Mark Antony: The General Who Changed the Roman Republic

Bronze Statue Of Mark Antony
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Mark Antony, also called Marcus Antonius, was a general who served under Julius Caesar, and later became part of a three-man dictatorship that ruled Rome. While assigned to duty in Egypt, Antony fell in love with Cleopatra, leading to conflict with Caesar's successor, Octavian Augustus. Following a defeat at the Battle of Actium, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide together.

Mark Antony Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Marcus Antonius, or Mark Antony
  • Known For: Roman general who became a politician and leader of ancient Rome, eventual lover of Cleopatra and father of her three children. He and Cleopatra died together in a suicide pact after the Battle of Actium.
  • Born: January 14, 83 B.C., in Rome
  • Died: August 1, 30 B.C., in Alexandria, Egypt

Early Years

Ancient Rome : Politic Assembly
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Mark Antony was born in 83 B.C. into a noble family, the gens Antonia. His father was Marcus Antonius Creticus, who was generally viewed as one of the most incompetent generals in the Roman army. He died in Crete when his son was only nine years old. Antony's mother, Julia Antonia, was distantly related to Julius Caesar. Young Antony grew up with little guidance following his father's death, and managed to rack up significant gambling debt during his teenage years. Hoping to avoid creditors, he fled to Athens, ostensibly to study philosophy.

In 57 B.C., Antony joined the military as a cavalryman under Aulus Gabinius in Syria. Gabinius and 2,000 Roman soldiers were sent to Egypt, in an attempt to restore Pharaoh Ptolemy XII to the throne after he was deposed by his daughter Berenice IV. Once Ptolemy was back in power, Gabinius and his men stayed put in Alexandria, and Rome benefited from revenues sent back from Egypt. It is believed that this is when Antony first met Cleopatra, who was one of Ptolemy's daughters.

Within a few years, Antony had moved on to Gaul, where he served under Julius Caesar as a general in several campaigns, including commanding Caesar's army in the battle against the Gallic King Vercingetorix. His success as a formidable military leader led Antony into politics. Caesar sent him to Rome to act as his representative, and Antony was elected to the position of Quaestor, and later Caesar promoted him to the role of Legate.

Political Career

Julius Caesar had formed an alliance with Gnaeus Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus, giving rise to the First Triumvirate to rule the Roman republic together. When Crassus died, and Caesar's daughter Julia—who was Pompey's wife—passed away, the alliance effectively dissolved. In fact, a huge divide formed between Pompey and Caesar, and their supporters regularly fought each other in the streets of Rome. The Senate solved the problem by naming Pompey the sole Consul of Rome, but giving Caesar control of the military and religion, as the Pontifex Maximus.

Bust of Marcus Antonius, roman politician and general
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Antony sided with Caesar, and used his position as a Tribune to veto any of Pompey's legislation that might negatively effect Caesar. The battle between Caesar and Pompey eventually came to a head, and Antony suggested that both of them get out of politics, lay down their arms, and live as private citizens. Pompey's supporters were outraged, and Antony fled for his life, finding refuge with Caesar's army on the banks of the Rubicon. When Caesar crossed the river, moving towards Rome, he appointed Antony as his second in command.

Caesar was soon appointed Dictator of Rome, and then sailed to Egypt, where he deposed Ptolemy XIII, the son of the previous pharaoh. There, he appointed Ptolemy's sister Cleopatra as ruler. While Caesar was busy running Egypt and fathering at least one child with the new queen, Antony stayed in Rome as the governor of Italy. Caesar returned to Rome in 46 B.C., with Cleopatra and their son, Caesarion, accompanying him.

When a group of senators, led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, assassinated Caesar on the floor of the senate, Antony escaped Rome dressed as a slave—but soon returned, and managed to liberate the state treasury.

Mark Antony's Speech

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" is the famous first line of Mark Antony's speech given in a funeral oration after Caesar's death on March 15, 44 B.C. However, it's unlikely that Antony truly said it—in fact, the famous speech comes from William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. In the speech, Antony says "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him," and uses emotionally charged rhetoric to turn the crowd of onlookers against the men who conspired to murder his friend.

It's likely that Shakespeare modeled this speech in his play from the writings of Appian of Alexandria, a Greek historian. Appian wrote down a summary of Antony's speech, although it was not word for word. In it, he says,

Mark Antony... had been chosen to deliver the funeral oration... and so he again pursued his tactic and spoke as follows.
"It is not right, my fellow-citizens, for the funeral oration in praise of so great a man to be delivered by me, a single individual, instead of by his whole country. The honors that all of you alike, first Senate and then People, decreed for him in admiration of his qualities when he was still alive, these I shall read aloud and regard my voice as being not mine, but yours.

By the time Antony's speech concludes in Shakespeare's play, the crowd is so worked up that they are ready to hunt down the assassins and tear them to shreds.

Mark Antony and Cleopatra

Cleopatra VII Philopator, known as Cleopatra, Last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt with Mark Antony in the first Century BC
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In Caesar's will, he adopted his nephew Gaius Octavius and appointed him as his heir. Antony refused to turn Caesar's fortune over to him. After months of conflict between the two men, they joined forces to avenge the murder of Caesar, and formed an alliance with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, creating the Second Triumvirate. They marched against Brutus and others who had been part of the assassination conspiracy.

Eventually, Antony was appointed as governor of the eastern provinces, and in 41 B.C., he demanded a meeting with the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. She had escaped Rome with her son following Caesar's death; young Caesarion was recognized by Rome as the king of Egypt. The nature of Antony's relationship with Cleopatra was complex; she may have used their affair as a way to protect herself from Octavian, and Antony abandoned his duty to Rome. Regardless, she bore him three children: twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, and a son named Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Antony gave his children control of several Roman kingdoms after he ended his alliance with Octavian. More importantly, he acknowledged Caesarion as a legitimate heir to Caesar, putting Octavian, who was Caesar's son through adoption, in a precarious position. In addition, he flatly refused to return to Rome, and divorced his wife Octavia—sister of Octavian—to stay with Cleopatra.

In 32 B.C., the Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra, and sent Marcus Vispania Agrippa to Egypt with his army. Following an overwhelming naval defeat at the Battle of Actium, near Greece, Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt.

How Did Mark Antony Die?

Octavian and Agrippa pursued Antony and Cleopatra back to Egypt and their forces closed in on the royal palace. Mistakenly led to believe that his lover was already dead, Antony stabbed himself with his sword. Cleopatra heard the news and went to him, but he died in her arms. She was then taken prisoner by Octavian. Rather than allow herself to be paraded through the streets of Rome, she too committed suicide.

On Octavian's orders, Caesarion was assassinated, but Cleopatra's children were spared and taken back to Rome for Octavian's triumphal procession. After years of conflict, Octavian was finally the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, but would be the last Caesar. Antony had played a significant role in the change of Rome from republic to an imperial system

Although the fate of Antony and Cleopatra's sons, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus is unknown, their daughter, Cleopatra Selene, married King Juba II of Numidia, and became Queen of Mauritania.

Sources

  • “Appian, Caesar's Funeral.” Livius, www.livius.org/sources/content/appian/appian-caesars-funeral/.
  • Bishop, Paul A. Rome: Transition from Republic to Empire . www.hccfl.edu/media/160883/ee1rome.pdf.
  • Flisiuk, Francis. “Antony and Cleopatra: A One Sided Love Story?” Medium, Medium, 27 Nov. 2014, medium.com/@FrancisFlisiuk/antony-and-cleopatra-a-one-sided-love-story-d6fefd73693d.
  • Plutarch. “The Life of Antony.” Plutarch • The Parallel Lives, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Antony*.html.
  • Steinmetz, George, and Werner Forman. “Inside the Decadent Love Affair of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.” Cleopatra and Mark Antony's Decadent Love Affair, 13 Feb. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2015/10-11/antony-and-cleopatra/.