Read Cleopatra and Antony Online

Authors: Diana Preston

Cleopatra and Antony


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Power, Love, and Politics

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Copyright © 2009 by Preston Writing Partnership

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Walker & Company, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010.

Published by Walker Publishing Company, Inc., New York

All papers used by Walker & Company are natural, recyclable products made from wood grown in well-managed forests. The manufacturing processes conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.


ISBN: 978-0-802-71959-1

First published in somewhat different form in the United Kingdom in 2008 by Transworld Publishers

First U.S. edition 2009

Visit Walker & Company’s Web site at

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Typeset by Westchester Book Group
Printed in the United States of America by Quebecor World Fairfield

In memory of Henry and Lily



I. Dynasty of Eagles

1. Keeping It in the Family

2. Siblings and Sibylline Prophecies

II. Romulus’ Cesspit

3. The Race for Glory

4. “Odi et Amo”

5. Crossing the Rubicon

III. Queen of Egypt, Mistress of Rome

6. Like a Virgin

7. The Alexandrian War

8. “Veni, Vidi, Vici”

9. “Slave of the Times”

10. The Ides of March

IV. Isis Alone

11. “Flight of the Queen”

12. Ruler of the East

V. Taming Heracles

13. Mighty Aphrodite

14. “Give It to Fulvia”

15. Single Mother

16. “The Awful Calamity”

VI. Gods of the East

17. Sun and Moon

18. “Theatrical, Overdone and Anti-Roman”

19. “A Woman of Egypt”

20. The Battle of Actium

21. After Actium

22. Death on the Nile

23. “Too Many Caesars Is Not a Good Thing”

Postscript: “This Pair So Famous”


Appendix: Putting a Face to a Famous Name

Notes and Sources


Picture Credits

Who Was Who in the First Century BC


HEY OPENED THE DOOR, and saw Cleopatra lying dead on a golden couch, dressed like a queen, with one of her two ladies-in-waiting, Iras, “ dying at her feet. The other, Charmion, was so weak that she could hardly stay upright but she was trying to adjust the diadem which adorned Cleopatra’s brow. One of the men hissed angrily, ‘A fine deed, this, Charmion!’ and she replied: ‘Yes, nothing could be finer. It is no more than befits this lady, the descendant of so many kings.’ ”

So the ancient historian Plutarch portrayed the death scene on a stiflingly hot day in August 30 BC
of the thirty-nine-year-old queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Captured by Octavian, who would become Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, she had triumphantly taken her destiny back into her own hands. Rather than be paraded in chains through Rome by her conqueror, she had poisoned herself with the bite of a snake. A few days earlier, her lover of eleven years, Mark Antony, bloody and sweat-soaked following his own botched suicide attempt, had died in her arms after she and her waiting women had hauled him painfully into the fortress tomb where she had taken refuge as Octavian’s victorious armies advanced into the broad, colonnaded streets of the Egyptian capital, Alexandria.

Thus ended the lives of the ancient world’s best-remembered celebrity couple—charismatic figures who died at the height of their fame and whose physical appearance still provokes debate. Their depictions on coins of their time are not flattering. Cleopatra, in particular, appears hawk-nosed and imperious. However, a model of her head created for this book by an archaeologist specializing in facial reconstruction and based on a wider range of evidence offers another image—a woman who, though striking, was also more than a little plump.

Cleopatra and Antony lived unconventionally and to the full. Their deaths were sudden and the subject of conspiracy theories. But their enduring place in our popular consciousness derives from more compelling reasons than our interest in celebrity and romance. Their personal love story was an integral part of a great military, political and ideological struggle, the outcome of which still affects us. Had they triumphed over Octavian and recast Rome’s territories in both east and west as they planned, the history of the Roman Empire and of what followed might have been very different.

The backdrop to Cleopatra and Antony’s story was one of the rise and fall of empires. The once great power of Egypt was waning while that of Rome was aggressively on the rise. Cleopatra’s Egypt had been founded by her opportunistic Macedonian ancestor Ptolemy I, who was one of the generals of Alexander the Great and also his distant cousin. Ptolemy had taken advantage of the chaos after Alexander’s death in 323 BC in Babylon to seize Egypt and start a dynasty. Ptolemy had chosen well in selecting an ancient, established land united for more than three thousand years under its pharaohs. It had good natural defenses—invaders from east and west faced arid deserts, and invaders from the north could only attack by sea. Southward down the Nile, just beyond Aswan, were the tumbling waters of the First Cataract and then the gold-rich lands of Lower Nubia, which, like the pharaohs before them, the Ptolemies swiftly occupied.

At first Ptolemaic Egypt had flourished, but by the time of Cleopatra’s birth in 69 BC, though it was still wealthy, its political and military fortunes had long been in decline. In need of a powerful protector, the Ptolemies had adopted a policy of appeasing and pleasing Rome but faced the possibility that the expansionist republic, by then the dominant power in the Mediterranean, might gobble up Egypt as just another Roman province. The risk was a real one. Rome’s only serious rivals for the status of “superpower” were the Parthians—the rulers of Persia (Iran) and many other lands besides. Rome’s ambitions seemed boundless and her military momentum unstoppable. But her internal political tensions would also affect Egypt’s fate and how Cleopatra and Antony’s struggle with Octavian would ultimately play out.

The Roman republic had been founded in 509 BC when the last of Rome’s kings, Tarquin the Proud, was driven out by citizens under the leadership of one of the Brutus clan claiming that Rome would never again be subject to the tyranny of one man. Rome, though, had become the victim of its own success. By the time of Cleopatra and Antony, the pressures of trying to reconcile a system of government originally designed for a small city-state on the east bank of the River Tiber—not only with the requirements of law and order in a rich and fast-growing empire but also with the personal ambitions of power-hungry generals, businessmen and politicians—had become impossible to contain. Although Rome’s rules of government provided for a form of democracy, albeit imperfect, which gave every male citizen (though not of course their wives, daughters or slaves) some sort of voice, a growing number believed this to be incompatible with Rome’s growing status. Power, they argued, would be better exercised in the hands of a few men or even in the hands of only one. This ideological debate—which often spilled out bloodily onto the streets—had become a contest between the collective power of an autocracy personified by the Senate on the one hand and a series of strong men on the other who used their legions to back up their aspirations and bribed or sometimes coerced the people to support them, thus lending their regimes a veneer of legitimacy.

Both Antony and Octavian took part in these struggles, sometimes as allies but, as their ambitions clashed, finally as enemies. Both of them craved power and both circumvented the established structures of government. However, Octavian was the more single-minded and ultimately triumphed. The dual suicides of Cleopatra and Antony effectively marked the death of the long-ailing Roman republic and the rise of personal rule as embodied by the emperor.

Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra is one reason we naturally think of the couple’s names in that order. Yet—as the title of this book suggests—Cleopatra perhaps deserves first place. Her tenacity, vision and ambition would have been remarkable in any age but in a female ruler in the ancient world they were unique.

This successful and liberated woman seduced two of the most powerful leaders of her day. The first was Julius Caesar, thirty-one years her senior, who became her lover after pursuing his enemy Pompey to Alexandria. He restored Cleopatra to her throne and then dallied in Egypt to take a Nile cruise with his pregnant young mistress. (The historical records call it a “royal progress.”) Returning to Rome, despite having a wife of thirteen years’ standing, he invited Cleopatra and their son to join him in his capital, and to the outrage of the Roman political classes, even installed her statue in the Temple of Venus, the first human image ever to be placed in such a location.

After Caesar’s murder by one of the same Brutus dynasty that had rid Rome of King Tarquin and who claimed that he too was liberating Rome from tyrannical oppression, Cleopatra fled back to Egypt as Rome disintegrated into fourteen years of civil war. At the end of that conflict, Caesar’s onetime most trusted lieutenant, Antony, now joint ruler of the Mediterranean world with Caesar’s adopted Roman son Octavian, summoned the Egyptian queen to Tarsus. A consummate mistress of stage management, Cleopatra wafted upriver to meet him at dusk on a scented, candle-lit barge, displaying an image of beauty that even Shakespeare suggested beggared description. Here began the long, passionate affair that would rightly place Cleopatra and Antony in the ranks of the world’s greatest lovers, and the political partnership that would shake the ancient world.

In that partnership, Antony was more than a foil to Cleopatra and much more than, as he is so often portrayed, a graceless, hard-drinking womanizer. From impoverished beginnings Antony had become Rome’s most powerful general and politician in an age when it had become increasingly difficult to separate the one from the other. Cleopatra—an outstandingly shrewd and politically astute strategist herself—became one of his closest advisers and together they planned on a grand scale. She aided him in his campaign against the Parthians. Had Antony succeeded, he would have cleared the path to India, massively extended Rome’s empire and made his own position so secure that Octavian never would have dared to challenge him. Yet even when the Parthian venture failed, neither Cleopatra nor Antony gave up their ambitions. They wanted to forge a new bipolar world order centered on Rome and Alexandria. Under it, Rome’s military might and administrative skills would, with the backing of Egypt’s wealth, have formed a partnership with the culture of the Greek or Hellenized society to which Cleopatra’s Macedonian dynasty and capital belonged.

Their ultimate defeat by Octavian, however romantic they may seem with hindsight as doomed lovers, was by no means inevitable. As the balance of advantage swayed, the couple often seemed to have the upper hand and almost to the last held realistic prospects of success. But history is written by the victors and in this case truth was warped and hidden to an even greater extent than usual through an intense propaganda campaign. This barrage of invective was deployed against Cleopatra and Antony by Octavian while they were still alive and continued well after their deaths, selectively sorting and distorting the facts of their lives and careers. Octavian’s motive was pure self-interest. Cleopatra and Antony were his final opponents in his campaign to make himself master of the Roman world.

The Romans were thoroughly tired of civil war. Therefore in his struggle against Antony, Octavian needed to exploit the Romans’ innate sense of superiority and their xenophobia and misogynism to turn a civil war of personal ambition into a patriotic war of self-defense pitting the civilized, ordered West against the decadent, barbarian East. It suited Octavian’s purpose to make the Eastern foreigner Cleopatra the villainess of the piece—a wily oriental and a woman to boot, enticing Antony, a formerly good-intentioned if dissolute Roman, from the path of his duty—and to portray himself as reluctantly assuming power to defend his homeland.

Octavian led a team of propagandists as skilled at the art of spinning as any today. In addition, after seizing power, he simply had two thousand documents that did not support his version of events burned and had the supposedly sacrosanct Sibylline oracles edited to reflect his thesis. As a result, Cleopatra, a charismatic, cultured, intelligent ruler who spoke seven languages and lived at least half of her adult life celibate, was transformed into a pleasure-loving houri, the very epitome of fatal beauty and monstrous depravity, bent on bringing animal gods, barbarian decadence and despotism to the sacred halls of Rome’s Capitol.

So successful was Octavian’s propaganda that, fed by snippets of both fact and romantic fantasy, it evolved into the myth and legend of Cleopatra and Antony that has continued to develop, mutate and fascinate over two millennia. In early Christian times, Cleopatra became a kind of seducing Eve to Antony’s naïve Adam. To Chaucer, on the other hand, she was a virtuous and steadfast woman consistent in her love, for which she died. Dante placed the “licentious” Cleopatra in the second circle of Hell among the “carnal sinners,” who also included Dido of Carthage and Helen of Troy. Shakespeare produced a tale of obsessive, doomed love and, as was his wont, endowed his characters with complexity, humanity and universality. To the Victorians, Cleopatra was an exotic and dangerous dominatrix whose home life was so unlike that of their own dear queen.
In more modern times, she became the great love of Antony’s life, the woman for whom he gave up the world, something the Romans would have considered unequivocally a serious character flaw and vice but which to contemporary eyes becomes a romantic virtue. Some have seen in Cleopatra a prototype feminist, yet others an outsider metaphorically and just possibly physically black in a hostile white male world.

Cleopatra’s supposed physical allure has always been a potent part of the myth. In complete defiance of all the ancient sources, which, unanimous for once, state that she died dressed in her full state robes, artists through the ages have lovingly displayed her on her deathbed naked to the bite of the phallic asp and the lascivious gaze of the male patron.

Above all, Cleopatra and Antony have remained, like Julius Caesar—Cleopatra’s other lover and Antony’s mentor—among the very few classical figures who are still everyday names to the general public. Their lives still remain the stuff of popular drama. In the early years of the twentieth century, a German academic carefully enumerated 127 stage works about them (seventy-seven plays, forty-five operas and five ballets) produced between 1540 and 1905. Since then, the couple’s greatest impact on the imagination has been through the cinema. Perhaps the film that made the biggest impression was the 1960s production starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, their adulterous off screen relationship seeming to mirror the sensational on-screen events they portrayed. Critics suggested Taylor, like Cleopatra, was seducing Burton from the classical stage, the natural Rome for his talents, to fritter them away amid the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. That the film went massively over its already extravagant budget only added to the myth of luxury and excess surrounding Cleopatra and Antony’s names.

The truth behind the propaganda and myth is not easy to resolve and any answer is, of course, to an extent subjective. The four main classical sources for Cleopatra and Antony—Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian and Dio Cassius—were writing respectively some 130, 140, 160 and 230 years after the lovers’ deaths. There are, however, some additional contemporaneous references to the couple in the vivid, witty letters and speeches of Cicero and the poems of Vergil and Horace and elsewhere, as well as inscriptions and portraits on coins and monuments. Being written under the Roman Empire, each of the main sources is considerably influenced by Octavian’s propaganda, although Plutarch and Suetonius did employ some evidence of a more favorable and diverse nature. For example, Plutarch culled material from the eyewitness account of Cleopatra’s doctor, from reminiscences handed down through his family, and even from his own travels in Egypt. (The greatest weakness of Plutarch—Shakespeare’s source for his play—is perhaps embroidering the facts a little to produce a good story.) Suetonius used a variety of personal and sometimes scurrilous anecdotes lifted from the gossip of the time. Almost nothing survived in Egypt in written form about Cleopatra and those few scraps that do—on stelae (tablets) or elsewhere—are almost invariably the subject of heated academic debate about their significance. As is so often the case with ancient history in general and with so much of women’s history of any but the most recent period, there are silences to be interpreted. Additionally, the sources often contradict each other and even, sometimes, themselves.

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