Appearances Can Be… Deceiving?
It’s just another bust of some old dead white guy, right?
Perhaps not. Look again. That curly-headed figure is Marcus Antonius, better known these days as Mark Antony; right-hand man of Julius Caesar, general of the Roman Army, Triumvir of Rome, lover of Cleopatra, one of history’s serious badasses, and this week’s Profile in Toxic Masculinity – a title to which few men have a stronger claim.
His Maculate Origin
Marcus Antonius was born on the 14th of January, 83BCE, to Marcus Antonius Creticus, a Roman politician and military man of no great account, and Julia, a third cousin of Julius Caesar, with whom Mark Antony’s life would become entwined.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of the great orators of the time, noted of the senior Antony that he could be safely entrusted with power because “…he was incapable of either using or abusing it effectively.” IN 74 BCE Antony Senior was dispatched to defeat pirates in the Mediterranean but died in Crete in 71BCE, having made little or no progress on that front.
This left the young Antony, along with his brothers Lucius and Gaius, without any real supervision. The brothers joined a gang of toughs roaming the streets of Rome gambling, drinking and womanizing. By the time he was twenty, Antony had somehow amassed an enormous load of debt and, bankruptcy laws being non-existent at the time, he fled to Greece in 58 BCE to escape his creditors.
His Adventurous Career
A year after arriving in Greece Antony, then twenty-six, wangled an appointment as commander of cavalry under Aulus Gabinius, Proconsul of Syria. A year after that, Gabinius, being Roman, decided to interfere in the politics of Egypt.
It seems in 58BCE, Pharaoh Ptolemy XII had been deposed in an uprising led by his sister, Berenice IV. Ptolemy had sought refuge with Rome, and was supported by his friend, the Roman general Pompey Magnus. The Roman Senate voted against any interference, but Pompey and Gabinius decided to go ahead anyway. They invaded Egypt, encouraged by Ptolemy’s payment of ten thousand talents of gold. With Mark Antony among the troops, they successfully restored Ptolemy XII to the throne of Egypt; during this time Mark Antony is rumored to have made the acquaintance of Ptolemy’s then fourteen-year-old daughter, Cleopatra.
While Antony was thus engaged, events of great import were taking place in Rome. Pompey had formed the First Triumvirate with Marcus Lucinius Crassus and Julius Caesar. This was a not-so-secret agreement by which the three men proposed to exercise control over Rome and her possessions.
While it’s unclear what contributions Antony made to actions in Egypt, in 54BCE he managed to get assigned to the staff of his distant cousin Julius Caesar, who had just been appointed Governor of Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul, and who was proceeding to conquer all of free Gaul into the bargain.
It was in the conquest of Gaul and its aftermath that Antony’s various talents came to the fore.
A key part of the alliance in the First Triumvirate was the marriage of Pompey to the daughter of Caesar, Julia. But Julia died in childbirth in 54BCE, and Crassus was killed the following year in the Battle of Carrhae. As the Triumvirate tottered, Pompey was co-opted by the Optimates faction in the Senate to proscribe Caesar and Antony.
At this time, the conquest of Gaul was complete, and Antony was given the task of mopping up stragglers and various rambunctious factions in the conquered territory. He showed great talent for brutality in this process, so much so that Caesar decided to send his protégé into politics; Antony went to Rome and was elected as People’s Tribune in 49BCE, which post gave him veto power over Senate actions and allowed him to protect Caesar from retribution by the Optimates. This task Antony carried out with vim and vigor until the Optimates faction passed a decree declaring Caesar and enemy of the state and ordered him to Rome to stand trial for war crimes.
Antony was “violently” expelled from the Senate and returned to Gaul to tell the tale. The rest is well known; Caesar showed the Senate the “what else,” and the Roman Civil War ensued.
Various actions followed, but the real decision point was at the Battle of Pharsalus, where Antony commanded the left wing of Caesar’s army. Despite being poorly supplied and outnumbered, Caesar’s faction won the battle, and Antony’s place as general and second-in-command sealed his reputation.
Antony was reported to have enjoyed the trade of war in addition to being quite good at it, but once the Optimates were put paid to and Pompey Magnus dead, assassinated by agents of Ptolemy XIII when he fled to Egypt, he had, for the moment, no more wars to fight.
Then, in 44BCE, his friend and protector, Julius Caesar, was assassinated on the floor of the Senate. Antony found himself alone. Dressed as a slave to escape notice, he fled north, vowing to return.
His One-Man War
When no great massacre of Caesar’s supporters in Rome materialized, Antony quickly returned. Caesar’s widow, Calpurnia, was persuaded to turn over all of Caesar’s personal papers and effects to Antony. She also agreed that Antony should have control of all of Caesar’s personal properties, effectively making him leader of the political factions formerly controlled by Caesar.
This, of course, gave Antony considerable political clout – for a while. Antony was also now the sole surviving Consul of Rome. He acted quickly, seizing the Treasury and ordering Caesar’s (now Antony’s) Master of Horse, one Marcus Lepidus, to march his 6,000 troops to Rome to “restore order” but mostly to intimidate the Optimates and other factions supporting Caesar’s assassins, who were led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus.
This didn’t go over well with Brutus and his allies, but Antony had 6,000 troops in addition to de facto control of the Treasury and the Caesarion faction of the Senate, so they saw little alternative but to make a deal. The deal was this: Caesar’s will would be opened, read, and ratified as legal; Cassius, Brutus and Antony would retain their political appointments, received from Caesar; and both factions would preside over a public funeral for Caesar, to be arranged by Antony.
But at Caesar’s funeral, Antony showed a gift for demagoguery, at one point throwing Caesar’s blood-stained Senatorial toga into the crowd. A riot resulted, in which several buildings around the Forum and the homes of several of the assassins of Caesar were burned. Brutus and Cassius, fearing retribution by the angry mobs, fled to Greece.
Antony, however, received a nasty shock when Caesar’s will appointed his nephew, Gaius Octavian, as his sole heir and recipient of all his monies and properties. Octavian, in accordance with Roman custom, adopted the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.
In May of 44BCE, Octavian, then nineteen, returned from Macedonia, where he had been stationed with one of Caesar’s legions. He expected prompt surrender of all of Caesar’s properties and coin to his control, but Antony didn’t see things that way. He refused to surrender any control and maintained his grip on the Caesarian faction of Roman politics.
Octavian proved to be not so easily thwarted. Borrowing heavily against his inheritance, he quickly began raising his own “personal bodyguard” from among the veterans of Caesar’s legions. This placed Antony inn a difficult spot, made more difficult when none other than Cicero gave a series of speeches in the Senate condemning Antony, referring to his bankruptcy, his many scandalous affairs, his youthful thuggery, his drunken binges; pretty much anything unsavory Antony had ever done was dragged out onto the Senate floor – and there was a lot of it. I’ve often said, if people think politics today are nasty, they should read some of Cicero’s speeches about Mark Antony; he literally heaped invective on Antony’s head, and since most of it was accurate, it stuck. Antony found his support from the people of Rome slipping.
In an attempt to broker another deal, the Senate offered Antony the governorship of Macedonia when his Consular term ended. Antony refused, demanding instead Cisalpine Gaul, then governed by Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, one of Caesar’s assassins. When Albinus balked, Antony took his remaining legions north and attempted to seize Cisalpine Gaul by force, which resulted in the Senate sending an army north nominally commanded by the two sitting Consuls but, in reality, commanded by Octavian. At the Battle of Mutina, Antony was defeated and forced to flee to Transalpine Gaul.
After Mutina, however, the Senate miscalculated. With the idea of preventing any more Dictator’s for Life arising from the house of Caesar, they assigned all of Octavian’s legions to other commanders, forcing Octavian to seek an alliance with the only available remaining powerful member of the Caesarian faction: Mark Antony. Antony had by this time reunited with Lepidus in Transalpine Gaul and had control of a considerable force; when Octavian and Lepidus met with Antony in November of 43BCE, Octavian had already returned to Rome, gotten himself appointed Consul, and begun hunting down and punishing Caesar’s assassins. Antony agreed to seal his alliance with Octavian by marrying Octavian’s sister, by whom he fathered two children. The new Triumvirate then turned their attentions to Brutus and Cassius, who had been raising an army in the East.
Brutus and Cassius’s army was destroyed at the Battle of Philippi. The new triumvirate divided the provinces of Rome up among themselves, with Octavian retaining control of Rome and Spain and the western territories, while Antony received the rich provinces in the East, including Macedonia, Egypt and retaining his control of Gaul. Lepidus, the junior partner in rank if not age, received Africa, which at that time meant only a strip of desert along the Mediterranean coast.
His Dark Side
Antony seized his control over Rome’s richest territories and set to subduing any opposition. Quickly cementing a political (and sexual) alliance with Cleopatra, with whom he eventually had three children, he invaded the rebellious Parthians, reconquered Judea, and put paid to the rebellious pirates led by Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey Magnus.
But his relationship with Cleopatra was to be his downfall.
Antony, perhaps goaded by Cleopatra, eventually made a public speech in Alexandria formally renouncing his alliance with Octavian. Antony’s children by Cleopatra were awarded the thrones of some of the various satrapies under Antony’s control, and he declared Cleopatra his true wife, and Cleopatra’s son by Caesar, Caesarion, to be the legitimate son of Caesar and heir to Caesar’s name and titles. This Octavian, as Caesar’s legal heir, could not tolerate. He moved on Antony and, in 31BCE, at the naval battle of Actium, dealt the forces of Antony and Cleopatra a sound defeat.
His Golden Years
Antony didn’t really have any golden years. Following the defeat at Actium, Antony returned to Alexandra, where he was besieged by Octavian’s forces. On the first of August, 30BCE, he committed suicide by stabbing himself with a sword. Cleopatra was taken prisoner by Octavian’s forces but, after several attempts, managed to kill herself as well.
Marcus Antonius was an unsavory man. By all accounts he was probably a high-functioning alcoholic. His many marriages and dalliances left him with a fair number of children, most of whom he ignored. But during the conquest of Gaul and the Civil War he proved an invaluable second-in-command and, at Philippi and Parthia, an accomplished general in his own right. He had a knack for connecting with the common workers and tradesmen of the late Republic, and while he was instrumental in the fall of the Republic and the descent of Rome into tyranny, he had a bloody single-mindedness that is all too uncommon today. His place in history has resulted in his portrayal on big and small screens by such lights as Richard Burton, Marlon Brando and (my favorite) James Purefoy.
We don’t have to admire the life and times of Mark Antony. But we should respect them and learn from them.