Anthony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy

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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
Introduction by Marcus Antonius

Okay, why have I chosen this book for the library?

Well, it's has my NS namesake, Marcus Antonius, as a major character and I have always had an interest in him since my late Father had me named after this famous Roman.

My interest in Cleopatra started when my Father, gave me a coin that came from the Ptolemaic dynasty and although it has some collectors value, I regard it as an heirloom so I shall never part with it.

I shall put a little bit about the coin in the next entry.

Enjoy the book.


Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
The Coin:

Photography by Neonlake

The Ptolemaic system is relatively hard to decipher since most every dated silver coin uses the same design formula (portrait of the founder-king, Ptolemy I, and a standing eagle holding a thunderbolt), and the coins often look quite similar from king to king, with there being only subtle differences in style and fabric that require intensive academic study to decipher.

In trying to identify this coin I have had to use what resources there are available online. In identifying this coin there are some clues in its design and wording.

First lets translate the wording on the edges of the coin.



Okay so we can confirm that the coin is Ptolemaic. The coin has other markings on it. To the left of the Eagle are the letters LΛB.

The Ptolemaic Kings of Egypt used regnal years to date their coins, with each king starting the cycle over again at year 1. Ptolemaic dates are proceeded by the demotic letter L.
The numbers in such systems are additive, reading from either left to right, or right to left.

So Λ B = 30 + 2 = year 32

As far as I can glean there were only two Ptolemy's who had reigns of at least 32 years. Ptolemy II ruled 284–246 BCE which was 38 years and Ptolemy VI Philometor who ruled from 180–145 BCE which is 35 years.
Looking at photographs online and comparing my coin and those of Ptolemy II and Ptolemy VI, I believe my coin is of Ptolemy VI.

The other letters that are on the right of the eagle are KI, this is the mint location where the coin was created.

The first Ptolemaic mint was at Memphis. It was later moved to Alexandria. Tyre was the most important coastal city out of the five Ptolemaic cities with a mint in Syria. After the Seleucid Kingdom led by Antiochus III the Great conquered Coele-Syria Ptolemais in Phoenicia (Acre) was still allowed to strike coins using the Phoenician weight. The mint remained very prolific, and was among the most active ones in the Seleucid Kingdom. It is likely that the city struck silver coinage without an interruption after it changed hands, as it was a very important city in Phoenicia. However, the Seleucids discontinued a Ptolemaic mint in Jaffa.

In Greece, Ptolemaic coinage mainly originates from the Peloponnese and Euboea. Corinth did not strike Ptolemaic coinage during its brief subordination to the kingdom.

Cyprus had many important mints, and the island struck large amounts of Ptolemaic coinage from 200 BC to 80 BC. Cyprus was also richer in silver than Egypt. In the second century BC, most of the Cypriot coinage are easily identifiable and datable because they include abbreviations for mints and dates for both gold and silver coinage. Cypriot mints from this period include Salamis (abbr. ΣA), Kition (abbr. KI) and Paphos (abbr. Π, and later as ΠA). Meanwhile, at Crete, there was no royal coinage in use, and Cretan cities had a strong autonomy of minting their own coins.

There are no evidence that Ptolemaic mints existed in Asia Minor. Furthermore, regions such as Cilicia and Lycia had no autonomous mints striking local currency. It seems that there was little circulation of Ptolemaic currency in Caria, Lycia, Pamphylia and Cilicia. Local Pamphylian silver coinage was discontinued under Ptolemaic control. It is likely that people in southern Asia Minor simply did not have a habit of using coinage in everyday economic transactions.

So what about size? The coin is approximately 24mm in diameter.

Material? Silver (Ag)

Weight? 14 grams.

So the results from the measurements indicate that this coin is a Tetradrachm. A coin that it was worth four drachmas; one drachma, in turn, was worth six obols. It is a high value coin representing, in the mid-fifth century BC, four days' pay for a skilled labourer or for a hoplite soldier, or two days' pay for a sculptor working on a public building.

I am no expert on ancient coins, but with the information I have collected it would appear that my solid silver Tetradrachm was minted in Kition, Cyprus in the 32nd year of the reign of Ptolemy VI, king of Egypt circa 142 BC.
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

The love affair between Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most famous stories from the ancient world, and has been depicted in countless novels, plays and films. As one of the three men in control of the Roman Empire, Antony was perhaps the most powerful man of his day; while Cleopatra, who had already been Julius Caesar's lover, was the beautiful queen of Egypt, Rome's most important province. The clash of cultures, the power politics, and the personal passion have proven irresistible to storytellers.

But in the course of this storytelling dozens of myths have grown up. The popular image of Cleopatra in ancient Egyptian costume is a fallacy; she was actually Greek, and far better versed in Roman culture than most storytellers give her credit for. Despite her local dominance in Egypt, her real power came from her ability to forge strong personal allegiances with the most important men in Rome. Likewise, Mark Antony was not the bluff soldier of legend, brought low by his love for an exotic woman - actually he was first and foremost a politician, and never allowed Cleopatra to dictate policy to him.

In this history, based exclusively on ancient sources and archaeological evidence, Adrian Goldsworthy gives us the facts behind this famous couple. It may not be the story we expect or even wish for, but it is every bit as fascinating as the myth.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
About the author:

Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy was born in 1969. He was educated up to the age of sixteen at Westbourne House Preparatory School and Westbourne Boys College in Penarth, South Wales. He attended the Sixth Form at Stanwell Comprehensive School for his A-Levels. From there he went to St John's College, Oxford University and took a First in Ancient and Modern History. Remaining at St John's, he was awarded a D.Phil. in Literae Humaniores (Ancient History) in 1994. The topic of his thesis was 'The Roman Army as a fighting force, 100 BC-AD 200'. A modified version of this was subsequently published in the Oxford Monographs series under the title of The Roman Army at War, 100 BC - AD 200 (1996). This remains in print and is one of the best selling works in the series.

He was a Junior Research Fellow at Cardiff University for two years and subsequently taught part-time at King's College London and was an assistant professor on the University of Notre Dame's London programme for six years. He also did bits and pieces of teaching at other universities. He has lectured on a range of topics, including both Greek and (particularly) Roman History, but also taught a course on the military history of the Second World War at Notre Dame.

Teaching is tremendous fun, but writing is even more enjoyable and in the last few years he has given up teaching to write full time. Best of all this avoids the vast weight of administrative work now inevitable in any university post. It is still nice to give lectures and attend conferences, but only when time permits.

Just in case anybody is interested, he enjoys watching cricket (supporting Glamorgan in the first class game and England internationally), walking, and playing tennis - not terribly well, but with plenty of enthusiasm. He has recently started learning to ride and now wishes he had taken it up long ago.

Adrian Goldsworthy lives in South Wales.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

Like all my books, this one has been greatly improved by the generosity of friends and family who have taken the time to read drafts of the manuscript or listen to my ideas as they developed. All contributed to making this a much better book, and added to the great pleasure of writing it. There are too many to name them all, but particular mention should go to Ian Hughes and Philip Matyszak, both of whom took time off from their own writing to comment on the chapters of Antony and Cleopatra. Kevin Powell also read the entire manuscript and provided many insightful comments and criticisms. Of those who were patient enough to talk through the various ideas at length, I must single out Dorothy King for special thanks. Her knowledge and enthusiasm were always very helpful – and in addition she provided me with pearls for some modest experiments in an effort to replicate Cleopatra’s famous wager with Antony!

In addition, I must once again thank my editor, Keith Lowe, and the other staff at Orion, as well as Ileene Smith and the team at Yale University Press, for seeing the book through to production and making such a fine job of it. Finally, thanks must go to my agent, Georgina Capel, for once again arranging for me to have the time and opportunity to do the subject justice.

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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

Antony and Cleopatra are famous. With just a handful of others, including Caesar, Alexander the Great, Nero, Plato and Aristotle, they remain household names more than two thousand years after their spectacular suicides. Cleopatra is the only woman in the list, which in itself is interesting and a testament to her enduring fascination. Yet most often Antony and Cleopatra are remembered as a couple, and as lovers – perhaps the most famous lovers from history. Shakespeare’s play helped them to grow into fictional characters as well, and so their story can now be numbered alongside other tales of passionate, but doomed romance, as tragic as the finale of Romeo and Juliet. It is unsurprising that the tale has been reinvented time after time in print, on stage and, more recently, on screen. Since they both had strongly theatrical streaks, this enduring fame would no doubt have pleased them, although since neither was inclined to modesty it would probably not have surprised them or seemed less than their due.

The story is intensely dramatic, and I cannot remember a time when I had not heard of Antony and Cleopatra. As young boys, my brother and I discovered a small box containing coins collected by our grandfather, a man who had died long before either of us was born. A friend spotted one of them as Roman, and it proved to be a silver denarius, minted by Mark Antony to pay his soldiers in 31 BC for a campaign partly funded by Cleopatra – the same coin shown in the photograph section in this book. Already interested in the ancient world, the discovery added to my enthusiasm for all things Roman. It seemed a connection not only with a grandparent, but also with Marcus Antonius the Triumvir, whose name circles the face of the coin with its picture of a warship. We do not know where our grandfather acquired this and the other coins — an eclectic mixture, several of which are from the Middle East. He may have picked them up in Egypt, where he served with the Royal Field Artillery during the First World War. It is certainly nice to think that.

So in some ways, Antony and Cleopatra have always had a special place in my interest in the ancient past, and yet the desire to write about them is fairly recent. A lot has been written, most especially about the queen, and it seemed unlikely that there could be much more worth saying. Then, a few years ago, I fulfilled a long-held ambition by working on Caesar: The Life of a Colossus, which amongst other things involved looking in far more detail at his affair with Cleopatra, as well as Antony’s political association with him. Some of what I found surprised me, and — though this was less unexpected — there were vast differences to the popular impression of the story. If it was valuable to look at Caesar’s career with a straightforward chronology, and to emphasise the human element in his own behaviour and that of his associates and opponents, it soon became clear that most other aspects of the period would benefit from the same approach.

For all their fame, Antony and Cleopatra receive little attention in formal study of the first century BC. Engaged in a power struggle, they were beaten and so had little real impact on later events. Academic history has long since developed a deep aversion to focusing on individuals, no matter how charismatic their personalities, instead searching for ‘more profound’ underlying trends and explanations of events. As a student I took courses on the Fall of the Roman Republic and the creation of the Principate, and later on as a lecturer I would devise and teach similar courses myself. Teaching and studying time is always limited, and as a result it was natural to focus on Caesar and his dictatorship, before skipping ahead to look at Octavian/Augustus and the creation of the imperial system. The years from 44–31 BC, when Antony’s power was at its greatest, rarely receive anything like such detailed treatment. Ptolemaic Egypt is usually a more specialised field, but, even when it is included in a course, the reign of its last queen — poorly documented and anyway in the last days of long decline — is seldom treated in any detail. The fame of Cleopatra may attract students to the subject, but courses are, quite reasonably and largely unconsciously, structured to stress more ‘serious’ topics, and shy away from personalities.

Antony and Cleopatra did not change the world in any profound way, unlike Caesar and to an even greater extent Augustus. One ancient writer claimed that Caesar’s campaigns caused the death of one million people and the enslavement of as many more. Whatever the provocation, he led his army to seize Rome by force, winning supreme power through civil war, and supplanted the Republic’s democratically elected leaders. Against this, Caesar was famous for his clemency. Throughout his career he championed social reform and aid to the poor in Rome, as well as trying to protect the rights of people in the provinces. Although he made himself dictator, his rule was generally benevolent, and his measures sensible, dealing with long-neglected problems. The path to power of his adopted son, Augustus, was considerably more vicious, replacing clemency with revenge. Augustus’ power was won in civil war and maintained by force, and yet he also ruled well. The Senate’s political freedom was virtually extinguished and popular elections rendered unimportant. At the same time he gave Rome a peace it had not known in almost a century of political violence and created a system of government that benefited a far wider section of society than the old Republic.1

Antony and Cleopatra proved themselves just as capable of savagery and ruthlessness, but the losers in a civil war do not get the chance to shape the future directly. Apart from that, there is no real trace of any long-held beliefs or causes on Antony’s part, no indication that he struggled for prominence for anything other than his own glory and profit. Some like to see Cleopatra as deeply committed to the prosperity and welfare of her subjects, but this is largely wishful thinking. There is no actual evidence to suggest that her concerns went any further than ensuring a steady flow of taxation into her own hands, to cement her hold on power. For only a small part of her reign was she secure on the throne, at the head of a kingdom utterly dependent on Roman goodwill, and it would probably be unreasonable to expect her to have done more than this.

Julius Caesar was highly successful. He was also highly talented across a remarkable range of activities. Even those who dislike the man and what he did can readily admire his gifts. Augustus is an even harder figure to like, especially as a youth, and yet no one would fail to acknowledge his truly remarkable political skill. Caesar and his adopted son were both very clever, even if their characters were different. Mark Antony had none of their subtlety, and little trace of profound intelligence. He tends to be liked in direct proportion to how much someone dislikes Octavian/Augustus, but there is little about him to admire. Instead, fictional portrayals have reinforced the propaganda of the 30s BC, contrasting Antony, the bluff, passionate and simple soldier, with Octavian, seen as a coldblooded, cowardly and scheming political operator. Neither portrait is true, but they continue to shape even scholarly accounts of these years.

Cleopatra was clever and well-educated, but unlike Caesar and Augustus the nature of her intelligence remains elusive, and it is very hard to see how her mind worked or fairly assess her intellect. It is the nature of biography that the author comes to develop a strong, and largely emotional, attitude towards his or her subject after spending several years studying them. Almost every modern author to come to the subject wants to admire, and often to like, Cleopatra. Some of this is a healthy reaction to the rabid hostility of Augustan sources. Much has to do with her sex, for as we noted at the start, it is a rare thing to be able to study in detail any woman from the Greco-Roman world. Novelty alone encourages sympathy – often reinforced by the same distaste for Augustus that fuels affection for Antony. In itself sympathy need not matter, as long as it does not encourage a distortion of the evidence to idealise the queen. There is much we simply do not know about both Antony and Cleopatra – and indeed most other figures from this period. The gaps should not be filled by confident assertions drawn from the author’s own mental picture of Cleopatra as she ought to have been.

By the time I had finished Caesar, I knew that I wanted to take a break from the first century BC and look at the decline of the Roman Empire and its collapse in the West. As much as anything this was because none of the books on that period seemed to explain events in a way I found satisfactory. The same sense that there was nothing that really did justice to the story of Antony and Cleopatra made me just as convinced that this book must come next.

To have real value, the study of history must be a quest for the truth. The whole truth is no doubt unobtainable even for comparatively recent events. For the ancient past, there will inevitably be many more gaps in our evidence as well as all the problems of understanding the actions of people from very different cultures to our own. That absolute success is impossible does not make the attempt to achieve it any less worthwhile. Similarly, although no historian can hope to be wholly objective, it still remains of fundamental importance to strive for this. If we always seek for the truth in history, whether or not it fits with our preconceptions or what we would like to believe, then we are far better placed to look for the truth in our own day and age.

This, then, is an attempt to tell the story of Antony and Cleopatra as objectively and dispassionately as possible, for there is passion enough in it without the author adding too much of his own personality. My aims are also to reveal as much of the true events as is possible, while making plain what we do not know, and bring the couple and their contemporaries alive as flesh-and-blood human beings. Getting to the facts is a lot less easy than it might seem, for even serious scholars so often want to see something else when they look at these two extraordinary lives.

1 Plutarch, Caesar 15 for the figures of 1 million dead and as many enslaved during the Gallic campaigns.
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


It begins with the question of just what Cleopatra was. Cleopatra was the queen of Egypt, and for the last few centuries Ancient Egypt has fascinated the modern world. At first interest came mainly from a desire to understand the Old Testament better, but rapidly moved far beyond that. Egypt is perceived as the most ancient of civilisations and its monuments are amongst the most spectacular. Some, such as the pyramids, sphinx and the great temples, are awe-inspiringly massive. Others are more intimate, such as the mummified animals and people, and the models of everyday things left in the tombs of the dead. Tutankhamen’s lavish death mask is immediately recognisable and conjures up images of ancient mystery and massive wealth. Hieroglyphics, with their mixture of symbols and pictures, or the flattened figures of people walking in the strange posture of wall paintings and reliefs are again both instantly recognisable as Egyptian. They are dramatic and at the same time alien.

Such imagery has time and again proven itself irresistible to filmmakers depicting Cleopatra. Her palace, court and indeed her own clothes are invariably inspired more by a caricatured version of New Kingdom Egypt than the reality of the first century BC. This is the chronological equivalent of presenting Elizabeth I as Queen Boudica of the Iceni, yet it has the dramatic virtue of making Cleopatra and Egypt utterly different and visually distinct from the Romans who form such a major part of her story. The Cleopatra of stories has to be exotic, and the images of an Egypt that was ancient even to her are a powerful part of this.

The exotic is almost always reinforced by the intensely erotic. Cleopatra has become one of the ultimate femmes fatales, the woman who seduced the two most powerful men of her day. Beautiful, sensual, almost irresistible and utterly unscrupulous, she distracted Julius Caesar, and perhaps filled his head with dreams of eastern monarchy. She then dominated Antony and brought him low. This Cleopatra can be seen as a danger – the last great danger – to the Pax Romana Augustus would bring to the Roman world. Fashions change, so that empires are no longer seen as admirable, and the Augustan system viewed with a more sceptical eye. These days many want to tell the story differently, turning the sinister seductress into a strong and independent woman struggling as best she could to protect her country.

For all that the title of Shakespeare’s play makes it natural to speak of Antony and Cleopatra, the glamour associated with the queen readily overshadows her lover. She had anyway already had an affair with Caesar – the scene where she is delivered to him hidden in a rolled carpet is one of the best-known images of the queen, even if it does not quite fit the ancient source. Caesar was first, and history has on the whole relegated Mark Antony to the second place and the role of Caesar’s lieutenant. A ‘good second-in-command’ or a ‘follower rather than a leader’ have been common verdicts on Antony, both politically and militarily. He is also seen as the man who ought to have won, but failed, and this again feeds an impression of a flawed character – talent without genius. Some would blame Cleopatra for unmanning the tough Roman soldier, a tradition encouraged by his ancient biographer, Plutarch. Others would prefer to see Antony as simply not good enough to match her ambitions. For one historian, Cleopatra was ‘a charismatic personality of the first order, a born leader and vaultingly ambitious monarch, who deserved better than suicide with that louche lump of a self-indulgent Roman, with his bull neck, Herculean vulgarities, and fits of mind-less introspection’.2

Cleopatra readily provokes an emotional response. In addition, myth and romance surround Antony and Cleopatra and make the truth elusive. Both of them consciously worked to shape their public images during their lifetime – as strong rulers, as godlike, as lovers of life and luxury. Simultaneously, political opponents sought to damn them. The orator Cicero directed his Philippics against Antony, producing some of the most effective character assassination of all time. Far more thoroughly, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian – the man who would become Rome’s first emperor and take the name Augustus – defeated Antony and Cleopatra. They died and he survived, holding supreme power for more than forty years. It gave him plenty of time to shape the historical record to best suit his new regime. His strongly hostile view of both Antony and Cleopatra influenced our fullest sources for their lives, all of which were written under the rule of Augustus’ successors.

Cleopatra continues to attract plenty of biographers. A few of these books also study Antony’s life in detail, but biographies devoted exclusively to him remain rare. He now tends to be an accessory to the life of his lover. Anyone looking at the period will be quick to point out the problems caused by Augustan propaganda; often it is difficult to know whether an incident happened, and it would be tempting to reject any negative story. Unfortunately, however, there are well-attested incidents in which both Antony and Cleopatra behaved in ways that seem irrational or at best politically unwise.3

The young Octavian is difficult to like. He was unscrupulous, could be vicious and at times was a physical coward. The Principate, the system by which Rome was ruled by emperors for the next two and a half centuries, was his creation and attitudes to this often do much to shape views of Antony and Cleopatra. Admirers of the Augustan system will pardon the brutality of his path to power and see his enemies as delaying – even endangering – Rome’s great legacy to the world. Critics will praise them for resisting an extremely unpleasant tyrant, and some will claim that the pair offered a far better alternative, although they cannot usually be too specific about what this was.4

Cleopatra was a strong and independent woman in an ancient world that was dominated by men. She had power in her own right as queen, unlike Roman women who were more likely to have influence as the wives or mothers of great men. For most modern authors this is extremely attractive and encourages a generous treatment. Serious accounts of Cleopatra’s life never let this mood slip into eulogy, but sympathy for the queen all too readily combines with the glamour of her fictional portrayals to distort our view of her times. There are two very basic truths about her, which conflict so strongly with the legend that it takes a conscious and determined effort to maintain them.

The first of these is at least usually noted. All recent biographers will begin by pointing out that Cleopatra was Greek and not Egyptian. Greek was her first language, and it was in Greek literature and culture that she was educated. Although represented on Egyptian temples and in some statuary clad in the traditional headgear and robes of the pharaohs’ wives, it is unlikely that she actually dressed this way save perhaps occasionally to perform certain rites. Instead, she wore the headband and robes of a Greek monarch. Cleopatra proclaimed herself the ‘New Isis’, and yet her worship of the goddess betrayed a strongly Hellenised version of the cult. She was no more Egyptian culturally or ethnically than most residents of modern-day Arizona are Apaches.

Noting the essential Greek-ness of Cleopatra is one thing. It is much harder to resist the lure of truly ancient Egypt – both the popular imagery and the actual reality. Egypt is exotic, and it is also to Westerners decidedly eastern. In the past, a sensual Egyptian Cleopatra could be an alluring, almost irresistible threat to stern Roman virtue and the advance of Rome’s empire and civilisation. Even if she was Greek, then she was a representative of Hellenic culture, which had decayed through contact with eastern decadence. Such views have not been fashionable for a long time, and often the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Empires are now automatically bad things, imperialists brutal and exploitative, and European culture itself is often seen by many Westerners today in a negative light. Thus it is common to emphasise the savagery of Rome’s rise to empire, and Cleopatra is admired for resisting the onslaught. Occasionally this is as a Greek, but the attraction of the orient is strong, and usually she once again becomes a representative of the east.

This is not really helped by the tradition of separating the period following the rise of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great from earlier Greek history. In the nineteenth century this later period was dubbed Hellenistic – not Greek or Hellenic, but ‘Greek-like’. Classical Greece had been dominated by city states, of which the greatest were Athens and Sparta. Athens produced art, literature and philosophy, which have profoundly influenced the world to this day; Sparta became famous for the formidable prowess of its soldiers at the cost of creating a particularly repellent society. Athens took the idea of democracy further than any other ancient state, and was exceptionally aggressive and ruthless in its foreign policy.5

Eventually, the promise of this democracy faded, as did Athens’ power. Kings appeared again and so did tyrants, while those cities who retained any vestige of democracy reduced the electorate to ever smaller sections of society. By the later fourth century BC the kings of Macedonia dominated all of Greece. In this different political climate the cultural spark appeared to fade. To modern eyes – and indeed to many people at the time – no more drama or literature was being created to match the heights reached in the past.

Scholarly attitudes have changed somewhat and many would now dispute any inherent inferiority of the Hellenistic Age – at least in terms of government and society. They still employ the term, for convenience if nothing else. The tradition also remains of dating the end of this period to the death of Cleopatra. That makes her the end of an era beginning with Alexander and his conquests. This connection is there in the best modern biographies, but it often struggles to compete with the romance of the much older Egyptian past. That several recent biographers have been Egyptologists has only made it harder for them to maintain an essentially Greek Cleopatra. Yet that was the reality, whether we like it or not. Her world was not the same as the fifth century BC and the height of Athenian achievement, but it was thoroughly Greek none the less. So if there was a great struggle in Cleopatra’s lifetime it was not between east and west, but Greek and Roman.6

The second uncomfortable fact about Cleopatra is universally ignored by her modern biographers. These routinely lament that our sources focus almost exclusively on Cleopatra’s affairs with Caesar and Antony. The rest of her life, including the years she spent ruling Egypt on her own, receive scant mention. Unfortunately, documents on papyrus that give details of official decrees, the workings of government, and private business and affairs are rare for the first century BC in general and Cleopatra’s reign in particular. The vast bulk of these texts date to much earlier in the rule of Egypt by her family. A papyrus discovered relatively recently consisted of a decree issued by the queen and may well end with a single Greek word written in her own hand. This is exciting, but scarcely sufficient to do more than give us the slightest glimpse of her government in action. Significantly, it also grants a concession to a prominent Roman.7

The literary sources were all written either by Romans or by Greeks writing under the Roman Empire at least a century after Cleopatra’s death. A good deal of information and personal anecdote comes from Plutarch’s Life of Mark Antony. This is the only biography of him to survive from the ancient world. There is no surviving ancient biography of Cleopatra. A familiar complaint is that the story is not simply told by the victors, but always from the Roman viewpoint – in some cases that this is a male Roman viewpoint may be emphasised even more.8

There is a reason why this is so. Whether we like it or not, Cleopatra was not really that important. Her world was one utterly dominated by Rome, in which her kingdom had at best a precarious independence. She was a queen, and controlled an Egypt that was wealthy and by ancient standards densely populated. Yet it was a Roman client kingdom and never fully independent. Egypt was the largest, and in many ways the most important, of Rome’s subordinate allies, but it was always subordinate, and its power was dwarfed by that of the Roman Republic. Cleopatra only became queen because her father was placed back in power by a Roman army. Even after that, she would have been dead or exiled by her early twenties were it not for Caesar’s intervention.

Cleopatra only had importance in the wider world through her Roman lovers. Television documentaries and popular books often repeat the claim that the Romans only ever feared two people – Hannibal and Cleopatra, but people usually ignore the fact that this sweeping statement was made in the 1930s. It rests on no ancient evidence, and does not make any real sense. Much as Augustan propaganda demonised the queen, no one could seriously have believed that she had the power to overthrow Rome. It was simply far more convenient to hate a foreign, female enemy, than to face the fact that Octavian’s great war and subsequent triumph was over a distinguished Roman. For all her glamour, Antony was of far greater power and significance than Cleopatra.9

None of this means that Cleopatra is any less fascinating. We need to understand the reality of the first century BC if we are to understand her. In many ways this makes her career all the more spectacular because it was unexpected. Her achievements were remarkable: she not only survived in power for almost two decades, but also for a while expanded her realm almost to the extent of her most successful ancestors. That she did this through harnessing Roman power to her own benefit does not detract from the scale of her success. It is vital to step beyond the myth and the wishful thinking and seek the reality of Cleopatra and her place in the world.

Just as importantly, we need to understand Antony as a Roman senator, not simply relegate him to the supporting role of Caesar’s subordinate and Cleopatra’s lover. On closer inspection, many of the familiar assumptions about him prove to be mistaken. Plutarch and others painted him as very much the military man, a bluff and coarse soldier brought low by a woman. It is debatable how far Antony ever let Cleopatra determine his policy. What is clear is that he actually had very little military service by Roman standards, and most of his experience came in civil wars. He was not an especially good general, although at times he was a popular leader. There was much that was traditional about Antony and this goes a long way to explaining his importance and his ambitions. It was certainly not inevitable that he was defeated by Octavian. If the latter’s rise to power was spectacular for such a young man, Antony’s own career also owed a great deal to good fortune and the unusual opportunities presented by a Roman Republic rent by civil wars.

Both Antony and Cleopatra need to be understood within the context of their culture and times. Yet this book cannot hope to cover this turbulent era in every detail. Its concern is always with them, on where they were and what they were doing. Events elsewhere will be treated briefly, and only as far as is necessary to understand their story. Therefore, Caesar’s career is treated very quickly, and only in greater depth when it also involved Antony and Cleopatra. Similarly, the rise of Octavian is both remarkable and fascinating, but cannot be dealt with at any length. Other important figures, notably Cicero, Pompey and his son Sextus, are treated even more briefly. This is not a reflection of their importance, but a question of focus.

Politics will be at the forefront of the story, because Antony and Cleopatra were first and foremost political animals. So was Caesar, the queen’s first lover and father of her oldest child. None of them ever acted without at least a degree of political calculation. In spite of a few unconvincing accusations of debauchery, the evidence strongly suggests that Cleopatra only took two lovers and each was the most important man in the Roman Republic at that time. None of this need mean that there was not also strong and genuine attraction involved on both sides. Indeed, it is hard to understand this story in any other way. It is vital in studying any history to remember that the characters were flesh and blood human beings much like us, however different the times and their cultures may have been. The romance must be there because it was real. One of the reasons for the enduring appeal of Antony and Cleopatra’s story is that all of us can understand the power of passion from our own lives.

The story of Antony and Cleopatra is one of love, but also one of politics, war and ambition. The actual events were intensely dramatic – hence the appeal to novelists, dramatists and screenwriters. Looking at the facts as far as we know or can confidently guess them only reinforces the drama. So does the acknowledgement of what we do not know, for many of the mysteries remain fascinating in themselves. A closer look at the truth exposes an episode in human history more remarkable than any invention. It may not be the story we expect, or even perhaps would like to believe, but it is one of lives lived intensely at a time when the world was changing profoundly.

2 Quote from P. Green, Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (1990), p. 664.

3 In just the last few years, several biographies of Cleopatra were published, including J. Tyldesley, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt (hardback 2008, paperback 2009), J. Fletcher, Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend (hardback 2008, paperback 2009) and the briefer S. Ashton, Cleopatra and Egypt (2008), which followed on from the same author’s The Last Queens of Egypt (2003). Other recent offerings include S. Burnstein, The Reign of Cleopatra (2004), and E. Rice, Cleopatra (1999). There were also two biographies of the couple: D. Preston & M. Preston, Cleopatra and Antony (2008), which notably reversed the usual order of their names to emphasise Cleopatra, and P. Southern, Antony and Cleopatra (hardback 2007, paperback 2009), which was based on earlier individual biographies of the couple by the same author. There have been no biographies dedicated to Antony since P. Southern, Mark Antony (1998), and A. Roberts, Mark Antony: His Life and Times (1988), and books devoted to Cleopatra have always been far more common. The same is true of TV documentaries.

4 R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939, paperback 1960) remains one of the most important studies of this period. Writing as fascist dictators in Germany and Italy threatened a new World War, he had little taste for Octavian. This encouraged a generosity in his treatment of Antony — ‘the frank and chivalrous soldier’, Syme (1960), p. 104.

5 For general studies of the Hellenistic period, see F. Walbank, The Hellenistic World (3rd edn, 1992), G. Shipley, The Greek World after Alexander 323–30 BC (2000), and Green (1990).

6 Both Tyldesley and Fletcher are Egyptologists, and naturally develop these threads more strongly and in greater detail than Greek or Roman elements. For instance, note the allusions to Hatshepsut, who ruled as a female pharaoh in the fifteenth century BC, in Tyldesley (2009), pp.45, 121, Fletcher (2008), pp.43, 82–83, 86, and the particular concern for traditional iconography. This in itself is no bad thing and particularly valuable to Classicists who lack knowledge of earlier Egyptian history. The danger is that it comes to dominate the narrative of Cleopatra’s own times and culture. Ashton has more of a background in Classics, but openly chose to emphasise the Egyptian aspects of the queen, feeling that these had been neglected, and wanted ‘to consider her as a ruler of Egypt, not as a Greek monarch’ — Ashton (2008), p. 3, cf. p. 1. Her study focused in particular on representations of the queen in art.

7 P. van Minnen, ‘An Official Act of Cleopatra (with a Subscription in her Own Hand)’, Ancient Society 30 (2000), pp.29–34.

8 Plutarch, see the excellent commentary provided by C. Pelling (ed.), Plutarch: Life of Antony (1988).

9 The comment was made by W Tarn, in S. Cook, F. Adcock & M. Charlesworth (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. X: The Augustan Empire 44 BC—AD 70 (1934, reprinted with corrections 1952), p. 111–‘For Rome, who had never condescended to fear any nation or people, did in her time fear two human beings; one was Hannibal, and the other was a woman.’
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Per Ardua Ad Astra


Egypt was already ancient long before Cleopatra was born in 69 BC. Almost four hundred years earlier Herodotus – the first man to write a prose history in any western language – assured his fellow Greeks that they must have learnt much of their own religion and knowledge from the Egyptians. Like much of his work, Herodotus’ account of Egypt is a curious mixture of myth, fantasy and confusion, occasionally leavened with accurate information. Greeks tended to idealise Egypt as the home of ancient wisdom, while at the same time despising a people who worshipped sacred animals and practised circumcision. They were also awed by the sheer scale of the pyramids at Giza and included them amongst the Seven Wonders of the World.

It is sobering to remember that Cleopatra lived closer to us in time than she did to the builders of the great pyramids. The largest pyramid of all was built for the Pharaoh Khufu, who died in 2528 BC, some twenty-five centuries before the queen took her own life. That is the same distance of time separating us from Herodotus himself, from the Persian invasions of Greece and the early days of the Roman Republic.

Khufu was not the first pharaoh, but belonged to what is known as the Fourth Dynasty. The organisation of rulers into dynasties was done by a priest scholar working for Cleopatra’s family, and the scheme he devised is still largely followed today. There were no fewer than thirty dynasties before her family came to power at the end of the fourth century BC. The first pharaoh ruled from around 2920 BC – it is difficult to be precise at such an early period. That was not the beginning of civilisation in Egypt – there were organised communities farming on the banks of the Nile long before then, and in time two major kingdoms had emerged, which eventually combined. The pharaohs were the lords of ‘two lands’, Upper and Lower Egypt, and wore a crown symbolising this union. Upper Egypt lay to the south with its capital at Thebes. Lower Egypt was to the north, reaching to the Mediterranean coast and with Memphis as its centre. (This arrangement of upper and lower only seems strange to us because we are so accustomed to maps and globes showing north at the top.)1

The Nile made everything possible. Each summer it flooded its banks and then receded – a natural cycle only ended by the building of the Aswan Dam in the second half of the twentieth century. The annual inundation left behind a rich deposit of dark alluvial silt, and with it moisture to make the land wonderfully fertile. All of the earliest civilisations rested on the ability of farmers to produce a surplus. They grew because communities were better able to develop large-scale irrigation systems than individuals. In Egypt the problems of dealing with and exploiting the bounty offered by the inundation were greater, and did even more to encourage the growth of central authority.

People lived only where there was water. Egypt’s population was very large by ancient standards, but was overwhelmingly concentrated in just two areas. In the north was the Delta, where the river split into many separate channels to flow into the Mediterranean, irrigating a wide stretch of land as it did so. South of this was the Nile Valley as far as the first cataract. The inundation did not spread far, producing a very densely populated strip of land some 500 miles long and never wider than a dozen miles. The lands beyond were desert. A few communities survived around the rare oases, but mainly there was nothing. 2

Egyptians saw themselves as the centre of the world and the one true civilisation. Outside there were chaos and hostile barbaric peoples. Even inside there were threats to order – the Nile inundation was unpredictable in its scale. Too much water could be as disastrous as too little, producing very poor harvests – the years of plenty and years of famine of pharaoh’s dream in Genesis. There were supernatural threats to add to the natural ones and the human enemies, for the struggle between order and chaos was reflected in the divine world as well. The pharaohs stood between gods and men and communicated with both, ensuring that order and justice – embraced by the term Maat – prevailed over chaos.3

They were also the heads of a rich and powerful nation, but there were other powers in the world and conflict was not uncommon. At times Egypt was strong, and pharaohs extended their rule further south along the Nile at the expense of the Kingdom of Meroe, or eastwards into Syria and Palestine. Sometimes the balance of power favoured their neighbours and they lost territory. In the second millennium BC a foreign people known as the Hyksos overran much of Egypt and ruled for nearly a century before they were expelled and the New Kingdom created. Nor was Egypt free from internal rebellion and civil war. At times the two kingdoms were divided and rival dynasties ruled simultaneously.

Egyptian culture was never entirely static or immune to change, but it was remarkably conservative. At its heart was the annual agricultural cycle centred around the inundation, and farming methods changed hardly at all in thousands of years. Surrounding this and all aspects of life were the rituals and beliefs that secured the order of seasons, the growth of crops and every aspect of life itself. Outside Egypt the power of the pharaohs stretched far afield or shrank as other empires rose and fell. In the last millennium BC the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians in turn dominated the middle east. For some of this time Egypt was itself powerful, controlling substantial territories in Asia, but its strength declined and for over a century from 525 to 404 BC the Persians ruled Egypt. Finally, the Egyptians rebelled and expelled them, and for the next sixty-one years were ruled again by native pharaohs. Yet the Persian Empire remained strong and in 343 BC it again conquered Egypt. This occupation seems to have been especially brutal, and was certainly bitterly resented.

Less than a decade later, the world changed suddenly and drastically with the arrival of Alexander the Great. Persia fell, and all of its territories came under the control of the new conqueror.
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact of Alexander. Impact is the right word, for there was something intensely physical about his career, and we need to keep reminding ourselves of the speed and sheer scale of what he did. Alexander was not quite thirty-three when he died at Babylon on 10 June 323 BC and had been king for just twelve and a half years. He inherited from his father, Philip II, a Macedonia that was internally strong, possessed a superb army and already dominated Greece. The preparations had also already begun for an expedition against Persia, but although Alexander inherited the idea from his father, it was his own restless energy and insatiable lust to excel that drove the wars that followed.

Alexander and his soldiers marched or rode more than 20,000 miles. By the fifth year the Persian king was dead and his royal city reduced to ashes. Alexander was now head of the largest empire in the known world, but saw no reason to stop. He kept on eastwards, until he controlled all the lands from the Balkans to what is now Pakistan. When Julius Caesar was thirty he saw a bust of Alexander and is supposed to have wept because his own life seemed so paltry by comparison.4

Alexander left Macedon in 334 BC and never returned. The same was true of many Macedonians and Greeks who accompanied him. What Alexander hoped ultimately to achieve is now impossible to say. It may well be that he had not yet made up his own mind how he wanted his new empire to function. Alexander was clever, subtle, ruthless, suspicious, at times appallingly savage, and at others merciful and generous. His army was powerful, but far too small to have held down the empire by force. He founded cities populated by settlers – often veteran soldiers – in many places, but these remained a tiny minority of the overall population. Greek language and culture was spread far more widely as a result of Alexander’s conquests, but it was also spread thinly.

Alexander’s empire was too vast to be ruled simply as a collection of provinces of Macedonia. As the years went on he made more and more use of Persian noblemen as governors and administrators, as well as Persian soldiers. There were not enough Macedonians and Greeks with the linguistic skills and experience to fulfil every role. It was far more practical to enlist local men, and this had the important benefit of giving his new subjects a stake in his empire. Aspects of court ceremony and the king’s role changed from a traditional Macedonian pattern to a hybrid monarchy including Persian elements as well as new innovations. Alexander took honours and symbols that were at least semi-divine, and may even have wanted to go further and be worshipped as a living god. Yet once again we must remember the time factor. In little more than a decade there was very little chance for any aspect of the new regime to bed itself in.5

All of the various territories were tied directly to Alexander, with nothing else to unite them. This might not have mattered if there had been a clear and viable heir when Alexander died. He had a half-brother, Arrhidaeus, who had only been allowed to live because he was considered to be a half-wit. In spite of this, he was now named as king. Alexander’s latest wife Roxanne, the daughter of a Bactrian chieftain (and thus from what is now Afghanistan), was pregnant when he died. Some months later in 322 she gave birth to a boy who was named Alexander IV and promptly made joint king. The empire now had two monarchs ruling jointly, but one was an infant and the other incapable. Real power was exercised by the group of senior officers and officials, most of whom were in Babylon during these months.

A general named Perdiccas was appointed as regent – Alexander was supposed to have handed him his signet ring in his last moments. The dying conqueror was also supposed to have replied that his empire should go ‘to the strongest’, and that ‘his foremost friends would hold a great funeral contest over him’. If he actually uttered these words, it may have reflected a yearning for the heroic age of a man who slept with a copy of Homer’s epic, the Iliad, under his pillow, or a realistic understanding of the inevitable. It is doubtful that even if he had chosen an adult heir at this late date his empire would have held together.6

At first the others co-operated with Perdiccas, as they sought to build up personal power bases amidst a climate of growing suspicion and fear. The most important men were appointed as satraps, regional governors who were in theory loyal to and controlled by the monarchs and the regent. Ptolemy, a distant relative of Alexander and now in his early forties, was made satrap of Egypt at his own request. Soon it became apparent that Perdiccas could only control the satraps by force and he and his army could not be everywhere at the same time. In 321 he marched against Ptolemy, but the campaign ended in disaster with a botched attempt to cross the Nile. Perdiccas’ senior officers murdered their leader. They offered command to Ptolemy, but when he cautiously refused the bulk of the army marched away.

That was just one episode in a long and convoluted series of wars fought between Alexander’s generals as they tore his empire apart in a struggle for personal power. Ptolemy was one of the more cautious players, determined not to risk losing what he already controlled. The ‘funeral games’ lasted for almost fifty years, and almost all of the main protagonists died violently. Arrhidaeus was murdered in 317 BC, and Alexander IV and his mother in 311 BC. They were not replaced, and at no point did any of the rival generals have a realistic chance of reuniting the whole empire under his own control. The prospect of any one man gaining supremacy invariably prompted the others to forget their differences for the moment and combine in opposition. Yet for years the satraps continued to style themselves as governors serving monarchs who no longer existed. In Babylon and Egypt official documents were even dated according to fictional years in the reign of the murdered boy king Alexander IV.7

It was not until 305–304 BC that Ptolemy and the other satraps threw off the pretence and declared themselves to be kings. He was Cleopatra’s ancestor and for nine generations his family would rule the empire he created during the struggle with Alexander’s other former generals. Ptolemy was a Macedonian, and Cleopatra herself was the first of the family able to speak the Egyptian language — only one of nine languages in which she was said to be fluent. The Ptolemies spoke Greek, and for centuries it was a mark of prestige at their court to be able to speak the peculiar Macedonian dialect of the language. As we shall see, they were kings who controlled Egypt, but they were not primarily kings of Egypt. Yet it was always the wealthiest of their possessions, and the last one to fall.8
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

There were Greeks in Egypt long before Alexander arrived. Some came as merchants and many more as mercenaries. In the last centuries of an independent Egypt the pharaohs relied heavily on foreign professional soldiers, who were used against both foreign and domestic opponents. These soldiers with their alien religions were not always popular with the Egyptians. Alexander himself came to Egypt late in 332 BC. Although he had won two battles against the Persians, and taken Tyre and Gaza, the struggle with the Persian King Darius was still far from over. The Persians did not defend Egypt, and the Egyptians, who had no love for the Persians, seem to have welcomed Alexander as a liberator. They were anyway in no position to resist him, but there may have been genuine enthusiasm when he was named as pharaoh. Alexander spent several months in Egypt, and some have seen this as longer than the strategic situation warranted, giving time for Darius to regroup.

Mystery surrounds the long march he made into the western desert to reach the oasis at Siwah with its temple of the god Ammon, equated by the Greeks with Zeus. The shrine was famous for its oracle, and it was widely believed that the priest who acted as the god’s mouthpiece welcomed the conqueror as Ammon’s son. One tradition claimed this was a slip of the tongue. Less controversially, Alexander laid out and began the construction of Alexandria. It was not the only city founded by him and bearing his own name, but it would prove by far the most important. A man named Cleomenes, who came from the Greek community in Egypt, was appointed to govern when Alexander left in the spring of 331 BC. He never returned to Egypt during his lifetime.9

Soon after Ptolemy came to Egypt in 323 BC as satrap he had Cleomenes dismissed and executed. In 321 BC his men intercepted Alexander the Great’s funeral cortège on its way to Macedonia, and instead brought his mummified body to Egypt. It was eventually installed in a specially built tomb in Alexandria. Ptolemy himself wrote a detailed history of Alexander’s campaigns, helping to shape the myth of the conqueror in a way favourable to his own ambitions.

Ptolemy began with relatively few soldiers. He and his successors encouraged immigrants from Greece and Macedonia to settle in Egypt. From the beginning Alexandria was to be an overtly Greek city, with its own laws inspired by those of Athens. Mercenaries serving only for pay were not fully reliable and inclined to change sides if the campaign went against them. Therefore the Ptolemies granted their soldiers plots of land known as cleruchies to give them a stake in the new regime. It was not a new idea, but was done quickly and on a generous scale. Officers received more than ordinary soldiers, cavalry more than infantry. The produce of these farms was taxed, but the main obligation of the settlers or cleruchs was to serve in the king’s army. On at least one occasion when some of Ptolemy’s soldiers were captured by a rival leader, they preferred to remain as prisoners in the hope of eventually returning to Egypt rather than defect. This was extremely unusual.10

In the third century Egypt may have had a population as big as 7 million. Probably half a million lived in Alexandria. A few other cities, such as Memphis, may have had populations a tenth of that size, but most were smaller. The Ptolemies were less enthusiastic about founding cities than others of the Successors, and most people lived in villages, better suited to housing an agricultural workforce. The Delta and the Nile Valley continued to be densely occupied. The Ptolemies also developed the Fayum to the west, creating irrigation systems around Lake Moeris and elsewhere to make farming possible. Many cleruchies were established here, as were large estates leased to prominent and wealthy Greeks. It added a third highly populated area to the country. The development of this area had the advantage of increasing the scale of the harvest, which the king could tax. At the same time he rewarded his soldiers and followers without having to evict large numbers of Egyptians from their land.11

Egypt’s population remained overwhelmingly rural under the Ptolemies; it was also overwhelmingly Egyptian. Even in the cleruchies, the bulk of the actual labouring was done by Egyptians; there were very few slaves outside Alexandria. In many cases the cleruchs leased some or all of their land to tenant farmers. Military duty took the cleruchs themselves away, but over time many became absentee landlords living off rents.

Greeks remained a small minority throughout the rule of the Ptolemies. It was clearly impossible for the two communities to live in complete isolation. Yet scarcely any Egyptian words passed into Greek and it is striking how separate the two cultures remained over the course of the centuries. There were separate Greek and Egyptian law codes with their own judges and courts. At times individuals from one group chose to have particular aspects of their life regulated under the other law code if this seemed advantageous. Egyptian law granted considerably more rights to women and was often employed by Greek families wishing daughters to inherit property. One papyrus surviving from the early first century BC (and so more than two hundred years after Ptolemy I took control of Egypt) is the will of an Egyptian soldier in the service of the Ptolemies. It is written in Demotic – the form of the Egyptian language written in an alphabet rather than hieroglyphics – but the layout and style are Greek in every respect. In most cases Greek law was dominant, and there was never any attempt to merge the two legal systems.12

There were many wealthy and influential Egyptians. Just as Alexander had done, the Ptolemies assumed the religious role of the pharaohs. In name – and sometimes even in person – they performed the rites necessary to ensure that order prevailed over chaos and the natural cycle continued. The family spent heavily on temple building, and many of the most spectacular temple sites visible in Egypt today were either heavily restored or constructed by the Ptolemies. Large estates were granted to particular temples to support the cults. Priests were men of considerable importance, and acted as judges in cases involving Egyptian law.

Other Egyptians served in the royal bureaucracy. This was large and complex, and had as its principal role the collection of taxation: there were levies of a share of the harvest and taxes paid in money. Even the produce taken from land dedicated to one of the temple cults passed through the hands of the royal bureaucracy. There were never enough Greeks to have provided all the necessary clerks and officials and, in particular, there were never enough of them capable of speaking the native language. As a result there were always large numbers of Egyptians at all levels of the administration and over time in the army as well. Many could read and write in Greek as well as their own language and they often adopted Greek names for certain aspects of their life, while retaining their own names in other contexts.

An example of this is Menches or Asklepiades, a village clerk at the end of the second century BC. An official at this level of the administration needed to be fluent in both languages. In his official capacity he is always called Menches, perhaps because most of the time he dealt with Egyptians. However, he proudly styled himself a ‘Greek born in this land’ in one text. Ethnically, he seems to have been predominantly – perhaps wholly – Egyptian, but knowledge of Greek gave him and his family a distinct status. It was in many respects a question of class as much as race.13

There were some poor Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt and considerably more well-off Egyptians. Most of the latter adopted some aspects of Greek culture and certainly employed the language, at least when performing their public roles. The majority of Egyptians, however, were not especially wealthy and worked on the land. Some owned or leased fields, but most were labourers paid in kind. This had been true throughout Egypt’s history. There is no great indication that the Ptolemies exploited the workforce more brutally than earlier governments. At first they may have done it more efficiently, and certainly significantly expanded the area under cultivation.

Some individuals moved in both communities and over the years there was some intermarriage. Yet in spite of this the separateness of the Greek and Egyptian communities endured. The Greeks were dominant, but they could not have governed or profited from Egypt without the compliance and assistance of large numbers of Egyptians, who themselves benefited from the regime. The Egyptian religion required a pharaoh to help preserve Maat. The Persian kings had nominally fulfilled this role during the years of occupation and now the Ptolemies took over. They supported the temples, whose priests performed all the necessary rituals to hold back the forces of chaos. Yet the Ptolemies were first and foremost Greek kings, who always had ambitions for territory outside Egypt from the old empire of Alexander. There is no indication that they ever thought of themselves as anything other than Greek, and specifically Macedonian. Three centuries of ruling Egypt did not change this.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


In 273 BC King Ptolemy II sent ambassadors to Rome. It was the first formal contact between the two states. The Romans had recently defeated the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy and now controlled all of Italy south of the River Po. Tarentum had been aided by King Pyrrhus of Epirus, one of the ablest military commanders to emerge during the wars fought by Alexander’s Successors. He had beaten the Romans in a series of battles, but in the process suffered such heavy losses that that he could not continue the struggle — the origin of the expression ‘a pyrrhic victory’. Pyrrhus had at one time been a protégé of Ptolemy I, but alliances were apt to change quickly during Alexander’s ‘funeral games’. It was satisfying for the king to see a potential rival beaten, especially by such a distant people as the Romans.

The ambassadors were welcomed and friendly relations established. Trade was also encouraged. The Romans had not as yet made any attempt to expand beyond Italy. From the perspective of the eastern Mediterranean, they were a distant and rather minor power, but successful enough to warrant notice. The Ptolemies were usually on good terms with Syracuse, the most powerful Greek city in Sicily, and also with Carthage, the wealthy trading power whose fleets dominated the western Mediterranean.1

Rome had been founded in the eighth century BC — according to myth this was done by Romulus in 753 BC. The Romans did not start to write history until the late third century BC and had little certain knowledge of the distant past. Greek writers showed little interest in them until gradually the Romans forced their way onto the world stage. In 264 the Romans sent an army to Sicily. It was the first time the legions had gone outside the Italian Peninsula. The Carthaginians resented this intervention in an area they considered wholly within their own sphere of influence. The result was the First Punic War, fought for more than two decades and at massive cost to both sides. The Romans proved consistently more aggressive and more stubborn in prosecuting the war, and finally the Carthaginians gave in.

Roman arrogance left many Carthaginians feeling deeply bitter and in 218 BC a second war was fought. This time Hannibal led an army from Spain, over the Alps and into Italy itself, where he proceeded to inflict a series of staggering defeats on the Romans. In three years almost a quarter of Rome’s adult male population and more than a third of her aristocracy were killed. Alexander conquered Persia in three major battles and a couple of sieges, and yet Rome refused even to negotiate with Hannibal after this string of appalling defeats. The Roman Republic had huge resources and again proved willing to devote them to waging war with truly remarkable stubbornness and determination. The Carthaginians were defeated in Sicily and Spain, and eventually a Roman invasion of North Africa forced the recall of Hannibal from Italy. When he was defeated at Zama in 202 BC, Carthage once again capitulated.

The two great wars with Carthage set Rome on the path to world empire. In the First Punic War the Romans created a navy and managed to defeat Carthage, with its long maritime tradition. In the Second Punic War the Romans became used to massive levels of mobilisation, sending armies simultaneously to several distant theatres of operation and maintaining them there. In the process they acquired their first overseas provinces – Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, Spain and Illyria – which needed to be governed and garrisoned.

The Ptolemies watched the struggle between Rome and Carthage, but carefully avoided being sucked in. During the First Punic War the Carthaginians asked them for a substantial loan to fund their war effort, but the request was denied because of the alliance with Rome. However, in 210, during the height of the Second Punic War, the Romans sent an embassy to Alexandria asking to purchase grain and Ptolemy IV agreed to supply this. Neutrality was preserved, but there does seem to have been more sympathy for Rome, quite possibly because Carthage was seen as a greater potential threat.2

The Kingdom of Macedonia did not judge the situation so well. Concerned about the growing Roman presence on his western borders in Illyria, King Philip V of Macedon scented an opportunity when Hannibal overran Italy. He allied with the Carthaginians and declared war on Rome. The Romans were outraged at what they saw as an unprovoked stab in the back and sent an army to Macedonia. Eventually, having lost their local allies and needing all their resources to cope with Carthage, the Romans accepted a negotiated peace with Macedon, which the Ptolemies helped to arrange. The outrage remained, and almost as soon as the Second Punic War was won, the Romans declared war on Philip V. Macedonia was defeated in just a few years.3

Two major rivals to the Ptolemies had emerged from the wars between Alexander’s Successors. Macedonia was one, and the other was the Seleucid Empire of Syria. The Seleucids intervened in Greece after the defeat of Philip V, but their expedition was savaged by the Romans. Not content with this, a Roman army was despatched to Asia Minor. Philip V supported the Romans’ campaign, proving his loyalty to them and at the same time hurting a rival. The Seleucid army was smashed at Magnesia in 189 BC. Throughout these conflicts, the Ptolemies maintained their close alliance with Rome and watched as their two rivals were successively hammered.

Philip V’s son Perseus also fought against Rome and with no more success than his father. He was taken prisoner and the kingdom broken up. A later rebellion finally persuaded the Romans to turn Macedonia into a province. The Romans fought their third and final war with Carthage around the same time. In 146 BC Carthage was stormed by a Roman army and the city razed to the ground; it ceased to exist as a political entity. In the same year the Romans demonstrated their dominance of Greece when they sacked the famous city of Corinth. The Kingdom of Macedonia was gone and the Seleucid Empire greatly weakened, yet the Ptolemies had not come into conflict with Rome. Nevertheless, the minor Italian power they had allied with back in 273 BC had now become the overwhelmingly dominant force in the Mediterranean.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

The rise of Rome surprised many Greeks and prompted the historian Polybius to write a Universal History explaining just how this had happened. Sent as a hostage to Rome, he had gone with the staff of the Roman commander who sacked Carthage. In the introduction to his work he wondered: ‘who is so worthless and indolent as not to wish to know by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government.4

Following a long-established tradition in Greek political thought, Polybius believed that Rome’s political system gave it a stability and strength lacking in other states. Rome had originally been ruled by kings, but the last of these had been expelled at the end of the sixth century BC — the traditional date was 509 BC — and the city became a republic. It did not have a formal constitution, but instead over the centuries a mixture of law, convention and precedent shaped its governance. The most important principle underlying this system was the refusal to let any one group or individual have permanent supreme power.

There were three elements to government. Executive authority lay with magistrates, all of whom were elected. In almost every case they served only for a single year and could not seek re-election to the same post until a decade had passed. In every case they served with one or more colleagues who had equal power. The most important magistrates were the two consuls. Civil and military power was not separated at Rome, and the consuls led Rome’s armies in the most important campaigns and also framed law and carried out other peaceful tasks at Rome.

The magistrates had considerable power, but no permanence. Continuity was provided by the Senate, an advisory council consisting of former magistrates and other distinguished men. There were some three hundred senators, and all had to be freeborn and possess considerable wealth. The Senate could not pass law, but it issued decrees that were normally respected. Laws could only be passed by a vote of the Popular Assemblies. These also elected magistrates and approved the declaration of war or peace. The Assemblies could not introduce or debate an issue, or modify a bill in any way. They could only vote yes or no to a proposal, and in the case of elections choose candidates from a list.

Greek city states proved desperately prone to internal revolution, but in contrast Rome managed to avoid this for centuries. Where the rule of monarchs or tyrants became common in the Hellenic world from the fourth century onwards, this did not happen at Rome. The few Greek democracies to survive reduced the number of citizens eligible to vote, restricting this to the wealthy, while in contrast the Republic displayed a unique ability to expand and absorb others. Greek cities had always been extremely jealous of citizenship, especially at the height of Athens’ democracy. At Rome, freed slaves gained citizenship, with only a few restrictions on their rights, something that would have been unimaginable in most Greek communities, and their children were full citizens in every respect. Defeated enemy communities throughout Italy over time received the franchise en masse. By Mark Antony’s day the free inhabitants of all of Italy south of the Po had become Roman.

There were millions of Roman citizens, a number dwarfing the citizen body of even the largest Greek city states in their heyday. Roman manpower made possible the defeats of Pyrrhus and Hannibal. The legions were recruited from all those citizens wealthy enough to afford the necessary equipment. Therefore the richest, who could afford horses, served as cavalrymen. Those of more middling income – the vast majority of them farmers – fought as heavy infantrymen, while the poor and the young needed only the modest gear of skirmishers. Romans identified strongly with the Republic. They were willing to answer the state’s call for military service, subjecting themselves to the army’s harsh, even brutal discipline. No other state could have absorbed the appalling death toll inflicted by Hannibal and continued to muster new armies.

At the end of a conflict the legions were discharged and each man returned home. Military service was a duty to the Republic and not a career. During the Punic Wars some men found themselves serving with the army for a decade or more. As Rome expanded and acquired more and more overseas provinces, such long spells of military service became normal. Garrison duty in the Spanish provinces or on the borders of Macedonia offered little glory or plunder, with a good chance of death by disease or in some nameless skirmish. It was a considerable burden and meant that many discharged soldiers returned to find their families had been unable to maintain their farms. During the second century BC many Romans believed the class of farmer soldiers who were the backbone of the legions was shrinking under the pressure of excessively long periods of service. Inevitably, this only made the problem worse, as a dwindling number of men found themselves more often called up by the state, and even more fell into ruin. Once a duty willingly – often enthusiastically – accepted, military service changed into a crushing burden.5

Overseas expansion brought massive profits, but the benefits were not evenly shared. Magistrates who led an army to victory grew fabulously rich on the spoils of war, especially if the enemy was one of the wealthy states from the Greek world. Apart from plunder, hundreds of thousands of people were taken prisoner and sold as slaves. The generals took the lion’s share of the money, but there were also considerable opportunities for private companies who handled the sales. The Republic possessed almost no bureaucracy. Magistrates sent to govern a province did so with a tiny staff, supplemented by their private household. Taxes were collected by private companies who bid for the contract to perform the tax. They were called the publicani – hence the publicans of the Authorised Bible – because they undertook public contracts. Their interest was in making money and thus they had to collect more from the provincials than they passed on to the Republic. There were other business opportunities in the empire, and simply being Roman and connected with the new great power was a huge advantage.6

Wealth flooded back to Italy and the gap between the rich and poor widened. Senators were not supposed to indulge in business ventures apart from landholding, although many covertly ignored this rule. Many of the fortunes made overseas were used to buy up grand rural estates, worked by a force of slave labourers. Slaves became cheap as the captives of frequent wars flooded the market. As importantly, they could not be called up for military service unlike labourers or tenants who were citizens. There were good steady profits to be made from farming, and sometimes conditions created even greater opportunities. It was always easier for the owners of big estates to exploit such situations. During the late second and first centuries there was an almost insatiable demand for Italian wine from the communities in Gaul. It is estimated that some 40 million wine amphorae from Italy were sent north of the Alps in the first century BC alone.7

Times were good for the wealthy and the big landowners, but difficult for the small-scale farmer. In 133 BC an ambitious senator named Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus claimed that:

The wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens and holes to lurk in, but the men who fight and die
for our country enjoy the common air and light and nothing else.… they fight and die to protect the
luxury of others. They are called the masters of the world, but they do not possess a single clod of earth
which is truly their own.

Gracchus exaggerated – this speech was part of a successful electoral campaign, and men seeking office in any age rarely understate their case. Some farmers survived and even did well in the new conditions, but significant numbers failed. The minimum property qualification for military service had to be lowered several times in the course of the second century to find sufficient recruits. Ultimately, the tradition of men of property fighting in the army ended. By the first century the legions were recruited mainly from the poor, for whom military service provided a steady income and even a career.
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

Roman public life was fiercely competitive. There were more junior magistracies than senior posts, and so simple arithmetic meant that it was harder to attain the consulship. Many senators never held any magistracy. Members of a small group of well established families provided a disproportionately high number of consuls. These families had good reputations and voters tended to prefer names they recognised; they also had the wealth to advertise themselves.

Winning the consulship was a great achievement, bringing the chance to present legislation, and enhancing the reputation of the holder and his family. Former consuls were men of status, whose opinion would normally be sought in any meeting of the Senate. A consul’s descendants were from then on counted as nobles (nobiles). The consulship might also bring the opportunity for a provincial command and control of an army in a major war – a successful military campaign could be highly profitable.

Even governing a province in peacetime offered plenty of opportunities for enrichment. The publicani and other Roman businessmen were likely to be generous to any governor who helped them. The locals themselves were also usually eager to buy the favour of the Roman governor with generous gifts. When Antony’s contemporary, the poet Catullus, came back from serving on the staff of a provincial governor he claimed that the first thing a friend asked him was ‘How much did you make?’ some governors were put on trial after they returned for extorting money and other misbehaviour in the provinces. One Roman governor was supposed to have said that three years were needed in a post: in the first year a man stole enough to pay off his debts; in the second he made himself wealthy; the third was reserved for making enough money to bribe the judge and jury for the inevitable trial when he returned.9

Yet in the end there was nothing to compare with the glory associated with fighting a successful war. Ideally, this was completed by the Senate voting the commander the right to celebrate a triumph. This ceremony celebrated the general’s achievements. It was the only occasion when formed and armed bodies of soldiers were allowed to march through the centre of Rome itself, along the Via Sacra (‘Sacred Way’) through the Forum and to the Capitoline Hill. Columns of prisoners and wagons carrying the spoils of war and pictures of scenes from the campaign processed with the troops. The general rode in a chariot, dressed up like the statues of Rome’s most important god, Jupiter Optimus Maximus – ‘Best’ and ‘Greatest’. His face was painted red, because the oldest statues of the god had been made of terracotta. For that day he was honoured almost as if he was a god. Tradition dictated that a slave stood behind him, holding the laurel wreath of the victor above his head and whispering reminders that he was only mortal.10

Men who had triumphed had laurel wreaths carved on the porches of their houses as a permanent reminder of their achievement. Each year there was a new batch of magistrates and new wars would be fought. The urge to win glory and make a fortune in the short term of office was a major factor in driving Roman imperialism. The Senate introduced a rule that at least five thousand enemies needed to be killed in battle before a general was eligible for a triumph. It is doubtful that they had any way of ensuring an accurate count. Plenty of men enjoyed triumphs, which meant that the competition was to have a bigger and more spectacular victory over a famous enemy.

Reputation mattered. If a senator was felt to be important, then people would come to him for favours and would respect his opinion. Reputation, past magistracies, victories won and other achievements all gave reputation. Wealth helped to advertise all this and could generate prestige on its own. The most important men lived physically closer to the heart of the city, in the grand and very ancient houses on the slopes of the Palatine Hill fronting onto the Via Sacra. Another sign of wealth was the possession of grand country estates worked by huge gangs of slave labourers. The splendour of houses, country villas and gardens offered more visible proof of importance. Art treasures from the Greek world were brought back as plunder or bought to decorate the homes of Rome’s elite.

A man could stand for the consulship at forty-two. This meant that after he had held this supreme office he could reasonably expect to continue in public life for decades afterwards. A lucky few might win a second consulship ten years later, and a tiny handful might even manage a third consulship after another decade. Occasionally a man won a second triumph. Competition was always there. Men struggled to win office against other candidates who often also had wealth, reputation, ability and good family connections. If they managed to win, then they tried to ensure they got the most important and attractive duties and provincial commands. On their return, they competed to make best use of the glory and wealth they had won.

There were no political parties at Rome as we would understand them. Politics was an individual business because no one could share a magistracy or an honour. Families co-operated, and so at times did groups of friends, but such alliances were fluid and impermanent. Men seeking office rarely stood for any specific policies. Voters chose candidates on the basis of their character and ability rather than their ideals. Annual elections meant that the balance of power constantly shifted. Magistrates, especially consuls, were of huge importance in their year of office – the year was officially named after them. Afterwards they might have influence, but new consuls held actual power. All of this reinforced the constitutional ideal that no one should come to possess permanent power and so dominate the state.

Competition was always fierce, but until 133 BC it remained peaceful. In that year Tiberius Gracchus died during a political riot. His head was smashed in with a broken chair leg wielded by another senator, who was also his cousin. His opponents accused Tiberius of wanting to stay permanently in power – even of wanting to be king. Just over a decade later Tiberius’ younger brother Caius was killed in another bout of political violence, this time much more organised and larger in scale. In 100 BC another politician and his followers were massacred after large-scale and violent rioting in the Forum. Worse was to follow. In 88 BC a Roman consul turned his legions on Rome itself, seizing power and executing his opponents. Mark Antony was born while the civil war that followed this act still raged.

There were many reasons why Polybius’ vision of a well-balanced and stable Roman constitution fell to pieces in the late second century, and we shall consider these later in more detail. For the moment it is worth simply emphasising that Mark Antony was born and lived in a Republic already fractured by mob violence, discord and civil war. He never knew a time when the Republic was stable in the way it had been in Polybius’ day and before. Then, no one could have imagined senators killing each other or winning power through direct military force. For Mark Antony and his contemporaries, such things were ever-present threats, which quite often turned into reality.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

The kingdom of the Ptolemies was at its height in the third century BC, helped by the longevity of the first three monarchs. Ptolemy I was well into his eighties when he died in 282 BC, and had ruled Egypt as satrap and then king for forty-one years. To last so long and die a peaceful death was no mean achievement for one of the main protagonists in Alexander the Great’s funeral games. He had already made one of his sons co-ruler several years before, and the succession was smooth and unchallenged. Ptolemy II ruled until 246 BC, when he was in turn succeeded by his son, Ptolemy III, who ruled until 221 BC.

It was more than chance – still less lack of imagination – that all the kings of Ptolemy’s line were also named Ptolemy. Alexander’s generals had carved up his empire and made themselves kings, but the new kingdoms they created lacked any obvious legitimacy or natural coherency. Egypt was well established as a kingdom, although the Ptolemies had no particular claim to it. They also added Cyrenaica to the west, and for much of the third century controlled Palestine, substantial parts of Asia Minor and Syria, as well as Cyprus and other Aegean islands. There was nothing apart from their rule to unite these regions, and there were plenty of competitors to challenge this. Apart from Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s empire was ‘spear-won’ land – the prize of conquest. This was effectively true of the new kingdoms, and the Successor kings ruled ultimately by right of conquest. Yet land taken in war could just as easily be lost in war, especially in wars fought against enemies who spoke the same language and came from the same culture. There was nothing obvious to unite the peoples of the Ptolemies’ realm against the Seleucid or Macedonian kings.1

Ptolemy was distantly related to the Macedonian royal family, but the connection was scarcely close enough to justify his rule. A rumour was spread – perhaps encouraged by the king – claiming that Philip II had seduced Ptolemy’s mother and was his real father. More emphasis was placed on the tradition that his family was descended from Hercules, just like the Macedonian royal family. None of this made him in any way a more legitimate heir to Alexander the Great than any of the other Successors. In the end it was up to Ptolemy and his heirs to make their own legitimacy.2

There were always two distinct aspects to his kingship. In Egypt he and his successors were pharaohs. Ptolemy II was crowned in an elaborate ceremony at the old capital of Memphis to reinforce this point, as were the later Ptolemies. The temple cults were generously supported and the rites and rituals they oversaw treated with respect. Plunder taken from the temples during the Persian occupation was recaptured and piously returned by the Ptolemies. Yet it is very hard to know how far any of the kings played an active role in the religious rites themselves. Much was simply done in their name – and at their expense – to preserve order and justice against chaos. Egyptians needed a pharaoh and, since there was no realistic alternative, the Ptolemies fulfilled this role, even though they and their court resided in the overtly Greek city of Alexandria.3

Greeks in a Greek city – well into the Roman period it was referred to as ‘Alexandria by Egypt’ not ‘in Egypt’ – from the very beginning the Ptolemies were far more concerned with winning recognition from the Hellenistic world. Like the other Successors they drew heavily on philosophical ideals of kingship, of monarchs as law-givers and generous benefactors. Ptolemy I was also inspired by Alexander’s example, but did not blindly follow it. Like almost all of the latter’s generals, he quickly repudiated the Persian wife he had taken in the mass wedding organised by the conqueror. The regime Ptolemy created was purely Hellenic, not a merging of cultures. Some images of Egypt were promoted to lend grandeur and antiquity to the new regime, but these were more the product of Greek stereotypes than the reality of Egyptian culture. Unlike Alexander, Ptolemy did have the advantage of decades of rule to establish his kingdom, and the process continued under his son and grandson. Founder of a new dynasty, there was much emphasis on the exceptional virtue of Ptolemy himself. Like Alexander, he received honours that were at least semi-divine and moved towards full divinity. He took the name Soter (‘Saviour’), having been proclaimed in this way by the Rhodians for aiding them in a war with one of the rival Successors.4

Culture was important to the public image of the Ptolemies. Ptolemy I’s history of Alexander was highly respected as a work of literature. The creation of the Museum and Library in Alexandria was intended to place them at the heart of the Greek intellectual world, and by extension the political world as well. The Museum – the name means literally, ‘shrine/temple to the muses’ – provided lavish accommodation and facilities to leading philosophers, who came from all over the Greek world. The Library was intended to collect all of Greek literature to ensure its preservation and purity – scholars worked on establishing the most accurate text of classics such as Homer’s epics. Ptolemy II was a particularly aggressive collector of books. The king paid Athens a massive surety to persuade them to loan him the original manuscripts of the great writers of the stage: Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. In the event, he kept the originals and sent back copies, preferring to give up his money. One of the later Ptolemies is supposed to have ordered that books be confiscated from any ship entering Alexandria. They were copied, and the copies returned to their owners while the originals remained in the Library.5

Ptolemy I created a new kingdom, and emphasised his power, wealth and beneficence as proof that he deserved to rule. Naming his son and heir Ptolemy reinforced the regal associations of the name. Ptolemy II honoured his father by founding a festival called the Ptolemaieia, modelled on the Olympic Games and held in Alexandria. A decree from Samos agreeing to take part explained that ‘Ptolemy Soter has been responsible for many great blessings to the islanders and the other Greeks, having liberated the cities, restored their laws, re-established to all their ancestral constitution, and remitted their taxes’ and that his son ‘continues to show the same goodwill’. The festival helped to confirm alliances, but more generally reinforced the grandeur of the name of Ptolemy. It was not the kingdom of Egypt – or indeed of any set region – but the kingdom of the Ptolemies. The name itself became effectively a title. Ptolemy II did much to shape the divine cult surrounding his family.6

The kings of Macedon tended to have more than one wife, mainly for political reasons. Existing wives were not usually divorced, but they and their children might lose favour and prominence. Philip II ’s marriage to a younger wife – coincidentally called Cleopatra – precipitated his murder and the accession of Alexander. The Ptolemies continued this practice, and Ptolemy II was not born until 308 and was neither the oldest son, nor the product of the earliest marriage. He in turn married twice. Both women were confusingly called Arsinoe, but what shocked opinion at the time was that his second wife was also his full sister. There was no precedent for such an incestuous union in Macedonian or Greek culture. At the time people may have believed that the pharaohs of Egypt offered a few examples of this, but there is little evidence that this inspired Ptolemy II’s decision.

Arsinoe II was a truly remarkable individual in an age of spectacular ambition. Her first husband was Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals and a contemporary of her father and some forty-five years her senior. It was believed that she encouraged him to execute his oldest son by an earlier marriage, but her plans to advance her own children’s claims were thwarted when her husband was killed in battle shortly afterwards. Arsinoe then married her own half-brother Ptolemy Ceraunos or ‘thunderbolt’. The latter was estranged from their father, and was making a particularly murderous career for himself in Macedonia. He seems to have seen her and her children as dangerous rivals. Ceraunos married Arsinoe and promptly killed two of her children. She managed to escape, and a year later Ceraunos was killed in battle fighting against an invading army of Gauls.

Eventually Arsinoe made her way to Egypt and a few years later married Ptolemy II, who was her junior by some eight years. He exiled his first wife, the other Arsinoe, although her children remained in favour – the future Ptolemy III was one of them. Propaganda celebrated the union of brother and sister. They appeared together on coins, making Arsinoe the first female member of the family to be depicted on a coin in her lifetime. She was given the name Philadelphus (‘brother-loving’). There were comparisons to Zeus and his sister and wife Hera, and for the benefit of Egyptians to the siblings Isis and Osiris. All of this added to the growing divinity of the Ptolemies. They were special, not bound by the same rules or restrictions as ordinary mortals.

There is no doubt that Arsinoe was fascinating, ambitious and politically experienced, and actively and capably assisted her brother until she died in 270 BC. Images on coins and statuary depict her as attractive, perhaps even beautiful. It is hard to believe that the idea of marriage did not originate with her, or equally that her brother did not feel a genuine passion for her. Perhaps it was even mutual. It is worth remembering that until her arrival in Egypt they had seen little of each other. There were also political advantages in the union. The emphasis on the special nature and majesty of the Ptolemies was reinforced by claims that only one of their own blood was worthy to become husband or wife. More practically, it prevented any other ambitious family from gaining a claim to the throne.7

This last concern may not have been foremost in the minds of either Ptolemy II or Arsinoe II. Ptolemy III married outside the family, but his son Ptolemy IV married his sister Arsinoe III. From then onwards it became the exception to marry outside the royal family. Brothers married sisters, nephews married aunts, and uncles married nieces, making the family tree of the Ptolemies remarkably complicated. The initial shock of the marriage between Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II faded, and later they were celebrated in the royal cult as the ‘sibling gods’ (Theoi Adelphoi). None of the other major Hellenistic dynasties copied the practice to anything like the same degree, but there seems to have been a general acceptance that this was simply what the Ptolemies did. Similarly, although the other dynasties tended to choose from a small selection of names, no other line called all of their kings by the same name.
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

Ptolemy IV was named Philopator (‘father-loving’), but clearly his attitude to his family varied. When his father died in 221 BC, Ptolemy IV had one of his brothers killed, along with his supporters, and promptly married his sister. Polybius accused the young king of drunkenness and being fonder of luxury than he was of administration. The results were defeats abroad and internal plots against him. This picture is not entirely fair, for Ptolemy IV had his successes – most notably defeating the Seleucids at the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC. Yet there were substantial losses of territory, while in Alexandria his court became dominated by favourites, and he left the kingdom weaker than he found it when he was murdered in 204 BC by some of his senior courtiers. His son Ptolemy V was a child of six and there followed an extremely savage contest to control the child and become regent. The boy’s mother Arsinoe III was just one of the victims. A succession of powerful ministers seized control briefly before falling to their enemies or the wrath of the Alexandrian mob.8

We know of a short-lived Egyptian rebellion soon after the accession of Ptolemy III, but far more substantial risings began to break out during his son’s reign. Large numbers of Egyptians had been recruited to fight in the Raphia campaign, serving for the first time in the infantry phalanx, the most important part of the army. Polybius claimed that these men returned home with a new sense of their own strength. The details of the rebellions that followed are unclear, but there does seem to have been a nationalistic element to them. There was a revolt in the Delta region, but by far the most successful rising was in Upper Egypt, where two Egyptian pharaohs were proclaimed and held power for some twenty years. It was not until 186 BC that they were finally defeated by Ptolemy V’s troops.9

The famous Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799 and now in the British Museum, carries a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC by an assembly of Egyptian priests. The text is repeated in hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek, and it was from this that Champollion and others were able to decipher the second and make substantial progress in understanding the first. The decree mentions that Ptolemy V punished men who had rebelled against his father, and refers to rebels as ‘impious’, while stating that a statue of the king was to be placed in every temple. Although there would never again be other Egyptian pharaohs, rebellions continued to occur every generation or so.10

The problems in Egypt were compounded by threats from outside, as the Macedonians, Seleucids and other lesser powers were quick to profit from the Ptolemies’ weakness. The Ptolemaic fleet ceased to dominate the eastern Mediterranean. Palestine was lost, along with most of Asia Minor and many of the islands. At one point the Macedonian and Seleucid kings formed a secret pact to carve up Ptolemaic territory between them, but mutual suspicion and the growing power of Rome stopped this from being altogether fulfilled. The Seleucid Antiochus III threatened Egypt and imposed a treaty by which Ptolemy V was married to his rival’s daughter.11

Her name was Cleopatra, the first member of the Ptolemaic royal house to have the name, although it was relatively common amongst Macedonian women. Apart from Philip II’s last bride, Alexander the Great had also had a sister called Cleopatra. (For all its exotic sound and associations, there was absolutely nothing Egyptian about the name.) The Romans had not been informed of this treaty until some time after it had been agreed and were more than a little suspicious of the new alliance. Yet for a while it kept the peace and Cleopatra I proved an able queen, ruling jointly with her infant son Ptolemy VI after her husband died in 180 BC, aged only twenty-eight and amidst rumours of poison. The new king received the name Philometor (‘mother-loving’). On her death in 176 BC he was married to her daughter and his full sister Cleopatra II. Both king and queen were children, and real power rested with whichever courtier could control them.

Once again the Ptolemaic kingdom seemed vulnerable. The Seleucid Antiochus IV invaded and seemed determined on adding Egypt to his own realm. That the Romans were busy fighting the Third Macedonian War no doubt made the opportunity even more attractive. Unfortunately for Antiochus, the Romans defeated the Macedonians, and this knowledge put their ambassadors in bullish mood. When they reached Antiochus’ army and were presented to the king, he graciously offered a hand in greeting to the leader of the delegation, Caius Popillius Laenas. Instead of shaking it, the Roman brusquely gave him a scroll containing Rome’s demands. Shocked, the king said that he must consider these with his advisers before giving a response. Laenas used his staff to draw a circle in the earth surrounding Antiochus. He then demanded that the king answer before he stepped out of the circle. Antiochus backed down and gave in to all of the Roman demands. He withdrew and left Ptolemy VI to his kingdom.12
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
The confrontation between Antiochus and Popillius Laenas quickly became famous – not least because Laenas and his family publicised it enthusiastically. The story also appealed to the senators’ belief that they were at least the equals of any king, and reinforced all Romans’ sense of their power. Here was a king at the head of a powerful army, being treated like a naughty child by ambassadors with not a single soldier to back them. In truth, the threat of Rome’s military might – distant perhaps, but no longer committed to war with Macedon – was what forced the Seleucid king to accept both the behaviour and the demands of the Roman embassy. In the course of the second century BC the balance of power shifted steadily, and eventually overwhelmingly, in Rome’s favour. Macedonia was broken up and later turned into a Roman province. The Seleucids lost more and more territory, their empire fragmenting as smaller kingdoms flourished. Most were themselves essentially Greek states, although in Judaea the Maccabees led an overtly nationalist and religious rebellion against the Hellenisation policy of Antiochus. After a bitter struggle the Seleucids were defeated and an independent Jewish kingdom created.

The Ptolemies clung on to Cyprus and Cyrenaica as well as Egypt itself, but lost most of the rest of their other territory. They avoided direct confrontation with Rome and so did not suffer the consequences of defeat. Yet the contrast to the stability of the third century BC could not have been greater. Ptolemy IV had been weak and too readily dominated by advisers. His son and grandson both came to the throne as infants. For decades the royal court became a place of intrigue as its members plotted, manoeuvred and killed for power. Ptolemy VI for a while ruled jointly with both his sister/wife and his younger brother Ptolemy (who is known as Ptolemy VIII for reasons that will be explained below). Behind each of the brothers was a faction of courtiers, who saw their own interests as best served by gaining more power — ideally, exclusive power — for the one they could dominate. This vicious internal struggle was going on when Antiochus invaded and Popillius Laenas bludgeoned him into withdrawing.

In 164 Ptolemy VI fled to Rome, fearing that his brother would kill him. The Roman Senate took little decisive action to reinstate him and so after a while he went to Cyprus and set up court there. By this time his brother was unpopular in Alexandria and he in turn went to Rome to seek help. Several years of politicking and occasional violence followed, both men seeking Roman backing and trying to arrange a partition of the kingdom in their own favour. Ptolemy VI eventually captured his brother when the latter tried to invade Cyprus, but pardoned him and betrothed him to his daughter, Cleopatra III, although the marriage did not take place at this stage. The last years of his reign were more secure, until he opportunistically led an army to intervene in a Seleucid civil war and was killed.13

Ptolemy VI’s son was sixteen and swiftly proclaimed as Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator (‘new, father-loving’), joint ruler with his mother. However, his father’s younger brother was lurking in Cyrenaica to the west and through agents managed to incite the mob in Alexandria to call for his return. On his arrival he married Cleopatra II and had Ptolemy VII murdered during the wedding celebrations. The boy’s name was removed from all official documents for a generation. The new king took the name Euergetes (‘Benefactor’), like Ptolemy III, so that he is usually referred to by scholars as Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II. The population of Alexandria were a good deal less formal and would always show a fondness for nicknaming their rulers. To them he was Physcon (‘Fatty’), or the punning Kakerget’s, which meant ‘Malefactor’. He executed some of his opponents and drove many more into exile. Even his supporters were not safe, and accounts of his reign stress seemingly random acts of violence.

The marriage to his sister and his brother’s widow produced a son. However, Physcon was not satisfied and he had an affair with his wife’s daughter and his niece, Cleopatra III. They married and he fathered several children by her. To distinguish the two Cleopatras, inscriptions often list the daughter as ‘Cleopatra the Wife’ and the mother as ‘Cleopatra the Sister’. For a while the trio ruled Egypt together, but in 131 or 130 BC there was an outbreak of furious rioting in Alexandria, the crowd favouring Cleopatra II. Physcon and Cleopatra III fled to Cyprus, leaving the older Cleopatra in fragile control of Egypt. She proclaimed her son by Physcon as co-ruler. The boy was only twelve and was not with her. He fell into his father’s hands, who not only killed the lad, but also had his corpse chopped into pieces and sent to his mother.

Civil war followed when Physcon invaded Egypt and a desperate Cleopatra II summoned help from the Seleucid Demetrius II, who was married to one of her daughters with Ptolemy VI. He soon pulled back to Syria to face problems of his own and Cleopatra fled to join him. However, Demetrius was defeated and killed by a pretender to the throne whose spurious claim was backed by Physcon. Cleopatra II returned to Alexandria in 124 BC and, in public anyway, was reconciled to her brother/husband and daughter. Physcon died in 116 BC, survived by both of his wives. There was very quickly a fresh round of intrigue and murder as his family squabbled for power.14

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
Physcon had been especially hostile to the Greek elite and the Jewish community of Alexandria, since these were most inclined to support Cleopatra II. The Museum was virtually closed and the philosophers fled abroad, ensuring that his name was roundly damned in intellectual circles. In contrast, he was supported by large sections of the Egyptian priesthood. Greeks like Polybius believed he favoured the Egyptians over Greeks, but this was a considerable exaggeration. Over time the number of Egyptians serving in the royal bureaucracy had increased. Large numbers had also served in the army and been settled in cleruchies, although it is notable that on average they received significantly smaller plots of land than ‘Greek’ soldiers. Yet as we have seen the cultural mixing of Greek and Egyptian was extremely limited. Roman and Greek observers alike were inclined to speak of the intermingling of Macedonians and Greeks with natives. For them this was a sign of decline, explaining the decay of the Ptolemaic kingdom and such judgements need to be treated with caution. As overseas possessions were lost, the Ptolemies became kings who controlled Egypt and little more, but remained in culture, language and education utterly Greek. Even Ptolemy Physcon wrote a work studying Homer.15

The Egyptian priesthood accepted the Ptolemies as necessary, and they were generous in their support of the temple cults. Some Greek-speaking Egyptians entered royal service and did well. As time passed the numbers who did this increased and a few reached more senior posts. None seems ever to have been employed to govern territory outside Egypt and the vast majority of senior officials were always of Macedonian or Greek stock. For the bulk of Egyptians life continued to be a round of toil working the fields – hard labour for modest reward, just as it had been for their ancestors and would be for their descendants. The Greek community remained distinct. Very few Egyptians showed any interest in such quintessentially Greek institutions as the gymnasia and none saw any reason to see Greek culture as anything other than inferior to their own traditions. Acceptance of the occupying power did not mean that they developed any affection or admiration for it.

At least some were actively hostile. Periodic rebellions continued till the end of Ptolemaic rule. We also know of prophecies – ironically enough preserved in Greek versions – foretelling the destruction of the ‘impious’ Greeks and especially their vice-ridden and corrupt city of Alexandria, which will be ‘abandoned like my kiln because of the crimes, which they have committed in Egypt’. An Egyptian pharaoh would return and usher in a better age of prosperity, health and righteousness, ‘when the Nile will run its proper course’. It is more than likely that such works – one is known as the Potter’s Oracle – were written by members of the priesthood. Yet in the end this resentment came to little. Rebellions were always limited, while the Egyptian population was divided by region and social class and there was nothing to unite them in concerted opposition. The Greek minority and the Egyptian majority had little choice but to tolerate each other. Their lives were not entirely separate, but the communities remained distinct.16

The Greeks had always associated Egypt with great wealth. They also expected kings to be rich and generous. All of the Successors of Alexander the Great paraded their prosperity and power. It was an age obsessed with size and spectacle. Lists of the Seven Wonders of the World were popular at the time and all of the monuments were invariably massive in size. Cities were built in grand, monumental style, with clear and wide grid-patterned roads. Ships – especially warships – were built to be gigantic, sometimes at the expense of practicality. Sheer scale impressed.

The Ptolemies embraced this obsession with as little restraint as they displayed for intrigue. As well as warships, they built massive pleasure boats. The Pharos lighthouse had a practical purpose in guiding ships to Alexandria’s harbour, but was also designed to be spectacularly huge. A description survives of a grand parade held by Ptolemy II in Alexandria, which had abundance as its main theme. Dionysus, the god of wine and plenty, was honoured, and revellers wearing gold crowns feasted as his followers were supposed to do. There were exotic animals, statues and gold in abundance. A huge wineskin made from leopard pelts contained 300,000 gallons of wine, which was allowed to dribble out along the procession’s route. Other floats had fountains of wine and milk, and on another was a huge mechanical statue. It is striking that much of the ingenuity of the philosophers in the Museum was devoted to clever displays such as this or the steam engine that moved under its own power. Few of the ideas were transferred into any significant practical use. There were also big versions of objects, such as a lance made of silver and some 90 feet in length. Even more bizarre, at least to modern eyes, was a gold phallus 180 feet long and 9 feet in circumference, painted and decorated with more gold. After the procession was a great feast held in a specially built and lavishly decorated pavilion.17

The splendour, even the excess, surrounding kings reinforced the sense that they were special. They were givers of law and justice, more than ordinary men and close to the gods in life, and after death deified. Luxury was celebrated as symbolic of a strong king and a prosperous kingdom. Ptolemy VIII was mocked as ‘fatty’ by the Alexandrians, but was himself proud of his massive weight. To show off this sign of plenty, he was inclined to wear light, almost transparent clothing. Polybius accompanied a Roman embassy to the king’s court in about 140 BC and shared the Romans’ disgust when Physcon greeted them at the harbour. To them Ptolemy was grotesque, and they made him accompany them on foot from their ship to the palace, their leader later joking that the Alexandrians were in his debt because now ‘they had seen their king walk’. They were far more impressed by the overall sense of Egypt’s wealth and productivity, deciding that it could be very powerful if ever it found decent rulers.18

Unrestrained luxury, weakness abroad and murderous competition for royal power characterised the career of Ptolemy VIII. The kingdom founded by Ptolemy I two centuries earlier had become far less stable and efficient. It is true that no serious challenger for the throne appeared from outside the Ptolemaic family. To that extent the celebration of the family, and the frequency of incestuous marriage, ensured that only blood relations were seen as capable of attaining the monarchy. Yet in spite of the incest, and the generally high rate of infant mortality in the ancient world, the Ptolemies remained numerous, their numbers thinned more by homicidal ambition than anything else. In spite of its best efforts, the family failed to wipe itself out, and the battles for power continued.

The shadow of Rome grew stronger as the second century progressed. The Romans did not want the wealth of Egypt to be taken over by any other power, but had limited interest in the family squabbles of the Ptolemies and, as yet, no desire to turn it into a province of their own. Both Ptolemy VI and Physcon at different times fled to Rome and tried to gain support. Foreign assistance was preferable to letting a rival win, as Cleopatra II also showed when she sought Seleucid help. The Hellenistic kingdoms decayed, spending their strength in struggles with each other or smashed by the Roman military machine. The Ptolemies survived, in spite of a succession of weak kings and bitter family in-fighting.

Cleopatra was born into the ruling house of a decaying kingdom in a world dominated by Rome. For generations her family had married and slaughtered each other as they struggled for power. None doubted their absolute right to rule, or questioned that luxury and excess were not admirable in themselves. To be born a Ptolemy brought unique expectations and dangers. Ambition, ruthlessness and an utterly self-centred attitude mingled with the ever-present fear of death at the hands of courtiers and family.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


On 14 January 83 BC friends and relatives of Mark Antony’s parents were called to their house. The aristocratic families of Rome liked witnesses to the arrival of a new member and his mother Julia had gone into labour. Only women attended the birth itself, unless things went badly wrong and a male doctor was summoned. Usually, the mother was attended by a midwife and some female relations and slaves. The father and guests waited elsewhere in the house.

Infant mortality was very high in the ancient world, as indeed it was until comparatively modern times. Many children were stillborn or died hours, days or months later. Some Roman tombstones are very precise in the age of the little boys or girls they commemorate. It was also a very dangerous time for the mother and many women died during or soon after childbirth. The Roman aristocracy used marriage to cement political alliances, so women like Julia were usually young – quite often in their mid teens – for their first pregnancy.

In this case everything seems to have gone smoothly. A boy was born and when the midwife laid the infant down for inspection there was no sign of deformity or unusual weakness. Julia would produce two more sons in fairly rapid succession and all grew into healthy adults, and she would herself enjoy a long life. Some children were rejected by their parents, but in well-off families this was usually only the case if they had serious defects or seemed far too weak to survive. There was no question of that in this case and once Antony’s father was shown his son, he and Julia quickly accepted the child.1

Ritual was everywhere in Roman society and marked every stage of an individual’s life. Fires were lit on the family altars in the house. The witnesses would also make offerings when they returned to their own homes. On the night of 21/22 January, the family held a vigil and performed a series of rituals as part of a purification ceremony (lustratio). The next morning priests observed the flight of birds to predict what the future held for the boy. He was also presented with a talisman or charm called the bulla. This was normally of gold and was placed in a leather bag around the boy’s neck. He would wear this until he became an adult.

On the day of the purification the boy was formally named as Marcus Antonius and soon afterwards this was registered officially. ‘Antonius’ was the family or clan name – in Latin, the nomen. Most Roman aristocrats had three names, the tria nomina and the nomen were followed by a cognomen peculiar to that section of the wider family or clan. Julia’s father was called Lucius Julius Caesar. The Julii were a large and very ancient group, and the more specific ‘Caesar’, which first appeared at the turn of the third and second centuries BC, helped to differentiate the various branches of the line. Some families, including the Antonii, never felt this necessary, probably because there were not many branches of the line.2

‘Marcus’ was the praenomen equivalent to our first name (or in Britain, still habitually, the Christian name). Although it was not an absolutely fixed system, aristocratic families tended to employ the same names in the same order for each generation. Antony’s father was also called Marcus Antonius, as was his father. In due course his two brothers were named Caius and Lucius. In formal documents each would also be listed as ‘son of Marcus’.

It was important in Roman public life to identify a man very specifically. The same was not true of women, who could not vote or stand for office. Girls received only a single name, their father’s nomen in the feminine form. Therefore Antony’s mother was Julia because her father was a Julius. Any daughter born to an Antonius was named Antonia and if more than one daughter was born these were simply numbered – at least for official purposes. Families tended to employ nicknames to avoid confusion.

Julia was a patrician, but her husband’s family was plebeian and so were her children. The patricians were Rome’s oldest aristocracy and in the early days of the Republic only they could hold the consulship. Over time many wealthy plebeian families forced their way into politics and were able to demand a greater share of power. It was eventually established that one of the two consuls each year must be plebeian, and as time passed it became reasonably common for neither to be a patrician. Some patrician lines dwindled in wealth and influence, and others died out altogether. By the first century BC the overwhelming majority of senators were plebeian. There were a number of plebeian families who could boast of having been at the centre of public life for centuries. Simply being patrician was no guarantee of political success.

The Antonii were not the greatest of the plebeian lines, but they were very well established as members of the Senate and had done particularly well in the last two generations. Antony’s grandfather Marcus Antonius was famous as one of the greatest orators ever produced by Rome. Cicero claimed that along with one of his contemporaries, Antonius took Latin eloquence

to a level comparable to the glory of Greece.… His memory was perfect, there was no suggestion of
previous rehearsal; he always gave the appearance of coming forward to speak without preparation.… In
the matter of choosing words (and choosing them more for weight than for charm), in placing them and
tying them into compact sentences, Antonius controlled everything by purpose and by something like
deliberate art.… In all these respects Antonius was great, and combined them with a delivery of peculiar

In 113 BC Antonius was elected quaestor, a junior magistracy with mainly financial responsibilities, and was sent to assist the governor of the province of Asia (modern-day western Turkey). A man became eligible for the quaestorship at thirty. En route to the province Antonius found himself caught up in scandal when he was accused of having an affair with a Vestal Virgin. Rome’s only female priesthood, the Vestals took a vow to remain chaste for thirty years and tended the temple and sacred flame of the goddess Vesta. For a man to seduce a Vestal was a dreadful impurity, which threatened Rome’s special relationship with the gods. If found guilty, a man’s career would be over and he might suffer even worse punishment. The penalty for the Vestals was far more ghastly, for they were entombed alive to bury the impurity.

Trials of Vestals and their alleged lovers tended to occur following some disaster when people were nervous and wanted someone to blame. Three Vestals were accused of breaking their vow in 114 BC, and when only one was condemned the issue was raised again in the next year and a new round of trials begun in a special tribunal presided over by an eminent and stern former consul.

As a magistrate serving on public business, Antonius was exempt from prosecution, but won general admiration when he voluntarily returned to Rome to answer the charge. This did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of judge and prosecution in pressing for a conviction. Although Antonius staunchly denied the charge, his accusers sensed that a young slave who carried a lantern for his master at night could be coerced into incriminating him. Roman law only accepted the testimony of slaves if they were questioned under torture, since it was assumed that otherwise they would always support their owners. The boy is supposed to have assured Antonius that nothing could persuade him to speak against his master, regardless of the pain. ‘Lacerated with many stripes, put on the rack, and burned with hot plates, he guarded the defendant’s safety and destroyed all the force of the prosecution.’ Antonius was acquitted. It is not recorded whether he rewarded the slave. Our source for the story blamed fortune for such a great spirit being ‘enclosed in the body of a slave’. Two Vestals – it is not clear whether one was the woman with whom he was accused of having an affair – were less fortunate and were condemned to death.4

Oratory was very important in a political career, but the success of Marcus Antonius suggests that he also had considerable military and administrative ability. In 102 BC he went to govern the nearby province of Cilicia as praetor. His command was extended for a further two years by the Senate and he led a tough and ultimately successful campaign against the pirates infesting that area. He celebrated a triumph, which no doubt helped him to win election to the consulship for 99 BC. Two years later he was censor, one of the two magistrates who oversaw the census of Roman citizens completed every five years. Only one in five consuls could hope to reach the censorship and it was an office of tremendous prestige.
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

Marcus Antonius was one of the leading senators of his day, but prominence would prove to be a dangerous thing in the first century BC. In 91 BC a politician pressing for the extension of Roman citizenship to the allies of Italy was assassinated. Many of the Italian communities chose to rebel and the result was the Social War – the name comes from the Latin socii, meaning ‘allies’ – which was fought at high cost in lives and with great savagery. Roman victory had as much to do with their willingness to grant citizenship to all those who remained loyal, and many more who capitulated quickly, as it did with military skill. It was a conflict that accustomed many soldiers to fighting against enemies very much like themselves.

By 88 BC the rebellion was substantially over and the consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla was given command in the war against King Mithridates VI of Pontus. The latter was exploiting the crumbling of the Seleucid Empire and Roman preoccupation to expand from his heartland on the southern coast of the Black Sea. A campaign in the Hellenistic east offered a Roman general all the glory and plunder he could desire, and Sulla left Rome to recruit and train his army. In his absence a radical politician campaigned to have the command transferred to Marius, the great military hero of the last generation, but now in his late sixties.5

Consul for the first time in 107, Marius had won a victory in Numidia, but was then voted into an unprecedented succession of consulships every year from 104 to 101 BC.This violated precedent and law, which stipulated that ten years should elapse between each consulship. At the time, the Italian Peninsula was menaced by migrating northern tribes who had already slaughtered every army sent against them and there was clearly a strong feeling that the crisis required an extraordinary solution. Marius dealt with the barbarians, smashing them in a final battle in 101 BC. He celebrated a triumph and was rewarded by being voted a sixth consulship by a grateful Rome.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
It was a spectacular career, especially since Marius was the first of his family to embark on a public career and enter the Senate. He was what the Romans called a ‘new man’ (novus homo), who had had to make a name for himself rather than rely on the fame of his family. Marius revelled in popular acclaim and seems to have struggled to cope when this began to fade. He played a relatively modest part in the Social War and may well have suffered from poor health. Yet in spite of his advanced age he decided that he wanted the command against Mithridates and the Popular Assembly was willing to pass a law transferring it to him. In every respect this was a break with tradition, even if it was not actually illegal. Yet in the past Marius had broken other traditions and gone on to win.6

This time it was different. Sulla was a patrician, but came from a family that had long since fallen away from the centre of public life. He had come to politics at a late age, determined to rise to the top and had secured the plum command against Mithridates. He refused to let this be taken from him, and his soldiers were equally unwilling to lose the chance of the rich plunder likely in an eastern war. The senior officers were less keen and only one man of senatorial rank accompanied Sulla as he led his legions to Rome. Marius and his opponents had no organised force to meet them and could not hope to defend the city successfully. Many were killed, although Marius escaped. Sulla stayed only for a short time before taking his troops off to fight Mithridates and did not return for five years.

Marius came back first, raising his own army and seizing Rome in 87 BC. This time the attack was more violent and the executions that followed more numerous and brutal. Marcus Antonius was one of the victims, although whether because of a long-standing grudge or recent opposition to Marius is uncertain. At first the orator went into hiding and was sheltered in the house of one of his clients, a man attached to him by long-standing obligation or favour. His protector was not especially wealthy, but wanted to entertain his guest in a manner appropriate for such a distinguished senator. He sent a slave out to buy some high-quality wine. The owner of the tavern was surprised at this unusual purchase and, chatting to the slave, discovered what was happening. He then promptly took the story to a delighted Marius, who was at dinner. Our sources claim that he had to be persuaded by his friends not to go and kill Antonius himself.

Instead, he sent a military tribune called Annius with a party of soldiers. The officer seems to have been reluctant to get his hands dirty and sent his men inside the house to perform the execution. He waited, but when the soldiers did not return Annius grew suspicious and followed them. To his amazement his men were listening to the great orator speak, entranced by his words so that some could not bear to meet his gaze and even wept. In one version of the story the men actually left without harming the senator. Annius was less easily enthralled. He stabbed Antonius to death and then decapitated him, taking the head as trophy to Marius.7

The story of the famous orator holding his would-be killers spellbound is repeated by all our main sources for this incident. It may be true or simply a good story and what Romans wanted to believe. Whether or not things happened this way, the basic truth was that a distinguished senator was brutally killed and beheaded on the whim of another man who had seized control of the state by force. Antonius’ head went to join those of other victims of Marius’ purge and was displayed in the Forum. Before that Marius had exulted over the death and

held the severed head of Marcus Antonius for some time between his exultant hands at dinner, in gross
insolence of mind and words, and allowed the rites of the table to be polluted with the blood of an
illustrious citizen and orator. And he even took to his bosom Publius Annius, who had brought it,
bespattered as he was with the marks of recent slaughter

Mark Antony was born four years later.9 We do not know whether his father was in Rome during Marius’ occupation of the city. Perhaps he was elsewhere or, as a young man in his middle twenties, not considered worth killing. Marius’ wife was also a Julia, although from a different branch of the family to Antony’s mother, making it unlikely that this on its own would have been sufficient protection. Marius fell ill and died within weeks of storming Rome and taking up a seventh consulship, and this more than anything else brought a halt to the violence. His supporters continued to dominate the Republic, but had now established themselves and hoped for the return of something like normality.

By Roman reckoning, Mark Antony was born in the six hundred and seventy-first year ‘from the foundation of the city’ (ab urbe condita). More usually, they referred to the year by the names of the two consuls to hold office, in this case Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus and Caius Norbanus. Yet it was Sulla who dominated everyone’s thoughts at the time. Mithridates’ army had been beaten and a peace treaty imposed on him. Sulla and his army were free to return. They landed in southern Italy late in the spring, when Antony was just a few months old.

Marius’ allies had had years to prepare and the fighting now was on a massive scale. In November 82 BC Sulla won a great battle outside Rome and took control of the city. Fighting continued for some time – one of the Marian commanders would continue the struggle in Spain for another decade. Both of the consuls of 82 BC, who included Marius’ son, were killed, but Sulla did not replace them. Instead, he was made dictator by a law passed in the Popular Assembly.

The dictatorship was an ancient emergency measure that gave one man supreme executive power. The office lasted for just six months and could not be renewed, so in this way the principle of preventing any individual from gaining supreme permanent power was preserved. A dictator was appointed rather than elected and, unlike a consul, he did not have a colleague but a subordinate known as the Master of Horse (Magister Equitum). The commonest reason to name a dictator was to supervise consular elections when no consul was available. Once these were complete, the dictator resigned his office, often after only having held office for a few days. On a few occasions – for instance at times of crisis during the Punic Wars – a dictator had been appointed to take command in the field. The last occasion was in 216 BC.

Sulla used the old title, but added new powers that would last for as long as he chose to retain them, hence the need for a specific law. He was dictator legibus scribundis et rei publícete constituendae – dictator to make laws and restore the Republic. At the same time he presided over mass executions that were both bloodier and far more organised than Marius’ purge. Lists of names were posted and anyone included on them lost all legal rights. They could be killed with impunity and their murderers granted a share in their property as a reward. We do not know how many men – and it was only men – were proscribed in this way. Some senators perished and many more equestrians, who had fought against Sulla or were associated in some way with his enemies. Others were killed so that their wealth could be confiscated and many of Sulla’s subordinates were believed to have added names to the lists for their own profit. One wealthy equestrian is supposed to have greeted the news that he was on a proscription list with the dry comment that his Alban estates wanted him dead.10

Once again Roman slaughtered Roman, bodies floated in the Tiber and heads were nailed up to the speaker’s platform in the Forum. Alongside the massacres went reform. Sulla tried to legislate to prevent any provincial governor from leading his army outside of his province – in a sense to stop anyone copying his own example. He also severely restricted the powers of the tribunes of the plebs, the office used by the Gracchi and more recently by Marius’ allies to secure him the command against Mithridates.

Sulla’s reforms shifted the balance of power in favour of the Senate and senior magistrates. Yet more important than the legislation was the Senate itself, which was supposed to guide the state. The proscriptions removed a number of senators, and still more had been killed by one side or the other during the civil war. Many new members were enrolled by the dictator, doubling the size of the Senate to around six hundred. With his enemies removed and the council packed with his own sympathisers, in 79 BC Sulla gave up the dictatorship and retired to private life. His health was poor and, in spite of a rapid marriage to a lively young widow, he died a year later. His self-composed epitaph was that no one had ever been a better friend or worse enemy.11
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

Antony’s father was part of Sulla’s Senate. We do not know whether he had played an active part on the dictator’s side in the civil war, but the murder of his father clearly made him unfriendly to the Marians. As a member of an established family with a highly distinguished father, he was an important man and stood out from the hundreds of recently enrolled senators. Civil war and proscriptions had also severely thinned the ranks of the former consuls and other prominent men. Sulla’s Senate was larger, but far less balanced than in the past, presenting opportunities for the best connected and ambitious to rise far faster than would normally have been the case. In 78 BC one of the consuls, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, launched a coup and was only defeated by military force. He and his leading supporters were executed.

Marcus Antonius again passed unscathed through an outbreak of civil war. There is no indication that he had inherited his father’s gift for oratory or, indeed, was notably talented in any direction. Plutarch claims that he was respected as a decent man, but other sources are far less complimentary about both his ability and character. As his father’s son and a member of the Antonii, he did not need to be especially capable to enjoy a reasonably successful career. He was elected as one of the eight praetors for 74 BC. This office could not be held until a man was thirty-nine. It was a point of pride for men from good families to hold office at the first opportunity – the expression was ‘in his year’ (suo anno) – and it is most likely that Antonius managed this.

The family was not especially wealthy by the standards of the Roman aristocracy, and campaigning for office was expensive. Marcus Antonius was heavily in debt, not helped by a tendency to live beyond his means. His generosity was famous – Plutarch tells a story of a time when a friend asked to borrow money. Antonius did not have any to give, so instead summoned a slave to bring water in a particular silver bowl. He then poured out the water and gave the bowl to his friend. Only when Julia began questioning the household slaves about the vessel, threatening them with torture to extract the truth, did her husband meekly confess. Sallust, the historian and senator who knew and disliked Mark Antony, claimed that Antonius was ‘born to squander money, and never cared until he had to’.12

As praetor, Antonius was given a special military command to deal with piracy throughout the Mediterranean. This was a serious problem and his father’s victory had been both temporary and local. In earlier times, the Ptolemies, Seleucids and island states like Rhodes had done much to police the eastern Mediterranean, but now their navies were little more than a memory. Piracy flourished, encouraged still further by Mithridates, who once again came into conflict with Rome. Attacks on ships became common, disrupting trade and making travel dangerous. The young Julius Caesar was taken hostage and ransomed during these years.

Dealing with the problem was a major task, which would normally have been given to a consul. However, the war with Mithridates was a more attractive opportunity and both consuls arranged to be sent to provinces where they could hope to confront the king. There was considerable intrigue surrounding these appointments and that of Antonius. All three men were given larger than normal responsibilities. Antonius was authorised to act all around the Mediterranean and his authority stretched for up to 50 miles inland and would be equal to that of the governor of each specific province. In most cases provincial commands were initially allocated for twelve months and then could be extended by the Senate year by year. Antonius was given three years in his post from the beginning.

One reason why Antonius was able to get such a grand command was his name. The Romans strongly believed that talent was passed on through a family, and since his father had triumphed over pirates it seemed reasonable that his son would also be victorious. On its own this would not have been enough. Antonius was supported by Quintus Lutatius Catulus, a former consul who was very prominent in the Senate during the 70s and 60s BC. Catulus’ father had committed suicide rather than be killed by Marius’ men, and the son was subsequently an important supporter of Sulla. Fellow feeling may have encouraged him to favour Antonius, but more importantly Catulus generally favoured men from established families.

Sulla’s enlarged Senate contained many men who were unlikely ever to be asked their opinion during a debate, yet they could still vote. Since this was done by physically moving to stand near the man proposing a measure, such back-bench senators were nicknamed ‘walkers’ (pedarii). With hundreds of men who had been in the House for less than ten years, patterns of voting and loyalty were not easily predictable. Anyone able to manipulate and persuade significant numbers ofpedarii to vote a certain way gained influence. The slickest operator during these years was Publius Cornelius Cethegus, who never held any of the senior magistracies and was content to remain behind the scenes. Lucullus, one of the consuls for 74 BC, secured his eastern command by lavishing attention and gifts on Praecia, a famous courtesan who was Cethegus’ mistress. It is not known whether Antonius did the same, but he was supported by Lucullus’ colleague, the consul Cotta.13

The command against the pirates was a huge responsibility and gave Antonius considerable power. One later source hints that it was more readily given to him because he was not thought capable enough to be a threat to the state. A successful war against the pirates would bring glory, which every Roman senator craved, and potentially vast profit from the sale of captives and plunder. If he was fortunate, Antonius could hope to both pay off his massive debts and make himself truly rich.14

All that relied on victory, and victory was not going to be easy. It is possible that the Senate did not give him sufficient resources. There were certainly complaints from commanders fighting in Spain around this time that they were not being adequately supplied by the state. On the other hand, Antonius may have lacked ability and certainly had no experience of conducting large-scale operations.
At first he focused on the western Mediterranean, but achieved little. Critics claimed that his enthusiastic requisitioning caused more devastation than the pirates. A levy of grain in Sicily was commuted to one of money. However, Antonius fixed the price far higher than the current rate at which wheat was selling, since it was just after harvest time and there was glut on the market. Although he certainly needed money to pay, equip and supply his fleets and men, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that one of his main preoccupations was restoring his own fortune.

By 72 BC, Antonius transferred his attentions eastwards and attacked the pirates on Crete. Whether through incompetence or bad luck, the enemy thrashed the Roman fleet in a naval battle. The campaign fizzled out and Antonius negotiated a peace treaty that was very favourable to the pirates and rejected out of hand at Rome. He died soon afterwards without returning home. The Romans sarcastically named him Creticus – successful commanders were often given a name to commemorate the people they defeated or the place they conquered.15

Antony was eight when Antonius left to take up his command and eleven when his father died. Nominally at least, Antony was now head of the family. With that responsibility came his father’s huge debts. One estate was so heavily mortgaged that the family chose not to claim it, something that the Romans always saw as especially shameful. His father was survived by a younger brother, Caius Antonius, but after a while Julia married Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura and Antony spent the rest of his youth in his stepfather’s house. Lentulus was a rough contemporary of Marcus Antonius and would win the consulship in 71 BC. Julia’s family probably considered it a good match. She was most likely only in her late twenties and it was unusual for aristocratic widows to remain single unless they were substantially older.

Cicero later insulted Antony for being ‘bankrupt while still a boy’. Lentulus may have been a father figure for the teenager, but marriage to Julia did not mean that he had to meet Antonius’ debts, and these remained. Mark Antony was an Antonius, heir to his father, grandfather and the rest of the line. He inherited the expectation that simply as a member of his family he deserved to play a distinguished role in public life. Rome was the greatest power in the world, senators led Rome and a small number of families including the Antonii led the Senate. Bankrupt or not, Antony imbibed this supreme self-confidence from his earliest days.16

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Cleopatra was probably born in 69 BC, or perhaps a little earlier in 70 BC (for Cleopatra’s detailed family tree see page 400). We cannot be more precise as to the year, and have no idea at all of the month or day. It would seem most likely that her mother gave birth in one of the extensive and grand royal palaces in Alexandria, but again we do not know. For Mark Antony we at least have a fair idea of the rituals and customs surrounding a birth in one of Rome’s aristocratic families and can assume these were followed. How the Ptolemies did things is unknown.

Alexandria had a well-established reputation for the skill and knowledge of its physicians – in part because the earlier Ptolemies seem to have permitted vivisection. Cleopatra’s mother is likely to have had access to the finest medical assistance available in the Greek and Roman world. For generation after generation, the Ptolemies and their wives kept producing plenty of children who survived the perils of birth and infancy. The prospects of babies born into the family were probably as good or better than those of any other children in the ancient world, at least as far as natural perils were concerned.1

Not knowing precisely when or under what circumstances someone from the ancient world was born is nothing unusual. Rather more frustrating are the many other things we do not know about her. Cleopatra means ‘distinguished in her ancestry’, but the name had become a common one for the Ptolemies, and it is doubtful that the choice was seen as especially significant in her case. However, it does seem ironic given the difficulty of working out her family tree. We do not know who her mother was, because this is not mentioned by any of our sources. Again, this is not unique for even major figures from this period. We do not know who Cleopatra’s father’s mother was either, leaving two possible gaps in her immediate ancestry. The Ptolemies tended to be far more concerned about the paternity of members of the royal family, and this is reflected in both the surviving official documents and the literary sources about the family. Added to this, the confusingly narrow selection of names and the frequency of incest and successive marriages make it even harder to piece together the family tree.

Cleopatra’s acknowledged father was Ptolemy XII, the last adult male from the family to rule as king of Egypt. He already had one, perhaps two, other daughters, and would in due course have another before finally fathering two sons. Of the five certain children, none was to die of natural causes and four of the deaths occurred as part of rivalry within the family. Cleopatra herself outlived all the others, disposing of three of them herself. Only the sixth child, a possible older sister who was also called Cleopatra, escaped a violent death – assuming she existed at all.

The evidence for this and so many other details of the family is extremely limited and confusing. Were it not for the subsequent fame of our Cleopatra, it is unlikely that it would ever have become of more than academic interest. Yet the appearance of Cleopatra has often fascinated, even obsessed, historians and the wider public. More recently this controversy sometimes assumes a racial element, making discussion even more heated. It is worth reminding ourselves that this had never been much of an issue for the vast majority of other men and women from the ancient world, and is part of the special mystique of Cleopatra.

Later we shall consider the evidence and see if any tentative conclusions can be reached. For the moment it is worth considering her father, whose career was truly remarkable. Ptolemy XII was often vilified and ridiculed in his lifetime, by his subjects and the Romans alike. Yet he was a survivor who was king for three decades and managed the very rare achievement of dying of old age. His reign tells us much about the kingdom Cleopatra would inherit.
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, or Ptolemy ‘Fatty’, died on 28 June 116 BC – for once we have the precise date from a building inscription – after a reign lasting fifty-four years, albeit with a number of interruptions. He was in his late sixties and was survived by both Cleopatra II and Cleopatra III. The daughter would play the dominant role for the next decade and more, but initially one of Physcon’s sons ruled jointly with the two Cleopatras, until the mother died some months later. The new king was Ptolemy IX, also named Soter (Saviour) II, and is usually assumed to be a child of Cleopatra III, although it has been suggested that he was in fact the child of Cleopatra II.2

A brother of the new king – or perhaps half-brother since Cleopatra III was definitely his mother – controlled Cyprus. He was Ptolemy X Alexander I, who in 107 BC managed to supplant his sibling and take control of Alexandria. The positions were reversed and Ptolemy IX fled to Cyprus and eventually captured the island. In Egypt Cleopatra III dominated her son. Her name always appeared first in official documents as she ruled jointly with her son. She became the senior priest of the cult of Alexander, a post never before held by a woman, and was simultaneously venerated as a goddess herself.

Cleopatra III’s remarkable career finally ended when she died in 101 BC. There were rumours that her son had poisoned her. Ptolemy X now jointly ruled with his wife, Cleopatra Berenice. In 88 BC internal unrest expelled the king and queen from Alexandria. Ptolemy IX led an army back to Egypt from Cyprus and defeated his brother, who was eventually killed. Order had broken down in much of Egypt, especially in the south, and it took some time and heavy fighting for him to regain control. The last Egyptian to claim the title of pharaoh emerged in these years, but was not widely recognised and was simply one rebel leader amongst many.3

Ptolemy IX died late in 81 or early in 80 BC. He had two sons, but in 103 BC these, along with a child of Ptolemy X and a good deal of treasure, had been sent to Cos by Cleopatra III. It may be that she wanted them somewhere under her control as security against her son, but in the event the boys and the treasure were all captured by Mithridates of Pontus. For a short while Berenice, widow of Ptolemy X, ruled alone from Alexandria. However, the son of Ptolemy X by an earlier marriage had managed to escape to the Romans and the dictator Sulla sent him to Egypt to become king.

Ptolemy XI had not been to Alexandria or Egypt for more than twenty years and felt no love for his stepmother, whom he cannot have really known. Within a matter of days he had her murdered. Berenice had been popular with many Alexandrians. This, quite possibly combined with other mistakes, prompted a mob to storm the palace some weeks later. Ptolemy XI was dragged to the gymnasium and in this quintessentially Hellenic location was torn to pieces. Official records soon pretended his brief reign had not occurred and the rule of Ptolemy XII was counted as if it had begun immediately on the death of his father, Ptolemy IX. The new king was one of the two boys sent to Cos. Mithridates had betrothed both to a couple of his daughters, but by now the pair had been released and had quickly repudiated these marriages. The older brother was installed as king in Alexandria, while the younger boy ruled Cyprus.

Ptolemy XII styled himself the ‘New Dionysus’ and was also ‘father-loving’ and ‘brother-loving’. As usual, the Alexandrians were less complimentary. Some called him ‘Auletes’, the flute, or better, oboe player, because of his enthusiasm for and skill in playing the instrument. This was not proper behaviour for a king. Others simply called him Nothos (bastard). It is usually assumed that this meant that his mother was not Ptolemy IX’s wife, but an unknown concubine. His father had married in turn two of his sisters, Cleopatra IV and Cleopatra Selene. The first marriage occurred when both siblings were young, and Ptolemy was made to divorce his wife soon after becoming king. No other Ptolemy married his full sister before he was king, and it is possible that the first marriage was not approved by the wider family, and in particular by the domineering Cleopatra III. Marrying his sister was effectively an assumption of kingship and divine status, and so also a rebellion.4

If the first marriage was never considered legal and proper by the rest of the family, then Auletes may have been a bastard because of this. A fragment of a speech by Cicero is usually taken to mean that Auletes was still a ‘boy’, and so no more than sixteen, when he came to power. If so, then he cannot have been the child of Cleopatra IV, since she had gone off and married a Seleucid and then been murdered at the behest of another sister married to yet another Seleucid in 112 BC. This would also mean that he cannot have been one of the princes sent to Cos in 103 BC since he would not yet have been born. If so, then there must have been two more children of Ptolemy IX who were sent to the island and subsequently captured by Mithridates, and yet who subsequently disappear from the record. However, it is perfectly possible that the boy mentioned by Cicero is not Auletes at all, in which case we have no idea of his age.5

Auletes may have been in his twenties when he became king in 81 BC, and his mother may have been Cleopatra IV, but he was the product of a marriage not seen as valid, making him illegitimate. On the other hand, scholars may be right to assume that Ptolemy IX fathered him on a mistress at some point. If this is the case, then we have no idea at all about her identity. It does seem most probable that he and his younger brother were two of the princes sent to Cos. On the whole, the suggestion that Cleopatra IV was his mother fits the evidence marginally better than any other theory, but the simple truth is that we do not know. It is important to remember this.

The Romans were not directly involved in the appointment of Ptolemy XII and his brother as kings. Sulla does not seem to have taken any action in response to the murder of his nominee, Ptolemy XI. Active Roman intervention in Egypt was rare. During his war with Mithridates, Sulla had sent a subordinate to Alexandria to request military aid, and in particular warships. Ptolemy IX ensured that the Roman envoy was lavishly entertained, but sent him away empty-handed, perhaps because he was not sure whether Sulla’s authority was legal or because his sons were held hostage by Mithridates. The Romans were unwilling or unable to insist on the king’s support.6

Roman visitors to Egypt were becoming more common in the late second and first centuries. Some were there on business, others in a more official capacity. There seems to have been a fairly well-established programme of lavish entertainment for more distinguished guests such as senators. These were taken along the Nile to see the sights, including watching the sacred crocodiles at the Temple of Petesuchos being fed and a visit to the pyramid temple at Hawara. The Romans were interested in Egypt, drawn most of all by its wealth, but for a very long time this interest was largely passive. Instead, it was members of the royal family who continually appealed for Roman backing in their disputes with each other.7

One way of strengthening their position was to bequeath their kingdom to the Roman Republic. The aim was to gain immediate support and it is not at all clear how much they were concerned with what happened after their deaths. In 96 BC the Ptolemy ruling Cyrene bequeathed this to Rome. Ptolemy Physcon had already made a similar provision in his will if he died without an heir. Ptolemy X went further and willed the entire realm he claimed – both Egypt and Cyprus – to the Republic.8

The Roman response to these bequests was cautious. They accepted the royal estates in Cyrene, but declared the communities of the region self-governing. Only later, in either 74 or 73 BC did the Senate decree that the region was to be annexed as a province. There does not seem to have been any formal response to Ptolemy X’s will. The Romans were an aggressive imperial power, but that did not mean that they took every opportunity to gain more territory. Expansion occurred in fits and starts, and there was still considerable reluctance to create new provinces. Some of this came from fear that rivals within the Senate would gain too much wealth and prestige if they were in charge of the annexation process. More important was a reluctance to commit the Republic’s resources to new provinces unless this was necessary. There were plenty of opportunities and commitments elsewhere. Egypt and the Ptolemies were simply not central to Roman concerns, especially since they did not pose any threat.

As usual, it was the Ptolemies who tried to interest the Roman Senate in the affairs of their kingdom. In 75 BC two rival claimants to the throne arrived in Rome. They were the sons of Cleopatra Selene. They were not sons of Ptolemy IX, but came from a later marriage to a Seleucid. The basis of their claim was through their mother, who actively supported them. The Senate was unimpressed, and probably none too enthusiastic about the possibility of a union between Egypt and Syria, so it refused to intervene. To add insult to injury, on his way home one of the princes was even mistreated by the Roman governor of Sicily.9

Rejecting this appeal did not mean that the Romans actively supported the rule of Ptolemy XII. There was the real danger that the princes would try again or some other challenger would emerge. As a result Auletes worked steadily to win formal recognition by Rome, spending lavishly to cultivate influential senators. At the same time he put a lot of effort and money into pleasing his subjects, embarking on a grand building programme. Auletes was especially generous to the Egyptian cults and their temples. The costs were substantial at a time when the inundation produced a number of very poor harvests. Added to that was the impact of decades of sporadic civil war and internal tension throughout the two kingdoms. Royal officials needed to squeeze harder than ever to raise sufficient revenue. The recent upheavals had done little to promote efficiency within the bureaucracy and at the same time fostered corruption. There were more outbreaks of unrest amongst the hard-pressed peasantry, even if the priestly aristocracy were generally.10

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

Pompey – fully, Cnaeus Pompeius – was a maverick general who first came to prominence when he raised an army at his own expense and led them to join Sulla in 83 BC. He was just twenty-three, had never held office and thus had no right to command. The fact of the existence of his loyal army, raised mainly from his family estates, meant that this did not for the moment matter. Sulla employed him, and he repeatedly hammered the older Roman generals he faced in Italy, Sicily and North Africa. Pompey was young and fancied himself a new Alexander, aping the Macedonian’s hairstyle and mannerisms. Sulla named him Magnus (the Great), although he may have intended it ironically. Others called him ‘the young butcher’ because of his alleged enthusiasm for executions.11

When the dictator retired, the Senate he had created also chose to employ Pompey rather than try to force him into a more conventional and legal career. He was sent to Spain to fight a bitter war against Marian supporters who refused to surrender. For the first time Pompey was formally voted the power to command (imperium), although this was a special dispensation since he had still not held any elected office and was not even a senator. In 71 BC Pompey returned victorious from Spain and demanded the right to begin his political career and seek election to the consulship for the next year. He was too young, but his popularity – and the fact that his army was camped not far from Rome waiting to celebrate his triumph – ensured that he was granted this special privilege.

Pompey was elected consul for 70 BC, with Marcus Licinius Crassus as his colleague. The latter had just defeated the slave rebellion led by the gladiator Spartacus, and similarly had an army near the city. Both of them were Sulla’s men and had done well out of the proscriptions, but there was little love lost between the consular colleagues. Crassus was some ten years older and had resented the praise and rewards received by Pompey during the civil war. The situation was not improved when Pompey destroyed a band of slaves fleeing from Crassus and tried to claim the glory for ending the war.

The pair were rivals and disliked each other intensely. They were also for the next decade and more by far the most influential and wealthiest men in the Republic. Crassus worked hard at politics, as he did in his business activities, steadily increasing his fortune. He owned property and maintained a large group of slave craftsmen to repair and construct buildings. Others acted as firemen at a time when there was no fire service in Rome. Crassus was wont to buy up property in the path of a blaze at a bargain price and then send in his slaves to control the fire, usually by demolishing buildings to create a firebreak. Later these could be rebuilt by his craftsmen. Crassus was a shrewd businessman, but did not simply use his money to make more money. He was generous in giving loans to other senators, and was equally generous with his time, often acting as an advocate in the courts. In this way a large proportion of senators were placed under obligation to him. Strikingly, Crassus was considered too dangerous for anyone else to prosecute.12

Pompey had spent most of his life on campaign and did not know how to play the political game anywhere near as well. He relied far more on the glory of his victories. When these began to fade in the public consciousness, he decided that he needed new ones. In 67 BC he was given an extraordinary command to deal with the pirate problem, which had grown even worse since the failure of Mark Antony’s father. Pompey received massively greater resources than Antonius. He was also a good deal more competent, with a true genius for organisation. In a matter of months, he and his subordinates swept the Mediterranean clear of pirates. Looking for a long-term solution, many of the pirates were resettled on land where they could support themselves and their families without resorting to crime.13

Pompey’s success was spectacular, but he wanted far more and in 66 BC was granted another extraordinary command to deal with Mithridates of Pontus. Once again there was more than a hint of poaching the glory of others, because the war had already almost been won by Lucullus, one of the consuls of 74 BC. Pompey used the pretext of the war with Mithridates and his ally, King Tiridates of Armenia, to launch a series of eastern expeditions against various opponents. He expanded Roman territory and then systematically reorganised the eastern provinces. In the process he abolished the last rump of the Seleucid Empire. The Ptolemies were left as the only survivor of the three great Successor kingdoms.14

Pompey did not visit Egypt, but Auletes took care to provide aid to his army, including the supplies necessary to support 8,000 cavalrymen. In addition, he sent lavish gifts, including a gold crown, to the commander himself. In the meantime, Crassus held the censorship in 65 BC and began agitating to have Egypt declared Roman public land, which could then be distributed. He clearly hoped to be placed in charge of the process and so make a substantial profit, as well as placing large numbers of citizens in his debt. Julius Caesar – still only in his thirties, but extremely ambitious – was also involved, although it is not clear whether he supported Crassus or wanted to take charge of the process himself. Crassus was very influential and extremely rich – probably only Pompey could match his wealth – yet other senators had some wealth and some influence, and if enough of them combined to block a measure then there was no means of forcing it through. All proposals about Egypt made at this time were blocked.15

The move to annex Egypt failed, and Crassus and Caesar both passed on to other schemes. It is vital to remember that Egypt was not at the centre of Roman public life. Occasionally it became an issue, usually as part of the personal ambitions of a leading senator, as each struggled to rise to the top. In late 64 BC a law was proposed to make a widespread distribution of publicly owned land to poorer citizens. Egypt was wholly or partly to be included within this, but once again the measure was defeated and public life moved on to other concerns.16

Pompey also discovered that there were limits to his real power when he returned to Rome in December 62 BC. His prestige was colossal, his popularity huge and the triumph he celebrated shortly afterwards more spectacular than any ever seen before. Yet for all that he failed to gain the Senate’s approval for eastern settlement or secure land for the soldiers due for discharge from his army. Time and again attempts to secure these things were blocked. Other senators, including Crassus and the supplanted Lucullus, were eager to cut the great general down to size. None wanted to see the Republic dominated by Pompey, and at the same time thwarting him helped to build up their own influence and reputation. The issues were almost irrelevant. Pompey’s eastern settlement was sensible and thorough, the desire to reward his soldiers reasonable. This did not in any way restrain other senators from blocking them and Pompey was not a skilful enough politician to find a way round.17

It may have been Julius Caesar who came up with the idea of bringing Pompey and Crassus together in a secret alliance known to scholars (although not at the time) as the ‘first triumvirate’. On their own, neither Crassus nor Pompey could get what they wanted. Working together, and with Caesar as consul for 59 BC, all three men were far harder to resist. That did not prevent rival senators – including Caesar’s consular colleague Bibulus – from trying to block them every step of the way. Both sides in turn escalated the conflict, and there was intimidation and violence that stopped just short of serious bloodshed. Pompey’s settlement was ratified and his veterans given land, while Crassus won a favourable deal for the publicani with many of whom he had close connections. Caesar forced through a law redistributing public-owned land in Italy to poor citizens and secured himself an extraordinary military command for five years.18

Auletes had cultivated Pompey for some time and the king scented an opportunity now that the latter and his allies were so strong at Rome. At last Ptolemy XII gained formal recognition, being named as king and a ‘friend and ally of the Roman people’ by a law passed by Caesar in 59 BC. The price tag was enormous. Auletes promised to pay 6,000 talents – somewhere between half and all the annual revenue of Egypt. The bulk of this went to Pompey and Caesar, although Crassus may also have profited. Ptolemy’s representatives borrowed on a huge scale from Roman bankers to make the initial down payment.19

Auletes’ younger brother in Cyprus was unable to afford the cost of similar recognition. In 58 BC an ambitious Roman senator persuaded the People’s Assembly to pass a law granting a free dole of grain to every citizen in Rome. To meet the cost of this, the law authorised the seizure of Cyprus – or at least royal property there – by the Republic in accordance with Ptolemy X’s will. The king was offered comfortable retirement, but chose suicide instead when all his protests were unavailing.20

The Alexandrians seem to have welcomed the formal recognition of Auletes by Rome, but the annexation of Cyprus provoked deep resentment and a sense of humiliation. Auletes had done nothing to save his brother or resist the seizure of one of the oldest parts of the Ptolemaic Empire. At the same time the royal bureaucracy was especially aggressive in its collection of revenue, since the king needed to pay his debt to the triumvirate. Resentment festered. Romans became unpopular – we hear of one member of a delegation being lynched after accidentally killing a cat. Cats were sacred in Egypt (and this is one respect where elements of the Greek population had taken on existing beliefs), but the outburst was probably as much anti-Roman as anything else.21

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

The king himself was seen as weak because he fawned to the Romans, and repressive because of his efforts to pay them. There may well have been other factors at work, and ambitious members of the court scented an opportunity for personal advantage. Late in 58 BC, Ptolemy XII Auletes left Alexandria and travelled to Rome, where he claimed that he had been driven out. Certainly, it was some years – and only by force – before he returned. His eldest daughter, Berenice IV, was proclaimed as queen in his absence and clearly against his will. We do not know how old she was, or whether she or her senior advisers were the prime movers in this coup. She was unmarried and took as co-ruler another member of the family called Cleopatra.22

This was definitely not our Cleopatra, who was only eleven at the time. Auletes married his sister Cleopatra V Tryphaena soon after he became king. She may have been his half-sister, especially if he was in fact the son of Cleopatra IV, which would suggest he was some twenty years older than her. In that case, her mother could well have been an unknown concubine. Solving one problem with the Ptolemaic family tree often seems only to create different questions.23

Cleopatra V Tryphaena was certainly the mother of Berenice IV, but ceased to be named in official documents late in 69 BC. From November of that year only Ptolemy himself is mentioned and it has often been assumed that the queen must have died. Reliefs on the temple at Edfu bearing her name seem to have been deliberately covered up at about the same time. This would seem odd if the queen had died and hints that she was withdrawn from public life, either in disgrace or for reasons of health. For whatever reason, Auletes did not marry again. If Cleopatra V Tryphaena was still alive in 58 BC then Berenice may have ruled jointly with her mother.24

The Geographer Strabo, writing at the end of the first century BC, mentions casually that Ptolemy Auletes had ‘three daughters, of whom one, the eldest, was legitimate’. The eldest was Berenice, and this implies that she was the only child the king had with his wife. Our Cleopatra was born before Cleopatra Tryphaena disappeared and therefore it is chronologically possible that the latter was her mother, even if she died soon afterwards. Many slurs and insults were hurled at Cleopatra during and after her lifetime, but it is significant that no other source claims that she was illegitimate — in marked contrast to her father Auletes. It is very hard to believe that something of that sort would not have been used against her.

So there are two main possibilities. One is that Strabo’s throwaway comment was correct, even though the point is never mentioned anywhere else. This would make Cleopatra, her younger sister Arsinoe and their two brothers the offspring of a liaison between Auletes and one or more concubines. If Cleopatra Tryphaena was still alive after the end of 69 BC, then she was either incapable of producing more children or the king was disinclined to have them with her. There is no positive evidence for the existence of a royal mistress or mistresses. Since we do not even know whether this woman or women existed, it is important to emphasise that we have no idea at all about their identity. The suggestion made by some that she was an Egyptian from one of the priestly families is pure conjecture.

Alternatively, if Cleopatra Tryphaena survived after 69 BC, but was in disgrace, it is not impossible that she was the mother of some or all of Auletes’ children. This would mean that our Cleopatra’s parents were full brother and sister, which would in turn mean that she had only two grandparents. If Tryphaena was no longer officially queen, then that might just explain Strabo’s statement that only Berenice was legitimate. We simply do not know and should not pretend otherwise.25

A Cleopatra ruled jointly with Berenice IV. If it was not her mother, then the only real alternative is that there was another sister, Cleopatra VI, between Berenice and our Cleopatra. In this case Strabo would have been wrong to say that Auletes had three daughters. Once again, we simply do not know. Our Cleopatra is known as Cleopatra VII, but opinion is divided over whether or not there really was a Cleopatra VI. Whether mother or sister, Berenice IV’s co-ruler died within a year or so.


Mystery surrounds almost every aspect of Cleopatra’s family and birth. Our sources are equally blank about her early life. At least until 58 BC, she was probably raised in Alexandria. Tutors for the Ptolemies were often drawn from the scholars of the Museum. In later life Cleopatra would display formidable intellect and erudition. By this period, the royal family gave girls as full and thorough an education as boys. Her first language was Greek, but Plutarch says that she was also able to converse in the languages of the Medes, Parthians, Jews, Ethiopians, Trogodytae, Arabs and Syrians – all peoples living relatively near to her kingdom. Latin is notably absent from the list. Significantly, she was the first of her family to speak Egyptian.

When Ptolemy Auletes left Alexandria, we do not know what happened to the eleven-year-old Cleopatra. She may have remained behind and because of her youth played no part in the new regime. A vague and undated inscription set up in Athens has been interpreted as showing that she went with her father. There is nothing inherently impossible about this. If Ptolemy was suspicious of the loyalty of some senior courtiers and his eldest daughter, he might have preferred to keep some or all of his children with him. That something is not impossible does not mean that it happened.26

Yet there is something intriguing about the idea that the little girl accompanied Ptolemy, for the king would now go to Rome.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

Very little is known about Mark Antony’s mother. Plutarch called her ‘as noble and virtuous a woman as any of her day’. Aristocratic women at Rome tended to be married young, usually to older men. If they survived the perils of childbirth, then there was a good chance that they would outlive their husbands. Politicians rarely became too prominent during their father’s lifetime, but many had living mothers and some of these had a powerful influence on their sons. Julia could still change her son’s mind when Antony was in his forties.1

The Romans celebrated mothers who disciplined their sons, trained them in virtue and drove them on to excel. The ideal was more stern than soft and forgiving – although that may simply be because the latter was taken for granted. One of the most famous was Cornelia, wife of a man who was twice consul and censor, and the mother of Tiberius and Caius Gracchus. The brothers had spectacular careers, but each was killed in succession – the first acts in the violence that dominated the last century of the Republic. By that time she had long since been widowed and was said to have turned down a proposal of marriage from Ptolemy VIII. Julius Caesar’s mother Aurelia was held in similarly high regard.2

Julia was fifth cousin to Julius Caesar. The two branches of the family had diverged several generations earlier, to the extent that they were now members of different voting tribes in the Popular Assembly. Her own brother was Lucius Julius Caesar, who was consul in 64 BC and a distinguished member of the Senate. Their father had also reached the consulship, but he and his brother were both victims of the massacre carried out by Marius’ supporters in 87 BC. In spite of his failures against the pirates, it is highly likely that her husband, Marcus Antonius, would have reached the consulship had he not died before returning to Rome. Julia’s second husband was consul in 71 BC.

Women could not vote or stand for political office, but senators’ daughters were raised to be proud of their family. Unable to have a career of their own, many did their utmost to promote the career of their husband and sons. On marriage, Julia did not take her husband’s name. She remained Julia, the daughter of Lucius Julius Caesar, and one of the Julii and a patrician. This was reinforced because her property remained her own and so was not eaten away by her first husband’s debts. Her own father dead, Julia enjoyed a remarkable degree of independence even though she married again.

Aristocratic women rarely breastfed their children, and the amount of time they chose to spend with them when they were infants varied considerably – as indeed it does today, especially amongst the more affluent. We know nothing at all of how Julia felt about or treated her three sons – in the same way that we know nothing about her emotions towards either of her husbands. The mother’s role was important in supervising the upbringing of her children, even if this was sometimes done at a distance and their day-to-day care left to nurses, who would usually be slaves. These would also be selected by the mother. Yet, ideally, many Romans seem to have believed that the mother should be more directly involved. Writing at the end of the first century AD, the senator Tacitus claimed that:

In the good old days, every man’s son, born in wedlock, was brought up not in the chamber of some
hireling nurse, but in his mother’s lap, and at her knee. And that mother could have no higher praise than
that she managed the house and gave herself to her children.… In the presence of such a one no base
word could be uttered without grave offence, and no wrong deed done. Religiously and with the utmost
diligence she regulated not only the serious tasks of her youthful charges, but their recreations also and
their games.

Education was carried out at home in aristocratic families. Only the less well-off, but still moderately wealthy, sent their children to fee-paying primary schools. The poor had little or no access to education and many were probably illiterate. In contrast, the aristocracy were raised to be bilingual, fluent in Greek as well as Latin. A slave from the Hellenic east would act as the child’s attendant (paedagogus) to begin teaching him Greek (or her — by this period senators’ daughters were usually as well educated as their sons). Along with numeracy and literacy, children were taught about history, and in particular the part in it played by their family. As Cicero put it, ‘For what is the life of a man, if it is not interwoven with the life of former generations by a sense of history?’4

Julia would have made sure that Antony and his brothers knew they were heirs both to the Antonii and Julii. Personal virtue was emphasised. Rome had grown to be the greatest power in the world because of its special respect for the gods, and the courage, constancy and proper behaviour of the Romans, especially the aristocracy and most of all the boys’ ancestors. From his earliest years Antony would have been surrounded by expectation that he would live up to — or better still surpass — the achievements of previous generations. Rome was the greatest state in the world and it had been led to that greatness by its aristocratic leaders. Being born into a senatorial family made a child special, particularly if his family was one of the handful at the centre of public life. Rome had no monarch and senators considered themselves greater than the kings of other countries. Antony will never have doubted that being born to his parents meant that he would be one of the most prominent men of his generation. He was born to distinction and glory.

From about the age of seven he began a practical preparation for this, accompanying his father as he went about his daily business. Senators’ lives were lived very much in public. Apart from meetings of the Senate, there was a daily round of receiving the greetings of clients — people attached to the family, usually as a result of past favours — and meetings with other senators. Boys were supposed to observe and copy the proper way of doing things. They were not admitted to the Senate’s meetings themselves, but were allowed to sit outside the open doors and hear what they could of the procedure and debates. Clustered there were the other boys of aristocratic families, so that from very early on there was a close association with the men with whom a boy would later compete for office.5

Antony can only have spent a few years following his father in this way, before Antonius went off to fight the pirates. After this he may have learned about the conduct of politics by accompanying one of his uncles – either his father’s brother Caius Antonius Hybrida or Julia’s brother Lucius Julius Caesar. We do not know how soon Julia remarried, although at least a year was a common period of mourning, not least because it made clear the paternity of any child. After this Antony may have learned from Lentulus. We simply do not know.

Formal education continued alongside the hours spent observing public life, with the emphasis now on what the Romans called grammatica. This included detailed study of the classics of Latin and Greek literature, as well as written and spoken exercises in rhetoric. Pupils were expected to memorise large chunks of literature and also learnt by rote such things as the Twelve Tables, Rome’s oldest collection of laws. The ability to speak, and in particular to deliver a coherent and convincing argument, was vital for any man entering public life. Although Mark Antony never gained as great a reputation for oratory as his grandfather, he was certainly a capable speaker.6

As usual, senators’ sons were expected to learn as much by observing as doing. Public life was carried on in a very public way, with speeches made from the Rostra in the Forum to crowds gathered before an assembly met or on other important occasions. Criminal trials were also conducted in the open air on platforms in the Forum and regularly attracted a wide audience. Many famous orators published their speeches, although Antony’s grandfather refused to do so, saying that it risked something he said in one case being used against him in another. In spite of this he had written a study of oratory. In 92 BC the Senate had decreed the closure of schools teaching rhetoric in Latin. The ostensible reason was the superiority of such teaching in Greek, although it may also have been intended to restrict formal training to the very wealthy alone.7

As a man Mark Antony was very proud of his physique. Like other Roman boys his education included a strong thread of physical exercise and specialised training. The purpose was practical, so that alongside simple exercise in running, swimming and lifting weights, aristocratic boys learned to fence with swords, handle a shield and throw a javelin. They also learned how to ride, probably both bareback and with the four-horned saddle used by the Romans in an age before the stirrup. Ideally the boy was to be taught these things by a male relative – many senators prided themselves on their skill at arms. The ideal general was supposed to be able to control his army as well as he handled his personal weapons. Again, a good deal of a boy’s training occurred in public view on the Campus Martius – the Field of Mars to the west of the Tiber where once the army had mustered. Just as they saw each other waiting outside the Senate’s meetings, boys trained and competed with their peers as a prelude to the competition of public life.8

Julia raised Mark Antony and his brothers to be leaders of the Republic. It is quite possible that her brother-in-law Caius Antonius and her second husband helped to fulfil the role normally played by the boy’s father. In 70 BC, when Antony was just thirteen, their capacity to do so was severely limited. The censors of that year proved far more rigorous than usual and expelled no fewer than sixty-four senators –just over 10 per cent of the house. These men were condemned as unfit, chiefly for their morals and general character as much as any specific crimes. Both Caius Antonius and Lentulus had their names struck off the senatorial role and had to begin climbing the political ladder almost from scratch.9

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

As a boy Mark Antony wore the toga praetexta. This had a purple border and was otherwise only worn by serving magistrates. When his family decided, he would lay this aside in a ceremony that marked his formally becoming a man. There was no set age for this, and although somewhere between fourteen and sixteen was usual, some boys became men as young as twelve. The death of his father may have encouraged the family to do things earlier than would normally have been the case. There was not a fixed time of year for the ceremony, although many chose to celebrate it on 17 March, during the Liberalia festival. Tradition dictated that the boy was given a shorter, adult hairstyle, and was shaved for the first time, although in most cases there can have been little for the barber to do. The bulla charm was also removed and never worn again. On the day of the ceremony, Antony donned the plain toga virilis for the first time and was taken through the Forum by relatives and led up to the Capitoline Hill where he would make a sacrifice to Iuventus, the god of youth.10

Although now formally a man, and the paterfamilias, or head of the household, with authority over his younger brothers, Antony continued to live with his mother and stepfather. Not until their late teens was it common for aristocratic youths to move out from the home, usually renting an apartment rather than a house. There was still much for them to learn about public life and the duties of a senator, and they were supposed to keep following relatives or family friends about their daily tasks, as well as watching events in the Forum. At the same time, there was a generally indulgent feeling towards youths of this age. A little enjoyment of the pleasures offered by the greatest city in the world was pardonable, as long as it was not taken to excess and a man eventually grew through this phase.11

Restraint was never a prominent feature in Antony’s character, and this was an age when there were plenty of temptations for the young. Empire brought wealth on a massive scale and there were soon plenty of people eager to sell luxuries of all kinds to those willing to buy. Older senators and equestrians invested in lavish country villas and estates – Cicero continually complained about ex-consuls more interested in their exotic fish than the affairs of state. The young usually wanted quicker thrills.

One of Antony’s contemporaries, himself hounded out of politics on charges of corruption, later railed against the mood of their generation:

As soon as riches came to be held in honour, when glory, dominion, and power followed in their train,
virtue began to lose its lustre, poverty to be considered a disgrace, blamelessness to be termed
malevolence. Therefore … riches, luxury and greed, united with insolence, took possession of our young
manhood. They pillaged, squandered; set little value on their own, coveted the goods of others; they
disregarded modesty, chastity, everything human and divine; in short they were utterly thoughtless and reckless.

As well as indulgence and pleasure, there was also competition, for even the riotous youths remained Roman aristocrats. The young Julius Caesar marked himself out as different by wearing a tunic with long sleeves and so loosely belted that it fell down past his knees. It was a style soon aped by other senators’ sons who wanted to be unconventional. Cicero mocked the young men ‘you see with their carefully combed hair, dripping with oil, some smooth as girls, others with shaggy beards, with tunics down to their ankles and wrists, and wearing frocks not togas’. Antony had his own way of standing out. As he grew into manhood he cultivated a neater, thicker beard, and instead of letting his tunic hang low he was fond of girding it up unusually high to show his well-muscled legs. Encouraged by a story that the Antonii were descended from Hercules, he sometimes added a rough, animal-skin cloak, wore a sword and revelled in exuberant, even vulgar displays. Such myths were not uncommon. The Julii claimed the goddess Venus as an ancestor.13

The young aristocrats were determined to enjoy themselves, but men like Antony never lost the utter assurance that in due course it would also be their right to lead the Republic. He soon became the closest of friends with a man of similar temperament, Caius Scribonius Curio, whose father was consul in 76 BC. Plutarch claims that it was Curio who really introduced Antony to heavy drinking, the pursuit of women and an extravagant lifestyle. If this is true, then he was certainly an eager pupil and would remain devoted to all these things for the rest of his life.14

Sex was readily available in Rome’s slave-owning society. Slaves were property and their owners could sell, punish or kill them as they wished. They had no right to refuse any treatment. There were also plenty of brothels, from the cheap and squalid to the lavish and expensive. More important for a young aristocrat were the higher-class courtesans, whose favours were less easy to secure. These had to be cultivated more carefully, lavished with gifts and money to pay for their own slaves and an apartment in which to live. Some were famous – like Praecia, the mistress of Cethegus, who had helped influence the commands in 74 BC – and passed from one famous lover to the next. A story is told of Pompey ending an affair with one courtesan to clear the path of a friend and so place the latter in his debt.15

Courtesans offered far more than just sex. Most were well educated, witty and elegant. They offered companionship and the thrill of an affair. There was an even greater thrill to be had in the pursuit of aristocratic women. Senators’ daughters were too valuable as a means of cementing political alliances to be left unmarried for long. There were almost no young, single and aristocratic women in Rome. Yet many had husbands far older than themselves, whose political career took them off to the provinces for years on end. In an era where girls were as well educated as their brothers, most women were fluent in Greek as well as Latin, had an extensive knowledge of literature of all kinds and especially poetry, as well perhaps as philosophy and music.16

All of these attributes could be seen as virtues, but could also leave a woman bored with the task of raising children and running a household. Just like the men of their generation, many aristocratic women refused to obey traditional conventions and sought more immediate pleasure. The historian Sallust left a full, if jaundiced, description of Sempronia, well known to Julia’s second husband Lentulus, and the mother of Decimus Junius Brutus, a contemporary of Antony’s:

This woman was well blessed by fortune in her birth and physical beauty, as well as her husband and
children; well read in Greek and Latin literature, she played the lyre, danced more artfully than any
honest woman should, and had many other gifts which fostered a luxurious life. Yet there was never
anything she prized so little as her honour and chastity; it was hard to say whether she was less free with
her money or her virtue; her lusts were so fierce that she more often pursued men than was pursued by
them.… She had often broken her word, failed to pay her debts, been party to murder; her lack of money
but addiction to luxury set her on a wild course. Even so, she was a remarkable woman; able to write
poetry, crack a joke, and converse modestly, tenderly or wantonly; all in all she had great gifts and a good many charms.

Aristocratic women were exciting, challenging lovers, and gossip suggested that extramarital affairs were common in these years. Julius Caesar was notorious for his seduction of other men’s wives – he slept with the wives of both Pompey and Crassus, and maintained a long-term affair with Servilia, the mother of the Brutus who would lead the conspiracy against him and the half-sister of Marcus Cato, his bitterest opponent. The poet Catullus wrote of the joys of love with Lesbia, a married woman from a prestigious patrician family, and the bitterness of subsequent rejection.18

We know nothing of Antony’s earliest love affairs, other than that he had them. Cicero claimed that he also let men make love to him, dubbing him little more than a prostitute, until Curio came along and offered him a ‘stable marriage’. This was part of a speech vilifying every aspect of Antony’s character and needs to be treated with caution. Roman politicians habitually threw the most scurrilous abuse at each other – elsewhere, Cicero accused another prominent senator of incest with his sister. The truth is impossible to know, but it was probably just gossip.19

Yet Curio and Antony were certainly extremely close. They spent a lot of time in each other’s company, throwing themselves into a round of wild parties. It was not a cheap lifestyle. Antony inherited heavy debts from his father, but was soon running up new ones of his own. There were plenty of people willing to loan him money, both on the basis of his remaining property and also gambling on Antony having a successful career. If he did well enough then he would be in a position to repay the loan and interest, or alternatively do the lender a favour in future. Even so his debts rose to staggering levels.

Curio stuck by his friend, and personally went surety for the sum of 6 million sesterces. (A senator needed property of at least 1 million, while a soldier had a gross annual salary of just 500 sesterces.) Curio’s father was not impressed and barred Antony from coming to their house. Cicero claims that the undeterred Antony climbed onto the roof and was let down through a hole in the tiles. The orator also says that both the father and son came to see him, the latter imploring him to convince Curio senior to make good on the pledge. He did, but would not permit his son to take on any more of his friend’s debts.20

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

Antony was not alone in running up massive debts. Julius Caesar was just one example, but there were many more. The creditors were usually willing to wait as long as the debtor continued to be successful. Serious political failure risked an immediate demand for payment, which could only end in utter ruin. Both Lentulus and Caius Antonius had to spend heavily to get back into the Senate and public life, seeking offices they had already held in the past. They made steady progress and were elected praetor and consul respectively for 63 BC.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was Antonius’ colleague in the consulship. He was a ‘new man’, whose fame rested on his great talent as an orator – in fact, he claimed to have learned much from listening to Antony’s grandfather. Defying one of Sulla’s more brutal minions in a court case, he quickly made a name for himself and continued to play a conspicuous role in some of the most notorious cases of the next decades. He was soon acknowledged – not least by himself– as the finest orator of his generation. Many senators were very grateful for having Cicero defend them or their clients in court. That did not mean that they would always support him when he sought higher office. Cicero remained the new man and could not boast of the achievements of his family. Yet in the elections for the consulship of 63 BC enough influential voters decided that he was preferable to one of the other leading contenders, Lucius Sergius Catiline. They voted for the new man, and for Caius Antonius. The latter was held in very low esteem, but was considered too lazy to be dangerous – an echo of the alleged reason for giving his brother Marcus Antonius the pirate command in 74 BC.21

Catiline tried to win the consulship for the next year and again failed. He was a patrician from an ancient line that had long since drifted away from the centre of public life. In this respect, he was like Sulla – and indeed Julius Caesar – and had the same driving urge to reclaim what he felt was his rightful place at the head of the Republic. Even his enemies had to admit that Catiline had talent, but his reputation was scandalous – again similarities with Sulla and Caesar, and even Mark Antony, are strong. As one of Sulla’s supporters he had been especially bloodthirsty during the proscriptions. There were also persistent rumours that he had murdered his own son to please his new wife and allegations of an attempted coup that failed only at the last minute.22

Catiline had profited from Sulla’s success, but then spent so lavishly that he was soon heavily in debt. He was one of the fast set, mixing with the wild young men and women whose behaviour provided the gossips with plenty of material. Antony must have known him, because Julia’s husband Lentulus was a close associate. It is more than likely that many of his friends were drawn to Catiline, who had a reputation for helping to arrange love affairs and being generous with money. He spent to win supporters and tie them to him. Politics was also hugely expensive for anyone in an era when candidates had to out-spend their rivals to advertise themselves and win votes. Catiline’s three unsuccessful campaigns for the consulship shattered his remaining credit.23

In 63 BC he lost to Cicero, the new man he dubbed a mere ‘resident alien’ in Rome. The details of what followed are only known from hostile sources. It may well be that Cicero did his best to provoke a crisis, backing Catiline into a corner. Yet he did not imagine or create the rebellion that followed. After brazening things out for a while, Catiline fled from Rome and joined an army being raised by his associates. Eventually they would lead two legions, one carrying an eagle of one of the legions that had fought under Marius.24

Mark Antony’s stepfather Lentulus was the leader of the men Catiline left behind in Rome, who were later accused of plotting to murder Cicero and other leading men and then start fires to sow confusion in the city. It was far from being a well-organised and disciplined plot. One of the conspirators boasted to his mistress of how he and his friends were going to take over. She promptly took the story to Cicero and continued to keep him informed. Soon afterwards Lentulus made contact with ambassadors sent to Rome by a Gaulish tribe called the Allobroges. They were there to complain of mistreatment by successive governors. Lentulus tried to persuade them to provide cavalry to support Catiline’s legions. The Gauls decided to trust to the proper authorities and reported what was happening. Cicero was able to ambush and arrest them, along with one of the conspirators and several incriminating letters. Lentulus had even repeated a prophecy to the Gauls which claimed that three Cornelii would rule Rome. Sulla and Marius’ ally Cornelius Cinna were two, and he, Cornelius Lentulus, was destined to be the third.

The Senate having decreed a state of emergency, Lentulus and the other leading conspirators were arrested. A debate then raged as the senators decided what to do. Most favoured immediate execution, but for a while Julius Caesar started to sway their mood in favour of permanent imprisonment. Cato, backed by Cicero and others, managed to convince a majority to enforce the death penalty without formal trial. In honour of his status as praetor, Cicero personally led Lentulus by the hand to the nearby Tullianum, which served as a prison and place of execution. The conspirators were then strangled. Cicero is supposed to have announced simply ‘they have lived’ – the single word vixerunt in Latin.25

Antony does not appear to have been seriously involved with the conspiracy. Perhaps he was also still too young to be taken seriously, since he was only twenty, and had not yet taken any formal steps towards a political career. As far as we know he did not take part in any court cases and would not do so in the coming years. Young men tended to prosecute, in part because this was seen as an aggressive action, since if successful it could well end another man’s career. Established orators like Cicero usually acted for the defence, since it was considered more honourable to defend a friend or associate even if he was guilty.

Julia was once again a widow. Now in her late thirties, she chose not to remarry. Plutarch reports but discounts a story claiming that Cicero refused to let her have Lentulus’ body for proper burial. Her brother-in-law, Caius Antonius, was sent with an army to deal with Catiline. Cicero had helped to secure his colleague’s co-operation by a private deal. He had been allocated the province of Macedonia after his year as consul, but he waived his right to this and let Antonius take it instead. The latter believed that the Macedonian frontier offered the prospect of a lucrative war.26

Antonius pleaded an attack of gout and was not present at the battle when the rebel army was destroyed and Catiline killed. Instead, command passed to an experienced subordinate. It was common for young aristocrats to accompany relatives on campaign, living with their headquarters and learning the business of leading an army by watching it done. There is no evidence that Antony accompanied his uncle either against Catiline or when he went to Macedonia. Indeed, we know almost nothing about his activities in his early twenties. It was probably to his advantage not to have accompanied his uncle. Antonius was defeated by Thracian tribesmen and when he returned to Rome he was brought to trial in 59 BC on charges of corruption. Cicero loyally defended his consular colleague, but Antonius was condemned and went into exile. With father and stepfather both dead – as we have seen, the latter executed as a rebel – and his uncle now a discredited exile, Antony was running out of relatives able to help his career.27

At some point he seems to have married. His bride was called Fadia and was the daughter of a freedman named Quintus Fadius Gallus. There was no political advantage to such a union – and indeed any connection with the family of a former slave was likely to provoke mockery and contempt from the aristocracy. Most likely, Fadius was wealthy, and the marriage helped him to gain respectability while financially assisting Antony. Perhaps the young aristocrat was able to spend some of his wife’s money to maintain his flamboyant lifestyle. At best, any aid made only the slightest dent in his crippling debts.28

Antony certainly knew many of the leading senators, and especially the younger generation now forcing their way into politics. Although he no doubt knew Julius Caesar, there is no hint of any close connection. Early in his career, Caesar had prosecuted Caius Antonius on charges of corruption and although the latter had not been found guilty there was little love lost between the two men. In 59 BC Antony’s friend Curio was a leading critic of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, enjoying a brief popularity that saw him cheered when he appeared in public. Julia’s close family were hostile to Caesar at this stage in his career.29

For a while Antony was an enthusiastic supporter of Publius Clodius Pulcher – a man about ten years his senior and already becoming a force in politics. A member of the ancient patrician family of the Claudii, Clodius arranged to have himself adopted by a plebeian in 59 BC. The change of status meant that he could now stand for office as tribune of the plebs, while retaining the prestige and connections of his real ancestry. The tribunate could be used as a powerful platform for an ambitious and well-connected man. It was the post that the Gracchi brothers had used, and it was tribunes who transferred Sulla’s command to Marius in 88 BC and gave Pompey his extraordinary commands in 67 and 66 BC. Clodius was easily elected as one of the ten tribunes for 58 BC. He had many supporters amongst the poorer inhabitants of Rome and these proved willing to intimidate and even attack opponents.

The triumvirate assisted Clodius in gaining his plebeian status in this unorthodox way, but it is wrong to think of him as their man. He was soon threatening to attack the laws passed by Caesar during his consulship, before subsequently turning his attentions to Cicero and accusing him of illegally executing the conspirators in 63 BC. The new man was vulnerable and, bitterly disappointed by the lack of support given by other senators and especially Pompey, Cicero fled into voluntary exile. It was Clodius who arranged the annexation of Cyprus to fund the free corn dole he introduced for citizens in Rome.

Clodius was another of the wild-living younger generation, notorious for his womanising. His sisters and brother had a similar reputation. One of the sisters was the ‘Lesbia’ first adored and then hated by the poet Catullus. Clodius himself had once been discovered disguised as a woman and sneaking into Julius Caesar’s house during an exclusively female religious festival. Most people believed he was conducting an affair with Julius Caesar’s wife. Caesar refused to testify against Clodius when the latter was charged with sacrilege. Neverthless, he divorced his wife, and when questioned famously said that this was because ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion’. Clodius was married to Fulvia, herself from a very distinguished family. There were rumours that she and Antony conducted an affair. There may not have been any truth in this, although some years later he would marry her. For whatever reason, Antony broke with Clodius.30

At some point, Antony left Italy for Greece and remained there for a considerable time. Ostensibly this was to study rhetoric, and many Romans including Cicero and Caesar had travelled east to do this at a similar age, but both had also already begun their political careers. Antony had not and was probably held back by the burden of his debts as well as his fondness for pleasure. Pressure from creditors may well have been a strong reason for leaving Rome.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Antony had probably already left Rome long before Ptolemy Auletes arrived late in 58 BC. There would anyway have been no reason for the king to seek out the twenty-four-year-old. Instead, he needed to win over enough influential senators to make the Romans commit to restoring him to his throne. He went first to Pompey, both because of their past connection and because of his obvious importance. A Roman senator’s prestige was reflected by the level of the people who came as clients to seek his favour. It bolstered Pompey’s reputation to have kings coming to him for help and he granted Auletes the hospitality of his own villa in the Alban Hills near Rome.1

The city was bigger than his own capital of Alexandria, bigger indeed than any city in the known world, but a good deal less impressive. Alexandria had been planned and was from the beginning built on a monumental scale. Rome developed more gradually over the centuries and was only now beginning to acquire the grand buildings we associate with it. Pompey had already commissioned a massive theatre complex, almost none of which is now visible, but was originally grander than anything else in Rome. Senators lived in old houses near the heart of the city and their prominence was measured by how close they were to the Via Sacra, the route followed by processions on important occasions. Most Romans lived crowded into high-rise blocks (insulae), paying a high rent and risking disease and fire. Ptolemy may well have found Rome crude and rather squalid, but he had come because he knew its power.

He had also had a recent taste of the blunt manner of some Romans. En route he stopped at Cyprus and went to seek the advice of Marcus Cato, the man appointed by Clodius to oversee the annexation of the island. The tribune had declared that it was vital to send Rome’s most honest man, and Cato had accepted the flattery and the prestigious command. From Clodius’ point of view, it also removed a vocal opponent from Rome. Cato performed the task rigorously and without any hint of malpractice and that in itself was rare enough for any Roman senator of his day. He was an ardent follower of Stoicism, a philosophical school that in the form most favoured by the Romans stressed stern duty and self-discipline. He was famous for his simple lifestyle and refusal to compromise – especially since such traditional virtues were what his most famous ancestor, himself a new man, was also renowned for. Yet there was also a touch of eccentricity about Cato. He was a heavy drinker, and sometimes went barefoot and wore just his toga without a tunic underneath, even on official business.

Ptolemy invited Cato to come to him, but was told that if he wanted to talk then he would have to go to the Roman. The timing of the king’s visit proved especially unfortunate, for Cato was taking a course of powerful laxatives. This may explain why he remained seated when the king arrived and casually told his royal visitor to sit down. His advice was equally surprising, for he told the king to go back to Alexandria and try to make peace. Otherwise not all the wealth of his kingdom would satisfy the greed of the senators if he looked to Rome for aid. Plutarch claims that Ptolemy was at first convinced and only later dissuaded from following Cato’s advice by his own courtiers. This seems unlikely. Cicero had once complained that Cato behaved as if he lived in Plato’s ideal Republic rather than the ‘cess-pit of Romulus’. Ptolemy knew from experience that Rome was, as another king had claimed half a century before, ‘a city up for auction’.2

Yet Ptolemy also knew that active Roman assistance would not come at a low price. Once he reached Rome, he borrowed more money from the bankers there and liberally employed this to win the sympathy of prominent men. Berenice IV and her ministers were not idle, and sent a large embassy of leading Alexandrians to speak against the king. Auletes used his borrowed money to block them: some were intimidated and others bribed into changing their opinion. A number – we do not know how many, but it included the embassy’s leader – were murdered by hired thugs. The violence caused a brief scandal, and Cicero helped to defend one young senator accused of involvement, but no one was condemned. It was perhaps at this time that Auletes removed himself and went to Ephesus in Asia Minor, where he waited in the security of the famous Temple of Artemis. His agents remained in Rome and continued to spend and plead on his behalf.3

Several Romans wanted to be the man tasked with restoring Ptolemy to his throne. That meant there was competition and also that there were plenty of other senators as determined to block them and prevent a rival from winning the prestige and riches which the action would bring. For a while this in-fighting prevented anything from actually happening. Pompey himself wanted to be given the job, no doubt with a new extraordinary command. It is a striking example of the limited power of the triumvirate that he was unable to secure this. Pompey, Crassus and Caesar, who was now in Gaul winning glory in a succession of military adventures, had immense influence, prestige and money, but they could not permanently control public life.

A new complication was added when a Sybilline Oracle – Rome’s ancient collection of cryptic prophecies – was ‘discovered’ and interpreted to mean that Ptolemy should not be restored with the aid of an army. In 57 BC the task was finally given to Publius Lentulus Spinther, consul for that year and due afterwards to go out as governor of Cilicia in Asia Minor. Cicero – now restored from his exile – wrote a series of letters to Lentulus from January 56 BC through to the next year reporting on the debate raging in Rome over the issue. Lentulus was obviously very keen, but in the end decided not to restore Ptolemy, fearing failure if he went without military force and prosecution if he used his army. Either of these outcomes risked wrecking his career.4

In the meantime, Berenice IV and her ministers were attempting to consolidate her position. Her co-ruler Cleopatra, whoever she was, died in 57 BC. The oldest of Berenice’s two brothers was not yet in his teens and, even if he was in Egypt and under her control, he was too young to be elevated to the throne. Only for very brief periods had a queen ever ruled alone and so she and her ministers looked for a suitable consort. A grandson of Cleopatra Selene (who had married a Seleucid) was located, but then inconveniently died before a betrothal had been arranged. Another candidate from the same dynasty was living in the Roman province of Syria, but its governor refused to let him leave.

Finally, a man with the prestigious name of Seleucus and a very loose claim to royalty was brought to Alexandria and married to the queen. The robust Alexandrian sense of humour quickly nicknamed him ‘Salt-fish seller’. Berenice was equally unimpressed and tolerated her new husband’s crude manner for only a few days before having him strangled. As a replacement, her ministers now located a certain Archelaus, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of Mithridates of Pontus, but was actually the child of one of his generals. He, too, had been living in the Roman province of Syria, but was able to get away and went to Egypt. The new consort proved acceptable to Berenice.5

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

In 57 BC Aulus Gabinius became proconsul of the province of Syria – it was he who had prevented one of Berenice’s potential husbands from leaving. Gabinius was the man who as tribune had passed the law granting Pompey the command against the pirates in 67 BC. He was still close to Pompey and the triumvirs seem to have backed his successful campaign to be consul in 58 BC. His colleague was Caesar’s father-in-law, and they were clearly eager to have well-disposed senior magistrates to guard their recent reforms. In fact, the two consuls bickered, and again this showed the limitations of the triumvirate’s power. They could not fully control independently minded and ambitious senators.6

Gabinius seems to have passed through Greece en-route to his province and recruited the twenty-six-year-old Antony to join his staff. As far as we can tell, this was the first formal public appointment for the latter. Antony had no experience of military life or official responsibility. Nevertheless, he was the son of a senator, the grandson of a consul and an Antonius. He refused to join Gabinius in the junior staff post initially offered to him. Instead, he demanded and got command of some or all of the cavalry in Gabinius’ army — the detail is unclear. His rank was probably prefect of horse (praefectus equitum) and this could involve command of a single regiment (aid) of 400–500 cavalry, or several such units. Publius, the older son of Crassus, was at the same time serving Julius Caesar in a similar capacity.7

Before the year was out Antony led his men on campaign in Judaea. During his eastern campaigns, Pompey had intervened in a civil war between brothers of the Hasmonaean royal family, the dynasty that had ruled since the Maccabees had successfully rebelled against the Seleucids. The Roman army had besieged and captured Jerusalem, and Pompey and his officers had gone into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Although they did not remove any of its treasure, this was still a violation of sacred tradition, which only permitted priests to enter the inner sanctum, and then only as part of a ceremony. The losing brother, Aristobulus, was taken back to Rome by Pompey and held there in comfortable captivity.

Aristobulus’ son, Alexander, had escaped and remained in Judaea, and now raised an army of 10,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry. He rebelled against his uncle, Hyrcanus, and even began to rebuild the fortifications of Jerusalem. Gabinius moved against him and sent Antony and some other officers on ahead. Our sources imply that Antony was in overall command. Although this is possible, we need to be aware that his later fame may have encouraged them to exaggerate his actual importance so early in his career. It is also unclear whether he at first had with him any of the cavalry he was supposed to command. A good deal of the force consisted of Jewish troops loyal to Hyrcanus. There were also some hastily armed Romans — perhaps businessmen active in the area and impressed into service.

At first Alexander withdrew, and a battle was fought near Jerusalem in which he was badly beaten. The bulk of his troops are likely to have been even less experienced than the Roman force, which included elements of the royal army. More than half of Alexander’s men were killed or captured and he withdrew northeast to the fortress of Alexandrion in the Jordan Valley. Gabinius now joined his advance force and the rebels were defeated again.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
Antony is said to have killed a number of men in the fighting and displayed conspicuous gallantry throughout the campaign. Virtus – which meant far more than virtue or even courage in English – was one of the most important values expected of a Roman aristocrat. Although inexperienced, Antony was physically extremely fit and well practised with his weapons. At no point in his career would anyone ever doubt his physical courage.

Alexandrion surrendered after a siege when Alexander was persuaded to come to terms. Antony may have been left in charge of the force covering the fortress while Gabinius led the main army in a show of force through the countryside. However, Alexander’s father Aristobulus managed to escape from Rome in 56 BC and seized Alexandrion. Gabinius sent Antony and two other officers – one of whom was his son – with a force to deal with the fresh rebellion. The most detailed source does not suggest that Antony was in overall command.

Aristobulus abandoned Alexandrion as untenable and retreated across the Jordan towards the fortress of Machaerus. On the way he shed those supporters unable or unequipped to fight, leaving him with 8,000, including about a thousand who had deserted from the royal army. The Romans caught up with the rebels and defeated them, killing or scattering most of the army. Aristobulus and around a thousand men made it to Machaerus and prepared to withstand a siege. The Romans were aggressive and assaulted for two days before he surrendered. Once again the Jewish leader went to Rome as a prisoner.8

Gabinius began to look for fresh opportunities for military adventure. Parthia, the powerful kingdom that had emerged in the wreck of the Seleucid Empire, was divided by a civil war between rivals within its royal family. The Roman general scented a chance for glory and plunder, and may already have begun to cross the Euphrates when Ptolemy Auletes made him a better offer. Gabinius was promised 10,000 talents of silver if he used his army to restore the king to power. Antony is said to have been one of the most enthusiastic advocates. As a senior officer he could expect a share of the cash, and that can only have been a very welcome prospect to a man with his great debts.

Sulla’s law forbade a provincial governor from leading an army outside of his province without explicit authority. Gabinius ignored this, as well as the official acceptance of the oracle that stated that Ptolemy could not be restored with an army. His legions moved through Judaea and headed south-west to Egypt in 55 BC. With them went a contingent of Jewish troops from Hyrcanus’ army, led by Antipater, his senior henchman. The grateful Hasmonaean monarch also issued orders for food and other support to be supplied to the Romans. There was a very large Jewish community in Egypt, particularly in and around Alexandria. The pharaohs, the Persians and the Ptolemies had also made considerable use of Jewish mercenaries. Some of these were tasked with guarding the crossing places at the edge of the Nile Delta at Pelusium. Antipater persuaded them to change sides and let the Romans through.

Plutarch credits Antony with the capture of Pelusium, but it may well be that there was no real fighting and the victory was bloodless. Auletes is supposed to have resented this fact as he had wanted to announce his return by a mass execution of his recalcitrant subjects. Antony is said to have restrained him. Some more serious fighting did occur afterwards, and Berenice IV’s husband Archelaus led his men with some determination until he was killed. He did not have much of an army with which to resist the legions. The old system of cleruchies had long decayed and the land was passed on to heirs without enforcement of the obligation to serve. The later Ptolemies had relied heavily on mercenaries, but Berenice and her government lacked the money to hire many of these. Rome’s conquest of the eastern Mediterranean had also reduced the number of soldiers for hire, both by recruiting them as allies for the legions and by making the area more peaceful.9

After a brief fight, Ptolemy Auletes was restored. One of his first acts was to order the execution of his daughter Berenice IV No doubt her leading supporters met a similar fate. Antony won the admiration of many Alexandrians because he insisted on giving Archelaus’ corpse a proper burial. The two men had known each other when Archelaus had come to Gabinius seeking favour, before he had been approached by Berenice’s representatives. Appian, writing in the early second century AD, claims that during this campaign Antony first saw the fourteen-year-old Cleopatra and fell in love with her. This is not intrinsically impossible – she was either with her father and his courtiers, or in Alexandria or another part of Egypt when he returned. She was probably also already striking and charismatic, and there is no reason why Antony may not have found her very attractive. Yet it could easily be just a romantic myth, and even Appian does not suggest that anything actually happened between them.10

The Egyptian campaign confirmed Antony’s reputation for bravery and dashingly aggressive leadership. On at least one occasion he showed some tactical skill, leading his horsemen to outflank an enemy position that was holding up the main force. Again, though, we should beware of making too much of these early exploits. Plenty of young Romans were brave, dashing and liked by their soldiers. Both in Judaea and Egypt, Gabinius’ army was markedly stronger and better equipped than the hastily raised forces opposing them. However stubbornly these fought, they were simply not a match for the Romans. The same was true when Gabinius led the bulk of his army back to his province and suppressed another rising in Judaea, and also in a subsequent campaign against the Nabataean Arabs.11

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


In 54 BC a new governor arrived to take over as proconsul of Syria and Gabinius returned to Rome with his newly acquired fortune. Once again Ptolemy had borrowed money from Roman bankers to pay the promised bribe and had paid the bulk, perhaps all, of the promised sum. Gabinius trusted to his money and his connection with Pompey to survive the prosecution that inevitably waited for him at home. His official reports to the Senate as governor had failed to mention his illegal expedition to Egypt, but the truth was already widely known. He had few friends amongst the publicani operating in his province – probably because his own extortion restricted their activities – and there were anyway other interested parties who had written to friends in the Senate. Pompey came to see the attacks on Gabinius as a challenge to his own status and strenuously supported him. To general amazement, he was narrowly acquitted of treason for leading an army outside his province. Arraigned on a second charge – and defended by Cicero, who very reluctantly gave in to Pompey’s pressure – Gabinius was convicted and went into exile.1

Gabinius’ successor was no less a person than Marcus Licinius Crassus. His alliance with Pompey and Caesar had come under strain in 56 BC, leading to a renegotiation of the deal. Pompey and Crassus became consuls for the second time in 55 BC. Caesar was granted a five-year extension to his command in Gaul. Pompey had no desire to fight another war, but was given a special command of the combined Spanish provinces, which he was permitted to govern through representatives. He remained just outside Rome to keep an eye on events there. Crassus’ ambition was for military glory and the profit of conquest. He had fought for Sulla during the civil war and, later, was the man who defeated the slave army of Spartacus. This had been a very tough campaign, for the escaped gladiator had smashed a long succession of Roman armies sent against him. Yet for all that, there was little glory in defeating slaves. Crassus had been awarded the lesser honour of an ovation rather than a full triumph for his victory.

Crassus chose Syria as his province and from the very beginning planned to invade Parthia. This war was not authorised by the Senate, but, just like Gabinius, Crassus scented an opportunity. He also knew that he was far less vulnerable to prosecution than his predecessor. His planned war was widely talked about at Rome. One tribune went so far as formally to curse him when he left Rome to go to his province.2

Mark Antony did not return to Rome with Gabinius and so avoided becoming the target of any prosecutions following on from the trial of his commander. He may also have been reluctant to go home and face pressure from his many creditors. We do not know whether he considered or was offered a commission to serve under Crassus. New governors brought plenty of their own enthusiastic followers to fill posts in the army and on their staff. Crassus’ son Publius had already served with some distinction in Caesar’s Gallic campaigns and now acted as one of his father’s senior subordinates. There may have been no place for Antony, or no desire on one or both sides for him to serve Crassus.

For whatever reason, Antony did not remain in Syria and take part in the forthcoming invasion. It was just as well. Crassus was over sixty and had not seen active service for the best part of three decades. His leadership proved lethargic and his planning poor. More importantly, the Parthians were far more formidable opponents than the armies of Pontus and Armenia so easily shattered by Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey Crassus’ seven legions were outmanoeuvred by the Parthian cavalry at Carrhae in 53 BC. Publius Crassus was lured away, his detachment wiped out and his severed head thrown into the Roman lines. His father for a while fought stubbornly, but decided that night to retreat. The Parthians pursued the legions relentlessly and Crassus was killed trying to negotiate. The eagle standards of the legions were captured and most of the legionaries surrendered or were killed. Crassus’ quaestor managed to rally some and lead them back to Syria, repulsing a Parthian raid that reached as far as the great city of Antioch.3

Antony joined Caesar’s army instead of Crassus’, but we do not know when he arrived in Gaul. Gabinius was in Rome by 19 September 54 BC. It seems unlikely that Antony reached Gaul earlier than that, and he may not have got there until much later in the year. There is no information of how the matter was arranged. Probably he approached Caesar – either directly or through someone known to them both – and asked for a post. Their distant family connection was not in itself enough to guarantee his acceptance, and as we have seen there is no evidence for a prior association.4

Antony came from an important family. He had also shown courage and ability in Judaea and Egypt, although we should remember that suitability for the job was rarely the primary concern in Roman appointments. Antony was worth cultivating because of his family and the promise this offered for future distinction. A Roman commander was judged in part by the background of his senior subordinates, and Caesar had struggled to attract many members of leading families. Antony’s uncle, the former consul Lucius Julius Caesar, did serve as one of Caesar’s legates in 52 BC, and may well have been there earlier than this, but most of his officers came from less distinguished families.5

They were drawn in part by the charisma of Caesar, but mainly by his reputation for lavish generosity. Caesar himself had massive debts when he left for his province early in 58 BC. In the next decade he is said to have captured and sold into slavery no fewer than a million prisoners. Shrines throughout Gaul were plundered of their treasure. Caesar became one of the wealthiest men in the world, and his officers also became rich. Many men heavily in debt sought service with him in Gaul to restore their fortunes and this may have been the main motive for Antony. Crassus had a reputation as a miser; Caesar was generous and already successful.6

We do not know what rank and duties Mark Antony was given by Caesar. It is often assumed that from the very start he served as one of the legates, the most senior subordinate rank who often commanded a legion or even larger forces. The majority of Caesar’s legates were older men, and many had held a magistracy, but there were exceptions to this and so it is possible that Antony had the rank from the time he arrived in Gaul. It is equally possible that he held a more junior post, perhaps as one of the half-dozen tribunes in each legion, or again as a prefect commanding cavalry as in the eastern campaigns.7

Caesar left full accounts of his campaigns in Gaul, covering each year’s operations in some detail. Antony is not mentioned until the summer of 52 BC. In some ways this is unsurprising, since Caesar was not overgenerous in naming and praising his subordinates. Yet it certainly makes it unlikely that Antony held any important detached command during his first period of service in Gaul. From 58 to 56 BC Caesar had intervened in Gaul beyond the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul (roughly equivalent to modern-day Provence) and extended Roman authority to the Atlantic and North Sea coasts. In 55 BC he bridged the Rhine and led a brief expedition against the German tribes, before crossing the Channel to Britain. He returned to Britain in 54 BC, leading a much stronger force. He did not permanently occupy the island, and his expedition came close to disaster when much of his fleet was wrecked in a storm. This did not matter, for the invasion was a spectacular propaganda success at Rome. He was voted twenty days of public thanksgiving, more than had ever been given to a victorious commander in the past – including Pompey after his eastern victories.8

Mark Antony could not have arrived in Gaul early enough to have taken part in the expedition to Britain. In the following winter there was a serious rebellion amongst the tribes of the north-east. A force of fifteen cohorts – equivalent to one and a half legions – was wiped out by a relatively minor tribe. Another legion was besieged in its winter camp. It was commanded by Cicero’s younger brother Quintus, who was serving as one of Caesar’s legates. Caesar himself led a small column on a risky march to break the siege and end the immediate crisis. The rebellion lost momentum, but was not over. Much of 53 BC was spent in a series of brutal punitive expeditions, with sudden attacks launched on individual tribes before they were ready to resist. Villages and crops were burned, cattle seized and people killed, captured or driven into the wilds.9

Antony may well have served in some of these operations. We cannot be sure, since not all the units of Caesar’s army were involved. Some were needed to hold down other parts of Gaul and did not see any actual fighting while performing this deterrent role. Nor can we automatically assume that Antony was given primarily military responsibilities. Caesar required educated and reliable Romans to perform administrative, financial and diplomatic roles. Antony wanted glory, but also needed money, so some opportunities of this sort may have been particularly welcome to him.

At some point in 53 BC Antony finally returned to Rome. It is unlikely to have been later than the beginning of autumn and was probably much earlier than this. He was now thirty, old enough to stand for the quaestorship. This was the most junior magistracy and Sulla had stipulated that election as quaestor automatically meant that the man would also be enrolled as a senator. There were twenty of these magistrates and their duties were primarily financial. Most were sent to the provinces to act as the governor’s deputy and to oversee the use and collection of revenue.

Elections and electioneering were carried on according to well-established traditions. A man standing for office dressed in a specially whitened toga – the toga candidus, from which we get our word ‘candidate’ – and so stood out as he walked through the Forum. A candidate took great care to greet citizens as they passed him, especially if they were senators, equestrians or other men whose wealth made their vote important. There were special slaves called nomenclátores whose task was to whisper into their master’s ear the names of each person they approached. Candidates would be attended by as many and as distinguished supporters as possible. Lucius Julius Caesar is likely to have backed his nephew in this way if he was in Rome. The proconsul Caesar sent letters to make his support for Antony clear and assisted him financially. In addition, officers from the army in Gaul were granted leave to go to Rome and take part in the elections. With all this support, and because he was an Antonius, Mark Antony was one of the favourites to win.10

The Roman practice was to hold the consular elections first, ideally at the end of July although there was no set date. Junior posts including the quaestorship were filled by elections held in a different Popular Assembly at some point after the consuls had been chosen. In 53 BC, however, there were problems. Bribery was widespread, but this in itself was nothing new. More disturbing was the organised violence between supporters of the various candidates. Clodius was standing for the praetorship, promising amongst other things to alter the law so that freedmen’s votes would become more significant in the Assemblies. Plenty of the less well-off supported Clodius because they felt that he had their interests at heart – his law as tribune, which introduced a free dole of grain to citizens, was very popular. There was also a hard core of followers who were organised to intimidate any opponent. From Clodius’ tribunate in 58 BC, political violence at Rome became more frequent.

Inevitably, other politicians had followed his example. Clodius’ most bitter opponent was Titus Annius Milo, who had organised his own gang of hired thugs and gladiators in 58 BC. Now Milo was standing for the consulship. Like many ambitious senators, he was massively in debt and could not afford to lose. Clodius’ and Milo’s gangs were the largest, but others were formed by some of the other candidates. Intimidation and violence became the norm, and deaths were frequent. Antony was in Rome and soon became involved, even if he probably did not join any of the other groups. His old quarrel with Clodius reignited and on one occasion a sword-armed Mark Antony led a group that chased him into a bookshop. Clodius barricaded himself inside and managed to repel the attack, but Cicero was probably right to claim that only this prevented his murder.11

It proved a brief postponement. On 18 January 52 BC, Milo and his wife, accompanied by a band of his gladiators, happened to pass Clodius and some of his supporters at Bovillae, some 10 miles out of Rome along the Appian Way. There was fighting and Clodius was wounded and carried into an inn. A little later some of Milo’s men burst in and finished him off. Taken back to Rome by his followers, Clodius’ body was carried into the Senate House and cremated, burning the building down in the process. The very heart of Rome’s public life was descending into chaos. The consular elections had been delayed again and again, as violence and manipulation of the rules rendered each meeting of the Voting Assembly invalid, and because of this the junior magistrates could not be chosen either.12

Finally, the Senate decided to give Pompey emergency powers to raise troops and restore order – it is more than likely that he had manipulated the situation in the hope of this. He was appointed consul without a colleague and without an election, simply to avoid the use of the word ‘dictator’. Troops were brought into the city to control the violence and permit elections and trials to occur. Milo was summoned to a court surrounded by guards and the atmosphere was so intimidating that Cicero balked at delivering a speech in his defence. Milo went into exile. Many of Clodius’ followers were also condemned, as was another man who like Milo had been a candidate for the consulship. Another of the consular candidates was Metellus Scipio, who was certainly guilty of bribery if not necessarily of violence. However, Pompey’s wife had died in the previous year and he now chose to marry Scipio’s daughter. After a meeting at Pompey’s house, the bribery charges were dropped and not long afterwards he appointed Scipio as his consular colleague.13

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
While all this was going on, Mark Antony was elected as quaestor by the Comitia Tributa, a formal meeting of the thirty-five tribes of Roman citizens. For an election, this assembly was normally convened on the Campus Martius – the Field of Mars, where once Rome’s militia army had mustered for war. Temporary fences divided the open space into sections and the whole thing was known as the ‘sheep-pens’ (saeptd).There were hundreds of thousands of citizens eligible to vote, but votes could only be registered in person and the majority lived too far from Rome to attend. There were four urban tribes and even the poorest members of these could have voted if they chose to do so. As in modern democracies, many seem not to have bothered. It tended to be the wealthy, or those whose work had brought them to Rome, who attended. The tribe and not the individual was what mattered, and the will of each tribe was given equal weight. A lottery determined the order in which the decision of the tribes was announced.

Candidates may have been allowed to make a speech. After that, the presiding magistrate gave the instruction, ‘Divide, citizens’ – Discedite, Quirites in Latin – and each tribe went to its allotted ‘sheep-pen’. One by one they would walk over a wooden gangway known as a ‘bridge’ and drop their written ballot into a basket. One official supervised this, and others were in charge of counting the votes and giving the totals to the presiding magistrate. Once a man received the vote of eighteen of the thirty-five tribes, then he was elected as quaestor. As soon as all twenty posts were filled, then the voting stopped.14

Mark Antony was probably one of the first to win office amongst the quaestors of the year. He was now a senator and had taken his first formal step on a public career, following the well-established path. He was probably thirty-one, making him a year older than the minimum age for the office, so had missed winning the quaestorship in ‘his year’. This was much less serious at the start of a career than later on.

Yet the traditional process of election should not blind us to the context. There had been months of political violence in which Antony had taken part. Elections were only possible at all because Pompey had been given dictatorial powers to deal with a crisis provoked by internal disorder and not any foreign enemy. Antony had witnessed the power of intimidation and bribery, and seen that only greater force could curb them. He had also watched Pompey manipulate the law and exploit his dominance for his own advantage.

It must have been hard for anyone of Antony’s generation to grow up with much respect for the traditional constitution of the Republic. Too much had already happened and then continued to occur before their eyes. Force prevailed, laws counted for little and could not resist it, as leading senators amassed huge debts that could only be recovered if they were successful. Men were ruined, occasionally killed by opponents or succeeded spectacularly. His first taste of public life at Rome is unlikely to have done anything to convince Antony of the strength of the system.

Julius Caesar chose Antony to be his quaestor. Such arrangements were common, and generally considered good, since if there was goodwill between the governor and his deputy then the two were likely to do their job better. Mark Antony went back to Gaul and found himself caught up in a massive rebellion of the tribes, many of whom had been staunchly loyal to Rome. Caesar had intervened in Gaul to protect allied peoples and had used this pretext to extend his operations further and further outside his province. After five years many Gauls realised that they were now effectively occupied by the Romans, who showed no signs of leaving. Many tribes and chieftains did well from the process, for Caesar was generous to loyal allies, making them rich and powerful. Those less favoured saw no prospect of rising to the top while the Romans remained. Some of those who had done well also now decided that they could grow even more powerful if the occupiers left. Tribe after tribe rebelled, uniting under the leadership of Vercingetorix – one of those who seem to have done well from Caesar’s favour.15

Antony did not leave Rome until after the trial of Milo in April 52 BC and so missed the start of this extremely brutal campaign, which was marked from the very beginning by extreme savagery and ruthlessness on both sides. Caesar was himself caught south of the Alps when the revolt erupted and had to patch together a force to defend Transalpine Gaul, before making a desperate journey to reach his main army. Later in the year, Antony’s uncle Lucius Julius Caesar took over the defence of Transalpine Gaul. We do not know when or how the quaestor joined his commander.16

Mark Antony is first mentioned by Caesar at the climactic siege of Alesia. As the summer wore on, the Romans had suffered a reverse in a costly and unsuccessful attack on the town of Gergovia. Caesar retreated and was harried by the Gauls. Then he repulsed a heavy attack on his column and seizing back the initiative counterattacked, chasing Vercingetorix and his army to the hilltop town of Alesia. The legions toiled to construct 11 miles of fortifications surrounding both the town and the Gaulish camp. Vercingetorix had sent to the tribes for aid and these now mustered a massive relief army. As soon as the Romans finished their siege line, Caesar ordered them to build another, even longer one, facing outwards. Both lines were strengthened with forts and in front of them was a network of obstacles and traps.

Caesar did not attempt to attack Alesia, but relied on starvation to defeat his enemy. Vercingetorix expelled the non-combatant population of the town so that food would be consumed only by his warriors. Caesar refused to let the civilians — mostly women, and the very young and very old — pass through his lines. They were left to starve, in full sight of both armies. When the relief force mustered by the tribes arrived, they launched a series of attacks against sections of Caesar’s lines, trying to break in. At the same time, Vercingetorix led his men in sally after sally trying to break out. Mark Antony, along with the legate Caius Trebonius, was in command of one of the targets of an especially heavy attack. Caesar tells us that they took men from less threatened sectors as reinforcements and eventually repulsed the enemy.17

All of the Gaulish attacks failed. The relief army lost heart and was running out of food, so began to disperse. Vercingetorix was faced with starvation and surrendered. The danger that the Romans would suffer outright defeat and lose Caesar’s conquests was over; the fighting was not. Throughout 51 BC there were skirmishes and raids as the last embers of the revolt were stamped out. It was not merely a question of brute force, as Caesar also spent a good deal of time and effort in diplomacy, and was lenient to many of the tribes, especially former allies. Antony took part in some of this fighting, although in one operation in December 52 BC to January 51 BC we are explicitly told that he was left behind with the troops protecting the army’s baggage train and headquarters.18

Afterwards, Caesar took Antony — and also the Twelfth Legion — on a punitive expedition in the north-east against the Belgic Eburones. In many ways these operations had a lot in common with the campaigns in Judaea. Much of the fighting was small scale, opponents weak in numbers and poorly equipped. Aggression and speed of movement were more important for the Romans than careful preparation. When Caesar moved south to deal with the siege of a determined band of rebels at Uxelodunum, he left Antony behind with a force equivalent to one and a half legions to deter the Belgic tribes from rebellion. It was his first independent command in Gaul, and probably the largest of his career so far.19

Charismatic leaders were important in keeping resistance going. One of these was Commius, a man who had been made king by Caesar and had proved a loyal ally until the rebellion of 53–52 BC. Antony sent the commander of the cavalry attached to his force to hunt Commius down. In a confused skirmish, this officer was wounded, as was the rebel leader, but the latter escaped. He sent envoys to Antony seeking peace terms, but asking that he never have to come into the presence of a Roman again – earlier in the year Roman envoys had tried to assassinate him during a negotiation. Antony accepted this request and took hostages as a pledge of Commius’ future goodwill.20

Apart from Alesia, Antony seems not to have participated in any sizeable battles during his time in Gaul. In spite of Shakespeare, he was not with Caesar on ‘that day he overcame the Nervii’ in 57 BC. Alesia was the only major operation of the war at which he was present. This is worth stating only because of the emphasis in ancient and modern sources on Antony as a soldier. In fact, by this stage of his career, his record was competent, but unexceptional. He was not especially experienced and had usually acted under someone else’s command. Soon it was time to return to politics and in 50 BC Antony left Gaul and went to Rome to become a candidate again.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


When Gabinius and Antony left Egypt, plenty of Romans stayed behind. Many were soldiers, for the proconsul left a strong force ‘with King Ptolemy as a garrison’. Known as the Gabinians, these troops would remain for six years, beginning a Roman military presence that would last almost without break until the seventh century AD. Many were Roman citizens, although some of these soldiers were foreign auxiliaries — we hear later of 500 Gaulish and German cavalry. Overall numbers are unclear, but a strength equivalent to one or even two legions seems quite likely.1

Ptolemy Auletes had paid for Roman military force to regain his throne, and only this same force would guarantee that he kept it. Gabinius had no legal authority to invade Egypt, although he would later claim that Archelaus had encouraged piracy in the eastern Mediterranean and so needed to be defeated. Equally, he had no authority to station Roman troops in Egypt to protect Auletes. The king seems from the beginning to have paid and supplied these soldiers — Gabinius also claimed that the only money he had ever accepted from Ptolemy was to pay for the costs of his army. A few years later another proconsul of Syria clearly considered the Gabinians to be still part of the Roman army, and he does not seem to have been alone in this view.2

Yet their status was ambiguous. No mention is made of an overall commander, but senior officers seem to have been Roman. Many of the men in Gabinius’ army had served in Pompey’s eastern campaigns, but presumably their enlistments had not expired by the time the latter returned to Rome. Our sources mention one man who had served as a centurion under Pompey and was later a tribune in Egypt. It is not clear whether he was one of the Gabinians or was recruited independently. Auletes hired as many mercenaries as he could, even enlisting runaway slaves. He may also have sought out experienced Roman officers in need of employment, and men with Italian names appear in the armies of many client kingdoms during this period. These supplemented the Gabinians and in practice all of them acted in every significant respect like a royal army.3

Before long the Gabinians were called upon to suppress disorder within the kingdom, which they seem to have done with ease. However, a good deal of their time was spent in garrison in Alexandria. It was a comfortable posting, with the luxuries of one of the greatest cities in the world readily available. Legionary pay was not high in this period — at some point in these years Julius Caesar would double the salary of his legionaries — and Auletes may well have been more generous. Caesar himself later claimed that the Gabinians ‘got used to a life and licence in Alexandria and forgot the name and discipline of the Roman people, wed local women, with whom many had children’.4

Roman soldiers restored Ptolemy Auletes and kept him in power; other Romans stayed with them to collect the price for this assistance. The king had borrowed vast sums to buy his restoration, since his friends in Rome proved reluctant to assist him purely on the basis of promises. Much of this was owed to a consortium of Roman financiers led by a certain Caius Rabirius Postumus. There were unpaid debts from 59 BC as well as the sum owed to Gabinius, although it is not clear if all of this was paid straight away. Rabirius had gone out to Cilicia with the staff of Lentulus Spinther, in the hope that the latter would restore the king. Disappointed when Lentulus gave up on the idea, the banker joined Gabinius and either accompanied the expedition to Egypt or arrived soon afterwards.

Auletes made Rabirius his senior finance minister (dioecetes), so that the Roman would oversee taxation and other royal revenue and take his money directly. The sums involved were staggering, and the king also needed to pay for his own court and continue lavish programmes of spending to secure support. The Ptolemies had from the beginning treated their territory much like a private estate. Scholars may argue over the efficiency of the bureaucracy that governed Egypt, but none doubt that its most important function was generating revenue. Rabirius was now part of this system, and he and his associates dressed accordingly, wearing the Hellenic costume of royal officials rather than the tunic and toga of proper Romans.5

With the king’s approval, Rabirius enthusiastically set about raising money, involving himself not simply with taxation and the produce of royal land, but royal monopolies and trade tariffs. Egypt was squeezed very tightly at a time when harvests were bad because the inundation of the Nile was low for several years in succession. Probably the irrigation system had been neglected in the years of disruption when the king was driven out. Auletes had also come to power after many decades of serious internal problems and power struggles within the dynasty. Institutions and central authority had decayed, becoming far more corrupt and much less efficient.

It was hard for many of the king’s subjects to pay what was demanded of them. Desperation was probably the root cause of the unrest crushed by the Gabinians. The ruthless approach to raising revenue was not in itself enough. For centuries the currency of the Ptolemies had been very stable. Now the silver content of each coin was drastically reduced as the king sought to make his income go further. Having a Roman finance minister helped to deflect the blame away from Auletes himself. Rabirius was intensely unpopular.

The king finally gave in to the demands of the Alexandrians and had the Roman banker imprisoned. Rabirius quickly ‘escaped’ and fled back to Rome. A good number of merchant ships had already been despatched carrying goods and there were rumours that one had a cargo far more valuable than the mundane contents of the others. Gabinius had already gone into exile and a prosecution was now brought against Rabirius in the hope of seizing the bribe allegedly paid to the proconsul to restore Auletes. Cicero defended the banker, but the trial was probably never completed because of a serious backlog of cases and the political disruptions at Rome. Rabirius survived, although how much he had lost on his dealings with Ptolemy XII Auletes is impossible to know. Julius Caesar took on much of the outstanding debt, in addition to the money still owed to him for his assistance to the king in 59 BC.6

Auletes not only survived, but also, with the backing of the Gabinians, his grip on power was more secure than it had ever been in the past. For all the devaluation of the coinage and the hardships of many of his subjects, he was wealthy and had got away without paying anything like all of his huge debts to the Romans who had assisted him. In his last years his court remained splendid and there was money to spend on grand building projects.
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