Anthony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy

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.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


The year 37-36 BC was for Cleopatra’s regime ‘the Year Sixteen, which is also the Year One’. It was sixteen years since she had succeeded to her father’s throne in 51 BC –remembering again that the ancient system of counting had no zero and so began with one. The period of her exile and the sole rule of Ptolemy XIII before Caesar returned her to power was tactfully forgotten. Nor were the years of joint rule with Caesarion referenced in the new system of dating.

There are other signs of the importance of this year for royal propaganda, as Cleopatra began to style herself’ the younger goddess’ (Neotera Thea), and ‘lover of her homeland/fatherland’ (Philopatris) as well as the familiar ‘father-loving’. Caesarion’s titles did not change, and he remained the ‘father-loving and mother-loving god’. Cleopatra herself was honoured in her new territories and sometimes also by neighbouring communities. Caesarion received little or no attention outside Egypt.6

The connection with the grants of territory ceded to her by Antony is obvious. Cleopatra ‘the goddess’ (Thea) was evoked, the Ptolemaic princess who in the second century BC married three Seleucid kings in succession and was mother of three more – one of whom she murdered. (She was the daughter of Cleopatra II and so sister of Cleopatra VII’s great-grandmother.) Syria, Ituraea and some of the other territories had more recently been ruled by the Seleucids than the Ptolemies. Cleopatra clearly felt it was worthwhile promoting the memory of her namesake by becoming the ‘younger goddess’.

What was meant by her ‘homeland’ is less obvious. For some, it has been proof of her deep attachment to Egypt itself. Yet there does not seem to be any particular reason why she would have chosen to express this at this particular point in her reign. Far more plausible is the suggestion that Cleopatra was now associating herself with the memory of Alexander the Great. Thus the homeland was specifically Macedonia, but more generally the wider area of his conquests and the Successor kingdoms. The appeal was to her newly gained territories, reminding them of older, indeed pre-Roman, unity. It is hard to say whether the audience was receptive. Equally, the word was vague and may well have been interpreted in different ways by people in the various regions now ruled by the queen. Perhaps there were some in Egypt, even some who considered themselves more Egyptian than Greek, who saw this as a sign of genuine affection in their monarch.

Cleopatra strove to keep Egypt stable and productive. For practical reasons she favoured the more important, and potentially dangerous, sections of the population. Alexandria was given precedence over the countryside and the southern regions, while the aristocrats of the great city were favoured even more. She continued her policy of temple building and support for the cults maintaining the country’s traditional religion and as a result retained the loyalty of the important Egyptian priestly classes. There is no real evidence that she did anything to improve the lot of the poorer Egyptians, but then there was no particular reason to expect this. They were important as a labour force, working the fields and producing the annual harvest that provided the great bulk of the crown’s income. The 40s BC had suffered from disruption of the irrigation systems and government in general, as well as a series of poor inundations. Although things may have begun to improve, and as far as we can tell the cycle of flooding had returned to its more normal levels, the yield was unlikely to have been as high as in earlier periods of stability. A fair proportion of the profits also went to aristocrats in Alexandria and elsewhere, to ensure their loyalty.7

There were some other sources of royal revenue. The trade from the Red Sea ports to Arabia, and beyond that to India and Sri Lanka, was promoted by the queen and proved very lucrative. The principal advantage of the new territory was as fresh sources of income. Resources like timber were practically useful, both for shipbuilding and construction in general. Cleopatra also ordered balsam shrubs to be brought from Jericho to be replanted in Egypt to provide a more immediate supply. She was not the first Ptolemy to introduce a new crop to Egypt, as in the early period there had been an unsuccessful attempt to cultivate a type of cabbage from Rhodes. On the whole, the Ptolemies were not great innovators in methods of production.8

Developing groves of balsam shrubs would not yield a quick result and the greatest gain was in the immediate rent. Cleopatra had become substantially wealthier and much of this wealth came directly in cash through taxation. Money was important to reward supporters, both within her kingdom and important Romans, and also to maintain the splendour of her court. That in itself helped to keep Antony’s favour, but far more important was the ability to supply her Roman protector with wealth and resources at the time and in the quantities he needed. For all her wider profile in the new territories, and the propaganda of past Hellenistic monarchs, there was never any attempt to conceal that she ruled by Roman consent. Several series of bronze coins were struck by Syrian cities within her new realm bearing the queen on the face and Antony on the reverse. Antioch began to issue silver coinage with Antony’s head and the titles ‘imperator for the third time and triumvir’ translated into Greek, with a very Roman-looking Cleopatra on the other side.9

This is well illustrated by her continued involvement in Judaean affairs. Cleopatra and Alexandra corresponded, although much of the communication had to be done in secret and we are told Herod’s mother-in-law used a minstrel as courier. Amongst her languages, Cleopatra was fluent in both Hebrew and the Aramaic used for much everyday communication in Judaea. At one point, Alexandra attempted to smuggle herself and her son out of Jerusalem to seek refuge in Egypt, an idea allegedly suggested by Cleopatra. The plan was to conceal them in coffins, but Herod’s informers had kept him abreast of the plot and they were watched and then caught in the act.

As an Idumaean from outside the priestly families, Herod himself could not be both king and high priest, as Hyrcanus and his predecessors had done. The temple cult required the appointment of a high priest, and although his wife’s brother Aristobulus was the obvious candidate, he could prove a dangerous rival. Herod chose someone else, prompting Alexandra to appeal for assistance to Cleopatra. The latter backed her and in turn appealed to Antony. His support left Herod with no choice, so he dismissed the present incumbent and elevated Aristobulus to the post. A little later he arranged for the ‘accidental’ drowning of the youth. Alexandra was kept virtually as a prisoner.10

Cleopatra could intervene in Judaean affairs because she was able to influence Antony. Only the triumvir could order Herod to take any action, and Antony was unlikely to remove a monarch who proved a loyal and effective client. He would not give Cleopatra Judaea, nor let her independently interfere outside in the kingdom’s affairs. She had influence rather than power. On the journey back from Antioch she stopped in Judaea and was entertained by Herod. There was business to conduct over the lease of the land near Jericho. Josephus, no doubt drawing on Herod’s own memoirs, claims that Cleopatra did everything she could to seduce the king. He not only resisted, but also considered having her murdered. The claims seem unlikely, and no doubt Herod merely wished once again to stress his ability to resist the famous seductress. On the other hand, Cleopatra may well have alternately flirted and threatened, keeping Herod off balance in the negotiations. It would be no bad thing for her if her neighbour was nervous, making him more likely to give in to her requests.11

The size of her territory should not conceal the essential weakness of her position. Land, wealth and influence were all dependent on Roman, and specifically Antony’s, favour. Cleopatra remained a client monarch, if one on a grand scale, and she should not be considered in any way ruler of an autonomous or allied kingdom. The new territories were gifts, not conquests. Cleopatra had no significant military resources and could not have taken any of these lands. Nor would she be able to hold them without Roman backing. The royal army was tiny and barely adequate for internal control of Egypt itself. It was over a generation since the system of cleruchies had lost any real connection with military service and become simply a type of land ownership. The only royal troops were mercenaries and there were fewer of these in the world as Roman control increased. At some point Antony gave his lover a bodyguard of 400 Gallic and German horsemen, drawn from warrior societies famed for their loyalty.12

Cleopatra could never fight Rome with even the remotest chance of winning. The same was true of Herod and all the other eastern client kings and communities. They were simply a useful way for the Romans to control the eastern Mediterranean and would survive as long as no more attractive alternative presented itself to the Romans. From the beginning, Egypt and to some extent all the Ptolemaic possessions had been run as royal property, with the primary aim of extracting a steady revenue for the monarch. This was still true, only now the system was also employed to feed much of this profit on to Antony. Neither he –nor before him Caesar – had any role to play in the official titles and propaganda employed in Egypt itself. There it was the queen and her son who served as pharaohs and ensured balance in the world. In that context, it did not matter at all that they were in no way genuinely independent.13

The power of the Ptolemies had relied ultimately on Roman support for at least a century before Cleopatra became queen. In her lifetime, Roman power throughout the entire eastern Mediterranean had grown even stronger and was clearly not about to disappear. She was highly successful within this context, but it would always be as a dependant of Rome. For the moment, Rome meant Antony. Simply being his lover may possibly have kept her in power. Yet it was being so useful and reliable, just as much as her personal charm, that brought her new lands to rule on his behalf. Cleopatra had survived, and that in itself was no mean feat in these disturbed times. That she was a woman, and ruled effectively if not nominally as the sole power in her kingdom, made this even more of an achievement.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


After the winter at Antioch, Mark Antony finally began the long talked about war to punish the Parthians and avenge Crassus. Some in Italy may have felt that Ventidius’ victories and the killing of Pacorus had already satisfied Roman honour, and it is possible that Octavian encouraged this view. Yet it was far from universal and the Parthians still had the legionary eagles and other standards taken at Carrhae as trophies of Rome’s humiliation. Ventidius’ victories had been defensive, driving the invaders from Roman and allied territory. Antony was now ready to humble the Parthian king in his own homeland.1

By Roman standards, there were good reasons for an attack on Parthia, not least to restore the façade of the legions’ invincibility and to deter future invasions of Syria. Antony also had strong personal reasons for fighting this war. He was forty-seven, had been consul once and had shared effectively dictatorial powers with his triumviral colleagues since 43 BC. It was a highly unorthodox career – if not quite so spectacularly so as that of the twenty-seven-year-old Octavian – and only made possible by the disturbed times. As we have seen, for all his success Antony had never commanded in a war against a foreign opponent and, indeed, had only limited experience of such conflicts at a junior level from his service with Gabinius and Caesar.

The highest glory for a Roman aristocrat was to defeat a foreign enemy and, ideally, an especially dangerous or exotic one. This was deeply embedded within their psyche and reflected in a political system that gave both military and civil power to the senior executive officers of the Republic. Winning a foreign war brought clean glory, and equally clean plunder, without the stigma of killing or plundering fellow citizens. A foreign victory could make a man’s fortune as well as his reputation. It was something neither Antony nor Octavian had so far done. It might help to overshadow the brutal path they had taken to controlling the state.2

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Antony’s preparations were on a grand scale. Late in 37 BC, or very early in 36 BC, one of his generals, Publius Canidius Crassus, mounted a show of force in the kingdom of Armenia and then operated against the tribes to the north, defeating the Iberi and Albani. Armenia had been defeated by Pompey, but, although a Roman ally, had close cultural connections with Parthia. From the beginning Antony may well have planned to use it as a base for his invasion. It was said that Caesar had intended to do the same thing, avoiding the open plains of Mesopotamia where Crassus’ army had been destroyed, instead striking into the more broken country of Media Atropene (roughly modern-day Azerbaijan). This was felt to be far less favourable to the cavalry, which formed the heart of any Parthian army. The Iberians and Albanians were unlikely to have presented any threat to the planned expedition. Operations against them were a useful way of winning glory and giving at least some of the legions the confidence and experience of recent victory.3

Other lessons had also been learned from Crassus’ defeat. Ventidius had demonstrated the effectiveness of infantrymen armed with bows, slings and javelins, and Antony ensured that he had large numbers of these to support his legionaries. In a missile exchange, the horse archers would no longer have things all their own way. There would also be a very strong contingent of cavalry accompanying the army. Antony is said to have had 10,000 auxiliary horsemen, mostly from Spain and Gaul. More mounted troops were provided by the eastern kingdoms. King Artavasdes of Armenia brought 6,000 horsemen – a mixture of heavy cataphracts and light horse archers much like the Parthians themselves – as well as 7,000 infantrymen. Altogether, Plutarch claims there were 30,000 allied troops, but does not say how many of these were cavalry. With the Gauls, Spaniards and the core of 60,000 legionaries, he suggests a total of 100,000 men for Antony’s army. In a rhetorical flourish, he claims that throughout central Asia and even in India beyond, people trembled at the rumours of so huge a force.4

As usual, it is a little hard to know how to treat these numbers. Plutarch does not say how many legions took part in the operation, although later he mentions that two were detached and refers to the presence of the Third Legion. The latter is the only named unit mentioned in our sources, but it seems likely that other legions associated with Antony, for instance V Alaudae, also took part. Velleius Paterculus says that Antony had thirteen legions altogether, but does not give a figure for their strength. Other sources claim that there were fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen legions. For no very convincing reason, most modern scholars opt for an army of sixteen legions. Appian says that that was the number Caesar had intended to employ on his own Parthian expedition, supported by 10,000 cavalry. Crassus’ army had been half the size, with eight legions.5

It is extremely unlikely that any of the legions mustered their full theoretical strength. Many veterans had been discharged after Philippi from units that were unlikely to have had their full complement in the first place. Recruits had been drawn from the survivors of the conspirators’ men, but there had also been casualties in the campaigns fought since then. Antony seems to have had trouble recruiting from Italy and the troops promised by Octavian in 37 BC had not appeared. He had recruited some legionaries from the provinces, since we hear of such inexperienced troops supporting Herod in Judaea. Many of these may not have been citizens.6

Antony’s army was certainly large, although 2,000-3,000 is once again probably a good estimate for the average strength of his legions, and it is unlikely that the overall force was as big as Plutarch suggests, at least in terms of combatants. On the whole they were the pick of his troops, for other forces remained in Macedonia and probably also as garrisons within the eastern provinces. The army contained some experienced units and individuals, as well as more recent recruits. It was well balanced in terms of the different troop types and generally well equipped. One disadvantage was that the different contingents had limited experience of working together as a single army, but this was probably inevitable in such a large operation.

Moving the food and other equipment needed by the men and mounts was a formidable task and accompanying them was a very large number of pack and draught animals, attended by slaves and other camp followers. These were more mouths to feed and, in the end, the capacity to supply his force was more likely to limit its size than availability of troops. Equipment carried in the baggage train included large numbers of ballista's and other siege equipment, notably a battering ram 80 feet in length, presumably carried in sections. This was no mere raid, but an invasion by an army capable of capturing strongly fortified positions.7

Neither Antony nor any of his officers had experience of leading and controlling such a large army. Perhaps there had been more men in the combined armies at Philippi, but there his own and Octavian’s forces had remained clearly distinct. It had also proved a relatively simple campaign, with the main manoeuvres limited to a small area around Philippi itself. Almost all of Antony’s military experience had been gained in Italy or one of the more settled provinces, where the roads were generally good and geographical and topographical information fairly easy to obtain. Even Gaul was quite well known to Caesar’s army by the time Antony had joined it. Now the context would be different, advancing into a region never before explored by a Roman army. Far more reliance would have to be placed on local guides. If the size of his army was something new, so was the sheer scale of the theatre of operations and the distances involved.8

Roman commanders were bold by instinct and training, and Antony was no exception. In his early exploits under Gabinius, Antony had been a dashing cavalry leader, good at seizing opportunities and, on a small scale, gaining surprise by sheer speed of movement or outflanking the enemy. He relied on similar methods in the larger operations of the civil wars, and boldness had succeeded at Philippi. Then – and indeed in almost every campaign throughout his career – operations had been completed within a single year. Later, Antony would be criticised for delaying the invasion so that he could spend longer with Cleopatra at Antioch, then rushing away at its end to return to her arms. This was unfair, and he must have been aware that Caesar had expected his Parthian War to last for several years. Yet his own experience was of quick campaigns and perhaps he struggled to plan for anything longer.9

This time the enemy was likely to prove more dangerous than the hesitant, almost supine performance of Brutus and Cassius in 41 BC. Parthian armies were extremely good when well led. In 40-38 BC the army had been overconfident, lured into fighting at a disadvantage by Ventidius Bassus. It could not be assumed that it would make the same mistake again and with such a strong mounted arm it was highly mobile. In defence of their homeland, the Parthians could also be expected to be numerous, most probably significantly outnumbering Antony’s cavalry if not his entire army. So many horses created major supply problems, especially if operations extended beyond the spring and summer. However, within his own and allied territory, the Parthian king was better placed to ensure adequate supplies of food and fodder, which could be protected behind the walls of his cities.10

The war would present Antony with new problems and the challenge of a mobile and effective enemy. Yet his army was large and reasonably well prepared. If he lacked experience at this level, then in some ways this had also been true of Caesar when he took command in Gaul. Antony was still in his forties, the prime of life for a Roman general, and he had wider authority than even Pompey had wielded during his eastern command. There were plenty of reasons to forecast a grand success, which would hugely enhance his status and power.

Phraates IV had been king for barely a year and after his bloody accession still faced rivals from amongst the aristocracy. A nobleman named Monaeses fled to Antony and was promptly rewarded with the revenue from three cities in the provinces. The Parthian aristocrat assured the Roman that the new king was loathed and that many others would defect to his side if he attacked. Antony was encouraged, even when Monaeses decided to return to his homeland early in 36 BC and be reconciled with his king. It seemed clear evidence of an unstable and vulnerable kingdom.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


For the moment, Antony pretended to negotiate, sending an embassy to demand the return of Crassus’ eagles and any Roman prisoners still held by the Parthians. Phraates could not risk damaging his own prestige by making such a concession, but Antony wanted to convince the king that hostilities were unlikely in the immediate future. Then Antony concentrated a substantial part of his army – probably most of the legions and auxiliary cavalry – and marched to Zeugma on the Syrian bank of the Euphrates. This suggested that he planned to threaten and perhaps invade Mesopotamia, just as Crassus had done. Phraates duly concentrated the royal army ready to meet this attack.

Antony may have always intended this to be a deception, but even if he still planned to invade from Armenia the route from Zeugma via Edessa was shorter at around 500 miles. The Parthians had not mustered quickly enough to block Crassus’ initial invasion and perhaps the Romans hoped to slip by before the enemy concentrated. Yet Phraates was quick, or Antony was late, and the route was closed. Instead, the Roman army marched north, looping around into Armenia to rendezvous with most of the allied contingents and quite probably the forces led by Canidius. (An extra problem in judging the size of the army during this campaign is the uncertainty over whether the figures in our sources refer to simply Antony’s men, the entire field army or all the troops within the wider theatre of operations. It seems quite probable that some troops remained in Syria, if only to preserve the illusion that the main army was there, although this is not mentioned in any of the accounts.)11

The move wrong-footed the Parthians, but it was a long march. The precise route cannot now be established – Plutarch claimed the soldiers had to cover 1,000 miles – and it was a huge detour compared to the quicker route, which the Parthians controlled. As a result, it was well into summer before the Roman army was ready on the borders of Armenia. Later, it was suggested that Antony ought to have waited until the next year, resting his men. This would have given Phraates time to prepare his defence, squandering any advantage gained by the deception and rapid outflanking march. It would also have meant that Antony himself would have achieved no tangible result from a season’s campaigning. He still believed that he could achieve more before the weather rendered campaigning impossible. Philippi had not been decided until late October. It was the first of his gambles.12

Antony pressed on, leading the combined army into Media. The king of this region was also called Artavasdes, like the king of Armenia. Antony targeted the royal city of Phraata – the location of which is not now identifiable – which contained his treasury and the royal household with his wives and children. Its capture would have been a serious blow to the king’s prestige and perhaps forced Artavasdes of Media to defect. Phraates IV, like all Parthian monarchs, ruled a disparate collection of lesser kings and powerful aristocrats, who might readily change sides if it no longer seemed in their interest to support him.13

Boldness, speed of movement and surprise were hallmarks of Antony’s style of war-making, but he must already have been aware that they were harder to achieve on a grand scale. The Parthians had long since realised that the threat to Mesopotamia was a feint. Phraates ordered his army to re-form in Media. It would take time for them to move there, and longer still to prepare sufficient supplies to support them. Artavasdes of Media was the first to bring his own forces to meet the attack on his lands, but he was soon joined by other contingents. Then Phraates himself arrived and, although it was not the custom for a Parthian king to lead his army in person, he closely supervised the campaign.

Phraata was deep inside Media and Antony’s column made frustratingly slow progress through country that lacked good roads. This was in spite of the fact that the Romans kept to the plains around the river – favourable ground for the Parthian cavalry if these put in an appearance. Most awkward of all were the 300 wagons carrying the siege train and heavy baggage. Draught oxen are slow, plodding along at no more than 2-2.5 mph for at best seven or eight hours a day, and will be lucky to make 60 miles in a week if they are to be kept fit enough to continue working. Wheeled transport tends to become even more difficult to move if the terrain is even a little broken. At every obstacle a traffic jam would develop, taking hours to sort out and more time for the waiting vehicles and troops to catch up.14

The heavy train could not move any faster, so Antony decided to leave it behind and press on with the bulk of the fighting troops and only lighter equipment and limited food supplies. He would hurry to Phraata and perhaps be able to terrify the defenders into submission or take the city by a sudden assault. Two of his least experienced legions and some allied contingents were left to guard the train as it followed behind at its own pace. In Gaul, Caesar had routinely led out the best of his legions, leaving raw troops to guard his heavy baggage and stores. Yet the latter had always been left in a strongly fortified camp or behind the walls of a town. They had never been allowed to wander on their own with such weak protection, even in Gaul, where the enemy was far less mobile than the Parthians. This was a second, even greater gamble.15

Antony reached Phraata, but the defenders failed to be overawed by the size of his army. He was forced to begin a formal siege, setting the soldiers to building a mound that was intended to be higher than the wall and allow them to shoot down at the defenders. The Romans seem to have brought some light artillery with them and had plenty of soldiers armed with missiles. Yet progress was slow and until the heavy equipment arrived there was little prospect of taking the city.
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
Antony’s Parthian Expedition


Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
Phraates’ scouts located the Roman heavy train and reported on the weakness of its escort. Seizing the opportunity, Phraates despatched a strong force of cavalry to intercept it. By this time the convoy was probably only a few days away from the main Roman force. The escort’s commander sent word to Antony asking for rescue. He may also have hoped for assistance from Artavasdes of Armenia’s contingent, but in the aftermath of the campaign the king was accused of failing to offer support. The Parthians attacked and quickly overwhelmed the two legions. Such a large convoy would have been difficult to protect for a force of this size. The Roman escort was wiped out and its commander killed. King Polemo of Pontus – one of the monarchs whose power Antony had greatly increased in the last years – was amongst the prisoners. The siege equipment was burnt, the transport animals, vehicles and supplies carried off or destroyed.

When he heard of the threat, Antony took a strong force away from the siege of Phraata and force-marched it to rescue the baggage train. He arrived to find only corpses and the ash and debris of destruction. Phraata continued to hold out and without the irreplaceable siege train there was very little prospect of taking it. Capitulation seemed extremely unlikely, now that a substantial Parthian army was operating in the area. More immediately, Antony had also lost the greater part of his reserves of food. Foraging parties were extremely vulnerable unless sent out in great strength. Casualties began to mount as a succession of small columns were caught and destroyed by the Parthian horse archers. Artavasdes of Armenia had already decided to lead his own contingent home.16

Antony decided to take yet another gamble. Leaving only a skeleton force to protect his siege lines, he led ten legions, three cohorts of praetorian guard and all his cavalry on a march through the surrounding countryside. At the very least, they were to gather food and forage, but the hope was that the Parthians would be drawn into fighting a battle. A clear battlefield victory could easily change the course of the campaign, forcing King Phraates to retreat or seek terms and perhaps breaking the will of the defenders of the city of Phraata.17

A strong Parthian force was soon shadowing the Roman column on the first day of its march. The enemy did not attack, impressed by the discipline of Antony’s men, each formation keeping in place to offer mutual support. The Roman commander pretended to retreat, marching his men close in front of the wide crescent formed by the enemy, who continued simply to observe. Orders had been issued for the units in the column to wheel into line and attack as soon as Parthians were close enough for the legionaries to charge them. Trumpets sounded to give the signal and the Roman army surged into the attack, the legionaries shouting and banging their weapons against their shields to frighten the enemy horses. The onslaught panicked the enemy, but as the Parthian horsemen fled it proved difficult for the Romans to catch them. Perhaps the order had been given too soon. More probably the enemy cavalry were difficult to catch unless they were strongly committed to an attack, as in the battles against Ventidius. The Romans killed eighty men and captured a mere thirty.

Antony had failed to get the decisive battle he needed. On the next day he led his troops back to Phraata and the enemy showed their continued confidence by harassing the Roman column every yard of the way. In the meantime – or perhaps just after his dispirited men had returned – the defenders of the city launched a sally. The legionaries stationed as outposts panicked and the enemy was able to reach the Roman mound and do some damage to the siege works. Antony ordered the units involved to be decimated, executing one in ten and feeding the survivors with a ration of barley rather than wheat. As supplies grew shorter, this last measure may have extended to the army as a whole.18

It was now well into autumn and the Romans were making no progress in the siege. Food was running short for both sides and Phraates realised that he would soon find it difficult to keep the semi-feudal contingents within the Parthian army together. Like Antony before him, he now chose to deceive his opponent. Attacks on Roman foraging parties were deliberately reduced. Parthian patrols were encouraged to talk to their opponents – perhaps especially the allied contingents – praising their courage and speaking of the king’s desire for an end to hostilities. It was just what the Romans and their commander wanted to hear. An embassy was sent to the Parthian camp. Dio provides a vivid portrait of Phraates sitting on a golden throne to receive them, all the while toying with a strung composite bow – a symbol of continuing hostilities. An unstrung bow was a sign of peace. A renewed plea for the return of Crassus’standards and prisoners was brusquely refused, but the Romans were assured that if they now retreated, then they would not be pursued. The truce was limited. The defenders of Phraata sallied out again and destroyed the Roman siege works and there were further attacks on foragers.

Perhaps Antony and his senior officers believed, or wanted to believe, the king’s pledge. In many ways it did not matter. If Phraata had fallen they might have captured enough food to supply the troops and spend the winter in Media. It had not, and an undefeated enemy army hovered menacingly around them. Staying where they were offered no prospect of success and a strong chance of utter disaster. The decision was made to retreat to Armenia. Antony was unwilling to make a speech informing the army of the new orders and instead delegated the task to Domitius Ahenobarbus, the former ardent Republican whose son was now betrothed to Antony’s elder daughter by Octavia. Given the size of the army, it is likely that the speech had to be made several times, unless it was simply addressed to a gathering of the centurions and other officers, who then passed the essence on to their men. Many of the soldiers were moved by their commander’s evident shame about his bad decisions. Antony remained popular.19

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Withdrawing in the face of the enemy is one of the more difficult manoeuvres for any army. When that enemy is far more mobile, the risk of serious loss, even disaster, becomes all the greater. Antony decided not to use the same route taken during the advance. A Mardian, who had managed to survive the massacre of the heavy train, advised him that the country was too open. It would be better to stick closer to the hill country, passing villages and fields not already stripped bare. The man had already given proof of loyalty and now willingly submitted to riding in chains and under escort as he guided the column.

The Mardian may have been right to say that King Phraates had no intention of giving the Romans safe passage, or perhaps Antony’s change of route made him suspect treachery. On the third day’s march there were signs that the enemy had deliberately broken a dam and flooded one section of road. Antony re-formed the army into an agmen quadratum – a rectangular formation where the remaining baggage was kept in the middle and surrounded on all sides by formed troops ready to deploy into battle order. They were in the process of doing this when the first Parthian patrols appeared.

The enemy cavalry were soon streaming into the attack, trying to overwhelm the Romans before they could complete the new deployment. Antony’s light infantry engaged them, but were eventually forced to withdraw behind the shelter of his legionaries. Finally, a formed charge by Gallic auxiliary cavalry drove off the main body of Parthians. There were no more attacks for the remainder of the day. Overnight, Antony and his officers made sure that the whole army was familiar with its places in the new formation. Strict orders were given for any cavalry counter-attack to be limited, so that no unit could be lured away from the main army and isolated –the fate of Crassus’ son Publius and his Gallic horsemen at Carrhae.20

For four days the Romans kept to the plan. Progress was slow, for the formation was cumbersome, but although there was a steady trickle of casualties, they were able to inflict similar losses on the enemy. Horse archers relied on speed to make themselves less of a target and that reduced the effective range of their bows if they wanted to hit an enemy formation, let alone an individual. Archers and slingers on foot had a longer effective range than bowmen on horseback. Sling bullets had the added advantage that they were difficult to see in flight and could cause concussion if they struck a helmet, making even armour no certain protection.21

There was frustration at the slow pace and passive defence, prompting an officer named Flavius Gallus to ask permission to form a special force of skirmishers and cavalry. Antony was persuaded by the promise that he would hurt the enemy more seriously. On the next day Gallus achieved a local success at the rear of the column, but then followed up until he was too far away from the nearest legionaries to gain any support. As his men and horses grew tired, the Parthians closed around him, but Gallus remained confident or simply stubborn and refused the order to withdraw. Reinforcements were sent up in dribs and drabs by Canidius Crassus, not enough to make any real difference and so just adding to the scale of the potential disaster. Eventually, a counter-attack by the Third Legion and the arrival of Antony himself leading troops from the advance guard, drove the enemy back and allowed the detachment to return to the safety of the army. Gallus had four arrows in his body and would die in the coming days.

Arrows were more likely to wound than to kill outright, and the action had substantially added to the number of wounded men in the army. Plutarch says 5,000 wounded were rescued and 3,000 men killed. Antony visited the injured, tearfully taking their hands, as soldiers asked him not to worry and assured him that things would work out as long as he was in charge. Dramatic displays of emotion were quite acceptable in Roman society and he had been with the army long enough to win their affection and trust. When he made a formal speech to the troops on the next day, the response was enthusiastic, with some of the troops who had been beaten ‘begging him’ to decimate them. Dio claims that many men were ready to desert and only held back because they had seen the Parthians shoot down anyone who tried to surrender. Phraates’ men did not have enough food to take too many prisoners, so there may have been a practical reason for this as well as the desire to spread terror.22

The Parthians were even more encouraged by their success and their army had grown as Phraates sent the royal troops to join the next attacks. Plutarch says there were 40,000 men in the enemy camp, but it seems unlikely that the Romans had an accurate count either at the time or later. With their mobility, and the need of the Romans to stay in formation, the Parthians could always be sure of a local superiority in numbers whenever they attacked. They were surprised to see the column once again marching in good order. Even so they quickly began to launch probing attacks, which grew larger and more frequent as the day progressed. At one point, the horse archers drew so close to some legionaries that the latter formed the famous testudo – front rank kneeling behind their shields and those in the rear holding their overlapping shields over their heads. The movement in the ranks as they took up the formation was seen as a sign of disorder and imminent flight. The enthusiastic horse archers charged home, for fleeing infantry were at the mercy of men on horseback. They were surprised when the legionaries proved steady and eager to fight at close quarters. More than usual were caught and killed when the horse archers turned to flee.23

For a while the enemy was deterred, but the food situation was becoming desperate. Many pack and draught animals had died or were now being used to transport the substantial numbers of wounded. This was good for morale, but the health of the remaining soldiers was also suffering. Small quantities of wheat changed hands at an exorbitant rate. The soldier’s ration was normally issued unprepared, but there were now very few hand mills left to grind the grain into flour. Men scrabbled desperately to find edible herbs and vegetables, and some fell ill and died as a result of these experiments. Men continued to perish even though the Parthian attacks had slackened a little.24

King Phraates again showed himself willing to negotiate and tried to persuade the Romans to turn onto an easier, lowland route, promising that they would be merely observed by the locals and not attacked. Antony received a message from Monaeses claiming that this was a trap. Apart from gratitude for Antony’s past generosity, the former exile may not have been keen on the king winning such an overwhelming victory and so cementing his hold on power. The Mardian guide echoed these suspicions, and Velleius tells a story of one of Crassus’ legionaries who was still in captivity, but somehow managed to slip across to the Roman outposts and warn them of the treachery. Antony ordered the army to move out under cover of darkness, in the hope of gaining some breathing space from the pursuit, and stuck to the more difficult route. The soldiers were ordered to carry water, so that there would be no need to halt and distribute this. The principle was sound, but by this time many had no vessel suitable for carrying.25

The Romans marched a thirsty 30 miles, but were caught by the Parthians before the day was too far advanced. Some were so desperate that in spite of warnings they drank from a polluted stream and were prostrated by stomach cramps as Antony rode amongst them, begging them to keep going until the next river. That night, discipline broke down altogether. What was left of the baggage train – and some officers seem to have still possessed substantial personal equipment and luxuries – was plundered and men murdered for their money. Dellius, the probable source for the surviving accounts, was with the army and said that at this time Antony even warned one of his bodyguards that he might need help to commit suicide.26

Order was eventually restored at daylight. They moved on and again fought off a series of Parthian attacks. It was the last day of fighting, as the pursuit was then abandoned. In a few days’ time Antony’s men reached the River Artaxes, the border with Armenia, twenty-seven days after they had left Phraata. Plutarch says that when Antony paraded his army he found that he had lost 20,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, which does not seem to include the legions wiped out with the heavy baggage train. Armenia was an ally, but for the moment the lacklustre performance of its king was overlooked.

The army’s ordeal was not yet over. It was now late autumn and there was not enough food available to permit the soldiers to spend the winter until they had marched a considerable distance into Armenia. They had to keep moving, marching through the mountainous country in the teeth of snowstorms. Plutarch says another 8,000 men died of exhaustion, disease and exposure. As ever with numbers in our ancient sources, some caution is required. Velleius says that a quarter of his legionaries perished in the expedition and a third of the camp followers, along with virtually all the baggage. A loss of between one-quarter and one-third of Antony’s entire army seems plausible, and fewer than half of these had fallen to enemy action. The bulk of the survivors can only have been exhausted and many probably in poor health. On top of the human casualties were the animals, lost with the heavy train or on the long march home. Horses, mules and oxen will tend to break down before men, or may simply be eaten when food supplies run out. Finally, there were the lost wagons and specialised equipment from the siege train. For the moment, Antony’s army was crippled, incapable of launching another major operation and needing time to recover.27

Damage to his prestige would be even harder to repair. The Parthian War was supposed to bring him glory and wealth. Unlike Crassus, Antony had survived and brought away more than half of his army. Yet the Romans expected victory, not simply survival or feats of endurance. There was plenty of scope for criticising Antony’s general ship. The initial plan seems to have been unclear about the objectives and how to achieve them. At best, it was probably too ambitious given the time scale, while the decision to let the siege train and heavy baggage follow on behind was predictably disastrous. Mistakes could be forgiven and excused if the outcome of the war was successful. Good Roman generals paraded their luck, since in the end it was winning that counted.

Antony had not won and clearly failed in all of his objectives. No territory had been taken and not only had no eagles or captives been recovered, but the Parthians had also gained fresh trophies of victory. He stayed with his army until the troops were safely back in billets in Syria. His personal courage had been exemplary throughout the campaign and he had shared the danger and the hardship with his men. Antony was still popular, but then so was Lord Raglan in the British Army he led so badly in the Crimea. A general needs to be far more than just physically brave to do his job well. Antony had failed in the one field of endeavour most central to the identity of a Roman aristocrat.28

His men safe, Antony hurried to the coast of Syria and sent for Cleopatra.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Antony chose an obscure location for his rendezvous with Cleopatra. Leuce Come – literally, ‘the white port’ – lay between Berytus (modern-day Beirut) and the old Phoenician city of Sidon. Both of the latter were substantial cities, but instead of going to them he waited in what was little more than a village. Perhaps he was afraid that the Parthians would take advantage of his retreat to counterattack into Syria and so felt the major cities were more attractive targets to the enemy. Yet it was probably December 36 BC or January 35 BC by the time he reached the coast and at such a season a major raid was unlikely. Apart from that, the walls of somewhere like Tyre were far more likely to offer safety than a small place like Leuce Come.

More probably he chose such a minor port because this was not to be a great occasion of ceremony and pomp, but a private reunion –or at least as private as was possible when a Roman triumvir met such an important client monarch. He instructed her to bring money and supplies for his troops, so that there was an element of business, but if that had been the main issue there was no need for him to summon the queen in person. That need was personal.

Antony was mentally and physically exhausted. In less than a year he had travelled well over 2,000 miles, prosecuted a siege and fought a succession of skirmishes and other engagements. During the retreat, he had driven himself hard to keep his army going and had at least once seriously contemplated suicide. As commander, he had made the key decisions and was responsible for their disastrous consequences. He had failed, and this failure would overshadow the rest of his life.

Cleopatra offered a chance to forget this for a while. Antony could rely on her to be lively, entertaining and uncritical company. She would listen when he wanted to talk and her comments would be plausibly encouraging. They could feast and celebrate, continuing to live ‘inimitable’ lives, as well as making love. The queen was a mistress who needed to keep his backing. It is also hard to believe that there was not at least a degree of genuine love on both sides. Most important of all, Cleopatra was not Roman. With her, Antony could pretend to be a Hellenistic ruler, or Hercules or Dionysus if he preferred. He did not have to be the Roman noble who had fallen short of the military prowess so important to his class.

Antony waited impatiently for his lover to arrive. Plutarch talks of him wandering restlessly and getting up in the middle of meals to go and look out to sea in the hope of spotting her ships. He began to drink even more heavily as the days stretched into weeks and Cleopatra had not arrived. There is no hint that she deliberately delayed. It was only a matter of months since she had given birth to their third child together, a boy given the name Ptolemy Philadelphus. The name was a reminder of the second king of her line, who had presided over the empire at its greatest extent. Perhaps Cleopatra had not yet recovered from the birth and did not feel immediately able to travel. As importantly, the summons was unexpectedly urgent and preparations needed to be made. Antony wanted money and clothes for his ragged army. Obtaining ten thousand or more tunics or pairs of boots inevitably took time, as did obtaining sufficient coin in the right sort of denomination to be issued as pay to the soldiers, and both were bulky to transport.

When Cleopatra eventually arrived, she brought considerable quantities of clothing, but less money than Antony had requested. It may not have been available in the time and, in any case, he still had substantial reserves of his own. The troops were paid – quite probably a generous bounty in addition to their normal salary, for the legions had become accustomed to such things in the last decade or so. Antony was accused of telling his men that the money was a generous gift from Cleopatra, even though it was not. His spirits certainly recovered now that the queen was with him. Soon, they both went back to Alexandria.1

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Much had changed since Antony had set out for Armenia. In 36 BC Octavian launched a major offensive against Sextus Pompey. Lepidus had helped, bringing his own forces from Africa to invade Sicily. Sextus showed some of his old skill, and his men their usual courage, but this time they were outclassed. Agrippa had spent a year creating a larger and very well-trained navy, which included the 120 warships loaned to his colleague by Antony. He won the first battle of the year. Sextus soon struck back, defeating Octavian. However, he could not prevent both Octavian and Lepidus from landing armies in Sicily. Much of the island was soon overrun. There were some 300 ships on each side at the decisive battle fought off Cape Naulochus. Octavian watched from the shore as Agrippa virtually destroyed the Pompeian fleet, making use of a newly invented device called the harpax, which made it easier to grapple the enemy vessels. Once held, they could be boarded and captured. Agrippa had bigger vessels carrying larger numbers of legionaries acting as marines and so was always likely to win such encounters.2

Sextus’ power was broken and he fled. Lepidus chose this moment to try and regain the power and prominence he had once enjoyed. Perhaps he hoped to dispose of Octavian altogether, or at least renegotiate their alliance. Lepidus assumed control of the combined armies in Sicily. The details are a little unclear and much clouded by propaganda, but there is no doubt that it was all quickly over. The young Caesar went into Lepidus’ camp in person. The legionaries now defected to him, just as they had flocked to join Antony’s men in 43 BC. Lepidus was stripped of his powers as triumvir, but allowed to live out the remainder of his life in comfortable retirement. It was a display of clemency reminiscent of Julius Caesar and unlike the savagery of the proscriptions. Lepidus remained Pontifex Maximus, although he cannot have actually performed the role in practice. Only when he died, more than twenty years later, did Octavian – by now having assumed the name Augustus – assume the priesthood. From then on, it remained the prerogative of the emperors until the collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century AD, when it passed to the pope, who still holds the title.3

Octavian celebrated an ovation for the defeat of Sextus, just as Crassus had once performed this lesser ceremony to mark his victory over Spartacus. At one point, Octavian himself had freed large numbers of slaves to provide manpower for the fleet, but his propaganda painted Sextus as the leader of runaway slaves rebelling against the natural order. Thousands of prisoners were crucified in another reminder of Spartacus. It was claimed that they were former slaves whose previous owners could not be found. Perhaps this was true, although more important was the propaganda message denying that this was another civil war. Instead, it was a matter of restoring order, of dealing with a pirate and not the son of Pompey the Great.4

It was still a success, which contrasted strongly with Antony’s defeat in Media. The latter’s despatches to the Senate concealed the scale of the losses and painted some of the skirmishes as great victories. For the moment, at least in public, Octavian and his associates did not question the truth of Antony’s version. Rumour would have flourished anyway, for no doubt many of his officers wrote their own versions of events. At the very least, it was soon clear that the expedition had made few, if any, tangible gains.5

Octavia travelled to Athens in the spring of 35 BC, intent on joining her husband. She brought with her 2,000 praetorians and also a substantial quantity of money, supplies and draught animals. Appian also mentions a unit of cavalry. Around the same time, Octavian sent back to Antony the ships he had borrowed at Tarentum. Only seventy remained, reflecting the heavy losses in the struggle with Sextus. The promised legionaries – whether two legions or 20,000 men – were not included. Plutarch thought that Octavian sent his sister with less than the pledged aid as a deliberate provocation and modern commentators have been inclined to agree. If Antony welcomed his wife, then he could be seen to accept without question whatever assistance his triumviral colleague chose to grant. More probably he would be insulted and might rebuff the well-respected Octavia. Scorning a Roman wife in favour of a mistress who was not only foreign, but royal, was bound to damage Antony’s reputation.6

Yet it was natural enough for Octavia to go again to Athens, bringing aid to her husband, and everything she brought – including the praetorians – was presented as a personal gift from her, not from her brother. It would have been a strange thing to stop her. On the other hand, in the past she had never gone further east than Athens. Antony sent word telling her to remain in the city, since he planned to campaign once again. A Roman wife was not supposed to follow her husband to war itself. He accepted the gifts she brought, although he was understandably – and no doubt publicly – annoyed by the failure of her brother to fulfil his promises. Octavian’s lack of support was a convenient thing for Antony to blame as an excuse for his own mistakes. More soldiers are very unlikely to have made any major difference to the outcome of the expedition in 36 BC.

Nor would they have been of much immediate use in the following summer. The remnants of his army had not had enough time to recover from the hardships of the retreat. In particular, the cavalry mounts must have been in poor shape and the mounted arm was of vital importance in any operation against the Parthians. Even more serious were the losses in baggage animals and wagons, and those brought by Octavia are unlikely to have made up for these. Without transport a major offensive was simply impossible. Fortunately, the enemy had fallen to bickering over the spoils of their recent victory. Artavasdes of Media sent messengers to Antony offering alliance against the Parthian king.7

There seemed to be an opportunity for limited operations, suitable for his currently limited resources, when Antony was suddenly forced to deal with a wholly unexpected threat. Sextus Pompey had fled eastwards and landed in the province of Asia. At first he offered alliance with Antony against Octavian. Then, hearing of the disaster in Media, he seems to have decided either that the eastern triumvir was vulnerable or perhaps that it was better to negotiate from a position of strength. Sextus began enrolling legions of his own. After a brief campaign he was suppressed by the nearest governors and executed. It is unclear whether or not Antony himself gave this order. Octavian would later contrast his own generosity to Lepidus with his colleague’s summary killing of Sextus. Yet it is difficult to imagine that he would not have killed Pompey’s son if Sextus had fallen into his hands, and it would certainly have been hard to reconcile with the concerted effort to portray him as a pirate. Nor was there any real incentive for Antony to spare him. At the time Octavian publicly celebrated the execution in Rome.8

Faced with these distractions, and with the bulk of his army still exhausted, Antony achieved very little before the autumn made campaigning impractical. He may still have been very tired himself. Cleopatra was with him for much of the year, either in Alexandria or afterwards probably in Antioch. Plutarch says that she feared Octavia and was reluctant to let her lover spend the winter with his wife. Antony responded to affection and, although she was Octavian’s sister, Octavia was a similar age to the queen, was clever and widely considered beautiful. Her love for her husband may well also have been genuine and her sense of duty was clearly very strong. Therefore, Cleopatra was supposed to have worked on Antony, showing utter delight when he was with her and ‘letting’ him catch glimpses of her quickly hidden tears when he was not. She deliberately lost weight, while her courtiers, and quite possibly some of his Roman friends whom she had taken care to cultivate, spoke to him of her utter devotion.9

Cleopatra relied on Antony to hold on to power. Love may well have grown, whether or not it was there from the start. Together they had had three children, and there were very few men indeed whom Cleopatra could see as her equal and so a worthy companion as well as a lover. Genuine passion probably fuelled the political dependency. Antony had left her for years in 40BC, returning to Italy and a new wife. At some point he was bound to return to Rome and the heart of the Republic, which had given him power. If he joined Octavia, then this could well happen sooner rather than later and remove his direct support from the queen. The Roman wife was a dangerous rival.

She was also a reminder to her husband of his recent failure. If Antony joined her, then he renewed the close connection with her brother, but more than that would once again become fully the Roman senator. His administrative reorganisation of the east had generally been successful, renewing and sometimes improving on the work of Pompey. Yet unlike Pompey he could not boast of genuine victories. Nor was there any prospect of fighting another campaign on the same scale – and with as good a chance of success –for several years. His career had gone badly wrong and that was not a pleasant thought. This truth would have been much harder to ignore in the company of Octavia, and so would the knowledge that her brother was bound to capitalise on his weakness.

It was not a very attractive prospect, in contrast to staying with Cleopatra, who was a much more pleasant and encouraging companion. With her he could live pleasantly and try to forget about the future. Perhaps it was also easier to believe that he could do something to repair the damage of his defeat. Antony sent word to Octavia telling her to return to Rome. Like a good Roman wife she obeyed and returned to their house – the property once owned by Pompey the Great. She continued to use her influence on behalf of Antony’s friends. Rumour said that her brother suggested that she divorce her husband, but that she staunchly refused.10

It was probably a minor concern to Octavian, since he was very busy. From 35 to 33 BC he led three consecutive campaigns in the Balkans, fighting against several Illyrian tribes. Caesar had himself planned to campaign in the area, so perhaps there was an echo of the great commander in his choice. There were also defeats to avenge and lost standards to recapture, for Antony’s old commander Gabinius had lost an army there back in 47 BC. The region was also near the border with the territory governed by Antony, and so a useful place to demonstrate the strength of his forces against any potential rival, including his colleague. Yet the main reason was the same as the one that had led Antony to attack the Parthians. Octavian wanted to prove himself a proper servant of the Republic and win the glory of defeating foreign enemies. In his case, even his victories over other Romans were tainted by rumours of cowardice and weakness.

In the campaigns that followed he took good care now to appear as heroic as possible, managing to get injured during an assault on a town. (It was probably not through direct enemy action, but the enemy was certainly close.) Like Antony he ordered at least one cohort to be decimated. There are other stories of his exemplary punishments that may date to these operations – for instance, having centurions stand at attention outside his tent. Sometimes a man’s belt was undone, so that the long military tunic fell almost to his ankles and so looked unmartial and perhaps even feminine. They might also be made to hold up a piece of turf or a measuring pole. Barely thirty by the time the campaigns were over, Octavian wanted to establish a reputation as a stern commander in the traditional mould, a man who personified the virtus expected of a Roman aristocrat. Awarded a triumph, he chose to postpone it and busy himself with working on the Republic’s behalf.11

The spoils of victory were pumped into rebuilding Rome. Octavian began a series of major projects and others were undertaken by other successful generals, many of them close associates. There was a spate of temple building, and the Regia and several basilicas were restored. Rome also for the first time acquired a permanent stone amphitheatre, while Asinius Pollio gave it a public library – something Caesar had planned, but not had time to create. In later life Augustus would boast that he ‘found Rome brick, and left it marble’. (He did not mean the incredibly strong, oven-fired red bricks visible today in so many of Rome’s great monuments, for this was an innovation of the imperial period. Under the Republic cheap and simple mud bricks were one of the commonest building materials.)

The transformation of the city really began in these years. As important as the monuments themselves was the work and incomes provided for the inhabitants of Rome. Little construction work was ever done by slaves and these projects were important job creation schemes. A good deal of the improvements were highly practical. Agrippa became aedile in 33 BC, an extraordinarily junior post for a man who had been consul in 37 BC, but since he was technically still too young to hold either office this was a minor breach of tradition. He took on the task of improving the city’s water supply and drainage system, and was remembered for sailing through the sewers in a boat to inspect them properly. Inspection was followed by a long programme of work. Agrippa repaired existing aqueducts and added a new one, the Aqua Julia, and made ‘700 cisterns, 500 fountainheads… 130 water towers’. Rome was not only to be beautiful, but also functional and a better place in which to live. The spoils of victory were to benefit the Roman people.12

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


In 34 BC Antony finally achieved a little revenge for the disaster in Media. He was still not in a position to seriously harm Phraates IV, and instead turned his attention to King Artavasdes of Armenia, the ally accused of letting the Romans down. In a limited operation Armenia was overrun and Artavasdes was taken prisoner, probably seized under cover of negotiations. Dellius had been the delegate chosen to negotiate with the king. The Romans found such methods acceptable if they helped to resolve a conflict, so in itself this was not too damaging an accusation. Yet in the end this was a minor operation, achieving victory over a recent ally with very little fighting. There was little glory in such a success, certainly nowhere near enough to balance the earlier failure. The operation was also not complete, since the Armenian nobility proclaimed the king’s son as king, who was able to escape to Parthia.

Antony strengthened Rome’s position in the border kingdoms by securing Armenia for the time being. Around this time the alliance with Artavasdes of Media was also strengthened, when Antony and Cleopatra’s son Alexander Helios was betrothed to the king’s daughter. Both were still young children, so the marriage could not meaningfully take place for at least a decade, but it was a pledge for the future. In many ways a more surprising wedding actually occurred a few years later when Antony married his eldest daughter Antonia to Pythodorus of Tralles, a wealthy and influential aristocrat from Asia Minor. Presumably he already had – or was given – Roman citizenship, but it remained an extremely unorthodox alliance for a senator’s daughter. It is generally assumed that this Antonia was the offspring of his second marriage to his own cousin, also named Antonia, although perhaps it is possible that she was the child of his first wife, the freedman’s daughter Fadia. Even more than his formal recognition of his children with Cleopatra, this went a stage further than previous emulation of Hellenistic royalty by Roman commanders. Antony is said to have boasted that founding dynasties from his own bloodline set him alongside his ancestor Hercules and that the best thing about Rome’s dominance was what they gave to the provincial peoples.13

The capture of Artavasdes was the biggest success Antony himself had enjoyed since Philippi seven years earlier. That in itself suggests his lack of personal focus on military adventures. Time and again he had felt called away to deal with crises in the west, as the triumvirate threatened to break apart. His visits to Italy and the need in the previous year to deal with Sextus Pompey were all important concerns, and yet it does contrast very strongly with the ruthlessly single-minded approach to campaigning of Pompey and Caesar, and indeed many less famous Roman commanders. These interruptions had certainly hindered preparations for the attack on Parthia and probably contributed to its rushed start and muddled conduct.

The Armenian victory was a small one, but it was all that he had had for such a long time and Antony decided to celebrate on a grand scale. What followed soon became deeply controversial and the reality of what happened smothered in hostile propaganda, so that the whole truth is probably impossible to establish. Antony had decided to spend another winter in Alexandria and entered into the city in a grand procession. Once again he appeared as Dionysus –Bacchus or Liber Pater, the ‘Free Father’ to the Romans. The triumvir rode in a Bacchic carriage and wore a wreath of ivy, a robe of saffron and gold, as well as the buckskins associated with the god, and carried his sacred wand, known as the thrystus. None of this was new, and it was a more tactful way of displaying power to a Hellenistic audience, appearing as a personification of the great god of celebration and victory and not as a blatantly Roman overlord.14

Artavasdes walked in the procession, along with many other prisoners. The king was in chains, but in deference to his rank these were symbolic and made of precious metal – silver or gold, depending on the source. The column followed a route into the city, past cheering crowds, and eventually was received by Cleopatra, sitting on a golden throne on a lavishly decorated platform within the traditions of Ptolemaic spectacle. This was probably in front of the Serapeion, the great temple to Serapis, the god created by the Ptolemies. Artavasdes and the Armenian nobles were said to have refused to salute or bow to the queen, in spite of every effort to persuade or intimidate them.15

Octavian’s allies soon painted the parade as a triumph in all but name and thus a mockery of one of the Romans’ most ancient and revered rituals. A triumph could only be held at Rome and end with a sacrifice to Capitoline Jupiter. The victory was for Rome and the Roman people, granted by Rome’s gods. It could not be transferred to a foreign city and marked with foreign rituals, worst of all centred around a foreign monarch.

Antony is very unlikely to have intended the ceremony to be a triumph. Some of the Roman rituals had their origin in Dionysiac processions, which added to the similarities and made it easier to criticise. It was surely intended for a Hellenistic audience, although it also reflected his own love of theatre. He could enjoy his success, before spending another pleasant winter in Alexandria. His continuing power would no doubt have secured him a real triumph had he returned to Rome, but everyone would have known that this was a sham. On top of that he had no intention of returning to Italy yet, before he had achieved a genuinely major victory, or at the very least further built up his wealth and the influence this gave him. A Hellenistic display, much like the formal entry of any great king into a city, advertised his power throughout the region and his sympathy for the local culture.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
There seems to have been a similar motive behind the even more bizarre ceremony held a few days later. It occurred in the great gymnasium of Alexandria, that most Hellenistic institution of the largest Greek city in the world. Later it became known as the Donations of Alexandria, but it is unclear how Antony and Cleopatra would have described the event. It is not certain how he was dressed, but his lover appeared as the New Isis, so was probably clad in the black robes of the goddess. The Roman triumvir and Ptolemaic queen sat side by side on golden thrones. In front of them, and a little lower down, the thirteen-year-old Caesarion, the six-year-old twins Alexander and Cleopatra Selene and the two-year-old Ptolemy Philadelphus occupied smaller thrones. of Armenia, Media and Parthia, while his twin sister was given rule of Cyrenaica and Libya. Ptolemy was granted the rest of Syria, Phoenicia and Cilicia. The infant was dressed up in Macedonian military cloak and boots and wore a traditional hat topped by a royal diadem. Alexander Helios wore a version of Median royal costume, with a much more eastern royal tiara. Their mother was also named ‘Queen of Kings, whose sons are kings’ and variations of these slogans soon began to appear on coins and official documents.

Antony formally pronounced Cleopatra and Caesarion rulers of Egypt, Cyprus and part of Syria. Alexander Helios was named king.

Cleopatra’s superiority over her children was confirmed, for even her co-ruler Caesarion was seated below her and received no new titles. Dio claims that Antony formally proclaimed the boy as the son of Caesar. If this was so, then he made no attempt to have him made a citizen or legitimised in Roman law. The Ptolemaic tradition allowed the existing monarch to mark out any of his or her children as co-ruler and rightful successor, regardless of age or details of parentage. Therefore Caesarion did not need to have a declared father to hold power. However, the fame of Caesar as father could do no harm and, if it was rarely mentioned within Egypt, it is possible that it was more important in their other territories.16

Yet in practical terms the most striking thing about the Donations is how little difference they made to anything. Media remained an allied kingdom under its own monarch and the Parthians were not about to give up their independence to accept the rule of a small boy with no claim whatsoever to rule there. Roman provinces and allied communities given to the children continued to run their affairs as they had done before the ceremony. Alexander and Ptolemy were supposedly given bodyguards of Armenians and Macedonians respectively, at least for the day of the ceremony itself. They were not given guardians or regents, nor any machinery of government created around them.

The Donations were marvellous theatre, popular with the Alexandrian crowd who liked a good show and no doubt highly enjoyable for Antony and Cleopatra themselves. They were well within the traditions of Ptolemaic celebrations and demonstrated the queen’s dominance through the support of her Roman lover. What is much less clear is how Antony hoped to benefit from them. Perhaps he felt that the promise of future rule suggested long-term stability for the settlement he was creating in the eastern Mediterranean. Promise was the most it could be, since nothing was actually changed by the ceremony and, in any event, the inclusion of Parthia gave everything an air of fantasy. It was if Antony was pretending to be a real conqueror, so far taken in by his own propaganda to believe (or to want to believe) himself truly a Dionysus, Hercules or Alexander the Great.

For Octavian it provided splendid ammunition to blacken his colleague’s name. Antony appeared deluded and was acting like a monarch, freely giving provincial and allied territory won by the legions to his children at the behest of a foreign queen. Antony’s allies in the Senate are supposed to have suppressed his own report on the campaign and the ceremonies, since it was so discreditable to him. For little or no gain, he damaged himself badly in Rome and Italy in general. Even at the time, many people struggled to understand just what Antony planned for the future. He and Octavian were still triumvirs, although the second five-year term for the triumvirate was due to expire at the end of 33 BC. The big question was when and how did Antony plan to return home?

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


On 1 January 34BC Antony had become consul for the second time. It was nine years since the end of his first consulship, so this was almost the decade that law decreed should pass before holding a magistracy again. That rule had anyway been breached so many times that it was scarcely worth comment. It was far rarer for a consul not to be in Rome when he assumed office, although Marius and Caesar had both done this. More disturbing was his resignation at the end of a single day, showing the minor importance of the Republic’s supreme magistracy to a man with Antony’s power. Consuls now rarely served for the entire year, but none had chosen to resign within twenty-four hours. In spite of his absence and the extreme brevity of his tenure, the year was still officially known as the consulship of Marcus Antonius and Lucius Scribonius Libo.1

In 39 BC Antony and Octavian had drawn up a list of consuls for the next eight years, including the suffect consuls who would replace them once they resigned. There were four such men in 34 BC, for the first pair also resigned before the year was complete. In this way more loyal followers were rewarded, receiving the dignity of consular status, the precedence this brought in senatorial debate and the prospect of a suitably important provincial command. Octavian would similarly take up and resign the consulship on 1 January 33 BC, and there were no fewer than six suffect consuls in the remainder of that year.

This figure was in turn dwarfed by the sixty-seven praetors the triumvirs had appointed in 38 BC. Their lack of respect for the traditional magistracies was blatant and yet it is equally clear that both the triumvirs and their followers still valued the prestige these posts brought. There were also numerous irregularities, ignoring age restrictions and other conventions. One praetor resigned his office in favour of his son. One quaestor was recognised as a runaway slave by his former master. Another escaped slave was discovered serving as praetor. Slaves were usually executed by crucifixion, but this terrible punishment was thought inappropriate for anyone who had served as a praetor, however illegally. Therefore the court decreed that the man should be given his freedom, and then be thrown to his death from the Tarpeian Rock. Antony and Octavian had awarded themselves a joint consulship for 31 BC. Interestingly, it was over a year after their triumviral power was supposed to lapse. Perhaps they planned that both of them would be in Rome by this time, so that their alliance could be renewed or renegotiated.2

Antony had certainly not turned his back on Rome, for all that he enjoyed the trappings of monarchy in the Greek world. He seems to have been genuinely fond of Alexandria and at some point he served as gymnasiarch there, just as he had done in Athens. Yet although he publicly acknowledged his children by Cleopatra, greater prominence was given to Marcus Antonius Antyllus, his teenage son by Fulvia. A series of silver coins was issued showing Antony on one side and the boy on the other.3

Although Octavia looked after his other Roman children, Antyllus seems to have been in the east with his father during these years. In Alexandria he enjoyed both the company of learned men and something of the lavish lifestyle of the royal court. Plutarch’s grandfather’s friend Philotas knew the boy during these years and told stories of his quick wit and generous nature. On one occasion Antyllus gave him the gold cups that they had just used for a feast – an interesting echo of Cleopatra’s visit to Tarsus. Philotas was worried that the lad might get into trouble for making such a costly gift. Yet when the servants came to present him with the vessels and get a receipt for them, they assured him that Mark Antony’s son could give away as much gold as he liked. They did replace the vessels with their value in money, since some were antiques and so might be missed by his father.4

Elsewhere, Plutarch tells another story of Antony’s own generosity, when he promised a man the gift of 250,000 denarii. One of his personal slaves was apparently concerned that his master did not realise how substantial a sum this was and so laid out all the coins to show their number. When informed what the money was for, Antony claimed to be shocked, since he had thought the gift was bigger, and immediately ordered the sum to be doubled.5

Antony’s taste for spectacular expenditure long pre-dated his years in the east, but was fully indulged while he was with Cleopatra. Grand wagers were a common feature of the royal court during these years. The most famous incident occurred some time between 34 and 32 BC, and centred on the famed luxury of the Ptolemaic court and Antony’s own obsession with expensively rare and exotic foods. The queen is supposed to have sneered at the fare he was serving and promised that on the next day she would show him a banquet costing no less than 2.5 million denarii. Yet when the meal came he was unimpressed by the food she gave her guests, for this seemed nothing unusual by their recent standards. Cleopatra – our source Pliny does not name her, but dismisses her as an ‘impertinent royal tart’-merely laughed when Antony claimed that he had won the wager. The food was a mere preliminary and she alone would consume the 2.5 million denarii feast. Enjoying his confusion, the queen ordered the final course to be served. This dessert was as lavish as the earlier courses, but she herself was given a single bowl, filled with acetum, the sour, vinegar-like wine issued to soldiers as part of their ration and usually a drink for the poor. Reaching up, Cleopatra took off one of her pearl earrings – the pair were famous for their size and quality – and dropped it into the bowl. The pearl dissolved into a slush and she drank the mixture. Lucius Munatius Plancus, who had the task of deciding who won the bet, quickly declared the queen the victor and stopped her from repeating the process with the other pearl.6

Pearls had become highly fashionable as jewellery at Rome in the last generation or so. In 59 BC Julius Caesar had given his mistress Servilia a pearl that cost 1.5 million denarii, and so was of similar quality to Cleopatra’s earrings. It was even rumoured that he had invaded Britain hoping to find a plentiful supply of good pearls. Nor was dissolving pearls in sour wine and drinking the mixture altogether unknown, for we hear of one wealthy young Roman doing the same, in a story spread by one of Horace’s poems. It is impossible to know whether Cleopatra was aware of this incident or came up with the idea on her own. In latter years the Emperor Caligula, a descendant of Antony, would copy the practice, a mark both of his eccentricity and extravagance.7

Most modern commentators have been sceptical about the possibility of dissolving a pearl in vinegar and attempts to repeat Cleopatra’s trick have invariably failed. The acid in the liquid does soften pearls and dissolve crushed pearls, but appears to take a very long time to do this. The value of such experiments is anyway limited, since we do not know the size or consistency of the pearl earrings. These may well have been smaller than modern expectation. Nor should we necessarily insist that Cleopatra’s bowl was filled only with sour wine. Other substances might accelerate the chemical reaction and the philosophers of the Museum had for generations specialised in using their knowledge to perform spectacular, apparently miraculous tricks to grace royal occasions. The pearl did not need to vanish altogether, but dissolve enough to be no longer of value and easy to both consume and keep down. Pliny does not suggest that she simply swallowed the earring to retrieve it later. The precious object had to be permanently destroyed to make the wager meaningful.8

Munatius Plancus is elsewhere described as one of the leading flatterers of the queen from amongst Antony’s Roman followers. He clearly felt that this would also win the triumvir’s favour. It is said that he went so far as to perform a dance during one of the feasts, acting the part of the sea god Glaucus, his naked skin painted blue and wearing a false fish’s tail. This was scarcely the behaviour expected of a former consul. A few aristocratic Roman men were known to be proud of their skill in dancing, but Cicero had probably reflected the general feeling when he said, ‘No sane man ever dances while sober.’9

Sobriety is unlikely to have been a conspicuous feature of Antony and Cleopatra’s intimates. Antony had always been a heavy drinker and it seems likely that this had only increased, especially after the disappointment and stress of the Parthian expedition. He may well have been an alcoholic and choosing to associate himself with Hercules and Dionysus meant revering deities famed for drink and festivities. The latter was important to the Ptolemies, and Cleopatra wore a ring carrying the inscription ‘Drunkenness’ (Methe in Greek). The female attendants of Dionysus, the Maenads, were supposed to be in a permanent state of ecstatic frenzy, induced not by alcohol, but the mere presence of the god. Probably the ring celebrated this. We cannot say whether the sources accusing her of frequent inebriation were true or simply propaganda. It may well have been difficult to spend a lot of time in Antony’s company without sharing at least to some degree in his heavy drinking.10

The circle surrounding Antony and Cleopatra included performers from the Greek east. We hear of one man who seems to have specialised in erotic dances, and there was also the ‘Parasite’ mentioned earlier. Yet apart from the queen herself, only Romans were treated as close advisers by Antony, and certainly only Romans were given important commands as well as other major responsibilities. Plancus, Dellius and Canidius were just a few of the senators amongst the triumvir’s close companions and key agents.11

In 2000 a papyrus that contained an ordinance passed by Cleopatra in 33 BC (or ‘Year Nineteen which is also Year Four’) was identified, prompting considerable excitement because the last word may be in the queen’s own handwriting –ginestho (‘let it be so’ in Greek). The main content received little attention outside scholarly circles, but is highly instructive:

We have granted to Publius Canidius and his heirs the annual exportation of 10,000 artabas of wheat
[approximately 300 tons] and the annual importation of 5,000 Coan amphoras of wine without anyone
exacting anything in taxes from him or any other expense whatsoever. We have also granted tax
exemption on all the land he owns in Egypt…. Let it be written to those to whom it may concern, so that
knowing it they can act accordingly.
Canidius had clearly been given extensive estates by the queen and the income he gained was to be free of any royal levy. His agents were also allowed to import and sell wine within Egypt without paying any duty. Antony’s other senior followers no doubt also did well from her generosity. Cleopatra needed Roman backing and for the last few years that had meant keeping Antony’s favour. To ensure this she exploited her kingdom for the benefit of the triumvir and his henchmen. Earlier Ptolemies had been just as generous in granting land and tax-free wealth to powerful aristocrats. Now the important beneficiaries were all Roman and there is no indication that any of these men planned to settle permanently within her realm. Their families, much of their property and their ultimate political ambitions all lay in Italy. There is no good indication that Antony felt any differently. He was in the east to build wealth and power to enhance his position within the Republic.
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


The stories of the excess and debauchery of Antony and Cleopatra’s inner circle no doubt grew with the telling as they travelled to Italy. The mood in Rome was usually uneasy while waiting for powerful men to return after a long spell in the provinces. People had been very nervous awaiting Pompey’s return from his eastern campaigns and similar fears over what Caesar might do had helped to create the civil war in 49 BC. Octavian managed to visit Rome on several occasions during his Illyrian wars and had been in Italy for most of the last decade. He bore the brunt of any discontent and resentment, for instance from dispossessed Italian farmers and dissatisfied veterans, but had managed to deal with each crisis in turn. The defeat of Sextus Pompey had ended the long sequence of civil war and there was cautious optimism that this might be permanent. There was certainly no appetite amongst the wider population for a renewal of conflict. Poets like Horace and Virgil helped to express this mood, encouraged by Octavian’s close associate Maecenas.13

Antony gained no fresh honours from the Senate after 37 BC, but his colleague was far more visible. A year later Octavian had been awarded the same sacrosanct status given to the tribunes of the plebs. This was a high honour. In 35 BC the same status was extended to Livia and Octavia, who were also given public statues and the right to run their own affairs and finances without the need for a male guardian. These were unprecedented honours for women. This made Antony’s curt instructions for his wife to return to Italy all the more shocking and rendered her obedience and continued care for his house, children and friends especially poignant.14

Octavian and Antony competed for prestige and dominance. It was natural for Roman aristocrats to behave in this way and perhaps inevitable that, once all other rivals had gone, the two most powerful men in the state would turn against each other. By 33 BC the rivalry was becoming steadily more open, although as yet neither side launched a direct attack on the other. Instead, it was a question of contrasts. Octavian had beaten Sextus Pompey. His successes in Illyria were small scale, but genuine, unlike Antony’s failure in Media. Antony countered, mainly through his supporters in Rome, but also it seems through letters that were readily made public, and spoke of Octavian’s personal failings. At Philippi he had been ‘ill’ and absent. In the final confrontation with Sextus Pompey, the young Caesar had again been prostrate with sickness – or was it fear?

Roman political invective had always been personally abusive and often obscene. As usual there was very little attention to specific policies and the heart of the matter was character. Both men had provided their rival with plenty of good material. Yet in the main the hostile stories about Octavian concerned the past – his cruelty during the proscriptions, or his dressing as Apollo at the notorious feast. A favourite target for the unquestionably aristocratic Antony was his rival’s family and time and again the alleged obscurity and demeaning professions of his father and grandfather were hurled at Octavian. It was only at this point that Caesarion began to matter in Rome. Here was a genuine son of Caesar, and it did not matter that he was a foreigner and a bastard, for there was no attempt to make the teenager a figurehead in Roman politics. It was merely a useful – and highly embarrassing – way of reminding everyone that the ‘son of the divine Julius’ was of humble birth and only one of the Julii Caesares by adoption. Adoption was taken seriously by the Romans, but Octavian’s position was vulnerable because he had not been adopted while Caesar was alive and posthumous adoption was legally very questionable. It was probably now that Octavian commissioned one of Caesar’s close associates to write a pamphlet denying that the boy was Caesar’s child, while Antony proclaimed that the dictator had publicly acknowledged the baby.15

Although Antony lost in the long run, many stories about Octavian were set down in these years and so survived to be repeated by later authors, giving him a small posthumous victory. Years before, Cicero’s Philippics had begun the blackening of Antony’s reputation and memory, and now these slurs were reinforced. Many of the attacks were exaggerated, but there were too many truths behind them to prevent serious damage. Attacked as a drunkard, Antony responded by publishing his only known work of literature, entitled On His Drinking (de sua ebrietate). It has not survived, but presumably he denied some of the excesses, or at least maintained that alcohol had never impaired his judgement or actions. Yet the fact that he felt it necessary to defend himself against the charge at all showed that the damage had already been done. (Caesar had been laughed at for taking a public oath denying his alleged affair with King Nicomedes. People mocked the dictator whether or not they believed the story.)16

Sexual excess accompanied the stories of Antony’s alcoholic excess. Too much of either was seen as weakness, betraying the stern virtus expected of a Roman senator. Praise of Octavia for her virtue, and also her beauty, highlighted her husband’s mistreatment of her. Yet the affair with Cleopatra was far too public to deny and so instead, Antony tried to pass it off lightly, writing an open letter to Octavian. The style was blunt, deliberately crude and overtly manly:

Why have you changed? Is it because I’m screwing the queen? Is she my wife? Have I just started this or
has it been going on for nine years? How about you — is it only [Livia] Drusilla you screw?
Congratulations, if when you read this letter you have not been inside Tertulla or Terentilla, Rufilla or
Salvia Titiseniam, or all of them. Does it really matter where or in whom you dip your wick?17

‘Is she my wife?’ — the Latin uxor mea est could equally be the statement, ‘She is my wife.’ Only the context as part of a series of quick-fire questions suggests that it is not only a question, but that the implicit answer is also: ‘No, she is not.’ Yet Antony did not deny the affair, and indeed stressed that it had already lasted for nine years. His position was weak from the start, for the best he could hope for was the belief that Octavian’s behaviour was no better than his own. Octavian might be an enthusiastic adulterer, but he had no single mistress and at least his lovers were Roman. Antony circulated other stories, of how the young Caesar’s friends hunted out women for him, even stripping respectable girls and married women for inspection as if they were slaves. It was even claimed that at one dinner he had taken a senator’s wife into another room and when they re-joined her husband and the rest of the company, she was blushing and looking dishevelled.18

This was certainly not respectable behaviour for a Roman, although the cuckolding of other senators did match the exploits of Caesar. In addition, Octavian was still an adolescent, while Antony was in his fifties, by which time a man was expected to behave with more decorum. Taking many lovers was bad, but it was worse for a Roman man to have one mistress, worse still to appear to be dominated by her and unforgivable that she was foreign and royal. This was the most damning charge, that Antony had become so unmanned by his passion for Cleopatra that he obeyed her and made decisions on major issues according to her whims. The grants of land, the allegations of delaying the Parthian War to stay with her and, most of all, the Donations of Alexandria suggested an Antony manipulated by his lover to the point where he was no longer acting in the best interests of the Republic. Even his own propaganda could be turned against him. Hercules, too, had been brought low by a woman, when Omphale made him wear a dress and perform household tasks such as spinning. It is unlikely to be coincidental that depictions of this story appear in the art of the period.19

Octavian was in Rome, in a city enjoying peace and the visible signs of rebuilding and physical renewal, much of it undertaken by him or his close associates. He was far better placed to influence public opinion. Senators were one audience, but so were the local aristocracies of the towns and cities of Italy. It was difficult for a distant Antony to compete, especially since his achievements in the east were so limited. He does seem to have administered the region reasonably well, but such things were rarely a great source of popularity with a Roman audience. In the long run he could not hide the scale of the disaster in Media — especially when Octavian and his allies no longer helped to suppress the news — or the meagreness of his subsequent successes.

In the spring of 33 BC, Antony had concentrated the bulk of his legions on the Euphrates, ready for a fresh intervention in the affairs of Parthia and its neighbouring kingdoms. After some minor operations, he changed his mind. Once again, his eye was on Italy and the struggle with Parthia would take second place to defending his position in Rome itself. Canidius was ordered to march the army over 1,000 miles to the Ionian coast of Asia Minor, ready to cross the sea to Greece. There was no external threat to that region requiring such a large concentration of troops. Unless he was planning to return at last to Italy, bringing with him his soldiers, perhaps to march in a triumph, or at least to be discharged and given land, then this move can only be seen as a threat to Octavian. Antony did complain that Octavian was not providing sufficient land for his veterans and it may be that he had future distributions in mind. His colleague sent the ironic reply that surely he could give them land from his eastern ‘conquests’.20

At the very least, Antony escalated the conflict by transferring his legions westwards. The timing of this move is all too readily forgotten since it is easier to trace the build-up of Octavian’s propaganda towards the eventual war. Neither man seems to have been very reluctant to fight, but the wider population hated the thought of a renewal of civil war, so both were eager to let the other provoke the conflict. The triumvirate lapsed on 31 December 33 BC. Antony ignored this and continued to use the title. Octavian pretended to retire into private life. Both kept control of their armies and provinces.21

On 1 January 32 BC, Domitius Ahenobarbus became consul with Caius Sosius as colleague. Both men were supporters of Antony, a coincidence that may not have been significant when the triumvirs had nominated consuls back in 39 BC. The consuls took precedence in alternate months and Ahenobarbus began the year, presiding over meetings of the Senate. Antony had sent them an account of his reorganisation of the eastern provinces, which included the grants of land to Cleopatra and her children. He wanted the Senate’s endorsement, even though his powers as triumvir already conferred legality on his actions. Ahenobarbus thought the document too inflammatory, with its formal statement of the Donations, and so suppressed it.

In February, Sosius took over and immediately launched a direct attack on Octavian. The measures he proposed were vetoed by a tribune before a vote could be taken. It was an interesting survival of earlier politics, although it is unclear who inspired the veto. Sosius may have felt that simply making the statements was enough to damage Octavian. On the other hand, the latter may have been genuinely worried. Even if the measures were not passed, and it was unlikely that they would be, it was a considerable blow to his prestige and auctoritas to have them mentioned in the first place.22

The ‘retired’ triumvir was not present, but he summoned the Senate to another meeting, although legally he no longer had the power to do this. Octavian arrived, escorted by soldiers and guarded by friends whose ‘concealed’ daggers were visible. He took his seat between the two consuls, thus marking his superiority, and proceeded to defend himself. Ahenobarbus and Sosius fled from Rome after this meeting, going straight to Antony, who by this time was again in Athens. By letter, and the voices of a few adherents, he was able to continue the battle of accusations with Octavian. Apart from the personal denigration, he returned to familiar complaints. Octavian was blamed for both deposing Lepidus and then taking all of the latter’s troops and territory under his own control. His failure to deliver the promised soldiers was another charge. Octavian countered by saying that Antony had not shared the spoils of his own victories, but the main attack remained personal. The Roman commander had been corrupted by Cleopatra – there were even stories that she used magic potions to enslave him.23

Munatius Plancus chose this moment to defect from Antony and join Octavian. He was an ex-consul, and with him came his nephew who was a consul designate, but there are no other recorded defections by senators at this time. Plancus gave a speech in the Senate accusing Antony of a long list of crimes and abuses of power. Not everyone was impressed and an old rival drily commented, ‘Antony must have done a great many things to make you leave him!’ Far more damaging was the report that the two men had witnessed Antony’s will, now deposited in the Temple of Vesta at the heart of the Forum, and that its provisions were shocking.24

The six Vestal Virgins composed Rome’s only female priesthood and were figures of great respect. The head of the order refused Octavian’s demand to be given the will, since this would have been an unprecedented breach of law and custom. However, he went into the temple and read the document, before removing it and having it — or more probably, carefully chosen sections — read out at a public meeting. In it Antony formally recognised Caesarion as the dictator’s son and also gave legacies to his own children by Cleopatra. This last was illegal, since a citizen could not make a non-citizen his heir. There must have been mention of Antyllus and his other Roman children, but it suited Octavian’s purpose to ignore such normal clauses. Finally, even if Antony were to be in Rome when he died, his remains were to be sent to be interred alongside Cleopatra.

None of our ancient sources suggests that the will was a forgery, although plenty of modern scholars have assumed this. There was certainly a will, and the odds are that Octavian was simply selective in his use of it. Antony had already publicly acknowledged his children by Cleopatra and proclaimed Caesarion as Caesar’s son, so in that sense there was nothing new in repeating these statements. His legacies to the children raise many questions, since he could not have been unaware that these were illegal. Perhaps he planned to give them citizenship or simply assumed that as triumvir anything he did was legal. Yet it is notable that Antony could imagine dying in Rome, away from Cleopatra.25

That was not the impression people received. Octavian encouraged rumours that Antony and Cleopatra planned to rule the Republic as a personal empire, moving the capital to Alexandria — an echo of one of the accusations made against Caesar. The arrogance of the queen was stressed. She was said to have adopted a favoured oath, saying, ‘as surely as I shall dispense justice on the Capitol’. It did not matter that this contradicted the stories of Antony preferring Alexandria to Rome, wanting to rule from the Egyptian city and be buried there. The important thing was to convince Romans of Cleopatra’s pride and the danger she posed. Old prejudices against Greeks, easterners in general, royalty and powerful women interfering in the affairs of state all made the audience highly receptive to this message. To emphasise his own patriotism, Octavian began construction of a grand mausoleum on the Campus Martius.26

There was no enthusiasm for another civil war and so Octavian marginalised Antony. He was merely a dupe, a weak man who had ceased to be a Roman and could no longer refuse his mistress anything. Stories of him washing her feet to honour a bet, of reading love letters while conducting public business and of trailing after her litter like a puppy all reinforced the image, even if they were untrue. Cleopatra was the danger, hence the vitriol of poets directed against her, savaging her character and bemoaning that a Roman commander and Roman legionaries ‘served’ such a mistress.27

Instead of a new civil war, Octavian gave Italy a great cause. Rome’s Republic faced the dire threat of a foreign ruler who wished to crush their freedom. It was a better pretext for war and people willingly chose to believe it as far as was necessary, since it was unrealistic to stop Antony and Octavian from fighting each other. Yet they would not fight against Antony but Cleopatra, not against Roman legions but an eastern host who worshipped strange, animal-headed gods. Communities throughout Italy took an oath of personal loyalty to Octavian. A few of Antony’s veteran colonies were exempted, but none showed any desire to fight on his behalf. Some senators fled to join him. Octavian later claimed that more than 700 chose to serve with him. The Senate was at most 1,000 strong at this time, and quite possibly smaller. Many of the remainder went to Antony, although it was most likely fewer than the 300 often alleged as having done. Some may have been too elderly to take an active role, while others chose neutrality. The most famous of these was Asinius Pollio, who said that he would stand apart from your quarrel and be a spoil of the victor’.28

Antony’s active supporters in the Senate were heavily outnumbered. Some were desperate, including the last survivors from Caesar’s murderers, who obviously could not hope for reconciliation with Octavian. One of these men, Cassius of Parma, produced a string of vitriolic pamphlets attacking the young Caesar. He was accused of planning to marry his only daughter Julia to the king of the Getae from the Balkans to cement his Illyrian victories — clearly a reaction to disapproval of Antonia’s marriage to Pythodorus of Tralles. Even wilder was the allegation that Octavian had planned to divorce Livia and marry the king’s daughter instead.29

What Antony had actually done was, or at least seemed, a lot more damaging than anything it could be claimed his rival had merely considered. By 32 BC, it was clear that Antony had lost the political struggle. The propaganda war would continue, but it had not gone well for him so far and things were unlikely to improve. His only hope was now to win the real war of armies and fleets.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Antony and Cleopatra spent most of the winter of 33–32 BC at Ephesus, as his troops mustered on the coast of Asia Minor. It was the first time she had not wintered in Alexandria for many years. In the spring the slow process began of ferrying the army across to Greece. It could not be rushed, so Antony and Cleopatra made a leisurely journey, stopping at the island of Samos, where they celebrated a festival of theatre, music and dance dedicated to Dionysus. Performers came from all over the Greek world to compete for prizes, while the triumvir and the queen feasted in their usual extravagant style. As a reward, Antony gave the guild of performers a grant of property and special rights in the city of Priene in Asia Minor.1

His generosity was less obvious to the wider population of the eastern Mediterranean, as once again they were called upon to support the war effort of one side in a Roman civil war. Heavy contributions of money, supplies and other resources were required from every provincial and allied community. Antony’s subordinates were not gentle in the enforcement of these demands. On the island of Cos, groves of trees sacred to Aesculapius, the god of healing, were chopped down to be used for shipbuilding on the command of Decimus Turullius, one of Caesar’s assassins. Manpower was also demanded. Antony needed craftsmen to make ships and all the other equipment needed for the army and the fleet. On top of that he needed rowers and sailors to crew the vessels, and soldiers to serve in the army. Denied access to the recruiting grounds of Italy, many of his legionaries were provincials, hastily granted citizenship when they were enrolled in the legions. Most seem to have been conscripts.2

Cleopatra contributed a vast sum of money to fund the war. Plutarch says it amounted to 20,000 talents, twice the sum her father had promised to Gabinius in 55 BC. Like the rest of the east, her kingdom was squeezed to support Antony’s war effort. In addition she contributed 200 vessels to the fleet of 500 warships and some 300 merchantmen that her lover was assembling. Some of the warships were large, built in the grand tradition of the Ptolemaic navy, and it is probable that many of the merchant vessels were large grain ships. It was the biggest fleet her kingdom had formed for several generations – the ships used against Caesar in the Alexandrian War were smaller, more suitable for the confined fighting within the harbours and less numerous. Cleopatra does seem to have provided crews as well as the ships themselves, but how many of these men came from Egypt – or her wider realm – is unclear. She paid them, but many seem to have been recruited by press gangs from anywhere they could be found.3

Willingly contributing ships and money to back her lover, Cleopatra was already benefiting from Antony’s gratitude as he seized statues and other artworks from temples and presented them to her. One of Octavian’s allies accused him of presenting her with 200,000 scrolls from the Library at Pergamum. The story may be an invention, or at least the number exaggerated, although her family’s longstanding appetite for acquiring new volumes for Alexandria’s Library was well known.4

After Samos, the couple went to Athens and were there at the latest by the early summer. If Cleopatra really did accompany her father into exile, then she had been to the city before, more than twenty years earlier, but this was certainly her first visit as an adult. Antony’s longest visit in recent years had been the months spent there with Octavia, when the Athenians had taken care to honour both the triumvir and his wife. Now, they were equally eager to secure his favour by honouring his mistress. Her statue dressed in the robes of Isis – or perhaps a statue of the goddess deliberately made to resemble the queen’s features – was set up by the city. Cleopatra responded by staging and paying for some of the round of musical and dramatic performances that were ordered here as on Samos. A formal delegation of the leaders of the city, including Antony himself who had been made an honorary citizen, came to the house she occupied, where he made a speech listing the special privileges the council had granted her.

Ahenobarbus and Sosius had probably joined Antony before he left Asia Minor. Other news from Rome continued to reach him. In Athens he finally decided to divorce Octavia, a clear indication that he felt the breach with her brother was serious and perhaps irreconcilable. Graffiti appeared on one of Antony’s statues — ‘Octavia and Athena to Antony: take your things and go!’, referring to his earlier sacred marriage to the goddess of the city. The first phrase was in Greek, the second the traditional Latin formula of divorce — res tuas tibi habe — which rather suggests that the wag was one of his Roman followers.5

We do not know whether now or at some earlier stage Antony and Cleopatra contracted a formal marriage. This would not have been legal under Roman law, unless he had granted her citizenship. None of the main narrative sources claims that the couple did marry, although Plutarch could be taken to imply this. The poet Virgil, writing not too many years after their death, does make outraged mention of Antony’s ‘Egyptian wife’, but otherwise the claim is only made in much later, and generally unreliable, sources. It is difficult to believe that Octavian would not have flung the charge against him if any form of wedding had taken place. We cannot be sure, which makes the ambiguity of Antony’s own words — uxor mea est, ‘Is she my wife?’ or ‘She is my wife’— all the more frustrating. The debate is often complicated by modern attitudes to marriage and partnerships. The truth is that we simply do not know what either Antony or Cleopatra thought about such things, and what they did or did not do.6

What we do know is that Cleopatra accompanied Antony, and from the beginning it seems to have been accepted that she would stay with him even if, or when, war broke out. Other client monarchs were also with him and if they did not contribute as much money or as many ships to the war effort, several brought strong contingents of troops. Polemo had been left to watch the frontier with Parthia, for Antony had stationed very few of his own troops to guard against any renewal of war in that theatre. Herod was sent to deal with the king of the Nabataean Arabs, whose loyalty was in question and who had stopped paying the rent for the lands leased from Cleopatra. She also sent one of her own Greek officers, presumably with a force of mercenaries, to co-operate with the Judaean king, but the campaign achieved little. It was claimed that she simply wanted Herod out of the way and less able to win Antony’s favour.7

The other rulers to serve with Antony were all male and most would lead their soldiers in person. Cleopatra was Antony’s lover and spent far more time close beside him, both when he conducted official business and when he relaxed and celebrated. She received public honours far greater than any awarded to the other kings and clearly possessed greater influence over him. Domitius Ahenobarbus was the only Roman in Antony’s entourage who refused to address her as ‘Queen’, still less as ‘Queen of Kings’, and instead called her by name. He was not the only one who was unhappy with her very public presence, which did so much to aid Octavian’s propaganda campaign focusing on her control of Antony. In 32 BC there were still a number of senators in Italy who remained sympathetic. Antony was generous with money to reinforce their loyalty and win more adherents, but his close association with the queen was politically disastrous.8

Plutarch tells us that a senator called Geminius – perhaps Caius Geminius – travelled from Italy to see Antony, probably during the months Antony spent at Athens. Cleopatra is supposed to have distrusted him, suspecting that he hoped to reconcile Antony to Octavia. She arranged for him to be seated at feasts away from her lover and that the senator should be made the butt of some of the jokes and pranks common at the court. Geminius remained patient and finally was asked to present his case during one banquet. Claiming that it would be better to wait until everyone was fully sober, he nevertheless said that the most important message was that Antony must send the queen away. The triumvir flew into a rage and Cleopatra was delighted, supposedly saying that it was good that Geminius had admitted the truth without the need for torture –something to which a senator should never be subject. Geminius left and the queen remained at her lover’s side. Whether or not the story is true, it reflects the growing disquiet of many of Antony’s men. Monarchs were acceptable only if they were clearly subordinate.9

Some of his Roman followers spoke up in favour of the queen’s continued presence. Canidius argued that Cleopatra was one of the most able and experienced monarchs in all the eastern Mediterranean. She had contributed so much to the campaign, and it would be dangerous for the morale of the naval contingent she had supplied if their queen was sent away. Plutarch claims that he was bribed and the papyrus recording the tax exemptions granted to him do testify to Cleopatra’s generosity. Perhaps he was also inclined to adopt a different stance to Ahenobarbus and others out of sheer competitiveness. Yet it is quite possible that he genuinely believed the queen’s presence to be a good thing, whether in its own right or because of the influence she had on Antony.

Most modern scholars have been inclined to agree with Canidius’ claim that Cleopatra needed to remain to foster the morale of the sailors in her warships. Given that many of these seem to have been reluctant conscripts, this is highly unlikely. Even less probable is the idea that she inspired the many recruits from the Hellenistic provinces included amongst the legions and fleet, and that these men were somehow fighting against the Romans. An oracle foretelling the conquest of Rome by the east is the only evidence cited in support of this claim, but there is no good reason to date the document to this period. That many provincials hated the Romans is unsurprising. Roman imperialism was brutal, the decisions of the Roman authorities often arbitrary and many of their governors savage in their exploitation of conquered and allied peoples. Antony was more tactful in his respect for Greek sensibilities, but was no less exploitative, especially as he prepared for the confrontation with Octavian. He did not offer an alternative to Roman rule, merely a slightly softer version. The conflict was a Roman civil war. Only Octavian tried to portray it as a struggle between east and west.10

Antony wanted Cleopatra beside him. Her money and her ships were of great use, but his need for her companionship was greater still. Antony enjoyed luxury, something his lover was good at providing in inventive ways, and needed affection and flattery, at which she excelled. She made him feel better and either this blinded him to just how politically damaging her presence was or persuaded him that this price was worth paying. Philippi was now ten years ago and since then his only major operation had ended in disaster. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Antony had lost much of his confidence and assurance on the retreat from Media. Perhaps he no longer believed that he could function without Cleopatra staying close to him.

She may well have sensed this and felt that it was not safe to let him go to war on his own. Cleopatra had become ruler of an expanded realm through Antony’s generosity. If he lost the war, then she too might lose all that she had gained. To this end she committed the resources of her kingdom to support him. It was understandable if she also wanted to be close at hand, to help secure victory in any other way that she could, if only through advising Antony. Cleopatra had very little military experience, but it is not clear that she realised this and may have felt that at least she could help her lover to be decisive and resolute in prosecuting the war. Perhaps she did help in the planning, for moving and feeding such a large army and fleet was a major project.

There was another reason for her presence. Tension had been high between Octavian and Antony on several occasions in the past and yet they had pulled back from the brink of war and come to a settlement. This might well happen again, and if it did, then Cleopatra needed to make sure that her own interests were secure. She did not wish to become an acceptable loss, permitting Antony to return peacefully to Rome and the heart of the Republic. Whether or not such a fear was realistic, it was entirely understandable.11

Politics mingled with passion. Both Antony and Cleopatra were ambitious, and neither had survived the dangerous worlds of the Ptolemaic court and Rome’s fractured Republic without a strong streak of ruthless self-interest. For a combination of reasons he wanted her beside him and she also felt that this was important. The decision played into Octavian’s hand, as he whipped up fervour against the foreign queen and her Roman puppet who threatened Italy itself. By the late summer he was ready. Reviving – or quite possibly inventing – an archaic ritual, he acted as a fetial priest and presided over a sacrifice in the Temple of Bellona, the war god. Taking a spear dipped in the blood of a sacrificial animal, Octavian hurled it into a patch of earth symbolically representing Egypt. War had been declared by the Roman Republic against Cleopatra. Nothing was said of Antony, although everyone knew that the real fight was actually against him, and that the former allies were fighting for supremacy.12

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Neither side was ready to fight and, apart from that, it was late in the campaigning season. Antony was subsequently criticised for not invading Italy immediately, for Octavian had not gathered all of his forces and was facing opposition as he introduced extraordinary taxes to raise money for the war. Although Octavian had plenty of soldiers, and a fleet experienced and confident after the defeat of Sextus Pompey, he was very short of funds. He was not yet ready for war, but nor could he afford to let the conflict last too long. As usual, both sides were promising generous bonuses to their legionaries. Antony minted a series of coins showing a war galley on the face, with the eagle and two signa standards on the reverse and listing the name of one of the units in his army.1

The combination of warship and army standards emphasised that this war would be fought on both land and sea. Antony had added three more legions to the sixteen brought by Canidius, but even our sources suggest that these formations were below strength. In addition, he had allied foot soldiers, some of them armed with bows, slings and other missiles, and a strong force of cavalry. Plutarch claims that he had altogether 100,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry. Octavian had a similar force of cavalry and some 80,000 infantry. Some of his legions remained to garrison the provinces and Antony had also left a smaller proportion of his own troops behind, including a force of four legions to defend Cyrenaica. Plutarch credited Octavian with only 250 warships, but other sources suggest that the figure was larger and he may have had nearer 400.

The figures given for the totals of warships may well be accurate, but as usual the figures for the armies look suspiciously like rounded up totals based on a number of legions assumed to be at full theoretical strength. The totals are probably too large. Nevertheless, the armies were clearly very big by Roman standards, even if most of the legions were substantially under strength. It is quite possible that as many soldiers were involved in this campaign as had fought in the rival armies at Philippi. Both in 31 BC and at Philippi the opposing commanders relied more on numbers than subtlety. From the beginning they faced serious logistical challenges, as they operated at the upper limit of force size feasible for the Romans’ military and logistic systems.2

It did not help that the military and naval forces were unbalanced. The oared warships employed by both sides carried exceptionally large crews in proportion to their size, since their main motive power came from the teams of rowers. A quinquereme (‘five’) carried 280 rowers and twenty deck crew. (Most warships had three banks of oars. They were named after the team of rowers needed to operate one set of three oars. Therefore a ‘five’ had a team of five men, two sitting at the highest bench wielding one oar, two more on the middle bench to use the middle oar, and finally one sitting on the lowest bench to row the lowest oar. A ‘five’ was a standard warship, but bigger vessels, such as ‘sixes’, ‘eights’ and ‘tens’ were also in use.) There was very little space to carry food and water even to feed this crew. If battle was expected the larger warships could take on board 100 or so soldiers for a short period – ideally, just the day of battle itself. They could not carry this many men for any distance, and certainly not with the food, tents and other equipment they would need to operate. There was absolutely no question of their carrying significant numbers of cavalry mounts and pack and baggage animals.3

Antony had 300 transport ships. These had to bring regular convoys of grain and other food, much of it travelling from Egypt to Greece, for it was impossible in the long term to supply so many soldiers and sailors from locally available stocks. Some of the ships, especially the larger vessels, would always be needed for this task. That left even fewer to transport soldiers, animals, short-term reserves of food and fodder, and equipment. Antony could not hope to carry his entire army in a single convoy, and probably it would require several. It certainly seems to have taken a while to ferry the legions across the Aegean in the spring and summer of 32 BC. Any invasion of Italy would have to take place in several stages and this would make it more difficult for his warships to protect the convoys. The vagaries of the weather added another uncertainty. Any vessels lost to enemy action or storm would not be available for future convoys, in addition to the actual losses of men and matériel killed or captured with them.4

It was late in the summer of 32 BC before Antony’s forces had concentrated on the western coast of Greece, and he and Cleopatra took up residence at Patrae on the Gulf of Corinth. The weather in the autumn and winter months was less likely to be good and that argued against an immediate attack. In addition, the east coast of Italy has few natural ports and past experience had shown that it was difficult to take Brundisium or Tarentum. Antony decided against an immediate invasion. He was not in a rush, unlike Octavian whose finances were stretched almost to breaking point.

Apart from better weather, the difficulties of transporting and landing an army in Italy would be just as serious when the spring arrived. By the end of the year it was clear that he planned to let Octavian come to him. Antony would wait in Greece, hoping to harry the enemy’s convoys as they crossed the Adriatic. We do not have a figure for the merchant vessels available to Octavian, but it is probable that he faced similar problems to Antony and would not be able to carry his army across at once. At least in the beginning, the advantage ought to be with Antony, whose forces should significantly outnumber the enemy. There was also a political element. Invading Italy with Cleopatra at his side would alienate any potential supporters there.

Modern scholars have generally applauded Antony’s plan as sensible and the only practical option. Yet it is worth remembering that this was the same strategy adopted unsuccessfully by Pompey in 48 BC and Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC. On both of those occasions, the defenders had enjoyed a greater naval superiority than Antony now possessed and yet this had failed to prevent the attacker from landing sufficient troops to prevail — if narrowly in 48 BC. Sulla had won a civil war from Greece, but only by using it as a base from which to invade Italy. Defensive strategies did not work well in Rome’s civil wars, for they immediately handed the initiative over to the enemy. It created an impression of passivity and weakness, which made it unlikely to convince waverers to join. Once again, Antony was losing the political battle.5

There were also practical difficulties in implementing such a strategy. The coastline of Greece offers abundant natural harbours and is dotted with islands, many of which were potential landing bases. Geography encouraged Antony to spread his forces out to cover as wide an area as possible. The constant problem of feeding the sailors, soldiers and animals over winter also made it desirable to disperse them. Antony spread his ships and land forces from Methone in the south of the Peloponnese to the island of Corcyra in the north. Further north, he stationed no significant forces on the coast of Epirus. Probably the largest concentration of ships was at Actium, where the Gulf of Ambracia offered an extensive natural harbour. Substantial stores were massed there to supply these squadrons and the position was fortified. High towers, probably containing artillery, guarded the mouth of the bay.6

The campaigns in 48 BC and 42 BC had been fought in the north, in Macedonia and Thessaly. Antony abandoned this area and the main route of the Via Egnatia. Perhaps he was inviting Octavian to land there, confident that there would then be sufficient time to concentrate his own forces and confront and destroy the enemy. Yet at the moment Antony’s defenders were spread dangerously thinly along a coastline where armies could not move rapidly. For the winter this was not much of a risk, and he and Cleopatra settled down to pass these months pleasantly at Patrae, waiting to see what Octavian would do in the spring. There were some diplomatic exchanges. Octavian asked Antony to withdraw from the coast and permit him to land, promising that they would then fight the decisive battle within five days. Antony replied by challenging his younger opponent to single combat. Neither proposal was serious, but they were intended as proof of confidence.7

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


On 1 January 31 BC Octavian became consul for the third time, with Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus as colleague. Antony had been stripped of the consulship awarded to him back when the triumvirate was secure. Octavian again had formal power as a magistrate of the Republic. Antony continued to call himself triumvir, although he promised to lay down his power once he had achieved victory. At first he said this would be two months after the war was won, but Dio claims that friends persuaded him that there would be much work to do and so he ought to wait for six months. Octavian held legal imperium and that was some advantage. A far greater one was the utterly loyal assistance of his old friend, Agrippa, by now a gifted general and one of the finest admirals Rome ever produced.8

With winter barely over, Agrippa attacked, striking at Methone. It was Antony’s southernmost outpost, somewhat isolated from the rest of his forces. To get there Agrippa had to sail further than the northern route. This was always a risk in war galleys, whose range was limited by the difficulty of carrying much food and water for the crew. If he had been repulsed, or badly delayed by the weather, he could easily have got into serious difficulties. The gamble paid off. Antony’s men were not prepared and the harbour town was swiftly overrun. The enemy ships were destroyed or captured and one of their commanders, the exiled King Bogud of Mauretania, was amongst the dead. Octavian and Agrippa now had a base on the Greek coast.9

Antony had expected the main attack to come in the north, but instead the enemy had struck in the south. Wrong-footed, he was thrown further off balance when Agrippa launched a succession of raids along the Greek coast, reaching as far as Corcyra. In the confusion, Octavian crossed the Adriatic in the north and began landing the army at Panormus, a little to the north of Corcyra. As far as we can tell, each of his convoys went unmolested by Antony’s squadrons and soon the bulk of his troops were safely in Greece. He occupied Corcyra, which had been abandoned by Antony’s garrison in the confusion caused by Agrippa’s raids. Octavian marched south along the coast, his ships raiding ahead of the army.

Antony reacted slowly, and he and Cleopatra tried to present a façade of calm. Perhaps it was genuine and they were still confident of inevitable victory given the size of their forces and their belief in Antony’s own talent. Dio makes him boast of his generalship in a speech to his men: ‘you are the kind of soldiers that could win even without a good leader, and… I am the kind of leader that could prevail even with poor soldiers’. When news arrived that Octavian had occupied a town in Epirus called Torone (meaning ‘ladle’), she joked that why should they worry ‘if Octavian is sitting on the ladle’-the word was also slang for penis. Antony began to react to the invasion, but his forces were widely dispersed and would take time to concentrate.10

Octavian’s target was Actium, and although he was unable to surprise the squadrons there, he managed to occupy the hill – today known as Mikalitzi – which dominated the peninsula forming the northern entrance to the Gulf of Ambracia. Antony arrived soon afterwards, having moved up from Patrae and camped on the southern side of the bay. For the moment he had only an advance guard and so declined the enemy’s offer of battle. As more of his soldiers arrived, his confidence grew and he established a second smaller camp on the north side of the bay, close to Octavian’s position. Antony then deployed his men in battle order, but the enemy refused to commit to battle now that they had lost their advantage in numbers.

Octavian’s hilltop position, reinforced by earthworks connecting it to the sea and offering protection to his ships, was too strong to risk a direct assault. It was also considerably better placed than Antony’s main camp, which lay in low-lying, waterlogged ground, rife with mosquitoes. Disease became a serious problem, with so many soldiers and sailors concentrated in a small area. Probably the main culprits were malaria, dysentery and other stomach complaints. Men fell sick and many died. Desperate measures were taken to conscript more rowers for the fleet, and perhaps these suffered especially badly. Paid less than legionaries, and probably fed less well, such recent recruits were unlikely to take readily to the discipline of the camp, where in ideal circumstances care was taken to regulate hygiene, especially in the digging of latrines. Disease and desertion whittled away at Antony’s strength.

The stand-off extended from spring into summer. Octavian sent some raiding parties into northern Greece, but failed to draw off any significant enemy force to deal with them. Instead, Antony began work on a line of fortifications behind Mikalitzi Hill, hoping to deny Octavian’s men access to the River Louros, which provided their only source of fresh water. A series of skirmishes was fought to control this position, mostly by cavalry while the infantry worked. Octavian’s men won all the major encounters and it proved impossible for Antony’s men to maintain the blockade.11

Agrippa continued to range along the coast. Just south of the entrance to the Gulf of Ambracia lay the island of Leucas — the ‘White Promontory’, named after the high limestone cliffs along one of its shores. Agrippa destroyed the Antonian squadron based there and captured the island. This made it much harder for Antony’s reinforcements and supplies to reach Actium by sea. It also provided a better anchorage for Octavian, whose ships might have suffered badly in the preceding months if luck had turned against him and a major storm had blown up.

An even more startling blow came shortly afterwards when Agrippa captured Patrae, then Corinth itself. More of Antony’s ships and stores were taken, but as importantly the enemy now dominated the waters around the west coast of Greece. The supply route bringing grain from Egypt was effectively severed, destroying one of the main props for his strategy. Food ran short in Antony’s camp at Actium, which in turn worsened the damage done by disease. Orders were sent out to confiscate food from the cities of Greece. Plutarch’s great-grandfather recalled how his home city of Chaeronea was forced to provide grain. There were nowhere near enough animals to transport the heavy sacks and so the citizens were compelled to carry them on their backs, urged on by blows from Antony’s men.12

By late summer the situation for Antony at Actium was only getting worse, and for a while he considered marching away from the coast and taking the war inland. Dellius and a Thracian nobleman were sent to Macedonia and Thrace to recruit new contingents of auxiliaries and also to explore this possibility. It would have meant abandoning the ships in the harbour, unless these could break out. Antony for a while also led a force inland. Encouragement came when Sosius managed to attack an isolated squadron of enemy ships and defeat them, but on the way back he was caught by Agrippa and badly beaten. The blockade remained in place. Antony returned to Actium, but was himself beaten in another cavalry action. Plutarch claims that at one point he narrowly avoided capture by an ambush set by Octavian’s men.13

Morale plummeted in Antony’s camp and a visible sign was the abandonment of the smaller camp. The entire army withdrew to the original, highly unhealthy site. The situation looked desperate and the troops despaired of his ability to do anything to change this. Domitius Ahenobarbus left in a small rowing boat and joined Octavian, but was already ill and died soon afterwards. Antony made the same gesture Caesar had done to Labienus, by sending Ahenobarbus’ baggage after him. Dellius – who had in the past twice managed to quit a losing cause before the end came – also left. He claimed that Cleopatra was plotting against him, because he had joked about the poor quality of the wine served at a feast, compared to the ‘best Falernian’ vintages drunk at the table of Sarmentus. The latter was a freed slave, famed for his good looks and willingness to exploit them, who had risen to the equestrian order and become an intimate of Maecenas, and through him of Octavian.14

As well as a number of senators, client monarchs also began to change sides. Octavian was joined by the rulers of Paphlagonia and Galatia, the latter bringing 2,000 cavalrymen with him. Increasingly distrustful and suspicious of his subordinates, Antony ordered the execution of a senator and an Arab king, as well as other unnamed men. By the end of August it was clear that nothing was to be gained by remaining where he was. His army and fleet were dwindling. There were now barely enough crew to man some 230-240 warships and many of the rowers were recent conscripts.15

The legions had also suffered, but remained a formidable force, and Canidius argued that it was best to abandon the fleet and move inland. Antony disagreed and decided to break out by sea, leaving Canidius to march the army to safety. Ancient sources saw this as part of his obsession for Cleopatra. Some of the ships were hers and, most importantly, her treasury was probably too bulky to carry away over land. Modern scholars tend to strain every nerve to justify Antony’s decision, the most optimistic arguing that he still hoped to win a decisive battle at sea, while most simply see the breakout as the best option of continuing the war. A few realistically point out that he had already lost the campaign. For other Romans, there could be no doubt that Antony failed as a commander at Actium. A good Roman general never gave in and rallied as much of his force as possible, leading them away to renew the conflict at a later stage. This was the virtus expected of a Roman aristocrat. Abandoning his army, in the hope that a subordinate would lead them in an escape, was against all the values of his class.

Bad weather delayed the breakout for several days. All of the ships that could not be crewed were burnt. It was sensible to prevent them from falling into enemy hands, but was also a clear sign of desperation and despair. Cleopatra with some sixty or so ships remained in reserve, carrying her money and courtiers. The remainder were formed into three squadrons, with the left wing commanded by Sosius, the centre by Antony supported by Marcus Insteius and Marcus Octavius — a distant relative of Octavian who had also fought for Pompey against Julius Caesar — and the right by Gellius Publicola. Cleopatra’s ships, and probably some or all of the others, carried sails on board. This was unusual, since oars were the only effective way of controlling a galley in battle and masts were usually left onshore because of their bulk and encumbrance. It is harder to know whether the crews knew that the aim was to break out and not to fight. This was certainly kept secret from the legions to be left onshore. Some of these men were put on board the ships to act as marines, but their comrades were to be abandoned.

By this time Octavian had around 400 ships, some of them captured during the last months. Antony had a number of very large galleys — ‘tens’ and ‘eights’, although the bulk of his fleet were ‘fives’ and ‘sixes’ — giving him a slight advantage, but nowhere near enough to offset the enemy’s superiority in numbers. Even more importantly, many of Agrippa’s crews had years of experience – as vital for teams of rowers to perform effectively as for captains to control their vessels. They deployed in a shallow arc facing the enemy, with Agrippa on the left, Lucius Arruntius in command of the centre and Marcus Lurius on the right. Octavian was also on the right and would share the danger with his men, but wisely left control of the battle to Agrippa.16

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
On 2 September 31 BC Antony’s fleet came out of the Gulf of Ambracia. They formed up, and then the two sides faced each other for several hours. Neither wanted to fight too close inshore. Agrippa wanted the enemy to come further out, so that his more numerous ships would be able to envelop the enemy line. He seems to have dissuaded Octavian from an unlikely plan of letting the enemy through and then hitting them from the rear. Antony faced the problem of getting past the island of Leucas. For this he needed to wait for the afternoon, when usually a wind picked up blowing north-north-west. To outpace the enemy, Antony’s ships would need the wind behind them and enough room to clear Leucas. This meant that they needed to be some distance out to sea when the wind changed to the right direction.17

Halfway through the day the wind began to veer and Antony at last gave the signal for a general advance. Agrippa still wanted more sea room, so instructed his own ships to back water, rowing away from the enemy. Only once he was satisfied that there was space to threaten the enemy’s flanks, did he give the signal to attack. The opposing fleets closed and then the fighting broke down into contests between one or two ships on either side. Ramming was rarely very effective against the bigger galleys used by both sides. More effective were missiles fired from the deck and from the raised towers carried in battle by most warships, and by boarding. Larger ships could be dealt with if attacked by more than one smaller vessels.

Agrippa struggled to envelop the enemy right and Antony’s squadron commander Publicola moved away from the centre to prevent this. The Antonian ships eventually formed a rough line at an angle to the rest of their fleet as they tried to fend off Agrippa. In the centre, large gaps had opened as these manoeuvres took place. At this point, Cleopatra’s squadron hoisted sail and headed for this space. Once they were far enough out to take advantage of the wind, they began to move too fast to ram or board, for at these speeds ships did not manoeuvre quickly. However, more importantly they were moving too fast for the enemy to have much chance of intercepting them.

Antony saw them go and left his flagship – one of the great ‘tens’-and transferred by rowing boat to a smaller ‘five’, which presumably had not yet been engaged or was otherwise in better shape. This, too, hoisted sail and followed the queen. Some of his other warships were able to go with him. Agrippa’s ships were not carrying masts and sails so had little chance of catching them, apart from the need to keep fighting the remaining enemy vessels. Only two ships were intercepted and taken, and perhaps some seventy to eighty galleys managed to escape with Antony and Cleopatra. At least two-thirds of the fleet was left behind. Fighting continued for some time, although the scale and intensity of the combat is hotly debated.18

Octavian’s propaganda exaggerated the ferocity of the struggle to overcome Antony’s larger ships. There certainly was some fighting and the stories of Agrippa’s crews using burning projectiles to set fire to the enemy vessels appear in several sources and are probably true. Plutarch says that there were 5,000 casualties, but is not explicit as to whether these were combined losses for both sides, or only those suffered by Antony’s fleet. Most scholars, as usual inclined to be bloodthirsty, see this as a low figure, and this convinces them that the fighting was limited. That is possible, although it is equally possible that in a battle fought not far from the shore many crews of sunken ships were saved from drowning — we read, for instance, that Sextus Pompey had an organised rescue service using small boats.19

Some of Antony’s warships were sunk or burnt. Others eventually surrendered. A significant number backed water and re-entered the Gulf of Ambracia. Agrippa’s men may have let them go, feeling it was not worth taking casualties to destroy ships that were still under a blockade, which they were incapable of breaking. Canidius led the army inland, but supplies would soon run short and there was nowhere for them to go. Even if they had reached the coast somewhere away from the enemy, there were no ships to evacuate them. These were Antony’s legions. They did not fight for a cause, but for a general who had rewarded them generously in the past and promised more in the future. Now, that commander had abandoned them and there was no reason for them to suffer and die on his behalf. In spite of Canidius, army officers began to negotiate with Octavian, who was generous. Several legions were preserved, the soldiers from the remainder were either posted to serve in one of his legions or, if they were due for discharge, were to be given land as part of his veteran settlement. Canidius fled.20

Antony had abandoned the bulk of his fleet at Actium. The army he left behind had changed sides within a week. All that remained was a third of his fleet, and the legionaries serving on board as marines. These were only a small minority of his legionaries and the number may have been less if Cleopatra’s vessels had not been reinforced in this way. The queen’s treasure had been saved, but neither this nor all the revenue she might extract from her kingdom in future would be able to replace the legions and fleet he had lost.

It may well have made sense to get the queen and her money away from the blockade at Actium. Yet there was no need for Antony to follow her if that was the sole aim of the battle. It is unlikely that even his presence could have allowed his outnumbered warships to defeat the enemy. Yet the remainder of the fleet might have withdrawn to the harbour in better order, saving more of the crews and the embarked legionaries. If Antony in person had led the army away from the coast then the soldiers were far more likely to have remained loyal. There was even the remote possibility that he could have fought and won a decisive battle to turn the campaign around, just as Caesar had done at Pharsalus. If not, then he might just have managed to withdraw. At the very least he would have put up a struggle, refusing to admit defeat in a properly Roman way.

Instead, Antony fled, having sacrificed the lives of some of his men to make his escape and leaving the rest to their fate. Worse still, he had run to be with his mistress. Some sources later blamed her for treachery, claiming that the cowardly eastern woman had been willing to abandon even her own lover to escape herself. This was mere propaganda, for it is clear – not least from the fact that the ships were carrying masts and sails – that the manoeuvre was premeditated. What is less clear is whether the intention was for the entire fleet to escape, or whether they were simply to create a path for Cleopatra and her squadron. The former seems more likely. If the latter was consciously planned, then Mark Antony had already effectively conceded defeat in the struggle with Octavian.

Cleopatra, or whoever actually led the squadron, in fact displayed considerable coolness rather than panic in waiting for the right moment and then finding the gap in the battle lines. This required some courage, but it remains true that in every respect Antony and Cleopatra’s plan was self-centred. They saved their own skins — and her treasure — without apparently giving any thought to the men they left behind, the soldiers and sailors enlisted to fight and perhaps die on their behalf.21

At Actium, Antony failed to display the courage and military skill — the virtus — expected of a Roman senator. With the utter assurance of an aristocrat, Antony had never felt any particular need to obey conventions. He was an Antonius, and nothing would change that or mean that it was not his right to be one of the great leaders of the Republic. In the past he had often displayed courage, even if he was far less experienced and capable as a commander than his own myth-making suggested and posterity has believed. At Actium he abandoned fleet and army to escape. This alone would have been enough to doom him, discrediting him forever in the eyes of his peers. It seemed to confirm all that Octavian’s propaganda had been saying about him, a man so enslaved that he was as emasculated in spirit as Cleopatra’s eunuchs were physically.

Antony’s cause was broken, with no reason left beyond personal obligation for any Roman to rally to his cause. In practical terms he had lost the great army and fleet he had assembled and had no realistic chance of replacing them. The war was over and Antony had lost. It was only a question of time before the end came.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Cleopatra’s men sighted Antony’s quinquereme following them and she ordered them to make a signal of recognition. Probably they slowed and he was able to come on board. His mood was grim and he refused to speak to his lover. The pause in their flight seems to have allowed some enemy ships to catch up. These were of a type known as Liburnians, which were small, but fast. For a while his energy returned and Antony boldly faced about to meet them. One ship was lost, but the pursuit was also broken. Afterwards, he is supposed to have sat alone at the prow of the queen’s ship. Plutarch, who tells the story, says that he did not know whether Antony was consumed with shame or rage. On the third day they landed at one of the southernmost points of the Peloponnese. Cleopatra’s two closest attendants, probably her maids Charmion and Iras, managed to persuade him to join her. The lovers talked, ate together and slept together for the remainder of the journey. They were joined by some transport ships and also a few more galleys that had managed to escape from Actium, and perhaps this encouraged Antony. He took the money carried aboard one of the transports and gave generous gifts to his remaining followers.

They sailed to the North African coast, landing at Paraetonium (modern-day Mersa Matruh), some 200 miles west of Alexandria, where they separated. Cleopatra went back to her capital city, while Antony looked to rally his only remaining army of any significance. Four legions had been left in Cyrenaica under the command of Lucius Pinarius Scarpus — a great-nephew of Julius Caesar, who had been mentioned as a minor heir in the dictator’s will. It was a very modest force to set against the armies of Octavian, who controlled a much larger army than Antony even before he had enlisted the latter’s legions left behind in Greece. Pragmatically, Pinarius now changed sides, declaring allegiance to Octavian and executing the handful of his officers who resisted. The vast majority had no great desire to die for a lost cause. When the news reached Antony, his companions had to restrain him from killing himself.1

Cleopatra remained far more determined. When her ships sailed into the Great Harbour at Alexandria, their prows were garlanded and musicians played. There was probably always ceremony when one of the Ptolemies entered or left the city, but in this case these were symbols of victory. Confident that news of Actium would not have preceded her, the queen took up residence in her palace. Yet she knew that her position was weak and promptly ordered the execution of many prominent Alexandrian aristocrats before any tried to challenge her. They were killed and their property confiscated. Much of her war chest must already have been spent to fund the campaign, and it was clear that nothing could be achieved without substantial money. Gold and other treasures were levied from the survivors and also taken from her country’s many temples. Artavasdes of Armenia, kept prisoner since 34 BC, was also executed, perhaps in an effort to please the king of Media and so secure his support, or possibly to take his remaining treasure. A late and rather questionable source claims that priests from southern Egypt now offered to fight for her. For some this is taken as a sign of her widespread popularity amongst Egyptians. If it in fact occurred, the fear generated by her recent purge would have provided as strong an incentive.2

Antony came to Alexandria, but once again sank into depression. A mole extended into the great harbour, from a point near the temple to Poseidon. Antony either converted an existing royal house built on the end of this or had a new structure built onto it. Giving up for the moment on being Dionysus or Hercules, he aped a famous – and semi-mythical – Athenian named Timon, who lived virtually as a hermit, lamenting his sorrows and loathing his fellow citizens. (Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens was later inspired by the stories told of this man.) For a while Antony indulged himself in self-pity and bitterness, living in relative, although no doubt fairly comfortable, solitude.3

There was opportunity for such theatrical displays, because in the aftermath of Actium Octavian had not launched a concerted pursuit. The immediate priority had been to deal with the Antonian fleet and the legions left behind. After the latter defected, Antony ceased to be a serious military threat. It was more important to secure Greece. Very quickly the various communities sent representatives to make their peace with the victor. The inhabitants of Charonea had been about to make another trek, carrying grain to Antony’s camp, when news arrived of Actium. They stayed at home and divided the stockpiled grain amongst themselves.4

Octavian was generous to most of the communities of Greece and the eastern provinces. Some were again called upon to give money or art treasures to another Roman leader to gain his support. Antony’s appointees to the thrones of the eastern kingdoms all switched sides in the months after Actium. Herod was one of the last, and sent the royal regalia to Octavian, before presenting himself in person. It was important to keep the provinces and allied kingdoms stable and, apart from that, the men appointed by Antony had generally done all that the Romans required of them. They had obeyed him because he had represented Roman authority throughout the region. None saw any reason to lose power and perhaps their lives now that his strength was broken. Nor did any see the civil war as a chance to throw off the Roman yoke, any more than they had done in previous Roman conflicts.5

In the middle of winter, at a time when sea travel was normally avoided, Octavian hurried back to Italy to deal with a crisis. There was continued discontent over the taxes he had raised for the war and, in response, he now drastically reduced his demands. Maecenas claimed to have discovered and suppressed a plot to seize power led by Lepidus’ son, who was promptly executed. More serious was discontent amongst soldiers due for discharge. Now that he had taken on responsibility for Antony’s nineteen legions in addition to his own forces, this task was massive in scale, but the veterans were impatient at any delay. Octavian had to appease the mutineers in person, but he needed money to fund the generous land allocations he had just promised. Seizing the wealth of Egypt became all the more pressing.6

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Cleopatra was far more active than her lover: she ordered the construction of ships at one of the ports on the Red Sea coast and some of her existing vessels were dragged overland from the Nile to join them. The labour involved was massive, adding to the already major task of moving her treasury to the port. From there she – and presumably Antony – could sail away, with enough wealth to ensure their comfort and sufficient courtiers and mercenaries to protect them. They might live in luxurious exile or even carve out a small kingdom in India. Perhaps she even dreamed of returning from exile, as she had done almost two decades before. For these plans her money was spent and the toil of her subjects expended. It was not to be, however. King Malchus – the Nabataean ruler whose lands Antony had ceded to Cleopatra – had little love for the queen and a natural desire to ingratiate himself with Octavian. Malchus attacked and burned the ships before the project was complete.

Cleopatra had not left Alexandria and was able to coax Antony into re-joining her in the palace. Canidius arrived to tell of the loss of the army and there was continued news of defections. There were still moments of optimism and grand plans. They may have considered sailing to Spain in the hope of reviving the war there. Unlikely though this sounds, one of Octavian’s officers was busy building fortified positions on the Spanish coast. It was probably too great a distance to travel without secure bases en route and, for whatever reason, the idea was abandoned.7

Antony was happy to revel in luxury once more. Cleopatra arranged a grand celebration for his birthday on 14 January 30 BC. He was fifty-three. She let her own birthday pass in far more modest fashion, eager to focus attention on him and rebuild his confidence. The queen was thirty-nine. Their society of 'Inimitable Livers’ was disbanded and instead they formed a new club – the 'Sharers in Death’. The name was inspired by a play, telling of lovers who believed that their deaths were certain, although on the stage the story ended in a last minute reprieve.8

The state of mind of both Antony and Cleopatra in the winter and spring of 30 BC is harder to judge and no doubt their moods swung. Both had survived apparently hopeless situations in the past and perhaps this encouraged them to cling on to hope now. The queen is supposed to have taken an interest in poisons, allegedly watching tests on condemned prisoners to see how quickly and reliably they died and the degree of pain and discomfort involved. Death was another form of escape, but neither of them was inclined to rush to that fate or to fail to explore other possibilities. Cleopatra made arrangements for Caesarion to be sent with treasure and an escort to India, doing on a smaller scale what she planned for all of them.9

Caesarion was now about sixteen, and in a public festival Antony and Cleopatra celebrated his coming of age. He was enrolled in the ephebeia at the gymnasium, a quintessentially Greek ceremony. At the same time Antyllus, who was about fourteen or fifteen, also became formally a man, donning the toga virilis. It was seen as a promise that even if Antony and Cleopatra should die, then their heirs were ready as adults to take over their power. In particular, the promotion of Caesarion was intended to assure her subjects that the regime was stable. Perhaps it was also hoped that there would be more chance of his being allowed to remain as king if he was already firmly established.10

Both Antony and Cleopatra repeatedly and independently wrote and sent messengers to Octavian in an effort to bargain. She assured him of her loyalty to Rome and at some point copied Herod’s gesture of sending the royal regalia, including the throne, sceptre and diadem. No doubt there were generous gifts and the promise of far greater wealth if either she or her children were permitted to keep some or all of her kingdom. Antony employed a friendlier version of his bluff style, now hearty in talking of their former friendship and amorous adventures they had shared in the past. He offered to go into retirement, asking permission to live in Athens if he was not allowed to stay with Cleopatra in Alexandria.

Octavian made no concrete offer to either of them, at least publicly, although Dio claims that he secretly promised Cleopatra her kingdom if she killed Antony. Much of the negotiation was done by freedmen from their respective households, although Antony also sent Antyllus on one occasion. The youth brought gold, which Octavian took, before sending the boy on his way without making any concrete proposal to carry to his father. It is interesting that Antony and Cleopatra chose to contact their enemy independently, and that he preferred to reply in the same way. In his case, Octavian clearly hoped to encourage suspicion between the lovers that the other might make a separate deal.

One of Octavian’s representatives to the queen was a freedman called Thrystus, a man of charm and clear diplomatic skill. He was granted long private audiences with Cleopatra, prompting a mistrustful Antony to have him flogged and sent back to Octavian. Antony said that if the latter wanted to respond he could always give Hipparchus a whipping – referring to one of his own freedmen who had long since defected to the enemy. On another occasion he sent a different type of present, his envoys bringing a captive Turullius, last but one of Caesar’s assassins. The prisoner was sent to Cos and executed there, both for the murder and his desecration of the sacred grove.11

Antony had little to offer, apart from voluntary retirement and a quick completion of a war that in any event could not last very long. His armies had dwindled away and the only group to declare open allegiance to him was a force of gladiators at Cyzicus in Asia Minor. Condemned to die in the arena, these men seem to have hoped to be turned into soldiers and win their freedom from Antony. Eventually they were suppressed and, although promised life by their captors, they were treacherously executed. Lepidus had been allowed to live, although the recent conspiracy involving his son may have made Octavian question the wisdom of this. Antony had always been a stronger figure and he had two Roman sons, one of whom had just come of age. To spare his beaten opponent would have been a great display of clemency, but also a gamble.12

Cleopatra was better placed. Octavian needed to draw on the wealth of her kingdom, and she was in a position to make this easier for him. If she chose to resist, then in the short term she could also rob him of the revenue he desperately needed to provide for his veterans. Since her return to Alexandria, the queen had gathered a great deal of the readily accessible wealth of the kingdom. Much of this she stored in the mausoleum she was preparing for herself— the location is unknown, but it was near a great temple to Isis. Combustible material was piled inside the tomb, so that the building and its treasure could easily be destroyed if she issued the order. Even if the precious metals could be retrieved, it would take time before they could be restored to usable form. The preparations were not kept secret. Cleopatra was preparing for her death at the same time as she bargained for life.13

In the summer of 30 BC Octavian attacked Egypt from two directions. An army came along the coast from Cyrenaica in the west, supported by a fleet. It included the four formerly Antonian legions and probably some of Octavian’s own troops. The whole force was under the command of Caius Cornelius Gallus, a descendant of Gallic aristocrats who had been brought into public life by Caesar. Octavian himself advanced from Syria in the east, marching overland to Pelusium along the traditional invasion route. Antony had whatever legionaries had been carried on board the ships from Actium, along with whatever forces had been stationed in Egypt or had been raised since his return. At most he is unlikely to have been able to muster a force equivalent to a couple of legions and auxiliaries, along with a small navy.14

Antony first confronted the force approaching from the west, hoping to persuade his men to return to their former allegiance. Gallus is supposed to have had his trumpeters sound a fanfare to blot out the words. Antony attacked and was repulsed, then Gallus managed to lure the enemy ships into attacking the harbour and trapped them there. Antony and the remnants of his forces withdrew. In the meantime, Pelusium had fallen, apparently without a fight. Dio claims that Cleopatra had betrayed the fortress to the enemy. The commander of her garrison there was named Seleucus and Plutarch says that she had this man’s wife and children executed for his failure. This may have been genuine anger, an attempt to quash the rumour or even to conceal her involvement.15

Coming back from his defeat, Antony bumped into Octavian’s vanguard and was able to rout some cavalry. He had archers shoot arrows into the enemy camp, each with a message tied to the shaft, offering the soldiers 1,500 denarii each if they came over to his side. None did. Even so, Antony returned to Alexandria – the action had been fought on the outskirts of the city – and without bothering to take off his armour, embraced Cleopatra and kissed her in suitably Homeric fashion. One of his cavalrymen had distinguished himself in the skirmish and Antony presented the man to the queen, who rewarded him with a helmet and cuirass decorated with gold. Perhaps the soldier was one of the bodyguard of Gauls he had given to her some years before. Whatever his background, he deserted to the enemy that night.16

‘The Sharers in Death’ held a last feast that night. It was lavish in scale, but tearful, with Antony talking openly of his desire for an heroic death – scarcely an encouraging topic for the night before a battle. Overnight, it was said people heard music and chants, just like one of the Dionysiac processions so favoured by the two lovers. The sound seemed to leave the city, as if the god was abandoning it. The Greeks and Romans were inclined to believe that the deities associated with a place left before a disaster. The Roman army regularly performed a ceremony intended to welcome the gods of a besieged city into new homes freshly prepared for them by the besiegers.17

Antony had planned an ambitious combined attack for the following day, 1 August 30 BC. It would begin with warships attacking the enemy fleet and this would be followed by an assault on land. There was no realistic chance of victory, or at least not of any success that might actually turn the tide of the war. This may explain what happened next. Antony watched as his warships closed with the enemy, but was amazed to see them stop and raise their oars out of the water, a gesture of surrender. Closer to him, his cavalry followed their example, choosing this moment to defect. His infantry – less able to move quickly, less sure of each other’s mood or truly loyal –remained. They attacked and were quickly beaten. Antony returned to the palace and Plutarch claims that he was yelling out that the queen had betrayed him. Dio simply states that Cleopatra had ordered the ships’ captains to defect.

Most of the ships to escape from Actium were hers. Some may have been lost in the attempt to reach the Arabian coast, but any built to replace them were constructed and crewed at her expense. In most respects the naval squadrons were hers rather than Antony’s and so it is certainly possible that she had arranged their defection in secret negotiations. Most modern historians dismiss this as propaganda aimed at blackening her reputation. They may be right, and the truth in such cases was unlikely to have been widely known even at the time. However, there was absolutely nothing to be gained by fighting. Possessing the fleet gave a bargaining counter and giving it up could well have been a gesture of faith. Unconditional surrender either then or in the past months meant simply trusting to the mercy of the conqueror. Cleopatra hoped to persuade Octavian to make her a deal and that meant conceding slowly, demonstrating both her capacity and willingness to be of assistance. Giving up Pelusium, and later ordering the surrender of her fleet, would make sense as gestures, making Octavian’s conquest easier and less costly in lives. These would be coldly pragmatic decisions, but they were certainly not impossible ones.18

Cleopatra was a survivor who had clung on to power for almost twenty years amidst all the intrigues of the Ptolemaic court and the chaos of Roman civil wars. It would have been out of character for her to despair and it is clear that she had not yet done so. She might be able to save something of her own power, or if not then secure the position of some or all of her children. Caesarion was vulnerable after the emphasis on his paternity in the struggle with Octavian, but he had already been sent away on the long journey that should eventually take him to India. Her children by Antony might well be more acceptable to the young Caesar, and the Romans liked to employ client rulers. Their father may already have been beyond salvation.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


While Antony’s army dissolved around him, Cleopatra went to her mausoleum. It was a two-storey structure, with a single door and one or more large windows on the upper storey. Construction work was not yet complete and there were ropes and other building equipment for raising and placing the stone blocks still around it. She went inside, accompanied only by her two maids and a eunuch. Mechanisms were sprung, dropping into the doorway a stone barrier to close the entrance permanently. Sealed in with her treasure, the queen obviously did not expect her lover to join her. Both Plutarch and Dio say that she told her courtiers to tell Antony that she was dead.19

He believed the report and his anger against her turned to sorrow and a desire to join his lover in death. Plutarch makes him regret that the queen had been the first to take this courageous step, so that he – the great commander – had to follow her example. Retiring to his chamber and taking off his armour, he asked a slave to help him do the job, just as Brutus and Cassius had done. Although this generation of Roman aristocrats had become so enamoured of suicide, most still realised that it was a difficult thing to do cleanly and quickly. Even the determined Cato had not succeeded at his first attempt. On the retreat from Media, Plutarch says that Antony had asked one of his bodyguards to perform the task. His choice now was different and fell on an attendant named Eros, who had already been told to prepare for this final service to his master. Taking Antony’s sword as if to guide and give force to the thrust, instead the slave ran himself through.

Inspired by this gesture, Mark Antony then stabbed himself in the stomach, slumping back to lie on a couch. Either there were others in the room or they were attracted by the noise. Antony regained consciousness and begged them to help him die. None would, and some or all of them then fled. Plutarch says that at this point Cleopatra sent one of her scribes to have Antony brought to her, although does not explain how she knew what he had done. Dio claims that the cries of his attendants had made the queen look out from a window in the mausoleum. Someone saw her and told Antony, who realised that his lover was not dead. He tried to rise, collapsed from the exertion, then ordered them to carry him to her.

The door to the mausoleum was sealed and so they used some of the builders’ ropes to raise him on a bed up to the window, Cleopatra and her servants pulling hard to lift his weight. After a struggle, they brought him into the tomb and laid him out. After this effort she is supposed to have wept loudly, tearing her clothes and striking and scratching her own chest in grief. Antony begged her to be calm, then asked for wine and drank. It may have hastened the end and he died soon afterwards, with the queen beside him. Plutarch has him say that his end was a good one for a ‘Roman, conquered valiantly by a Roman’, but it is hard to know how anyone could have known what he said. These were good dying words, both for Octavian’s propaganda and for those Romans who cherished Antony’s reputation.

At best his suicide had been a series of misunderstandings, but since both our main sources report that some of the confusion was deliberately created by Cleopatra, then it is hard not to believe that she planned to separate her own fate from that of Antony. The report of her death was bound to make him react. He might flee from Alexandria, although with another invader to the west it would have been hard for him to go anywhere but to the south, and there was little chance of his rallying support there. Perhaps he would surrender or let himself be captured, suffering imprisonment or execution as Octavian saw fit. Most likely he would do what he did and take his own life. Cleopatra knew him as well as anyone and must have guessed how he would react. She did not kill her lover, and most certainly had not in the past months stooped to murder, although admittedly Antony’s Roman friends would most likely have reacted violently had she done so. Yet the false message made it likely that he would take his own life, or leave, or be killed in some other manner.20

Whichever action he took, Antony would be out of the way and leave her to negotiate her own settlement with Octavian. For it is clear that Cleopatra had no intention of being a ‘Sharer in Death’, at least for the moment, and she was to survive him by more than a week. Ensconced in her mausoleum, surrounded by her treasure and the means to destroy it, she had a few cards left to play. That does not mean that her grief for Antony was any less real, even if— perhaps especially if — it was tinged with an element of guilt through having to sacrifice him so that there was a chance for her and any of her children to survive with dignity and perhaps power. Cleopatra mourned her lover and she and her attendants did their best to treat the body properly. There was nothing she could have done to save him.

Octavian entered Alexandria with more show than actual use of force. He summoned the population to a public meeting in the gymnasium. There, he addressed them in Greek. Unlike Antony and most Romans of his class, he was not entirely comfortable in the language, in part because his education had been cut short by Caesar’s murder. He assured the Alexandrians of good treatment and brought before them a philosopher named Areius, whom he planned to use as a local representative. The inhabitants of the city did not respond with the enthusiasm they had kept for Antony, but there was certainly general relief.21

Antony’s suicide in turn relieved Octavian of having to deal with him and the stigma likely to follow his execution. He could afford to be magnanimous and put on a display of grief, reading Antony’s letters to his senior staff and speaking of their past friendship. Cleopatra and her treasure presented a problem, even if they were not a threat to his victory. Whatever contact and secret negotiation had occurred, either no agreement had been struck or she was not yet prepared to rely on his good faith. Octavian sent an equestrian named Caius Proculeius along with a freedman to the mausoleum to speak to the queen. In Plutarch’s account of his death, Antony is supposed to have told her that she could trust Proculeius, although once again it is hard to know how the author could have obtained this information. None of the witnesses wrote an account of what happened, although it is possible that they did tell others about what had happened in the days before they died. Proculeius and the queen spoke, but she refused to come out and he returned to report to Octavian.

Next, Proculeius returned with Cornelius Gallus and it was the latter who led the negotiations. As on the earlier occasion, she did not come to the window, but shouted through the sealed door. While Gallus kept her attention, Proculeius and two slaves put a ladder up against the side of the building and climbed in through the window. Going down to the ground floor, they grabbed hold of Cleopatra, thwarting her attempt to stab herself with a knife. The eunuch died in the struggle, perhaps of snakebite or poison, but the queen and her maids were taken as prisoners back to the palace.22

Cleopatra was given permission to attend to the funeral arrangements for her dead lover, a task that several prominent Romans and other client rulers are said to have requested. Romans, and especially the aristocracy, in the first century BC generally cremated the dead and then interred the ashes in a tomb. Antony’s body does not seem to have been burned, but was embalmed and probably placed in a coffin. Alexander the Great had been mummified, and so were many of the Ptolemies, at least from the second century BC onwards. However, the full process took seventy days, and could not have been completed before Cleopatra herself was dead.23

From grief, and an infection in the cuts she had given herself with her own nails, Cleopatra fell ill, developing a fever and refusing to eat. She was treated by her doctor, Olympus, who later wrote an account of her last days, which was used by Plutarch. He said that the queen had lost the will to live, but then rallied a little when told that Octavian wished to see her, perhaps unwillingly because it was said that he threatened to harm her children.

Dio and Plutarch present the encounter in dramatically different ways. The former has Cleopatra dressed to look at once pitiful and beautiful — much as she had first met Caesar. She reclined on an elaborately decorated couch in a grand apartment, surrounded by pictures and busts of Caesar, with his letters clutched to her bosom. When Octavian entered, she rose to greet him, not the proud queen, but the respectful and open suppliant. Her talk was mainly of Caesar and she read extracts from his letters, pausing sometimes to weep and then kiss the papyrus. Dio has Octavian refuse to look at the beautiful petitioner when he replied, but simply assure her that her life was not in danger. The queen went down on her knees to beg, but could get no more than this, even when she begged him to let her join Antony in death. Propaganda emphasised that the virtuous Octavian was not to be seduced like Caesar and Antony, but in reality the situations were so different that this was never likely.

Plutarch’s account of Cleopatra’s final days is a good deal more sympathetic, and indeed far warmer than his portrayal of the rest of her life. He depicts her wearing only a tunic or shift, her hair dishevelled and lying on a mattress of plain straw. Yet perhaps his version is not so different in that he also maintained her looks were still striking. Plutarch’s Cleopatra pleaded that she had had no choice but to obey Antony and that the guilt was his. Octavian is supposed to have patiently disproved all her arguments.

Both our sources make it clear that they discussed her wealth, Cleopatra listing her property in some detail. A royal attendant named Seleucus – presumably not the general of the same name, but someone equally keen to win Roman approval – spoke out to say that she was omitting many valuable items. Plutarch says Cleopatra grabbed the man by the hair and repeatedly struck his face. Then she explained that she was keeping aside some of her most precious jewellery to present as gifts to Livia and Octavia. Dio also says that she hoped to win favour from Octavian’s wife and sister and that she offered to sail to Rome. Imaginations were doubtless given free rein in both accounts of this dramatic encounter. Yet there is nothing implausible in the claims that Cleopatra was willing to try charm, pathos, flattery, the musical qualities of her voice and the force of her looks and personality to persuade the conqueror. It was only sensible to employ every means still left to her.24

The meeting ended with little resolved. Octavian was determined to take her to Rome to be led in triumph and believed that the meeting had reassured her and restored her willingness to live. It is doubtful that at any point he or anyone else suggested that she be executed at the end of the triumph. This had never been done to a woman and, even with male leaders, this ritual was not always followed. Yet it was probably also clear that although her life would be spared she would not be permitted any power. Comfortable exile, perhaps in Italy or just possibly somewhere in the Greek world, was the extent of his mercy. Octavian had also pointedly not promised to let any of her children rule as monarchs. He would soon annex Egypt, but it was to be a province different from any other, virtually run as a personal possession of Octavian and his successors. It was vital for him to exploit its resources directly and equally important to prevent any rival from ever controlling them.

Cleopatra was disappointed. The most she could take away from the meeting was the satisfaction of convincing the Roman leader that she would not try to take her own life. Retirement held no appeal for her, especially since she was denied the satisfaction of passing power to her children. The prospect of being led as a captive along the Via Sacra for the amusement of the Roman mob repelled her. Plutarch claims that a sympathetic young aristocrat on Octavian’s staff secretly let her know that she must undergo this ordeal. She decided to kill herself. 25

Some scholars have speculated that, in spite of his attempts to keep the queen alive, it was actually more convenient for Octavian to let her die or even have her killed.

Therefore the guard placed over her was loose enough to give Cleopatra every chance to commit suicide. The example of Arsinoe, who won the Roman crowd’s pity when she was led in Caesar’s triumph, is cited. It is possible that a similar reaction was feared, but given that Cleopatra was much older and had been portrayed so strongly as Rome’s enemy, then it was far from certain. As a famous captive she would grace Octavian’s triumph and for the rest of her life be a visible sign of his clemency. On balance, it is more likely that he wanted to keep her alive. It would surely have been possible for her to be killed ‘accidentally’ in the confusion of Antony’s defeat had he wanted this — at least once her treasure was secured.26

The precise method of the suicide tends to be discussed at great, even excessive length, to the extent that it sometimes overbalances far more important episodes in her life. Our ancient sources were clearly unsure over precisely what happened and it is therefore highly improbable that we can solve every detail of the mystery. If the bite of a snake was the method used, then people have speculated about the precise species of asp or viper, and then wondered how many animals would be required to kill both Cleopatra and her two maids. The most likely candidate is the Egyptian cobra, which can grow to 6 feet and so would have been harder to conceal, especially if two or three were needed. Plutarch tells a story of a snake being smuggled into the royal chamber, concealed in a basket of figs, whereas in Dio’s version it was a basket of flowers. Both report other versions and other sources of poison — for instance, a hollow pin that Cleopatra wore in her hair and which contained a fatal poison. The substance may have been snake venom collected at an earlier time. Strabo talks of a poisonous ointment.27

The broad details are more certain. On 10 August 30 BC Cleopatra probably went to visit Antony’s corpse one last time. Presumably it was still in her mausoleum and the entrance to this had now been opened, if only to remove the treasure. None of our sources suggests that the queen and her attendants had to climb a ladder to get in and out again. Returning to the palace she bathed, dressed once more in royal finery and with only Charmion and Iras for company, took a sumptuous last meal. Earlier she had sent a letter to Octavian, confident that it would not arrive in time for him to stop her.

Cleopatra then killed herself. One of the sources reported faint scratches or punctures to her arm and this was the only visible mark on her. Whether made by the fangs of a snake or by the point of a pin is unknown. If she did use a cobra, then its venom can cause convulsions in the latter stages. Her attendants took care to lie their mistress down on a couch, keeping her body, clothes and jewellery as immaculate as possible. After that they too took poison in some form, allowing themselves to be bitten by snakes or drinking or otherwise ingesting a fatal substance. By the time Octavian had received the letter and sent men to the royal chamber, Iras was already dead, lying at the feet of the queen. The dying Charmion was struggling to make last minute corrections to Cleopatra’s royal diadem.

Plutarch says that one of the men angrily called to her that this was a fine thing. ‘Truly a fine deed, becoming a queen descended from so many kings,’ Charmion replied, and then collapsed and died. Whether or not the story is true, it was a fittingly theatrical final scene for Cleopatra’s story.28

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


All attempts to revive the queen failed. Octavian ordered special snake handlers known as Psylli to be brought, since these were credited with being able to suck poison from wounds. He was said to be angry, but treated the body with all due respect. Cleopatra was interred alongside Antony in the mausoleum she had built. Octavian was more scornful of earlier Ptolemies. He paid a visit to the tomb of Alexander, not simply looking at the corpse within the crystal sarcophagus, but reaching inside to touch it, and accidentally snapped off part of the nose. When asked if he would like to see the tombs of Cleopatra’s family, he said that he had come to see a king and not a load of corpses.1

Based on the well-established tradition of entertaining visiting Roman dignitaries, he was also asked if he wanted to see the Apis bull. Octavian was not interested, saying that he worshipped ‘gods and not cattle’. He was far more concerned to gather as much gold and other treasure as possible, a task made easier by Cleopatra’s energetic fund-raising since her return from Actium. Dio says that he did not need to commit sacrilege by confiscating property from the temples.

He may have received additional ‘gifts’ from the temple cults. Plutarch claims that Antony’s statues were destroyed, but a man named Archibus paid 1,000 talents to Octavian to protect the images of the queen. Many of these would have been carved onto temples and their destruction likely to cause wider damage to the physical structure and prestige of these shrines. Some doubt the story altogether, but others suggest that the man was a representative of one of the priestly cults. Even if that is so, the gesture need not be an indication of particular fondness for Cleopatra. Octavian wanted money, and it was better for the temples and more convenient for him if this was willingly’ given rather than taken. The temple cults would also naturally hope to prove as useful to the new Roman occupiers just as they been to the Ptolemies.

Apart from treasure there were other trophies. Two ancient obelisks were taken to Rome, one to form the gnomon of a giant sundial constructed by Octavian. (Today it stands in the Piazza di Montecitorio. The other is in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano.) On a smaller scale, the pearl earring that survived Cleopatra’s trick with vinegar was split into two and placed in the ears of the statue of the queen in the temple of Venus Genetrix. Some suggest that the statue itself came to Rome as part of Octavian’s spoils, rather than being set up in Caesar’s day.2

Antony and Cleopatra were not the only victims of their defeat. Canidius was executed, as was Cassius of Parma, the last survivor of Caesar’s assassins. Rather more of Antony’s closest followers managed to change sides before it was too late and at the very least saved their lives. Sosius, the consul of 32 BC who had led the attack on Octavian in the Senate and later commanded the left wing of the fleet at Actium, surrendered and was well treated. Marcus Licinius Crassus, grandson of Caesar’s ally, defected somewhat earlier and was rewarded with the consulship in 30 BC. Munatius Plancus did well out of the new regime and after a long life was interred in a monumental mausoleum, which stands to this day at Gaeta on the coast of Italy. It was said that many of Octavian’s closest companions in the years to come were men who had once followed Antony.3

Antyllus did not long survive his father. The teenager, who had only a few months before becoming a man, was dragged from the shrine to Caesar built by Cleopatra in Alexandria. He was beheaded on Octavian’s orders. His tutor had betrayed him and then stolen a valuable gem the youth wore as a pendant. The jewel was discovered hidden in the tutor’s belt and he was crucified.4

Caesarion was also betrayed by his tutor on the journey to the Red Sea. The man’s name was Rhodion, and he either sent word to their pursuers or actually lured his charge back to Alexandria. Caesarion was immediately murdered. Areius the philosopher is supposed to have urged Octavian to give this order, changing a passage of the Iliad to declare that ‘there can be too many Caesars’. (In the original, Odysseus controlled a meeting of the Greeks who were inclined to abandon the war with Troy by physical force, and telling them, ‘Surely not all of us Achaians can be as kings here. Lordship for many is no good thing. Let there be one ruler, one king… to watch over his people.’5 )

On 1 January 29 BC Octavian became consul for the fourth time. Between 13 and 15 August he celebrated three triumphs. The first was for his victories in Illyricum, which he had deferred in 34 BC. The second was for Actium and the third for the capture of Alexandria. An effigy of Cleopatra — and probably pictures as well — was carried as part of the procession. She was depicted with two snakes. This makes it clear that the story of the queen dying from a snakebite was already current and given official support. On the other hand, other forms of poison would have been more difficult to represent. Horace had written: ‘Now is the time for drinking, now stamp the earth in dance’ in a poem celebrating the defeat of Rome’s enemy. Yet later in the same piece he spoke of the queen’s courage in taking her own life. Attitudes towards Cleopatra were already changing. The Romans admired courage, even in an enemy — or at least in a defeated enemy.6

Also included in the triumph were Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, now aged about eleven, and perhaps the seven-year-old Ptolemy Philadelphus. The latter is not mentioned by name, but apart from Antyllus and Caesarion none of Antony’s or Cleopatra’s other children was harmed. All were raised in the household of Octavia. Antyllus’ younger brother Iullus Antonius enjoyed considerable favour until he was involved in the scandal surrounding Octavian’s daughter Julia in 2 BC. It may in fact have been an attempted coup, and certainly the punishments were severe. Julia was exiled. Iullus and a number of other young men from prominent senatorial families were executed. Cleopatra Selene was in due course married to King Juba II of Mauretania. (He was the son of Juba I of Numidia and as a boy had also walked as a prisoner when Caesar celebrated his African triumph in 45 BC.) Her two remaining brothers may have accompanied her to live in the royal court. Juba and Cleopatra Selene’s son Ptolemy succeeded to the kingdom, until he was deposed and executed by Emperor Caligula, who was himself Antony’s great-grandson.7

Caligula was the first of three emperors to be descended from Mark Antony, through the younger Antonia, his second child with Octavia. When Caligula was murdered, he was succeeded by his uncle – and Antony’s grandson – Claudius. The latter was followed by another of Antony’s great-grandsons, this time through the elder Antonia, who married the son of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the man who had defected before Actium. His name was Nero and he proved himself to be one of the least capable men ever to hold imperial power at Rome, although perhaps his love of music and display owed something to his ancestor.

With Nero’s suicide, the Julio-Claudian line of emperors established by Octavian/Augustus came to an end. His creation, the system of imperial rule known as the Principate, would endure for another two centuries, and emperors would rule from Italy until the fifth century and from Constantinople until the fifteenth century. The man who defeated Antony and Cleopatra was Rome’s first emperor, whose reforms fundamentally altered the state. His success was not inevitable. Only thirty-two when Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves, no one would have guessed that he would live on and continue to dominate for another forty-four years. Indeed, given his continuing poor health and bouts of apparently life-threatening illness, his survival was all the more amazing. Octavian became Augustus, and over a long time and after a number of changes of direction, he shaped the system that would govern the empire in the height of its success.

We cannot know how different things would have been if Antony had won, or simply outlived his rival. At no point in his career did Antony suggest strong commitment to any particular reforms. All of his legislation as consul and triumvir was designed first and foremost to bring tangible advantage to himself and his close allies. He does not appear to have wanted to change the state, but simply to have as much power and wealth as possible. In this Antony’s ambitions were highly traditional, even if his methods were extreme. The same could be said of many senators in the last decades of the Republic.

As an adult, Cleopatra’s first concern was always to stay in power. The greatest threats came from her own family and those in the court willing to support them. Arsinoe and her two brothers were disposed of, but she did not live long enough for her own children to challenge her position. The grants of land made to her by Antony, culminating in the Donations, offered a way of maintaining her dominance, becoming ‘Queen of Kings’ and so on a higher level than her offspring. Her survival and this elevation were achieved solely through Roman support.

Julius Caesar’s critics claimed — and perhaps genuinely believed — that he wanted to become a king, and the only real model for kingship was that of the Hellenistic world. Some saw Cleopatra as encouraging his desire, but the evidence makes this unlikely. Caesar was dictator, held supreme power, which he clearly intended to keep, and this was enough to prompt his murder. There is scarcely much more evidence to support the allegations of Octavian’s propaganda that Antony and Cleopatra planned some form of joint rule. Her supposed boast of giving judgement on the Capitol and his alleged plan of moving the centre of rule from Rome to Alexandria are just some of the contradictions in the charges made against them. Antony kept Cleopatra at his side in the civil war. That attested to her importance to him, but was a serious political mistake. He had done nothing to promote her position more formally in a Roman context.

If either Antony or Cleopatra wanted to rule as king and queen of a Roman empire — and this does seem unlikely — then such a plan was utterly unrealistic. Caesar had been murdered for far less, and although since then people had been forced to accept that power lay with the commanders of the strongest armies, they were certainly not ready to accept open monarchy. Octavian toned down some of the grander projects and symbols of his power in the next decade or so. These were far less provocative than the presence of a foreign queen at the side of the man who controlled Rome. If Antony and Cleopatra had won the civil war and tried to rule as monarchs, then they would have failed. He would certainly have been murdered and she might also have perished. Indeed, it is hard to believe that Antony would have survived in the long run even if he had tried to exercise power in a more traditionally Roman way. Subtlety was never his strongpoint and he too readily paraded his power. Opinion at Rome was not yet ready for this. Octavian would take care to veil the reality of his sole power behind a façade of tradition.

Antony’s career reflected the great advantages enjoyed by the established nobility at Rome. He was raised to expect a place at the centre of the Republic and his birth gave him so many advantages that at least some eminence was assured, assuming that he lived long enough. This was true in spite of the heavy debts he inherited from his father and accumulated on his own. The record of his uncle, Caius Antonius Hybrida, is instructive. He was expelled from the Senate in 70 BC and yet managed to become consul in 63 BC. Exiled in the civil war, he nevertheless returned to Rome and public life. Established families like the Antonii had a strong network of clients and connections, bolstered by past favours and the promise of more in the future. They also had the added advantage that their name was well known.

It was because he was an Antonius that Caesar was so ready to promote Antony’s career. Few nobiles joined Caesar in Gaul and even fewer sided with him in 49 BC. Men like Antony were valuable for their name and connections as much or more than any personal ability. The deputies Caesar employed to control Italy in his absence were all men from established families. In the confusion of civil war, Antony gained responsibilities far greater than would normally have been possible for a man of his age, however eminent his family. Luck also played a part. In 44 BC Antony was consul, making him the most senior magistrate when the dictator was murdered. He had immediate power, and the promise of a province and army in the near future. Combined with his name and family connections, this provided the basis for his dominance for the next thirteen years.

None of this had much to do with exceptional talent. Antony began his career with considerable advantages and made the most of his opportunities. In 44 BC he exploited his position as consul to the full, building up his power and influence. Personally brave, he enjoyed considerable success in small-scale engagements, but that was also true of many senators. In more senior positions he proved an adequate subordinate officer to Caesar, but in independent commands Antony failed more often than he succeeded. He was beaten in 43 BC and survived only through the political manoeuvring that created the triumvirate. At Philippi he proved the most able of the four senior commanders, but since none of the others displayed any real skill this achievement should not be exaggerated. Had Brutus been a better general, he might well have turned his success in the First Battle of Philippi into a decisive victory, while Antony was caught up in the details of storming Cassius’ camp. The invasion of Media was a disaster caused largely by his own mistakes. In 31 BC he let the enemy take and keep the initiative, and his only achievement was to break out from the blockade, abandoning two-thirds of his fleet and virtually all of his army.

Antony was not a very good general, in spite of his own public image and the portrayal of him in our ancient sources and modern myth. His political rise allowed him to amass huge resources of men and supplies massed for the attack on Parthia, but he proved incapable of using them well. On its own, a large army is no guarantee of victory. The failure in Media was the turning point in his career. He achieved very little in the years that followed. It is tempting to see him in these years as suffering some sort of mental and emotional breakdown — today we might speak of post traumatic stress disorder — and probably declining into alcoholism, as he struggled to cope with his defeat.

There was nothing in his past career to expect a more competent performance in 31 BC, and yet his behaviour seems so exceptionally lethargic that it again reinforces the picture of a man broken in spirit, and in turn indecisive or rash. Perhaps Cleopatra sensed this and that was one of the reasons she wished to stay beside him in the hope of strengthening his resolve. Yet she was no commander, and while they were able to concentrate a grand navy and army in Greece, they do not seem to have known how to use these forces to achieve victory. In a way, this would bring us closer to Octavian’s propaganda, which painted Antony as controlled by the queen. The difference would be that Cleopatra was not the cause of Antony’s weakness, but the source of whatever strength he had left. The evidence can support this interpretation, but then it can equally support other views. We simply do not have enough information to understand the emotional state and motives of Antony, Cleopatra or any of the major figures in their story. We can only look at what happened.

In spite of his shaky start, Octavian was by this time better able to play the part of a general than Antony. More importantly, he had Agrippa to make the key decisions and actually lead the soldiers and sailors in battle. The skill with which Octavian won the propaganda war has frequently been noted; the degree to which he and Agrippa so far outstripped Antony’s military talent is usually ignored. In 31 BC Antony was outclassed and outmanoeuvred in every important respect. He had resources to match his opponent, but failed to use them anywhere near as well.

Mark Antony had risen to be one of the most powerful men in the Roman world through his family background, joining Caesar and sharing his success, and the chance that placed him at the centre of things when the latter was murdered. He showed some skill as a politician and administrator, but had only limited ability as a soldier. Like the overwhelming majority of politicians throughout history, Antony’s rise owed little to conspicuous talent and far more to good connections, luck and the ardent desire for power, position and wealth. In this respect his career was traditional, and the same was true of his ambitions. This again made him very different to Octavian. The latter could easily have died young or been defeated and utterly discredited by Sextus Pompey. Antony was ready for war –or at the very least for a demonstration of force – against his triumviral colleague by 33 BC. Yet he had not used his time in the east at all well to prepare himself for this conflict.

Cleopatra was more intelligent, and certainly far better educated, than Antony. It is harder to say whether she was more able in other respects. Her political ability was enough to keep her in power for two decades, through harnessing Roman support. We do not really know how popular she was within her kingdom, whether in Alexandria with its mixed population, amongst the Greek community or with the various sections of the wider Egyptian people. Roman force restored her after her exile and kept her in power, just as it had done for her father. Rome dominated the Mediterranean world and this brings us back to one of the basic facts about Cleopatra’s life with which we began. In terms of power and political importance, she was never the equal of Caesar or Antony, or indeed of any Roman senator. Her Roman supporters — and most of all her two lovers — kept her on the throne and added to her territory. She could not have achieved this on her own.

Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies to rule from Alexandria, since Caesarion cannot really be counted as ruling in his own right. Her kingdom was the last of the great powers created in the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire, and in that sense her death marked the end of an era. Yet the rise of Rome had occurred over a long period and was already clearly unstoppable by the time she was born. Cleopatra did not try to resist Rome, but accepted its power and tried best to make use of it.

Antony was the last man to challenge the dominance of Octavian. His death marked the beginning of another new era, the rule of Rome by emperors — three of whom would be his descendants. Later tradition, fuelled by a senatorial class nostalgic for their former political dominance, at times cast him as closer in spirit to Brutus and Cassius on the basis that he had opposed Octavian just as they had murdered Caesar. Such claims make little sense. As triumvir, Antony shared supreme power equivalent to that of a dictator and was unaccountable either to the Senate or Popular Assemblies. There is no doubt that he would also have taken exclusive dictatorial powers if he had been able to seize them. Antony did not fight and lose against Octavian for any vision of the Republic, but for personal supremacy.8

As much as anything else it was the drama of Antony and Cleopatra’s suicides that helped to fuel the fascination with them, which persists to this day. Their stories grew, and over the centuries were embellished so that the truth began to be buried. Cleopatra became the far larger figure, more famous and more important in a way she had never been in life. Today an image of Cleopatra probably owes more to Elizabeth Taylor than the Ptolemaic queen, but is instantly recognisable, whether on screen or as a fancy dress costume. Antony lags behind, rarely mentioned unless in the same breath as Cleopatra.

This is not the place to trace the long cultural history of Antony and Cleopatra, for that is a major theme in itself and has already been dealt with in other books. Here, the focus has been exclusively on the Antony and Cleopatra of history, of what we know, and do not know, and sometimes what we guess. Fiction and drama freely invent and alter, but in the simple history there was ambition, pride, cruelty, ruthlessness, jealousy, deceit, savagery and passion enough. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra lived a quiet life. They will continue to fascinate, their story being retold and reinvented by each new generation. The same is almost as true of their most famous fictional portrayal, as new productions of Shakespeare’s play adopt different styles and presentations. Nothing any historian could say will ever stop this process, nor should it.9

The history is there for those who care to look and, as we have seen, the sources contain many gaps and difficulties of interpretation. It is unlikely that these will ever be filled and the mysteries will remain. There will be fresh archaeological discoveries, but these are unlikely to add more than small details to our picture of the world. The underwater excavations on the site of Alexandria have produced a great quantity of artefacts, although since the city was occupied for so many centuries only a small proportion date to the first century BC, let alone have any direct connection with Cleopatra. Yet such is the appeal of her name and story that people will continue to hunt for places more intimately linked to the queen and her Roman lover.

Recently, one team has claimed to be close to finding the mausoleum in which Antony and Cleopatra were interred – a story that rapidly made the newspapers and television news reports. Nothing has come of this so far, and such a find seems unlikely. It is true that such a discovery might provide much new information, although this would inevitably be mainly personal and not in any way alter our understanding of the politics of the time. Even so, as an historian, any new discoveries would be of interest. Yet in the main, I cannot help hoping that the excavators are unsuccessful. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra enjoyed much peace in their lives (although it is of course arguable whether or not they deserved more or less than they experienced). It would seem a shame if their remains ended up on display to crowds of tourists, or even examined, stored and catalogued in a museum basement. Both Cleopatra and Antony separately expressed the wish to be laid to rest next to the other. Better to let them stay like that, in the tomb that she began and was completed after their suicides.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra

753 BC
Traditional date for foundation of Rome by Romulus.

Expulsion of Rome’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus, and the creation of the Republic.

Alexander the Great visits Egypt and founds Alexandria.

Death of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy I becomes satrap of Egypt.

Ptolemy I declares himself king.

Reign of Ptolemy I Soter

Death of Ptolemy I, accession of Ptolemy II.

Reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus

Ptolemy II sends ambassadors to Rome, establishing friendly relations and encouraging trade.

Death of Ptolemy II.

Reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes I

Death of Ptolemy III.

Reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator

Ptolemy IV defeats Seleucids at the Battle of Raphia.

First Macedonian War between Rome and Philip V of Macedon ends in a peace treaty.

Death of Ptolemy IV.

Reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes

Rome wins the Second Punic War with Carthage.

Romans defeat King Philip V of Macedon at the Battle of Cynoscephale.

Second Macedonian War between Rome and Philip V ends in his defeat. Rosetta Stone set up recording decree of Ptolemy V.

Rome defeats the Seleucid Antiochus III in the Syrian War at the Battle of Magnesia.

181 /180
Death of Ptolemy V.

First reign of Ptolemy VI Philometor

First reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Physcon as co-ruler

Rome defeats Perseus of Macedón in the Third Macedonian War at the Battle of Pydna. His kingdom is dissolved. Roman embassy forces Antiochus IV to withdraw his army from Egypt.

Ptolemy VI flees to Rome and appeals unsuccessfully to the Senate.

Ptolemy VIII flees to Rome and appeals unsuccessfully to the Senate.

Second reign of Ptolemy VI Philometor

Ptolemy VIII controls Cyrenaica.

Ptolemy VIII tries to occupy Cyprus, but is captured and returned to Cyrenaica.

Third Punic War ends with destruction of Carthage.

Ptolemy VI killed intervening in civil war in Syria.

Reign of Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator

145 /144
Ptolemy VII murdered by Ptolemy VIII.

Second reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Physcon

Tribunates and death of Caius Sempronius Gracchus.

Reign of Cleopatra III Euergetis

First reign of Ptolemy IX Philometor Soter II Lathyrus with Cleopatra III

Marcus Antonius (Antony’s grandfather) elected quaestor. He is tried and exonerated on a charge of seducing a Vestal Virgin.

First reign of Ptolemy X Alexander I with Cleopatra III

Ptolemy IX forced out of Egypt, and gains, loses and retakes Cyprus.

Five successive consulships for Caius Marius, who campaigns against and defeats the migrating Cimbri and Teutones.

Cleopatra III expels Ptolemy X from Egypt.

Marcus Antonius serves as praetor and governs Cilicia, where he campaigns successfully against pirates and is awarded a triumph.

Ptolemy X returns to Alexandria and murders Cleopatra III.

Second reign of Ptolemy X Alexander I with Cleopatra Berenice

Political violence in Rome as the tribune Saturninus is suppressed. Birth of Julius Caesar.

Consulship of Marcus Antonius.

Censorship of Marcus Antonius and Lucius Valerius Flaccus.

The Social War, the last great rebellion by Rome’s Italian allies.

Sulla marches his legions on Rome and seizes the city.

Marius occupies Rome. Marcus Antonius murdered. Ptolemy X expelled from Alexandria. Ptolemy X killed in naval battle.

Second reign of Ptolemy IX Philometor Soter II Lathyrus

83 (or 86)
Birth of Mark Antony.

Sulla returns from the east and wins the civil war, making himself dictator.

Death of Ptolemy IX. For some months Cleopatra Berenice (daughter of Ptolemy IX and niece and widow of Ptolemy X) is sole ruler.

Reign of Cleopatra Berenice

Ptolemy XI (son of Ptolemy X), returns to Egypt. He marries and then murders Cleopatra Berenice.

Reign of Ptolemy XI Alexander II

Ptolemy XI killed by mob. Ptolemy XII (illegitimate son of Ptolemy IX) seizes power.

First reign of Ptolemy XII Auletes

Unsuccessful coup of the consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (father of the triumvir).

Marcus Antonius (father of Antony) serves as praetor and is given an extraordinary command against the pirates.

Slave rebellion in Italy led by Spartacus, eventually suppressed by Crassus.

Marcus Antonius defeated by the pirates. He is ironically dubbed Creticus, but dies before returning to Rome.

71 or later?
Antony’s mother Julia marries Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura and Antony is raised in his house.

Consulship of Pompey and Crassus. Censors expel Lentulus and Antony’s uncle, Caius Antonius, from the Senate.

Birth of Cleopatra.

Conspiracy of Catiline. Lentulus arrested and executed by Cicero after the Senate has passed the senatus consultum ultimum.

First consulship of Julius Caesar and dominance of the first triumvirate, his alliance with Pompey and Crassus. Ptolemy XII recognised as king and friend of the Roman people after paying them a heavy bribe.

Tribunate of Clodius. Roman annexation of Cyprus and suicide of Ptolemy (younger brother of Ptolemy XII). Ptolemy XII flees Alexandria and goes to Rome. His daughter Berenice IV is appointed queen.

Reign of Berenice IV

Aulus Gabinius made proconsul of Syria. He recruits Antony to command some or all of his cavalry.

Gabinius and Antony campaign in Judaea.

Second consulship of Pompey and Crassus. Ptolemy XII Auletes persuades Gabinius to restore him to his throne. Antony plays a conspicuous role in the expedition to Egypt. Auletes is restored and executes Berenice IV.

Second reign of Ptolemy XII Auletes

Crassus appointed proconsul of Syria and begins invasion of Parthia. Gabinius returns to Rome and is tried on several charges and eventually forced into exile. Late in the year Antony joins Caesar in Gaul.

Crassus defeated and killed by Parthians at Carrhae. Antony goes to Rome to campaign for election to the quaestorship. Elections delayed by political violence. Antony attempts to kill Clodius.

Clodius murdered. Pompey made sole consul to restore order. Antony elected quaestor. He returns to Gaul and serves at the siege of Alesia.

Death of Ptolemy XII Auletes. He is initially succeeded by Cleopatra ruling alone. Antony commands a legion during punitive expeditions in Gaul.

First reign of Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra forced to accept her brother Ptolemy XIII as coruler. Antony returns to Rome to seek election as augur and as tribune. Tribunate of Curio. Political tension heightens as his enemies attempt to have Caesar recalled from Gaul and prevent him from going straight into a second consulship. Antony becomes augur and tribune elect.

Antony’s tribunate. The Senate passes the senatus consultum ultimum.Antony, his colleague, Cassius and Curio flee Rome and hurry to Caesar. Caesar invades Italy to start civil war. Antony serves with Caesar as he overruns Italy. Pompey retreats to Greece. Antony left as tribune with propraetorian imperium to administer Italy. Caesar defeats Pompeian forces in Spain. Curio takes Sicily, but is killed in Africa.

Cleopatra flees from Egypt and raises an army.

Caesar’s second consulship. He leads invasion of Macedonia. Several months later he is joined by Antony and reinforcements. They are repulsed at Dyrrachium, but win a decisive victory at Pharsalus. Cleopatra leads invasion of Egypt, but is confronted by Ptolemy XIII’s army. Pompey arrives in Egypt and is murdered. Caesar arrives, demands money and declares that he will arbitrate in the dispute between the siblings. Caelius and Milo rebel in Italy and are killed.

Alexandrian War. Briefrule of Arsinoe. Death of Ptolemy XIII. Arsinoe captured and taken to Rome. Cleopatra rules jointly with younger brother Ptolemy XIV. In his absence, Caesar made dictator for a year, with Antony as his Master of Horse. The latter administers Italy. Caesar and Cleopatra cruise the Nile. Birth of Caesarion.

Second reign of Cleopatra VII

Tribunate of Dolabella. Senate passes the senatus consultum ultimum, but only when Antony brings troops into Rome is the tribune suppressed. Caesar returns after Zela campaign.

Caesar’s third consulship, with Lepidus as colleague. Antony holds no formal office and perhaps out of favour. Dolabella taken by Caesar to Africa. Caesar wins African War at Thapsus. He is made dictator for ten years, with Lepidus as Master of Horse. Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV visit Rome and their rule is formally recognised. Caesar celebrates four triumphs. Arsinoe appears in the Egyptian triumph.

Caesar’s fourth consulship. Caesar wins Spanish War at Munda and returns to celebrate triumph. Antony publicly restored to favour and named as consul for the next year. Caesar made dictator for life. Twenty-four-hour consulship of Caninius Rebilus on 31 December.

45 /44
Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV visit Rome again.

Caesar consul for the fifth time with Antony as colleague. In February, Antony plays a controversial role at the Lupercal. Caesar is murdered on 15 March. Dolabella becomes colleague. Antony rallies crowd against conspirators at Caesar’s funeral. Cleopatra returns to Egypt. Death/murder of Ptolemy XIV. Ptolemy Caesarion made co-ruler with Cleopatra VII. Antony seeks to build up own power on the basis of Caesar’s notebooks. Cicero begins to deliver the Philippics. Octavian arrives in Rome and accepts Caesar’s legacy. Antony goes to Cisapline Gaul and besieges Decimus Brutus at Mutina.

Octavian joins the consuls Hirtius and Pansa to defeat Antony, who retreats into Transalpine Gaul. Hirtius killed in battle and Pansa dies of wounds. Brutus seizes power in Macedonia and arrests Caius Antonius. Cassius seizes power in Syria. Dolabella defeated and commits suicide. Antony and Lepidus join forces. Octavian made consul in November. Octavian joins Antony and Lepidus to form the triumvirate. Decimus Brutus captured and executed. Caius Antonius is executed in reprisal. The triumvirs occupy Rome and begin proscriptions. Cicero is one of the victims.

Julius Caesar deified. Both sides prepare for war. Cleopatra’s subordinate in Cyprus aids Cassius, but the queen unsuccessfully attempts to take a squadron of ships to join the triumvirs. The two battles of Philippi are fought in October. Cassius and Brutus defeated and commit suicide. Antony placed in charge of the eastern provinces. Octavian returns to Italy. Power of Sextus Pompey steadily grows, allowing him to blockade Italy.

Antony levies taxes and appoints leaders throughout the east. Herod and his brother made tetrarchs in Judaea. Antony summons Cleopatra to Tarsus and they become lovers. Lucius Antonius consul and begins to agitate against Octavian. Arsinoe executed at Ephesus.41–40
Antony and Cleopatra winter in Alexandria. Perusine War breaks out in Italy, with Lucius Antonius and Fulvia rallying Antony’s veterans and dispossessed farmers against Octavian. Antony’s commanders fail to intervene effectively and Lucius is besieged in Perusia. He surrenders and is sent to govern Spain, where he dies. Fulvia and Antony’s mother Julia flee to Athens.

Cleopatra gives birth to the twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Parthians and their ally Labienus invade and occupy Syria. Labienus invades Asia Minor. Parthians support an attack on Judaea. Hyrcanus deposed. Herod escapes to Egypt, but declines offer of employment from Cleopatra. He goes to Rome. Antony travels to Athens, where he repudiates Fulvia. He sails to Italy and is joined by the Republican Domitius Ahenobarbus. They are refused admission to Brundisium and begin a siege. Reluctance of soldiers to fight each other encourages negotiation and leads to the Treaty of Brundisium. Lepidus marginalised. Octavian and Antony renew their alliance and the latter marries Octavia.

Negotiations with Sextus Pompey to relieve the blockade of Italy lead to the Peace of Misenum.

39–38 Antony and Octavia spend winter in Athens. Ventidius Bassus defeats Labienus and the Parthian prince Pacorus in a series of battles, reconquering Asia and Syria.

Octavian marries Livia. Renewal of conflict between Octavian and Sextus Pompey. Sextus wins two sea battles. Antony comes to Italy for a meeting, but Octavian fails to turn up. Antony goes to the east and takes over siege of Samosata, which eventually surrenders.

Antony again travels to Tarentum. This time negotiations occur and result in the Pact of Tarentum. Antony returns to the east, but sends the pregnant Octavia back to Italy. He appoints several client kings, including Herod, Polemo, Archelaus and Amyntas of Galatia. Antony summons Cleopatra to Antioch and they renew their affair.

Sextus Pompey wins another victory, but is then decisively beaten at Naulochos. Lepidus attempts to seize control of Sicily and is deposed, his legions defecting to Octavian. Antony leads disastrous expedition to Media. Cleopatra gives birth to Ptolemy Philadelphus. Antony returns to the Mediterranean coast and summons Cleopatra.

Sextus Pompey flees to Asia and is killed. Antony spends winter in Alexandria. Octavia arrives with praetorians and supplies for the army. These are taken, but she is told to return to Italy.

35 —33 Octavian campaigns in the Balkans.

Antony consul for the second time, but remains in the east and resigns after a day. Antony leads small expedition to Armenia and captures King Artavasdes, probably through treachery. He is taken back to Alexandria and led in a Dionysiac procession into the city. The Donations of Alexandria occur soon afterwards.

Octavian consul for the second time, but resigns after a day. Agrippa is aedile and continues his extensive building and amenities programme in Rome. Octavian and his supporters begin more open criticism and attacks on Antony. Antony’s army concentrates on the Euphrates, but then he orders it to march to Asia Minor and begins to concentrate his forces in Greece. Antony and Cleopatra spend winter in Ephesus. Powers of the triumvirate formally lapse at end of the year. Octavian pretends to obey this. Antony ignores it and continues to use the title, but talks of laying it down in the future.

Domitius Ahenobarbus and Sosius consuls and begin attacks on Octavian. He replies and they flee to Antony. Antony and Cleopatra visit Samos and then Athens. Antony divorces Octavia. Munatius Plancus defects to Octavian. Octavian takes Antony’s will from the Temple of Vesta and has it read publicly. The communities of Italy take an oath of personal loyalty to Octavian. War declared on Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra station their forces along the western coast, with their headquarters at Patrae.

Octavian consul for the third time. Agrippa captures Methone and then raids as far as Corcyra. Octavian lands in Epirus and moves south to threaten Actium. Antony concentrates at Actium, but comes under blockade after Agrippa captures Leucas, Patrae and Corinth. Antony attempts to break out on 2 September, resulting in the Battle of Actium. Most of his fleet and all his army are abandoned and soon defect or are captured. Antony’s legions in Cyrenaica defect to Octavian. He and Cleopatra return to Alexandria. Octavian returns to Italy to deal with mutinous troops and other unrest.

Octavian invades Egypt from the east, while Cornelius Gallus invades from the west. Antony’s forces defect or are defeated. He kills himself on 1 August. Cleopatra captured by Octavian and there is a period of negotiation. She kills herself on 10 August. Antyllus dragged from the Caesareum and killed. Caesarion betrayed and killed.

Octavian returns to Rome and becomes consul for the fourth time. He celebrates three triumphs. Antony and Cleopatra’s children are amongst the prisoners in the Egyptian triumph.

Octavian given the name Augustus.

c. 20 King Juba II of Mauretania marries Cleopatra Selene.

13 Death of Lepidus.

12 Octavian becomes Pontifex Maximus. Death of Agrippa.

2 Julia exiled. Iullus executed.

Death of Augustus.

37–41 Reign of Caligula.

40 King Ptolemy of Mauretania (son of Juba and Cleopatra Selene) executed by Caligula.

41–54 Reign of Claudius.

54–68 Reign of Nero.

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra


Aedile: The aediles were magistrates responsible for aspects of the day-to-day life of the city of Rome, including the staging of a number of annual festivals. Usually held between the quaestorship and the praetorship, there were fewer aediles than praetors and the post was not a compulsory part of the cursus honorum.

The dynasty founded by Antigonus Gonatus controlled Macedonia from the second quarter of the third century BC. Only the Ptolemies and Seleucids rivalled the power of the Antigonids amongst the Successor kingdoms. The last king was deposed by the Romans after his defeat in the Third Macedonian War in 168 BC.

Aquilifer: The standard-bearer who carried the Legion’s standard (aquila), a silver or gilded statuette of an eagle mounted on a staff.

Auctoritas: The prestige and influence of a Roman senator. Auctoritas was greatly boosted by military achievements.

Augur: One of the most important priestly colleges at Rome, the fifteen augurs were appointed for life. Their most important responsibility was the supervision of the correct observation and interpretation of the auspices, taken regularly as part of Roman public life. Mark Antony became an augur in 50 BC. During his dictatorship, Julius Caesar added a sixteenth member to the college.

Auxilia (auxiliaries): The non-citizen soldiers recruited into the army during the Late Republican were known generally as auxiliaries or supporting troops.

Ballista: A two-armed torsion catapult capable of firing bolts or stones with considerable accuracy. These were built in various sizes and most often used in sieges.

Cataphract: Heavily armoured cavalryman often riding an armoured horse. These formed an important component of the Parthian army.

Centurion: Important grade of officers in the Roman army for most of its history; centurions originally commanded a century of eighty men. The most senior centurion of a legion was the primus pilus, a post of enormous status held only for a single year.

Century (centuria): The basic sub-unit of the Roman army, the century was commanded by a centurion and usually consisted of eighty men.

Cleruchy (pl. cleruchies): Originally, cleruchs had been soldiers given land (literally, a kleros or field) by the Ptolemies and other Successor kings in return for military service. By Cleopatra’s day the system had long since decayed. Cleruchies became purely hereditary, passing to daughters as well as sons, and the obligation to serve in the army was forgotten.

Cohort (cohors): The basic tactical unit of the legion, consising of six centuries of eighty soldiers with a total strength of 480.

Comitia Centuriata: The Assembly of the Roman people that elected the most senior magistrates, including the consuls and praetors. It was divided into 193 voting groups of centuries, membership of which was based on property registered in the census. The wealthier members of society had a highly disproportionate influence on the outcome. Its structure was believed to be based on the organisation of the early Roman army.

Comitia Tributa: The Assembly of the entire Roman people, including both patricians and plebians. It was divided into thirty-five voting tribes, membership of which was based on ancestry. It had power to legislate and was presided over by a consul, praetor or curule aedile. It also elected men to a number of posts, including the quaestorship and curule aedileship.

Concilium Plebis: The Assembly of the Roman plebs, whether meeting to legislate or elect certain magistrates such as the tribunes of the plebs. Patricians were not allowed to take part or attend. The people voted in thirty-five tribes, membership of which was based on ancestry. This assembly was presided over by the tribunes of the plebs.

Consul: The year’s two consuls were the senior elected magistrates of the Roman Republic and held command in important campaigns. Sometimes the Senate extended their power after their year of office, in which case they were known as proconsuls.

Curia: The Curia (Senate House) building stood on the north side of the Forum Romanum and had traditionally been built by one of the kings. Sulla restored it, but it was burnt down during the funeral of Clodius. As dictator Caesar began work on a new curia. Even when the building was in good condition, on some occasions the Senate could be summoned to meet in other buildings for specific debates.

Cursus honorum: The term given to the career pattern regulating public life. Existing legislation dealing with age and other qualifications for elected magistracies was restated and reinforced by Sulla during his dictatorship.

Demotic: By the Ptolemaic period, Demotic was the form of the Egyptian language used in everyday speech and for writing in cursive script as opposed to hieroglyphics.

Dictator: In times of extreme crisis a dictator was appointed for a six-month period during which he exercised supreme civil and military power. Later victors in civil wars, such as Sulla and Julius Caesar, used the title as a basis for more permanent power.

Dioecetes: The dioecetes was the senior financial official of the Ptolemaic king, tasked with overseeing the collection and distribution of all taxes, levies and the product of royal lands.

Ephebe: Adolescent males in Greek cities underwent a process of state-supervised training at the gymnasium. This was mainly concerned with physical fitness, but often included elements of more specifically military training.

Epistrategos: Originally a military post, by Cleopatra’s day the epistrategos was the civil governor of the Thebiad. Weakness of central government granted this official considerable freedom of action.

Equites (sing. Eques): The ‘knights’ were the group with the highest property qualification registered by the census. From the time of the Gracchi they were given a more formal public role as jurors in the courts, an issue that became extremely contentious.

Fasces (sing. Fascis): An ornamental bundle of rods some 5 feet long, in the middle of which was an axe. They were carried by lictors and were the most visible symbols of a magistrate’s power and status.

Forum Romanum: The political and economic heart of the city of Rome that lay between the Capitoline, Palatine, Quirinal and Velian hills. Public meetings were often held either around the Rostra, or at the eastern end of the Forum. The Concilium Plebisand Comitia Tributa also usually met in the Forum to legislate.

Gladius: A Latin word meaning sword, gladius is conventionally used to describe the gladius hispaniensis, the Spanish sword that was the standard Roman sidearm until well into the third century AD. Made from high-quality steel, this weapon could be used for cutting, but was primarily intended for thrusting.

Hasmonaean: In the second century BC, Judaea successfully rebelled against the Seleucids. An independent kingdom was created, ruled by the Hasmonaean dynasty. Antony and Octavian eventually installed Herod the Great in place of the old royal family.

Imperium: The power of military command held by magistrates and promagistrates during their term of office.

Kinsman: The most senior courtiers at the Ptolemaic court were granted the status of ‘kinsmen’.

Lagid: Alternative name for the dynasty founded by Ptolemy I, who was the son of Lagus.

Legatus (pl. Legati): A subordinate officer who held delegated imperium rather than exercising power in his own right. Legati were chosen by a magistrate rather than elected.

Legion (Legio): Originally a term meaning levy, the legions became the main unit of the Roman army for much of its history. In Caesar’s day the theoretical strength of a legion was around 4,800–5,000 men. The effective strength of a legion on campaign, however, was often much lower.

Lictor: The official attendants of a magistrate who carried the fasces, which symbolised his right to dispense justice and inflict capital and corporal punishment. Twelve lictors attended a consul, while a dictator was normally given twenty-four.

Magister Equitum: Second-in-command to the Republican dictator, the Master of Horse traditionally commanded the cavalry, since the dictator was forbidden to ride a horse.

Nome: The nomes were the basic administrative regions of Ptolemaic Egypt. In each region an official known as the nomarch controlled agricultural production.

Nomenclator: A specially trained slave whose task was to whisper the names of approaching citizens, permitting his master to greet them in a familiar way. Such a slave normally accompanied a canvassing politician.

Ovatio (ovation): A lesser form of the triumph, in an ovation the general rode through the city on horseback rather than in a chariot.

Pilum (pl. pila): The heavy javelin that was the standard equipment of the Roman legionary for much of Rome’s history. Its narrow head was designed to punch through an enemy’s shield, the long thin shank then giving it the reach to hit the man behind it.

Pontifex Maximus: The head of the college of fifteen pontiffs, one of three major priesthoods monopolised by the Roman aristocracy. The pontiffs regulated the timing of many state festivals and events. The Pontifex Maximus was more chairman than leader, but the post was highly prestigious.

Praetor: Praetors were annually elected magistrates who under the Republic governed the less important provinces and fought Rome’s smaller wars.

Praetorian cohort: The praetorians in this period were carefully selected and splendidly equipped soldiers drawn from the legions. Each general was entitled to raise a single cohort of praetorians, but in the course of the civil wars Antony came to control several of these formations, taken over from his subordinates.

Prefect (praefectus): An equestrian officer with a range of duties, including the command of units of allied or auxiliary troops.

Quaestor: Magistrates whose duties were primarily financial, quaestors acted as deputies to consular governors and often held subordinate military commands.

Rostra: The speaker’s platform in the Forum from which politicians addressed public gatherings.

Saepta: The voting area on the Campus Martius where the various assemblies met to hold elections.

Satrap: The Persian kings had administered their empire by appointing satraps to control each region. Alexander the Great retained the system, and after his death men like Ptolemy I were appointed as satraps. Most subsequently used this as a basis for declaring themselves kings.

Scorpion: The light bolt-shooting ballista employed by the Roman army both in the field and in sieges. They possessed a long range, as well as great accuracy and the ability to penetrate any form of armour.

Seleucid: The dynasty founded by Seleucus in the conflicts following Alexander the Great’s death was based in Syria. Conflict was frequent between the Seleucids and the Antigonids in Macedonia and Ptolemies in Egypt to control the lands between their kingdoms. Defeated by Rome in 189 BC, the Seleucids nevertheless remained strong until the later years of the second century BC. Parthia rebelled and became independent in the late third century, and by the first century BC controlled much of the old Seleucid Empire. The last Seleucid king, Antiochus XIII, was deposed by Pompey in 64 BC.

Signifer: The standard-bearer who carried the standard (signum) of the century.

Strategos (p1. strategoi): Although the word means ‘general’, by Cleopatra’s day the strategoi were essentially civilian officials who had replaced the nomarchs in control of the nomes, relegating the later to agricultural administration.

Subura: The valley between the Viminal and Esquiline hills was notorious for its narrow streets and slum housing.

Talent: The actual size of this Greek measurement of weight — and by extension money — varied considerably, from c.57–83 lb. It is rarely clear from our sources who employ the term which standard was in use.

Testudo: The famous tortoise formation in which Roman legionaries overlapped their long shield to provide protection to the front, sides and overhead. It was most often used during assaults on fortifications.

Thebiad: The region around the capital of Thebes, the ancient capital of the Upper Kingdom of Egypt. It consisted of seven nomes.

Tribune of the plebs: Although holding a political office without direct military responsibilities, the ten tribunes of the plebs elected each year were able to legislate on any issue. During the later years of the Republic many ambitious generals, such as Marius, Pompey and Caesar, enlisted the aid of tribunes to secure important commands for themselves.

Tribuni aerarii: The group registered below the equestrian order in the census. Relatively little is known about them.

Tribunus militum (military tribune): Six military tribunes were elected or appointed to each Republican legion, one pair of these men holding command at any one time.

Triumph: The great celebration granted by the Senate to a successful general took the form of a procession along the Via Sacra, the ceremonial main road of Rome, displaying the spoils and captives of his victory and culminated in the ritual execution of the captured enemy leader. The commander rode in a chariot, dressed like the statues of Jupiter, a slave holding a laurel wreath of victory over his head. The slave was supposed to whisper to the general, reminding him that he was mortal.

Triumvir: In 43 BC, Antony, Lepidus and Octavian were named as triumviri rei publicae constituendae (board of three to reconstitute the state) by the Lex Titia proposed by a tribune and passed by the Concilium Plebis. The triumvirate was granted dictatorial powers, initially for five years.

Uraeus: The snake-shaped headband worn at times by the Ptolemies as a symbol of monarchy. Double uraei are typical, probably symbolising the two kingdoms of Egypt. Triple uraei appear on some images identified as Cleopatra, but the precise significance of this is unclear.

Vexillum: A square flag mounted crosswise on a pole, the vexillum was used to mark a general’s position and was also the standard carried by a detachment of troops. A general’s vexillum seems usually to have been red.