Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Antony and Cleopatra

When Antony reached Tarsus in the autumn of 41, he summoned Cleopatra, now aged twenty-eight, to meet him. After Caesar’s death, she had gone back to Alexandria, where her younger brother and consort Ptolemy XIV had died in mysterious circumstances.  She then made the young Caesarian her co-ruler and he was proclaimed King of Egypt. Antony wanted to call her to account for her failure to supply an army to help him and Octavian. But Cleopatra staged a famous meeting with Antony on the river Cygnus, after which she became his mistress. His support enabled her to strengthen her rule in Egypt.  She returned there and was joined by Antony in the winter of 40-1. However, he was forced to leave, and did not see her for four years (nor the twins that she bore him).

Back in Italy Octavian was forced to evict many farmers in order to provide for his veterans. His army became bogged down in the siege of Perusia (Perugia), held by Antony’s wife, Fulvia. Plutarch describes Fulvia as a headstrong woman, given to meddling in politics. He states that she began the war with Octavian in order to lure Antony back to Italy. In 40 Antony tried to land in Brundisium, but he was refused entry into Italy. 

Antony and Octavia
The threat of war was averted by negotiation, and the Treaty of Brundisium in October reinforced their fragile alliance. As Fulvia had died, Antony was able to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia. This is probably the time the poet Virgil wrote his Fourth Eclogue; perhaps the divine child of the poem is the son that he believed would be born to Antony and Octavia. (In the Middle Ages it was believed that Virgil had foretold the birth of Christ.)
Now comes the crowning age foretold in the Sibyl’s songs, A great new cycle, bred of time, begins again. Now virginal Justice and the golden age returns, Now its first-born is sent down from high heaven.With the birth of this boy, the generation of iron will pass, And a generation of gold will inherit all the world.
The next few years saw Octavian increase his power in the west, and Antony in the east. In effect, they split Rome into an eastern and a western Empire.

Octavian triumphant

In 36 Octavian’s admiral, M. Vipsanius Agrippa, finally defeated Sextus Pompeius. A rebellion launched by Lepidus in Sicily was put down. (Lepidus died in exile c. 12 BC.) Octavian now commanded some forty legions. When he returned to Rome he was given the office of tribune. A gold statue to him was set up in the Forum, proclaiming him as the deliverer of Italy by land and sea. By contrast, Antony’s campaign against the Parthians went badly wrong and 30,000 of his soldiers died on their retreat through Armenia in the winter of 36-5.

The Donations of Alexandria

The Donations of Alexandria
In 34 Antony staged a triumph in Alexandria following his successful campaign in Armenia. This was unprecedented, since a triumph was usually held in Rome in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus, the protector and presiding divinity of the city. The triumph was followed by a ceremony in the gymnasium in Alexandria known as the Donations of Alexandria: Antony publicly recognised Cleopatra as Queen of Kings and Caesarion, now seventeen years old as King of Kings.  Of his twins by Cleopatra, he proclaimed Alexander Helios sovereign of Armenia, Media and Parthia (the lands east of the Euphrates), and Cleopatra Selene ruler of Cyrene in north Africa. The younger son Ptolemy Philadelphus received Syria and Cilicia. 

These grandiose dynastic pronouncements made little difference to the actual business of administering the eastern provinces, but in the eyes of Rome, Antony was turning himself into an oriental sovereign.  To the Greeks and Asiatics, however, he was Dionysus or Osiris, the consort of Isis, the goddess-queen of Egypt. 

By the end of 33 the Second Triumvirate came to its legal end and Octavian dropped the title of triumvir. He now relied on the fact that he held his second consulship and that he was winning the favour of the people of Rome through his renovation of the city.  

In 32 BC Antony sent Octavia formal letters of divorce, probably his greatest political mistake.  Octavian reacted with fury. He seized Antony’s will, which was deposited in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins (thus committing an act of sacrilege) and read it (or a doctored version) out to the Senate. The risk proved worth taking, as the will was extremely damaging to Antony’s reputation. It acknowledged Caesarion as the son of Caesar, provided for Antony’s own children by Cleopatra, and ordered that he should be buried at Cleopatra’s side. This enabled Octavian to claim that Antony hoped to transfer the capital to Alexandria, and it swung opinion in Italy against him. Many cities and communities took an oath of loyalty to Octavian, showing that personal loyalty was replacing loyalty to the institutions of the Republic. Antony, who with Cleopatra had crossed over to Greece was deprived of his powers and his prospective consulship. Octavian formally proclaimed a justum bellum against Cleopatra (not Antony) and in 31 he crossed over to Greece.

Antony still had thirty legions at his disposal, and a navy of 500 ships to Octavian’s 400.  Many of his supporters were men of principle, former followers of Caesar or Pompey. However, they lacked a sufficient force to unite them, and the presence of Cleopatra alienated many. Yet Antony could not send her away as she provided much of the finance. Her presence also meant that he could not advance into Italy where she was deeply unpopular.

Antony centred his fleet on the promontory of Actium on the northwest coast of Greece. As Octavian advanced with his fleet, he followed Cleopatra’s advice and decided on a naval battle. On 2 September he drew up his fleet. When he saw the battle going against him, he signalled to Cleopatra, who had her war chest on board, to escape with her sixty ships. Antony broke off the engagement and escaped with forty ships. 

The deaths of Antony and Cleopatra

In the summer of 30 Octavian occupied Alexandria. Antony occupied a house in the city, which he called the Timonium, and Cleopatra retreated with the treasures of Egypt into an impregnable mausoleum.  According to two sources, Plutarch and Cassius Dio, she sent messengers to Antony with the news that she was dead, hoping that he would then kill himself. (Presumably she would then be able to negotiate with Octavian.) Antony duly stabbed himself but lived long enough to die in her arms in the mausoleum. Cleopatra was taken prisoner, and when she found that she could not retain her kingdom and would be exhibited as a prisoner in Rome she died, according to some accounts by the bite of an asp (probably an Egyptian cobra). Octavian thus secured the treasure of the Ptolemies. He ordered Antony’s children by Cleopatra to be taken to Rome, where Octavia brought them up, but he had Antyllus (Antony’s son by Fulvia) and Caesarion killed. Nothing – except legality -  now stood between Octavian and supreme power.

The death of Cleopatra, by
Juan Luna (1881)