Anthony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy

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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Much to everyone’s surprise, Octavian had recovered from his illness late in 42 BC. Back in Italy, he threw himself into the grand colonisation programme needed to satisfy the veteran soldiers due for discharge. At the very least there were tens of thousands of these men, even if most legions in these years were greatly under strength. Land was confiscated from an initial list of eighteen towns, but this was not enough, and almost forty communities suffered to a greater or lesser extent. Most senators had enough influence to protect their own property in these regions and so perhaps did the wealthiest local inhabitants. The burden fell more on those of middling income, without powerful friends. By a strange coincidence, three of the greatest poets of the age, Virgil, Horace and Propertius, all saw their family’s land confiscated and given to retired soldiers. It was clearly a traumatic episode for many Italians. The behaviour of the veterans and the commissioners assigning them land rarely helped, and there were accusations that they were taking more than they had been allocated and generally intimidating their new neighbours. On the other hand, the veterans resented the slow pace of the process and were ready to resist any attempt to give them less than they had been promised.1

Antony’s surviving brother Lucius was consul in 41 BC, with Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus, the man who had been Caesar’s colleague in 48 BC, holding the post for a second time. There was resentment amongst the many dispossessed and wider discontent because the power of Sextus Pompey had grown. He overran Sicily and dominated the sea lanes, preventing much of the supply of grain from reaching Italy. Rome relied on imported food – Sicily was a major supplier – and the triumvirate was blamed for the shortages. Octavian was in charge of the colonisation and he was also there in Italy. The resentment focused on him, for Antony was away in the east and Lepidus was already acknowledged as the least of the three.

Lucius Antonius sensed an opportunity to gain from this festering discontent. He was a Roman senator, determined to rise to the very top, winning glory, reputation, power and wealth. It is a mistake to see him simply as Antony’s agent. His brother may have indicated general support, but did not order his actions in this year – indeed, the slow pace of communications would have made this impractical. Fulvia was initially reluctant, but eventually encouraged her brother-in-law, sending her children to Lucius for him to show to Antony’s veterans and raise support. Yet it was difficult for the soldiers to sympathise with those dispossessed by the colonisation process. Clearly, Fulvia felt that she was acting for Antony’s good by turning against Octavian. The latter’s verse suggests that she was jealous of Glaphyra and others claim that she hoped also to win her husband back from Cleopatra. As so often in these years, strong personal emotion mingled with political ambition.

The result was a confusing period of unrest and civil war, in which allegiances were often unclear. Lucius seized Rome, but could not hold it. He raised an army and ended up being blockaded by Octavian in the town of Perusia (modern-day Perugia). Lead sling bullets survive from the siege, some simply proclaiming allegiance to one of the leaders, but others with slogans jibing at Lucius’ baldness or targeting Fulvia’s sexual organs. Asinius Pollio, Plancus and Ventidius Bassus were all in Italy with their legions and were seen as Antony’s men, commanding legions loyal to him. However, the three generals could not agree on what to do and bickered with each other. They postured and demonstrated, but stopped short of practical aid. Clearly, they had no instructions and this, combined with their own sense of what was good for their personal ambitions, stopped them from intervening. Without help, Lucius surrendered early in 40 BC.2

The consul was spared, and so were his soldiers, but there may have been some executions and Perusia was plundered and burned. Lucius was soon despatched to govern Spain. Fulvia fled from Italy, in search of her husband. Antony’s mother Julia also decided to leave Rome, but chose a circuitous route to reach her son. She went first to Sextus Pompey, who welcomed her and then sent her with an escort to Antony, with an offer of alliance against Octavian. It seemed that Perusia was only the first campaign of a new civil war, pitting one triumvir against another.

Octavian was also trying to conciliate Sextus. He had divorced Fulvia’s daughter, claiming that the marriage had never been consummated. If true, then it suggests that he had been cautious about the alliance from the start, although it may simply have been that she was exceptionally young, even by the standards of Roman brides. Instead, he married Scribonia, sister of Sextus’ father-in-law and one of his leading supporters. Pompey’s son does not seem to have viewed the young Caesar any more warmly as a result.3

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


None of our sources accuses Antony of provoking the conflict (which is known as the Perusine War). At most they claim that he failed to restrain Fulvia and Lucius. Some of this was clearly intended to emphasise his inability to control his own wife. Realistically, he was too far away to play a direct role in the rapidly changing situation in Italy. It is also worth saying that Antony rarely deliberately initiated a confrontation at any stage in his life. He was ambitious, seeking power and then revelling in it. After the Ides of March he reacted to the assassination and gradually turned opinion against the conspirators, but even then did not himself provoke an open conflict with them. Throughout he seems to have been content to let them continue in public life, as long as this did not conflict with his acquisition of power, patronage and wealth. Similarly, in the following months, as Cicero and others increased the pressure upon him, Antony responded angrily, but was not fully prepared for war when it came. In part, this was because he underestimated his opponents, both the senators and the young Caesar, but it also seems to reflect his nature. There is little trace of long-term strategy at any stage in his life, beyond a general desire to rise to the top. Lucius played a strong part, but on balance it does seem that the sources are right to see Fulvia as the main force behind the opposition to Octavian.

Antony had not wanted a confrontation with Octavian, although no doubt he would happily have profited from the new situation if his wife and brother had won. This did not mean that he could pretend the conflict had not happened. Antony left Alexandria and went to Syria, but in spite of a Parthian invasion, he hurried from there to Athens, where he met Julia and Fulvia. He thanked Sextus Pompey’s envoys for bringing his mother, but sent their master a cautious reply. If war did break out with Octavian, then he would treat Sextus as an ally. If it did not, then the agreement to form the triumvirate held and so all he could do was encourage his colleagues to negotiate with Sextus.4

He seems to have received Fulvia coldly, which made it easier to absolve himself of responsibility for the Perusine War. She may already have been ill and was said to be heartbroken. Fulvia died later in the year, after Antony had left Athens. Lucius Antonius also succumbed to illness soon after taking up his post as proconsul in Spain. There is no hint of foul play in either case. In many ways more damaging for Antony was the death of Calenus, the governor of Gaul, in the summer of 40 BC. Octavian went in person and took over the province without a struggle, taking command of its eleven legions. The balance of power was shifting, making the outcome of the impending civil war very hard to predict.5

Antony returned to Italy. He did not go alone, but led a fleet of 200 warships. There were few if any transport ships and he had only a small army. En route he was joined by more ships and soldiers led by Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, the most important Republican leader to continue the struggle after Philippi. Asinius Pollio had already arranged the reconciliation, so that Antony was calm as the other fleet approached and duly saluted him as general. The added strength was welcome and Ahenobarbus had the prestige of a distinguished family, but the new allies proved a liability when the combined fleet arrived at Brundisium. In the past, Ahenobarbus had often attacked the port. The garrison refused to admit this known enemy and treated Antony in the same way.6

The triumvir responded angrily, landing near by and besieging the city. A new civil war seemed to be beginning. Octavian gathered his forces and marched south, setting up his own blockade around Antony’s forces. There was some skirmishing. Antony took 500 cavalry on a raid, which caught three times that number of enemy horsemen by surprise and overwhelmed them. Octavian raised levies from amongst the veteran colonies, but when the men heard that they were to fight Antony, most of them turned around and went home. It was not so much a sign of enthusiasm for – or even fear of – Antony, but a feeling that there was simply no good reason to fight a civil war. This mood was general amongst Caesar’s old officers and soldiers on both sides. They fraternised and soon felt confident enough to make their feelings known to their commanders.

Their armies did not want a war, and it is unlikely that Antony and Octavian were themselves enthusiastic, for neither had much to gain. There was still too much to be done for one of them to feel confident that he could control the empire at present. If Antony destroyed Octavian, then there was no assurance that Sextus Pompey, or whoever emerged as the dominant leader in the west, would be any less of a threat in the future. Neither side was properly prepared for war, which made the outcome even less certain. Fighting would have been a dangerous gamble for both Antony and Octavian, and it was only the fear that the other one was determined to fight that made the prospect at all acceptable to either of them. In the past, mutual suspicion and fear had fostered more than one civil war. This time, the reluctance of the rival armies forced their leaders to hold back. Serious fighting did not occur and that made it easier for Antony and Octavian to negotiate.

The talks were conducted by Asinius Pollio for Antony and a young equestrian named Caius Maecenas for Octavian, with the senior officer Lucius Cocceius Nerva, who had the confidence of the troops, as a neutral. No one was there to represent Lepidus, reflecting the continuing decline in his importance. Maecenas was one of Octavian’s earliest supporters and closest friends, and over the years proved himself a wily political operator, as well as later a patron of poets like Virgil and Horace. By September 40 BC, these three had put together what is known as the Treaty of Brundisium.

Antony and Octavian split the empire between them, leaving Lepidus with only Africa. Octavian kept Gaul, so that he now effectively controlled all of the western provinces, while Antony held the east. The boundary between the two was set at Scodra in Illyria. Antony seems to have been formally charged with the war against Parthia, while Octavian was to regain Sicily and the other islands occupied by Sextus Pompey, unless the latter proved willing to negotiate a peace. This was the only concession to Sextus and he clearly felt cheated. Ahenobarbus did better, receiving a pardon. He had been condemned along with Caesar’s assassins, although it seems that he was not actually part of the conspiracy. A few others were pardoned, and Antony and Octavian each executed one of their more prominent followers. Antony killed a somewhat shadowy agent of his named Manius, because he had encouraged Lucius and Fulvia to rebel. He is also said to have told Octavian that one of his generals had offered to defect to him. The man was summoned on a pretext and then killed, the triumvirs getting the Senate to pass its ultimate decree to give a veneer of legality to the death.7

Concordia (concord) was proclaimed and soon being celebrated throughout Italy. Whatever their attitude to the triumvirate, the fear of fresh civil war was deeply felt and the relief genuine. As so often, a marriage alliance confirmed a political bargain. Fulvia had died –Antony is said to have felt guilty about his coolness towards her in Athens, but in all respects this was remarkably convenient. Octavian’s older sister Octavia had recently been widowed, when her husband Marcellus, the consul of 50 BC, died. She was about thirty. Roman law stipulated that ten months should pass between the death of one husband and the taking of another, since this would make clear the paternity of any child. Antony and Octavian had the Senate pass a special decree exempting Octavia from this and the wedding was celebrated almost immediately.

Antony and Octavian had coins minted showing the face of the other. Antony also issued a series with Octavia on the reverse, making her the first Roman woman to appear on coinage. Another of Octavian’s coins showed clasped hands as a further sign of the new concord. The poet Virgil wrote of a new golden age, to be ushered in by the birth of a boy – clearly a hoped for child of Antony and Octavia. In the event, she actually bore him the first of two daughters, but by that time the mood had already become less optimistic.8

Antony and Octavian each celebrated an ovation when they went to Rome late in the year. It was a lesser ceremony than a triumph, but still impressive, although it was not quite clear what victories were being commemorated. Much like the honours to Caesar, it marked the triumvirs out as greater than normal magistrates. The crowds may well have cheered the processions. Yet the population was far less enthusiastic when more extraordinary taxes were announced. To make matters worse, Sextus Pompey refused to be ignored and was effectively blockading the major sea lanes to Italy. Food was short and prices high. People did not blame Sextus but the triumvirs for not coming to terms with him. Octavian was threatened by a mob when he appeared in the Forum with very few bodyguards. Missiles were thrown and he was injured.

Antony brought a small force of soldiers along the Via Sacra to help his colleague. Perceived as more favourable to a peace with Sextus, no stones were thrown, but a determined crowd blocked the path. When he tried to force his way through, they began to lob missiles at him. Antony retreated, gathered more soldiers and then attacked the Forum from two directions. He and his men cut their way to Octavian and his party and managed to bring them out. Corpses were dumped in the river to conceal the number of deaths. In the end the crowd dispersed, but it was clear that their resentment was only held in check by the naked force of the triumvirs.9

It was now clear that they needed to deal with Sextus and since they did not have the naval power to defeat him, negotiation was the only option. Approaches were made through relatives, including Sextus’ mother. There were preliminary talks in the spring of 39 BC off the resort city of Baiae and for the first time Pompey’s son met Caesar’s son and his ally Antony. The rival sides stood on specially prepared platforms sunk into the beach within comfortable earshot, but offering security from sudden attack. It was not enough to overcome mutual suspicion and the talks broke down. Finally, off Misenum in the late summer a second meeting was held and an agreement reached.

Sextus Pompey was in his late twenties and had never been enrolled in the Senate, even before he had been outlawed in 43 BC along with the conspirators and other enemies of the triumvirate. Now he was named as governor of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica – all of which he anyway controlled – and also the Peloponnese in Greece, which he did not. Sextus joined Antony in the college of augurs, and was nominated for a consulship in 33 BC. (He would still have been too young for the office, but such breaches of the old laws no longer caused much comment.) In return, he agreed to end his naval blockade. Much to his credit, Sextus also insisted on restoring rights to the proscribed and other exiles, allowing them to return and take back at least a quarter of their property. Only the few surviving conspirators were excluded from this pardon. The proscriptions were to be ended. Runaway slaves who had served in his fleet were granted their freedom.

The Peace of Misenum for a while brought to a halt the civil wars that had split the Roman Republic since 44 BC – indeed, virtually since Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January 49 BC. There was genuine celebration when the news spread, especially when trade began to flow more normally and the food shortages in Rome and elsewhere came to an end. The immediate celebrations involving the leaders on each side seem to have begun rather nervously and it was rumoured that most of those attending the great banquet to mark the event carried concealed daggers. When Antony and Octavian both dined on board Sextus’ flagship, one of his admirals is supposed to have suggested cutting the cable and disposing of them, seizing power in one fell swoop. The response became famous, for Sextus said that he could not break faith in this way and wished that the man had simply acted without seeking his permission. From the beginning, the truce was uneasy.10

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Having spent almost a year in Italy, Antony set out again for the east, taking Octavia with him. It was perhaps a sign of affection, for although the marriage was one of political convenience, at least at the beginning it seems to have been reasonably happy. Antony readily responded to affection, and his new wife was both attractive and intelligent. It was widely believed that he had fallen in love with her, yet there was probably more to it than this. Roman provincial governors did not take their wives out to their provinces. Even during civil wars, this was extremely unusual and Pompey the Great’s wife Cornelia was a rare exception. There was no threat to Octavia if she remained in Italy – as Fulvia had done in 44 BC, and Brutus’ and Cassius’ wives throughout the civil war. She was indeed the clearest symbol of the renewed alliance between her brother and husband. The most likely reason for her accompanying Antony was that all concerned felt it was a good idea to keep this symbol with him as reminder of the new, closer bond with Octavian.

The couple spent the winter together in Athens. Octavia was well educated, but Roman women got few opportunities to travel abroad and this was probably her first visit to the famous city. Their daughter, Antonia the elder, was born before they arrived and Antony made a show of laying aside many of his formal duties for the quiet life of a private citizen. His attendants were reduced to a minimum, and once again he dressed in Greek fashion and attended lectures and exercised in the gymnasium. With his wife he dined in the local manner and took part in the cycle of religious festivals, which involved sacrifices and other rituals as well as sumptuous feasting. One Stoic philosopher dedicated a book to Octavia. Antony accepted the civic office of gymnasiarch, dressing up in the white shoes and robe and carrying the staff of office. It was an annual post tasked with overseeing the lives and education of the ephebes, the youths training in the gymnasium.

The Athenians played along with the charade, just as the Alexandrians had pretended not to recognise the Roman general and their own queen when they dressed as slaves. Yet the Panathenaic festival games were named Antonian in his honour. At the same time they proclaimed Antony as the ‘New God Dionysus’, and he and Octavia as the ‘Beneficent Gods’. There seems to have been some form of sacred alliance or marriage between the New Dionysus and the city’s own goddess, Athena. Antony accepted this as an honour, but also insisted on a substantial sum of money from the city as dowry for his new bride.11

In spite of this and other levies, Antony was once again popular with a Greek audience, especially the Athenians. The Romans taxed them anyway, and at least he showed respect to their culture. The honours were not unprecedented – Caesar had also allowed himself to become gymnasiarch – and were part of a wider promotion of his status. Appian claims that he received few delegations over the winter months, although he accepted and responded to letters. Although the triumvirs often presented their actions as constitutional, and referred their decisions to the Senate for approval, the provincial and allied communities were fully aware that real power lay with Octavian and Antony. Cities approached them directly for favours. The city of Aphrodisias set up a series of long inscriptions on the wall of its theatre recording decisions made by the triumvirs and stated baldly that:

Whatever rewards, honours, and privileges Caius Caesar or Mark Antony, triumvirs to restore the state,
have given or shall give, have allotted or shall allot, have conceded or shall concede by their own decree
to the people of Plarasa or Aphrodisias, all these should be deemed as having come justly and regularly.
It was clear that the Senate would not challenge any decision of the triumvirs. Aphrodisias was in Asia Minor, and thus clearly within the provinces allocated to Antony, and it is interesting that they felt free to approach Octavian independently, and that he was willing and able to make decisions in response. Other communities appear to have acted in the same way. There is much less evidence for civic life in the western provinces – in part, because this was less developed in many areas – but it seems more than likely that some of these went to Antony rather than Octavian for favours and rulings. On the other hand, perhaps there were simply more problems needing attention in the east, for the recent Parthian invasion had spread disorder over a wide area.

At the end of the winter, Antony resumed the full pomp and ceremony of his rank as triumvir, donned the uniform of a Roman magistrate and general, and made it clear that he was available to receive petitioners.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Cleopatra gave birth to twins in 40 BC. The boy was named Alexander and the girl Cleopatra. A few years later they would be dubbed ‘the Sun’ and ‘the Moon’- Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. It seems to have been at this point that Antony openly acknowledged them as his children, but no doubt he was informed of their birth soon after it occurred. Whether or not he and Cleopatra had formal contact in these years, they certainly took care to keep informed about the other’s activities. Personal feelings aside, this was simply sound politics.1

Antony already had at least three children. His first marriage to the freedman’s daughter Fadia seems to have produced offspring, but these may have died young – the fate of so many infants in the ancient world. Antony’s daughter Antonia is generally held to be the child of his second wife and first cousin, Antonia, and not of Fadia. Fulvia gave him two sons, Marcus Antonius, also known as Antyllus, and Iullus Antonius. In 39 BC Octavia bore him the first of two daughters, both of course called Antonia, and known as Major and Minor to distinguish them in modern studies. Unlike Caesar, who had lost his only recognised child when Julia died, for Antony there was less of a novelty when his royal lover bore him twins. 2

There were anyway far more worrying concerns for both Antony and Cleopatra. Early in 40 BC, a Parthian invasion swept through Syria. It was led by Pacorus, son of King Orodes II and favoured heir to the throne. With him was Quintus Labienus, son of the man who had been Caesar’s ablest legate in Gaul, but who had defected –or perhaps returned to an older allegiance – to Pompey at the start of the civil war. The elder Labienus had died at Munda. His son – another of the young men who so dominated public life and the civil wars after Caesar’s death – sided with Brutus and Cassius and was sent by them to seek help from Orodes II. In 49 BC Pompey had made a similar request and few Roman leaders showed any reluctance in seeking foreign allies to win a civil war. Yet this was still politically sensitive and the attempt to win over the Allobroges by Lepidus and the other conspirators had utterly discredited them in 63 BC. In any event, the Parthian king proved cautious and gave no active support to either Pompey or the conspirators. Labienus was still with him when Philippi was lost and Brutus and Cassius took their own lives.3

What happened next was unprecedented. The figure of the exiled prince or aristocrat serving as a mercenary with a foreign monarch was a common enough one in the ancient world, especially amongst the Greek cities. Both of the fifth century BC Persian invasions of Greece included such exiles, providing information in the hope of being restored to power through foreign aid. However, Roman senators did not behave this way. There were no Roman aristocrats with Pyrrhus or Hannibal when they led their armies into Italy. Even when the competition between ambitious Roman senators became violent, no one imagined they could be restored to power by a foreign army. Subordinate allies were acceptable, but not the prospect of accompanying an invading enemy.

Labienus was amongst the proscribed and could expect to be executed if he was caught. Presumably he concluded that the Republic no longer existed and any means were acceptable to defeat the tyranny of the triumvirs. He still saw himself as a Roman general and would issue coins with the proper symbols of office. He also styled himself Parthicus, but this seemed ironic since such titles were only taken by men who defeated a foreign enemy and he served alongside the Parthians. Our sources portray him as persuading Orodes II to attack the Roman provinces. More probably he provided useful intelligence of the vulnerability of their defences and offered the hope of persuading some of the soldiers to defect, for in truth the Parthian king is unlikely to have needed much encouragement.4

When Crassus launched his unprovoked attack on Parthia, Orodes II had been king for barely four years and only recently defeated a rival for the throne. Attempts to placate the Roman commander failed, but then came the sudden, overwhelming defeat of the invaders at Carrhae. Orodes and his main army were not there and the victory was won by a member of one of the great Parthian aristocratic houses. This man celebrated his success too blatantly and was soon executed by the king. Even so, the Parthians quickly recovered all the territory lost to Crassus, attacking deep into Syria in the following years.

The Roman Republic was an aggressive neighbour. The decades of internal conflict also made it highly unpredictable. Parthia was itself an empire created by aggressive warfare. Roman and Parthian armies had defeated most of their enemies in the near east with almost disdainful ease. Now, Carrhae seemed to show that the legions were also no match for the armoured cataphracts and fast-moving horse archers that were the great strength of the Parthian army. For much of the next decade, Orodes had other problems to deal with and restricted himself to minor interventions in Rome’s civil wars. Caesar’s plans for a grand expedition to Parthia were no secret, and Dolabella and Antony in turn talked of fulfilling this ambition. Before Antony went to winter in Alexandria at the end of 41 BC, he sent a cavalry raid to plunder the city of Palmyra, which lay beyond the borders of Syria. The Parthians saw this as clear confirmation of future aggressive intent.5

By 41 BC Orodes II was free from other threats and had the benefit of the detailed information provided by Labienus. Defeating Rome would also greatly strengthen the position of his chosen heir, Pacorus, and ideally prevent any challenges from Orodes’ other sons or relatives when the throne passed to him. The main target of the war was Syria, once the heartland of the Seleucid Empire that the Parthians themselves had supplanted. Culturally and geographically, it seemed a natural addition to Orodes’ realm.

Roman resistance was feeble. Most of the garrisons in the area were survivors from Brutus’ and Cassius’ armies. Some defected to Labienus. Antony’s commander on the spot managed to put together a small field army, but was quickly defeated and killed. The city of Tyre resisted a siege – hence Antony was able to land there on his way to Greece in the aftermath of the Perusine War – but almost all of the rest of Syria was swiftly conquered. Pacorus gave limited support to further attacks. Labienus moved into Asia Minor, but seems to have led only the Roman troops he had been able to raise and was not accompanied by any Parthians. Even so, this was enough to overrun a large area. Some communities resisted. The outspoken orator Hybreas who had persuaded Antony to reduce taxation, now convinced his home city to turn on the garrison Labienus had installed. These were defeated, but the Roman general soon attacked again. Hybreas had by this time fled, but one of his estates was devastated. Another city seems to have been saved by freak weather conditions and set up an inscription praising the god Zeus for his intervention.6

Throughout the region, numerous kings, tyrants and other leaders had been driven away from their communities in the last few years, often because they had backed the wrong side in a Roman civil war. Many of these men fled to Orodes or his allies, and were now installed as sympathetic local rulers. Pacorus sent a small Parthian force into Judaea to back Antigonus in his bid to seize power from his uncle, Hyrcanus. The former promised his allies payment in the form of money and also five hundred women, many of them of royal or aristocratic family and so useful as hostages as well as a harem. Antigonus was the son of Aristobulus, whom Antony had helped to defeat in 56 BC, and there was clearly substantial support for the challenger. Hyrcanus and Herod’s brother Phaesel were captured. Antigonus mutilated his uncle, apparently biting his ears. A man who was not physically whole could not be high priest and so this immediately brought his rule to an end. Phaesel died in captivity, perhaps through suicide.7

Herod escaped, taking with him his extended family and many of the women from the royal court promised as a prize to the Parthians. Installing these in the fortress of Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea, he went to seek aid from the king of the Nabataean Arabs. Rebuffed, he turned instead to Egypt. At Pelusium, Herod and his party were detained by Cleopatra’s garrison, until she sent permission for them to be escorted to Alexandria. The queen received them with friendship and offered Herod employment as a general in her own army. One account claims this was for an expedition she was planning, but gives no further details of this. It may simply have been that she wanted a capable commander for her mercenaries, not least as defence against the Parthians should they decide to advance against her. For the moment Cleopatra had no legions to protect her realm. There was no incentive for her to join the Parthians, who if anything were successors to the Seleucids and so unlikely to favour her interests.8

The offer was not accepted. Herod in his later propaganda may simply have wanted to stress that he was immune to the famous seductress, but there were more important reasons for him to decline. Antigonus was already seeking recognition of his rule from Rome and it was not impossible that he would be successful. Herod wanted to go in person and lobby the triumvirs and anyone who could influence them. He left Alexandria. Cleopatra made no effort to hinder him and presumably found another, less famous, commander for her forces.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Antony’s priority was to deal with the situation in Italy and it was some time before he did anything about the Parthians. Even after the renewal of the alliance at Brundisium, he clearly felt it necessary to stay in Italy. Instead, he sent Publius Ventidius Bassus with an army to take command in Asia and if possible recover the provinces there as well as Syria. Other commanders, including Asinius Pollio, went to Macedonia to fight wars against the tribes on its frontiers. At the same time Octavian sent subordinates of his own to deal with problems in Gaul.9

Ventidius Bassus’ career was a remarkable one for a Roman general. As a child in Picenum he had been caught up in the Social War, the last great rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies. His father may well have died in the conflict, but the young boy and his mother marched amongst the prisoners in the triumph held by Pompey’s father, Pompeius Strabo, to commemorate his victory over the rebels. Ventidius restored his fortune by breeding mules, selling many to the Roman army, and seems to have established himself as a contractor skilled in providing transport for the legions. Julius Caesar enlisted him and he served in ever more senior posts in the campaigns in Gaul and the Civil War. Caesar made him a senator and nominated him for the praetorship, and then for bringing several legions to join Antony after Mutina he was rewarded with a brief consulship at the end of 43 BC. During the Perusine War, he was one of the commanders who failed to help Lucius Antonius in any meaningful way.

With a proven track record in logistics, Ventidius soon also demonstrated a considerable flair for tactics. Labienus was driven from Asia with very little fighting. He had too few men to face Ventidius without Parthian support, which did not appear for some time, probably not until he had actually retreated from Asia into Syria. In the Taurus Mountains, probably to the south of the pass known as the Cilician Gates, Ventidius lured the combined enemy army into attacking him on ground of his own choosing. The Parthians were overconfident, convinced of their superiority after Carrhae and the easy victories of the last year. Their uphill attack was a disaster, repulsed with heavy losses. Labienus escaped and went into hiding, but was arrested and killed by one of Antony’s governors some time later.

Pacorus and the strongest part of his forces had not been at the battle. It was late in the year and they may well have withdrawn to winter nearer the Euphrates. In the spring of 38 BC the prince led a new invasion of Syria. Ventidius’ army was still dispersed in its own winter quarters, but a well-crafted deception plan managed to convince the enemy to advance by a slower route and gave him time to concentrate. At Mount Gindarus, the Roman general used much the same tactics as the year before. He took up a strong position, keeping some of his troops concealed, and lured the enemy into attacking him by sending forward a weak force with orders to pull back as soon as it was heavily engaged. The Parthians still despised their Roman enemies and the ambitious Pacorus was eager to prove his own worth by leading the charge to victory. He took the bait and was routed by the sudden Roman counter-attack. Pacorus was killed and the Romans paraded his severed head around the provinces and allied communities. This was proof of Roman strength and perhaps also revenge for Crassus, who had been decapitated by the Parthians.10

While Ventidius was winning glory, Antony’s attention remained focused on Italy. The peace with Sextus Pompey proved short-lived and in 38 BC war erupted once again. Propaganda dismissed him as a pirate, the leader of runaway slaves, and – after his eventual defeat –played down the real threat he had posed. It was true that he was always strongest at sea, able to raid the Italian coastline, but not to establish a permanent presence. Octavian may well have provoked the struggle, confident of rapid success. Instead, his fleets were twice smashed by the Pompeians and suffered further losses in storms. At one point, the son of the Divine Julius was a fugitive with just a handful of attendants. Throughout his entire career, he never came closer to defeat and death. Desperate, Octavian asked Antony to come to Brundisium for a conference, but was not there when the latter arrived. Impatient, his colleague waited for only a few days before sailing back to Greece.11

By this time news had reached Athens of the victory at Gindarus. Ventidius had followed up his success by advancing against the kingdom of Commagene, which had supported the enemy. He began to besiege the capital Samosata, amidst rumours that he had accepted a bribe from the king. Plenty of the recently installed rulers of the kingdoms and cities in the area were lavishly giving gifts to Ventidius and his officers in an effort to buy recognition from the Romans and remain in power. Antony arrived in person before the end of the summer to complete the siege. However, it proved more difficult than he had expected and, with the campaigning season almost at an end, he allowed the king to make peace on very generous terms. In November 38 BC Ventidius was back in Rome and rode in triumph along the Via Sacra where he had once shuffled as a prisoner. He was the first commander to win a triumph over the Parthians and it was the great culmination of his career. The ‘muleteer’, as he was mockingly dubbed, was at least in his late fifties and getting old for an active command. He may also have been ill, for he died not long afterwards and was granted the further honour of a state funeral.12

In 37 BC Octavian again asked Antony to meet him at Brundisium. He came, accompanied by a fleet of 300 warships, and the town was too nervous to admit them into the harbour. Antony went to Tarentum, and the conference occurred there instead. Lepidus was notably excluded. It took much of the summer to negotiate a new deal, aided it was said by the pregnant Octavia, who conciliated her brother and husband. In the end, Antony backed Octavian in the war against Sextus, who was stripped of his post as augur and the promised consulship. The five-year term of the triumvirate had expired at the end of 38 BC, without anyone taking particular note. Now, to restore the constitutional veneer of their rule, they gave themselves a further five years of power. They were still triumvirs –as presumably was Lepidus in spite of his marginal role. As so often, marriage alliances were to confirm political unity. Antony’s son by Fulvia, Antonius Antyllus, was betrothed to Octavian’s daughter Julia. Since the boy was not yet ten and the girl an infant of two years, the marriage itself was to occur at some point in the future.13

In practical terms, Antony promised to supply 120 ships to reinforce Octavian’s fleet for the struggle with Sextus. In return, Octavian was to send him a thousand veteran praetorian guardsmen, presented as a special gift to Octavia. There was also to be a strong force of legionaries. Appian gives the figure of 20,000, quite possibly a round figure for four legions. However, Plutarch says that the promise was to provide just two legions. The ships and crews were promptly delivered. There was no sign of the promised troops, but since both the eastern expedition and the main effort against Sextus were scheduled for the following year this did not at first seem to matter.14

It was much to Octavian’s advantage that his ablest subordinate would be present to direct the coming campaign. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was a contemporary and close friend of Caesar’s adopted son. Of obscure family, which limited his personal ambition, he was content to serve his more famous associate. From the beginning he assisted Octavian, serving in the early campaigns, at Philippi and in the Perusine War. As time passed, and he gained practical experience, he proved to be a highly gifted commander. In 38 BC he was away in Gaul quelling a rebellion of the tribes in the south-west and in his absence the campaign against Sextus Pompey went badly. Voted a triumph on his return to Rome, he declined to celebrate it since this would have highlighted the failure of his friend. Now, Agrippa carefully prepared and trained a new, stronger fleet, for the coming struggle.15

The eastern provinces were still disturbed in the aftermath of the Parthian occupation. Herod had succeeded spectacularly well when he went to Rome in 40 BC. Not only did both Antony and Octavian welcome him, but they also had the Senate recognise him as king. This gave an air of tradition to the proceedings, but since Antony and Octavian walked on either side of the newly named monarch, escorting him from the meeting, it was obvious where real power lay. In spite of this approval – as much a sign of favour to both triumvirs’ connections with his father Antipater – it took rather longer for him actually to regain control of Judaea, Galilee and Idumaea. Ventidius Bassus sent an officer with troops to support him, but these proved ineffective, amidst more rumours of bribery. Later, Roman assistance proved more effective and at one point he was even given command of two legions – an exceptional favour for an allied leader. Jerusalem was captured after a siege lasting several months. Antigonus was subsequently flogged and beheaded on Antony’s direct orders. Herod was king, but from the beginning was far from popular.16

Antony spent the winter of 37-36 BC in Antioch, but responded angrily to Jewish deputations complaining about their new monarch. He ordered one group to be forcibly ejected from his presence and several were killed by his guards. Antony had plenty to do reorganising the provinces and preparing for the attack on Parthia, which now seemed very vulnerable. Orodes II was devastated by the news of Pacorus’ death and perhaps unable to check the growing power of factions within the court. In 37 BC he abdicated in favour of another son, Phraates IV, who inaugurated his reign by massacring most of his brothers – there were about thirty of these – as well as his son and Orodes himself.17

Civil war loomed in Parthia, and suggested that Antony could exploit this internal weakness to win a great triumph. So far his military career had largely consisted of fighting other Romans. He had never commanded an army against a foreign enemy. Pompey the Great had started in the same way, but his position and authority as Rome’s greatest commander had been confirmed only after the victories over the pirates and Mithridates. If Antony could defeat the Parthians – and Ventidius had shown that they were far from unbeatable – then he could fulfil the plan of Caesar, perhaps even place himself alongside Alexander the Great as the conqueror of the east.

It was a tempting prospect, but before it could be fulfilled lay a winter of work to prepare the way. This did not mean that Antony did not feast and celebrate. Octavia was not with him, having returned to Italy after beginning the journey east in the aftermath of the new agreement at Tarentum. This may well have been because her pregnancy was advanced and perhaps proving difficult. She would give him a second daughter, Antonia Minor, in January 36 BC. Her brother Octavian had already divorced the mother of his only child, since Scribonia was no longer useful as a connection with Sextus Pompey. Instead, he had married Livia Drusilla, member of one branch of the great patrician clan of the Claudii and married to a husband from another branch. This man, Tiberius Claudius Nero, had fought against Octavian at the time of the Perusine War, and he, his pregnant wife and their young son, the future Emperor Tiberius, had all been hunted fugitives. Soon afterwards he was pardoned, a divorce was arranged and he played the part of the bride’s father in the ceremony marrying her to Octavian. When her son was born not long afterwards, he was sent back to Tiberius to be raised in his household.18

Octavian would remain married to Livia until his death half a century later, and although they would fail to have children, the marriage proved very successful in every other respect. In her youth she was considered beautiful, and throughout her life she proved herself fiercely intelligent – the Emperor Caligula dubbed her Ulysses in a frock (Ulixem stolatum) after Homer’s wily hero. Later Roman historians would depict her as a political manipulator, and in the twentieth century Robert Graves would reinforce this image in his novel I, Claudius. The haste of the marriage suggests genuine passion on the part of Octavian. There were also longer-term political advantages in an alliance with such a distinguished group of families.19

It was not just Antony who feasted and play-acted the role of a god. At the height of the struggle with Sextus Pompey, when Italy was again blockaded and food prices high, Octavian, his new bride and their friends took part in a feast that became infamous. There were twelve guests and each took the part of one of the twelve Olympian deities. Octavian dressed as Apollo. They ate and drank in spectacular luxury. It is worth remembering that Octavian and many of his closest companions were still only in their twenties and yet they saw themselves as masters of the Republic. If this makes revelling in power and wealth less surprising, it does not make it any less tactless. Octavian continued to be widely hated. At least Antony’s excesses were conducted far away and not in the very heart of a Rome threatened with starvation.20

Antony did not choose to spend the winter alone. He summoned Cleopatra. There was politics to be done, and Egypt would be an important supplier of grain to feed his soldiers and money to pay them. Many other leaders also came in person or sent representatives to Antioch. Perhaps Cleopatra took the twins to see their father. It certainly seems to have been now that he openly acknowledged them and they were named Sun and Moon. Such recognition had no status in Roman law and Antony made no effort to do more than this admission of paternity. Yet his welcome to the queen was warm and more than purely diplomatic. Once again they became lovers. Before the end of the winter Cleopatra was pregnant for the third time.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Antony needed Cleopatra. Plutarch claims that the need was primarily physical and emotional, as his old passion for her had built up until he could no longer control it. An exciting and vivacious royal mistress may well have seemed a far more appealing companion for the winter months than a heavily pregnant wife. In the event, Antony would never again see Octavia, and in the remaining years of his life he was to spend more time with Cleopatra than away from her. There is no reason to believe that this is what he expected – or necessarily wanted – to happen, at least at this stage. He had certainly not repudiated his wife in any way. Cleopatra remained a mistress, if an illustrious one, and Antony had never worried about discretion when it came to lovers. Feasting with the Ptolemaic queen differed only in scale from processing around Italy with Cytheris.1

The Roman triumvir found the Ptolemaic queen very attractive and it is hard to believe that he did not love her, but Antony loved readily and not exclusively. It continued to be widely believed that he was susceptible to good looks and that this would influence his decisions. Herod had married Mariamne, the daughter of Hyrcanus, the mutilated and deposed king. The marriage alliance gave him some connection with Judaea’s royal dynasty, but relations were not easy with his mother-in-law Alexandra. The faction around the former queen arranged for portraits of Mariamne and her younger brother Aristobulus to be sent to Antony. They were encouraged in this by Dellius, the same man who had first summoned Cleopatra to meet Antony at Tarsus.

Aristobulus was sixteen, tall for his age and handsome, while his sister’s beauty was famous. Antony was suitably impressed. Herod managed to prevent the boy from going in person to meet the triumvir, fearing that he would readily be granted whatever he requested. There were even said to be fears that Antony would take the youth as a lover. Herod’s family was obscure, and worse than that he was an Idumaean, from an area forcibly converted to Judaism under the Maccabees and never accepted as fully Jewish. Judaea had been plagued by violent power struggles within the royal family for more than a generation. There was little reason to suggest that the new king would be any more secure on the throne.2

Antony needed the eastern Mediterranean to be stable. It was important that the local rulers and communities be loyal and secure against any counter-attack once he began his Parthian expedition. The kingdoms needed to be stable enough not to require strong garrisons and committed enough to supply him with all that he needed in terms of troops, resources and money. The Romans often preferred to employ client kings instead of directly governing. Antony reduced the eastern provinces to three – Asia, Bithynia and a smaller version of Syria – and greatly strengthened the power of a handful of kings. Most, like Herod, were from outside the existing dynasties, so that they owed their position to Antony. It was now that Antony appointed Glaphyra’s son to rule Cappadocia, replacing the man he had installed in 41 BC.3

Boundaries were redrawn, kingdoms expanded at the cost of their neighbours or former Roman provinces and monarchs made or deposed. Pompey had tended to favour cities, but now Antony relied more on kings. Yet overall there was little difference between the aims and methods of the two Roman leaders, or indeed of Caesar’s measures to secure the east after Pharsalus. Each Roman leader wanted his settlement to function, but would also have understood that they were placing monarchs and leaders in each community firmly in their debt.

Cleopatra and her realm were an important part of the jigsaw that made up the territories under Antony’s control. Thus, as well as love, sex and feasting, there were sound political reasons for bringing her to Antioch late in 37 BC. There is no hint of her delaying her arrival as she had at Tarsus, for Cleopatra was fully aware of the importance of the decisions being made by her former lover. It no doubt added to the enthusiasm with which she renewed the affair and she was further encouraged when he proved very generous. Cyprus may have been confiscated after the support given to Cassius by her governor Serapion. Either now, or at some earlier stage, it was returned to her control. Cleopatra was also given Crete, as well as part of Cyrenaica to the west of Egypt, some of Cilicia and Syria, all previously directly governed as Roman provinces. Her realm now embraced virtually all of the Syrian coastal strip, including Phoenicia, Ituraea inland and part of the Decapolis (the ‘Ten Towns’ of the Gospels) near the Sea of Galilee, and sections of the Arab kingdom of Nabataea. Tyre remained an independent city, but Herod only retained Gaza as a Mediterranean port.

Antony was generous to his mistress and Plutarch claims that opinion at Rome was shocked. Perhaps this was true, but if so this did not have any tangible results. The grants to the queen were in keeping with his general reorganisation. She was loyal to Rome, and to Antony personally, and there was every reason to believe that she would enthusiastically and effectively exploit the resources of these territories on his behalf. Cilicia was especially rich in timber, something that Egypt itself lacked in any significant quantities. It was thus especially useful for the queen, helping building projects, and was clearly also intended to permit the construction of ships. Some would no doubt be warships to strengthen Antony’s fleet. As important were the transport vessels that would carry grain from Egypt to the Syrian coast from where it could be taken to his legions.4

Cleopatra now ruled most of the territory controlled by the Ptolemies at the very height of their power in the third century BC. Yet Antony had not given in to her every desire. Herod’s kingdom of Judaea lay surrounded on three sides by her lands, but remained distinct. The region had been disputed by the Ptolemies and Seleucids over the centuries and would have made her expanded kingdom more coherent geographically. Cleopatra wanted Judaea, but was never able to cajole Antony into granting it to her. This did not deter her from trying – she kept a close interest in the affairs of the kingdom and remained very friendly with Alexandra. Herod was Antony’s own appointee – one of the only decisions affecting the area made jointly with Octavian. He held on to his newly won throne, although he lost most of the coastline of the kingdom. Also given to the queen was a region near Jericho, rich in date palms and groves of the balsam bush. The latter was the famous ‘balm of Gilead’, which provided highly prized incense used in rituals and was also believed to have medicinal qualities. The Nabataean kingdom gave up its territory close to the Dead Sea, which provided a rich supply of bitumen – again important for shipbuilding amongst other things.

Herod and the Nabataean king leased these regions back from Cleopatra, paying her a substantial annual rent from their profits. At some point Herod took on the responsibility for the other monarch’s payments. His main aim may have been political, improving relations with his neighbour, but it was also a reflection of the profitability of the trade in bitumen, so that he could expect to make money on the deal. Profit to Rome was inevitably indirect. Cleopatra had gained valuable new sources of income and, in turn, Antony could expect to be able to draw upon her wealth to support his own enterprises. Elsewhere, the communities that found themselves part of the Ptolemaic kingdom on the whole continued to run their own affairs, just as they had done if previously part of the Roman province, autonomous or included within another kingdom. There is some sign that aspects of the Roman provincial administration continued to function in Cyrenaica under Cleopatra’s rule, except that tax revenue and other income now went to her.5

The queen had done well out of the deal at Tarsus. She was not unique in this, as several monarchs had found their power bolstered by Antony’s reorganisation of the east. Yet, even when set within the context of the wider restructuring of the eastern Mediterranean, his royal mistress was probably the greatest beneficiary. A stronger Ptolemaic kingdom seemed useful to Antony. Unlike her father, Cleopatra had not contracted huge debts to prominent Romans, but there was never any doubt that the resources of her kingdom were at Antony’s disposal. What she had been given could as readily be taken away.

Cleopatra’s success at Antioch has tended to blind historians to the precariousness of her position. She still relied on Roman support to remain in power and there was no imaginable situation in the future where this dependence would end. Continued Roman backing was less certain, although for the moment Antony’s goodwill and generosity were secure. Yet his needs and inclinations might change in the future, nor was it certain how long he would remain in the east and whether his power would endure or decline. Cleopatra had to keep on proving her loyalty and effectiveness as an ally and personally hold on to Antony’s affection. It may well be that the love was also genuine on her side, but even if it was not, she simply could not afford to lose his interest.

No Ptolemy was safe on the throne for long. Cleopatra’s siblings were dead, but by 37 BC Caesarion was ten. As he advanced into his teenage years, the boy would be less and less easy to control. There might come a time when he was no longer content as nominal co-ruler with his mother. Given the characters of his father and mother, it would be surprising if he was not ambitious. Even if he was not, and Cleopatra felt able to dominate him, then there were bound to be courtiers and Alexandrian aristocrats who felt that their own power could be increased by promoting the status of the young prince. At some point, Caesarion would marry, adding an extra element to court politics. His bride – even if Cleopatra Selene was chosen – might prove equally independent. An adult king seen to be dominated by his mother was unlikely to be popular. In the even longer term, Alexander Helios would automatically be seen as a potential alternative ruler.

A woman could not rule on her own for long. The birth of Caesarion had in due course allowed Cleopatra to dispose of her brother and rule with a consort who fulfilled the necessary titular role of king and pharaoh, but who could be fully controlled. Yet in the longer term he and the other children were potential rivals as much as assets. Family history made it doubtful that Cleopatra’s children would prove uniquely able to live in harmony. They might become threats to her or to each other. The only assurance against this was for her to retain the close support of Rome, and the only guarantee of this was to hold fast to the affection of the Roman with greatest power in the region. Neither Cleopatra nor any of her children could hope to challenge Rome and win. Her first Roman protector had been killed and she needed to make the most of her second. Gaining territory brought her prestige and, as importantly, wealth with which to reward loyal followers. There was even the possibility that she could prevent an eventual power struggle amongst her children if her territory was large enough to divide into several realms. It was a method the family had used in the past, admittedly with mixed success.

Antony needed Cleopatra and her kingdom politically, and revelled in her love and company. Her need for him – or someone like him, with his power – was even stronger and more pressing, since losing his support would remove the ultimate surety of her power. If normal politics were free to resume in Alexandria, then once again exile and death became real possibilities.
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