Mark Anthony aka Marcus Antonius was a character larger than life who made considerable achievements in both the military and political spheres of Ancient Rome but wouldn’t be considered an intellectual the way Julius Caesar would be or a great politician like his nemesis Augustus. In fact he might most easily be described as a sort of opposite to the great Cicero: boisterous, muscular and with a penchant for women and drink. Incapable of controlling his instincts and wants. He was proud of his supposed descendency from Hercules – his burly build certainly lent credence to the idea, but in later years when associated with Cleopatra, he was more than happy to fashion himself as Dionysus god of wine. Not a great thinker but rather a man who loved to live the day and certainly nourished by great ambition.
The high profile of his curriculum vitae was in many ways the result of his close alignment with Julius Caesar which allowed him to participated in the wake of power all the way through to being Consul with Caesar in the year when Caesar was assassinated. Digging a little deeper we could ascribe his career to his descendency, an undoubtable military ability and perhaps most importantly his marriage to Fulvia. His chief antagonists were the great orator Cicero and then Octavian, who would finally defeat him and take sole power in Rome.
What marked him as different and possibly weaker than Cleopatra, Caesar and Augustus was his very human side. Certainly not cold and calculating by nature he greatly relied on his relationships with people of good political connections, astuteness, wealth and strength of character: qualities which seemingly eluded him. His quality of military prowess, which in Rome counted for a lot, was countered by Octavian’s right hand man Agrippa.
Antonius was born around 83BC from a family of great repute and had family ties with Julius Caesar: His mother Julia was daughter of the consul Lucius Caesar. Antonius’ natural father had been Praetor and was killed during action against pirates whilst his grandfather was a renowned and great orator later decapitated by General Marius during the civil war against Sulla. Antonius’ step father Publius Cornelius Lentulus , reached the high level of Consul, but was eventually killed by hand of Cicero for his involvement in the Catiline affair.
Antonius’ youth was shaped by a homosexual relationship with a very wealthy kinsman which was to resolve itself with the receipt of as much as the modern equivalent of 5-6million dollars to pay off the debts he had accumulated. As was customary he then went to study in Greece and came back to participate in military action in the middle East (including Egypt where he ended his days) and in Gaul with Caesar. Women were however to dominate a prominent place in his life: excepting a first marriage of which little is known about, there were three marriages of importance in Antonius’ life: His second marriage to the powerful Fulvia and the fourth to Cleopatra had a great hand in shaping his life and subsequent death by suicide. Even his third wife Octavia was highly politically charged by virtue of being sister to his adversary Octavian (aka Emperor Augustus).
Mark Anthony and Fulvia
Antonius’ second wife Fulvia had already had two very influential marriages and was herself extremely ambitious. The character, strength and power of Fulvia in furthering Mark Anthony’s cause can be easily described by noting that, excluding divinities, she was the first woman to have her head portrayed on Roman coins. Indeed there was a period when no law was passed in Rome without Fulvia herself giving it the go-ahead. As with Cleopatra after her, Fulvia proved to be both a powerful ally but also a cause for blame used by Octavian against Antonius. Whilst Anthony was in the Orient (with Cleopatra!) Fulvia was directly involved in instigating military actions against Octavian. Antonius failed to heed his wife’s call for military support, her (their) troops were defeated and she was forced to flee abroad to meet him. She died whilst abroad and Antonius returned to Rome claiming ignorance of her policies and plans. Antonius married Octavian’s sister Octavia in sign of good will: The year was 40BC.
The Roman writer Plutarch has the following to tell us about Fulvia:
“She was a woman who took no thought for spinning or housekeeping, nor would she deign to bear sway over a man of private station, but she wished to rule a ruler and command a commander.”
A tale which attests to Fulvia’s character relates how when Antonius reached the peak of power he had his life-long enemy Cicero killed and beheaded by having his name included in a list of proscriptions agreed by the Triumvirs ie each of them agreed to sacrifice some of their supporters. The great Cicero was thus sacrificed. Fulvia had Cicero’s head and right hand brought to her: she opened the dead man’s mouth and stuck hair pins through the tongue which had spoken the Philippics (vitriolic speeches) against her husband in the Senate.
Until this time Antonius had enjoyed great power in Rome: he had been Consul together with Caesar in the year of Caesar’s murder, and made use of such a position to keep a stranglehold on political power in the city. He then shared power in the “Second Triumvirate” with Lepidus and Octavian – power which was underpinned by his direct involvement in the war to bring Caesar’s murderers to justice. From this point on a series of errors gave Octavian increasing advantage and power.
Mark Anthony and Octavia
Octavia herself seems to have restrained herself more to the role of dutiful Roman matron rather than meddling politician, which didn’t do much to endear Antonius with the citizens of Rome who still had a good deal of morality with regards to family: abandoning your wife in favour of an oriental girlfriend wasn’t the done thing. Furthermore Octavia was supposedly more beautiful than Cleopatra – a factor which Cleopatra surely kept account of when she did all she could to keep Anthony away from Rome and which in itself distanced Antonius more from his countrymen and weakened him greatly when the battle for power came to a head at Actium. Octavia behaved well throughout the Cleopatra affair: she evidently did her utmost to bring her husband back to Rome with her and cared for their children as well as Antonius’ children with Fulvia. Dutiful yet deadly in terms of her husbands political position she played a crucial role in determining future heirs to the Julio-Claudian throne.
Mark Anthony and Cleopatra
The character of Cleopatra was a determining factor in Antonius’ life (and death!). Cleopatra was Antonius’ last wife: Around 37BC when Antonius’ political relationship with Octavian had finally broken down beyond repair he divorced Octavia and married Cleopatra. She was the richest and most powerful woman of the time. They summed up all their resources for war against the Parthian territories to the East with the intention of a great victory which would bring them glory and prestige in Rome, particularly when it was in these same territories that the rich Crassus had suffered a devastating defeat (first triumvirate with Pompey and Caesar). The unexpected failure of this campaign greatly affected Antonius’ self respect. This together with his munificent “donations” of Roman territories to the foreigner Cleopatra and her offspring caused a heavy blow to his popularity in Rome.
Octavian made full use of this as part of his personal propaganda and directed his political and military campaign against Cleopatra rather than against Antonius. A negative propaganda against Cleopatra coupled with a degree of her own insistence in being personally involved in Antonius’ campaigns caused further disunity within Antonius’ camp which was to result in their disastrous defeat at Actium.
Plutarch suggested that Antonius had as many vices as he had virtues. Certainly he was ambitious, not calculating, human yet quite open to making use of power and wealth as if they were his by birth right. He was heavily influenced by overbearing women of power and they were to sign both his rise as well as his fall: or at least that is very much the image that Octavian’s propaganda has passed down to us.
Having suffered military defeat at the hand of Octavian and Agrippa, Mark Anthony committed suicide in Alexandria in the year 30BC. He was ancestor to a number of later emperors amongst which Caligula and Claudius.
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