Mark Antony: Battle of Actium, Relationship with Cleopatra, & Cause of Death

Mark Antony (83–30 BC) was one of ancient Rome’s most renowned politicians and generals

For those who have read extensively about the life of famous Roman general Julius Caesar, you might have read a thing or two about Mark Antony. He was one of the most influential Roman generals and politicians during the Gallic Wars that raged from 58 BC to 50 BC.

He also featured prominently as an army commander during the Civil War which began in 49 BC. Antony, along with his ally-later-turned-rival Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), played a crucial role in changing the Roman Empire from constitutional state to an autocratic one.

He was also known for his romantic relationship with Cleopatra VII Philopator, who served as the leader of Egypt’s Ptolemaic Kingdom between 51 BC and 30 BC. Many historians have linked Antony’s downfall to his affairs with the Egyptian queen.

Below, WHE presents an in-depth look at the life, major accomplishments and ultimate demise of Mark Antony (83–30 B.C.), one of ancient Rome’s most renowned politicians and generals. It also includes his romantic and political relationship with Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

Early years in the Military

Antony became a member of the military in the year 57 BC. He was first placed under the command of the Proconsul of Syria called Aulus Gabinius.

According to famous Greek historian Plutarch, Antony played a role in Gabinius’ attack on Ptolemaic Egypt which sought to restore Ptolemy XII Auletes as the pharaoh of the kingdom.

In 54 BC, through the help of Publius Clodius Pulcher, he became a member of the military setup of influential Roman general Julius Caesar. As time went on, Antony won the trust of Caesar who happened to be the cousin of the former’s mother.

Relationship with Caesar

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

In August 48 BC, Caesar invited Antony to join him in what was known as the Battle of Pharsalus. Following their success, Antony was honored with the Master of Horse position which elevated him in the rank of Caesar’s forces. During Caesar’s trip to Egypt, he served as the leader of Italy. His primary task was to restore order in the country.

With issues such as debt forgiveness, he struggled with his new position and became very unpopular. When Publius Cornelius Dolabella decided to pass the debt forgiveness law without his approval, Antony retaliated by sending his soldiers to kill the masses who had assembled at the Roman Forum.

His unprofessional behavior made Caesar’s regime very unpopular among the Romans. As time went by, the relationship between the two men began to get frosty, but they came together and fought the civil war as a team.

Gallic Wars

The Gallic Wars began in 58 BC and lasted for eight years. It was fought between Julius Caesar’s Rome and the Gauls who occupied modern-day Western Europe. In March that year, the people of Helvetii, who were migrating to the northern part of Italy, asked Caesar to permit them to use the Roman territories. Their request was denied and they were forced to change their route. Despite avoiding the Roman lands, they were attacked by Caesar and his troops. The Romans came out victorious after the battle which ended in 50 BC.

Throughout the war, Mark Antony exhibited some great military leadership skills. This further tightened his bond with Caesar who handed him high political offices. After the war, Antony returned to Rome to protect Caesar’s works from the Optimates, as well as Gnaeus Pompey Magnus (also known as Pompey the Great).

Antony becomes Julius Caesar’s second-in-command

Pompey and Caesar developed a cold relationship in 49 BC which ultimately led to the civil war. It’s stated that Pompey’s demands that Caesar surrender his armies and provinces was the original cause of the war.

In an attempt to resolve the conflict, Antony suggested to the Senate that both leaders should give up their commands and become a private citizen. This suggestion was opposed by Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Younger.

Antony went ahead to plead with the Roman Senate to allow Caesar control only a couple of his legions. The demand, if granted, would have shielded Caesar from possible prosecution by his rival, Pompey.

Again, the demands were opposed by Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Crus and Cato. As a result of that, the former drove away Antony from the meeting and he later fled to Rome. Days later, Caesar was stripped off his commands after the passing of the “senatus consultum ultimum”. Regarded as an enemy of the state and a traitor, Caesar, through the decree, was ordered to travel back to Rome for trials.

Three days after the decree was passed, Caesar and his army crossed River Rubicon, marking the beginning of Caesar’s Civil War (49-45 BC). Caesar’s first attack was in Spain, where he fought and won against the Pompeians. During this period, Antony was in Italy, where he served as the governor of the state and leader of the military. The war, which raged for four years, was won by the Caesarians. Antony received enormous praise for the role he played in the victory.

Mark Antony’s funeral oration after the assassination of Julius Caesar

Caesar was murdered in 44 BC by some members of the Roman Senate. His death left the Roman Republic in turmoil. At the time of his death, Antony was still serving as a consul. He fled Rome, fearing that the death of their leader might lead to more bloodshed and deaths, including his.

Upon returning to the city, Antony froze the state’s finances. He later received some personal documents of Caesar which enabled him to work as his successor.

Antony tried very hard to place himself as Caesar’s heir. He even gave a moving funeral oration. His speech resulted in public opinion turning against Caesar’s assassins.

Following the assassination of his commander and mentor, Julius Caesar, he gave a moving funeral oration. His speech resulted in public opinion going against Caesar’s assassins. Image: Mark Antony’s Famous Funeral Oration for Caesar, by George Edward Robertson, late 19th

Antony later created a good relationship with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the then-Master of the Horse, who helped him to organize the Caesarians.

In order to restore peace and order, Antony held a Senate meeting in which he negotiated with Caesar’s killers, Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus. As part of the negotiations, they agreed that Gaius Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, would not gain the support of the Caesarians. With this, Antony’s popularity began to wane among Caesar’s followers who saw Octavius as someone more eager to go after the men who killed Julius Caesar.

Early conflict with Octavian

When he returned to Rome, which was months after Caesar’s death, Octavian decided to contest for the leadership position of the Caesarian group. With Antony losing his popularity, Octavian was seen as the right person to continue the works of his late adopted father.

Sooner than later, Antony was caught in a tight situation due to his agreements with Caesar’s murderers (Liberatores). He was caught in two states: whether to fulfil the agreement he had with the Liberatores, or stay loyal to the legacy of his mentor Caesar.

Octavian went on to recruit some old officers of Caesar’s military. This further increased his popularity among the Caesarians. Then a mere citizen, Octavian did not have legal backing to command the army of the Republic. However, Octavian supported Marcus Tullius Cicero in his speech which attacked Antony. The latter left Rome before 43 BCE after he was considered an enemy of the state.

When Octavian announced himself as the consul, he decided to negotiate with Antony and create a united front.

The Second Triumvirate

With Antony completely beaten politically by Octavian, he decided to enter into an alliance in 43 BC with the young adopted successor of Caesar. That alliance, which also included Lepidus, came to be known as the Second Triumvirate. In effect, the three-man group were unstoppable and agreed to rule the Republic for about five years.

The Second Triumvirs shared the territories among themselves. Anthony was given the east, Lepidus received Rome’s province in Africa, and Octavian was placed in charge of the west.

With a united stance, the three men went on the offensive and picked off all of Caesar’s assassins, including Brutus and Cassius. They secured victory over Caesar’s assassins at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

Mark Antony’s Relationship with Queen Cleopatra

After the battle, Antony sailed to Egypt, while Octavian returned to Rome. In Egypt, he rekindled his interest in Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. Initially, Antony wanted to syphon resources from Egyptian queen; however, he ended up falling to mesmerizing charm and beauty of the Ptolemaic monarch.

According to Plutarch, Cleopatra welcomed Antony to Egypt by dressing as the Roman goddess of beauty Venus (or Aphrodite in Greek mythology), while many of her male servants and ladies-in-waiting dressed as Cupids and mythical nymphs, respectively.

Read More: List of Roman Gods and their Greek Equivalents

Antony first met Cleopatra in Rome when she was the mistress of Julio Caesar. However, their love story started in 41 BC when Cleopatra was serving as the Queen of Egypt’s Ptolemaic Kingdom.

Many historical accounts have argued that their relationship had a political motive. Though the couple had some sought of feelings for each other, it was believed that Antony wanted a piece of Egypt’s riches, while Cleopatra also wanted the army general to protect her.

Antony gave up his position to live with his wife in Egypt. The couple were involved in many feasts and lived a luxurious lifestyle. Their romantic relationship produced two children – Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios.

Legend has it that Cleopatra dressed like the ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite in an attempt to woo Mark Antony, the powerful Roman general and a member of the Second Triumvirate. Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sexuality – themes that Cleopatra was mostly associated with. Image: Antony and Cleopatra (1883) by Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicting Mark Antony’s meeting with Cleopatra in 41 BC.

Reasons why Octavian feared Antony-Cleopatra’s relationship

Back in Rome, the politically astute Octavian began to get worried of the close bond that existed between Antony and a powerful Egyptian monarch as Cleopatra. Octavian feared that those two could move against him and remove him from power in Rome.

Octavian was also angered by the fact that Antony sent his other wife, Octavia, back to Rome. Octavia was the sister of Octavian.

Antony also incurred the wrath of Octavian for holding his military triumph and celebration in Alexandria, Egypt, instead of Rome. By snubbing Rome, Antony, who had started embracing fully the Hellenistic culture, raised a lot of suspicion among Octavian and Rome’s Senate.

Perhaps the last straw that broke the camel’s back was when Octavian allegedly found out that Antony had willed all his estates and territories to Cleopatra and their children. Prior to this revelation, Antony had formally declared Caesarion, Cleopatra’s child with Caesar, the true heir of Rome’s former dictator. Were such utterances to continue, Octavian’s position in Rome risked being undermined.

Therefore, Antony left Octavian with no other choice than to go to war.

Battle of Actium

After Antony divorced Octavia, Octavian’s sister, to marry Cleopatra, Octavian went to war with Egypt. The newly-married couple joined forces to fight Octavian in what culminated in the Battle of Actium. Image: The Battle of Actium (1672) by Flemish painter Laureys a Castro

The revelation of Antony’s will, which bequeathed his properties and territories to Cleopatra, was used by Octavian to gain support from the Senate. Octavian managed to convince Rome that Antony had been placed under a powerful spell by Cleopatra. Caesar’s heir warned the Senate that were Antony and Cleopatra allowed to continue, Rome risked falling into the hands of Egypt.

Therefore, the Senate declared war on the Egyptian queen. The politically astute Octavian knew that there was no way Antony would not come in defense of his heartthrob.

With very good generals like Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Lucius Arruntius, Octavian gathered his forces and sailed to face off against Antony and Cleopatra. The two forces clashed at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC in the Ionian Sea.

Octavian’s superior naval tactics ended up surrounding Antony and Cleopatra’s forces in a bay. For almost a year, Antony and Cleopatra struggled to break free from the naval blockade. The battle ended with a victory for Octavian.

How did Mark Antony die?

When it became apparent that they were fighting a losing battle, Cleopatra decided to commit suicide. Upon hearing the demise of Cleopatra, Antony committed suicide. Unbeknownst to Antony, Cleopatra’s death was simply a rumor. The dying general was brought into the chamber of Cleopatra, where he breathed his last in the arms of the Egyptian queen.

How did Mark Antony die?

With the belief that Cleopatra was dead, a devastated Antony stabbed himself to death. It was later revealed that his wife was actually still alive. Heartbroken by the death of Antony, Cleopatra later committed suicide. Image: The Death of Mark Antony, engraving by Thomas Watson, 1780

Octavian then planned to bring Cleopatra along to Rome for his victorious procession; Cleopatra didn’t want to be humiliated in that manner; so, she poisoned herself. However, there are some myths that say she was bitten to death by a snake.

With Cleopatra dead, Roman general Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) annexed Egypt and made the kingdom a province of Rome.

Spouses and children

Antony was married five times. He was first married to a lady named Fadia before he met Antonia Hybrida. According to historians, he and Hybrida divorced in 47 BC before marrying Fulvia who also married Gaius Scribonius Curio, and Publius Clodius Pulcher.

In 40 BC, Antony married Octavia the Younger, the sister of Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus. However, it was his love affair with Cleopatra that gained lots of attention.

From his marriages, he had eight children. His daughter Antonia later became the wife of Pythodoros of Tralles, a well-known Greek nobleman. His other children were Iullus Antonius, Ptolemy Philadelphus, Marcus Antonius Antyllus, Cleopatra Selene II, Alexander Helios, Antonia Minor, and Antonia Major.

The relationship between Antony and Cleopatra was so legendary that it inspired many artworks and literature in the centuries that followed. Famous English poet William Shakespeare was inspired by the love story and penned his famous early 17th-century play, “Antony and Cleopatra”.

What happened to Anthony and Cleopatra’s children?

As part of his efforts to snuff out every manner of resistance to his claim as Caesar’s heir, Octavian ordered the murder of Cleopatra’s child Caesarion.

As for the children Antony had with Cleopatra – Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios – Octavian brought them to Rome, where they were paraded in a military triumph. The children were later handed to Octavian’s sister, Octavia, to be raised.

Read More: Origin Story, Meaning, & Significance of a Roman Triumph

Other Interesting Facts

Mark Antony

He was born into a rich family, the gens Antonia, that was not so well respected. His parents were Marcus Antonius Creticus and Julia of Caesars. His father was a Roman general whom many regarded as incompetent.

His father was said to be a corrupt government official who led the army to fight pirates that operated in the Mediterranean Sea. Antony’s mother was cousin of Julius Caesar.

Mark Antony had two brothers named Gaius Antonius and Lucius Antonius. Growing up, Antony was involved in a number of improper behaviors such as womanizing and gambling.

His received his early education from a number of tutors, including his mother and grandmother, Julia Minor. The latter was the sister of Julius Caesar.

In his early life, he engaged in a number of immoral activities, often gambling and drinking with a young man called Curio. Owing to the bad influence Curio had on the young Anthony, he is said to have fallen in debt before he turned 21. The young man had stacked up a debt of around a three hundred talents, which is equivalent to around 4.5 million in today’s dollars.

In a bid to avoid paying those debts, he fled to Greece, where he studied philosophy and oratory. It was also in Greece that he came to become a big admirer of Hellenistic culture.

In Greece, he developed an acquaintance with Roman general Aulus Gabinius. The general encouraged Antony to join the army and serve in Syria.

When did Antony first meet Cleopatra?

Greatest female rulers of ancient Egypt

Cleopatra of Ptolemaic Egypt | With Cleopatra dead, Roman general Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) annexed Egypt and made the kingdom a province of the Rome. The Egyptian queen, along with her lover Mark Antony, was defeated by Octavian’s forces at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Antony distinguished himself very well as a cavalry man in Syria as well as military campaigns in Egypt. The latter campaign was aimed at crushing a fierce revolt in Egypt in order to maintain the rule of Ptolemy XII. It so happened that while Antony was in Egypt, he met future queen Cleopatra, who was the daughter of Egyptian ruler Ptolemy XII. Antony was amazed by the beauty of the teenage Cleopatra.

Several centuries after her their passing, Antony and Cleopatra’s influence on modern art cannot be overlooked. Their lives fed generations with a rich painting, poetry, sculptures, and drama. Famous among such drama include “Antony and Cleopatra” (1608) by William Shakespeare.

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