrate the event in Alexandria, though no one had ever held a triumph outside of the city of Rome. Instead of celebrating in Rome at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, Antony celebrated his victory in a Hellenistic capital in the Dionysian tradition of Ptolemy II.
Furthermore, Antony proclaimed that Cleopatra and Caesarion were joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus and that they were overlords of the other Eastern kings. As symbol of her new position Cleopatra was awarded the title “Queen of Kings and of her sons who are Kings,” which was prominently featured on her coinage [see figure XIV]. Alexander Helios, still an infant, was awarded Armenia, Parthia, Media and all lands east of the Euphrates. Medallions were struck showing the child in Persian garb. Cleopatra Selene was to receive Cyrenaica and Libya. Cleopatra and Antony’s youngest child, Ptolemy Philadelphos, often portrayed in Macedonian garb, was awarded Syria, Cilicia and the area between the Euphrates and the Hellespont. Cleopatra, as ruler of Egypt, was “supreme ruler of the whole system.” Still fearful of the wrath of Roman republican feeling, Antony portrayed himself as Cleopatra’s consort and not as a monarch. He continued to pose as a Roman magistrate and Triumvir but Lindsay argues that this attempt at dualism only undermined his position in Rome. Antony had in fact organised a Hellenistic world state, with Cleopatra as divine ruler, in direct challenge to the Roman concept of government. Octavian could now rightly claim to be the defender of Roman civilisation.
Octavian used these ‘Donations of Alexandria’ to launch an attack on Antony in the Senate. Ahenobarbus, a former friend of the Liberators, spoke in vain in Antony’s defence [see figure XV]. Ahenobarbus then lead both consuls and between 300 and 400 senators to Ephesos, where Antony convened a new Senate claiming that legitimate political power followed the consuls and the senate. This was not a welcome development for Cleopatra- she feared most of all that Antony would abandon her for Rome as he had done at Brundisium in 40 B.C. Antony had always officially maintained that his goal was political power in Rome. He proclaimed himself “Triumvir for the Restoration of the State” in 31 B.C. [see figure XVI] Afraid and suspicious, Cleopatra demanded Antony divorce Octavia in exchange for the aid he required of her. Antony’s Romans were against severing ties to Roman society by a divorce, and Herod, King of Judaea, is reputed to have told him that “the only way to victory [lies] over the dead body of his queen (Cleopatra).” However, Cleopatra paid for the maintenance of his armies and provided and equipped the fleet: Antony could do nothing without her. Cleopatra even allegedly bribed Canidius to convince Antony to allow her to follow him to the front, and to allow her opinions to dominate at councils of war.
In 32 B.C Antony divorced Octavia and Octavian read to the Roman Senate Antony’s will (kept with the Vestal Virgins) which named Cleopatra as his beneficiary. Almost immediately desertions began amongst Antony’s Roman followers. The Senate in Rome then declared war against the foreign Cleopatra and not Antony. In 32 and 31 B.C Antony’s remaining Roman generals appealed to him to invade Italy, but Cleopatra used her influence to ensure a defensive strategy was adopted. In the opinion of the author, Cleopatra would have preferred it if the war had never occurred, for she, unlike Antony, wanted only the East, and did not want to risk Antony retaking Rome or Octavian overcoming Antony. She feared Octavian’s wrath in victory, and likely feared that in the case of his victory Antony would return to Octavia and begin slowly reasserting Roman rights in the East.
Two of Antony’s best generals, Titius and Plancus, defected to Octavian protesting against Cleopatra’s role and level of involvement in the planning of the campaign. Ahenobarbus followed soon afterwards. When the opposing armies met in 30 B.C on the western coast of Greece, at Actium, Antony put his Egyptian fleet to use, but Agrippa made short work of them. Abandoning their army, Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt. Octavian advanced upon them and Antony’s Roman troops and Eastern allies began to desert en masse. As Octavian approached Alexandria, Cleopatra turned to desperate acts to keep her dynastic dream alive. She collected her fabulous treasury (which Octavian needed to pay his veterans) in a citadel, attempted to trick Antony into killing himself and sent letters to Octavian pleading for a reconciliation. She soon realised that the game was up. Antony’s last troops defected and he did kill himself. Cleopatra realised the extent of Octavian’s ambition and sent Caesarion into hiding before killing herself. For his part, Octavian killed Caesarion thus destroying the Egyptian branch of the Ptolemies and allowed Antony’s children by Cleopatra to be adopted by Octavia and taken to Rome.
Though she died by her own hand, defeated, Cleopatra had accomplished more than any Hellenistic monarch since Alexander: she had reversed the contemporary tide of international power in the East and had wrought a new position for Egypt in the Hellenistic world. She established her children as monarchs and had as consort the most important man in the Eastern world. She was, however, unable to convince Antony to give up his dreams of controlling Rome. Antony did not understand that he had been sullied in the eyes of his people because of the “foreign values and practices” he had adopted in order to achieve political power in the East. He felt he needed Cleopatra, but in reality the political cost of her friendship was at least equal to its economic benefits. They were a tragic pair who bore little resemblance to the fiction conjured up by Plutarch and Shakespeare, both individuals were ambitious and strong willed, but their plans had been essentially contradictory from the beginning. The East was transferred back to Roman authority in 30 B.C and Egypt and its wealth became the personal domain of Octavian. Scholar E. Stauffer claimed that Actium was crucial because “Rome won a total victory over Egyptian world monarchy and free Europe assumed the leading place in imperial history and world politics.” Egypt would not be independent again for centuries. The Hellenistic ideal of the divine ruler was, however, emulated by the Roman Emperors Gaius, Nero, Commodus and others. Thus, the idea of rule by divine right was nevertheless passed into European tradition.
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