Mark Antony

The Roman politician and general Mark Antony (ca. 82-30 B.C.) was the chief rival of Octavian for the succession to the power of Julius Caesar.

Mark Antony (in Latin, Marcus Antonius) came from a distinguished Roman family. His grandfather had been one of the leading orators in Rome, and his father, Marcus Antonius Creticus, had died in an expedition against pirates. As a young man, Antony became involved in tribunate politics and the Roman East, two areas that were to play a major role in his later life. Among his closest friends was a young man, Curio, who as tribune was a key figure in the conflict between Caesar and the Senate and Pompey. In 58 Antony appears to have been among the supporters of the powerful and violent tribune Clodius.


Career with Caesar

Antony received his first overseas experience in the East when, during 57-55, he served with the Roman governor of Syria, Aulus Gabinius, and distinguished himself as a cavalry officer during campaigns in Palestine and Egypt. From there he went to Caesar in Gaul. In 52 he was elected quaestor in Rome and returned to Gaul to take part in the suppression of the revolt of Vercingetorix. In 50 he was elected tribune, an office that represented the people's interests.

Antony came into the office at a critical time. Caesar's command in Gaul was coming to an end, and a group in the Senate was set on bringing Caesar to trial for alleged misdeeds while consul and proconsul. Caesar depended upon the tribunes to look after his interests in Rome. Curio had played this role masterfully, and Antony tried to emulate him. He vetoed a decree that required Caesar to lay down his arms. When the Senate gave its magistrates special powers to "preserve the state," Antony felt that the measure would be used against him and fled to Caesar. By doing so, he gave Caesar the opportunity to assert his power under the pretext of claiming that he was defending the people's representatives, the tribunes, against the arrogant power of the Senate.

In the course of the civil wars against Pompey, the leader of the Senate faction, Antony was given several important military assignments and distinguished himself. After the victory of Caesar over Pompey at Pharsalus, Antony returned to Italy as Caesar's second in command. In 45 Caesar designated him as consul for 44.

Once again Antony found himself in a key position at an important time. Caesar was rapidly moving in the direction of monarchial government, in fact if not in name, and as a result a conspiracy formed to eliminate him. On March 15, 44, while one of the conspirators detained Antony outside the Senate, Caesar was assassinated. Antony was spared on the grounds that the aim of the conspiracy was to remove an illegal ruler but that slaying the consul, the chief legitimate officer of the Roman state, would besmirch the cause's image.


Second Triumvirate

With the death of Caesar, Antony was forced to fight politically a two-front war. One was against the conspirators. The other was with Caesar's supporters, who were undecided on how to avenge Caesar and also as to who would lead them. Antony initially adopted an attitude that was on the surface conciliatory toward the assassins of Caesar while he strengthened his power position. He might have ensured his supremacy without difficulty if the young Octavian, nephew of Caesar, had not appeared, claiming not only to be Caesar's adopted son and heir but also demanding Caesar's political legacy. Octavian was a man who not only could assume the mantle of Caesar as legitimately as Antony but could also be used by the opponents of Antony as a pawn. Antony tried to strengthen his position by attempting to gain a new 5-year command in Gaul, thus using Caesar's old power base. However, Octavian, stressing his own position as the heir of Caesar, skillfully enticed some of Antony's legions to his side, and Decimus Brutus refused to yield the governorship of Gaul. When Antony attempted to attack Brutus at Mutina (modern Modena), he was in turn attacked by the armies of Octavian and the consuls. He was defeated and forced to retreat north.

In the following months Antony strengthened himself with the armies of the western provinces; while Octavian, realizing that the Senate was trying to use him, began to make political overtures to Antony. The result was the formation of the second triumvirate of Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus. Unlike the first triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, which was a mere political alliance, this became a constitutionally established organ for ruling the state.

One of the first tasks undertaken by the group was the proscription of leading enemies. The most important of those killed was M. Tullius Cicero, hated by Antony because of his vitriolic oratorical assaults. Antony has often been blamed for these executions. However, this may reflect the propaganda of Octavian, who after the fact wanted to play down his role in the bloody events of these years.

Antony and Octavian now moved eastward to face the army of the conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius. The two forces met at Philippi in 42, and Antony's military skill carried the day.


Antony and Cleopatra

After this battle Antony's career entered its most famous period. While Octavian returned to settle veterans in Italy, Antony went east to order affairs in these provinces. He also prepared a war against Parthia, and needing Egyptian support he summoned Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, to Tarsus in 41. An immediate romance followed. This was interrupted when the news arrived that Antony's brother and wife were openly defying Octavian in Italy. Antony moved west and it looked as though fighting would erupt. However, a peace was patched up at Brindisi in 40 and sealed by the wedding of Antony with Octavian's sister, Octavia, after the death of Antony's first wife.

Antony went east again and, except for a return in 37 to aid Octavian against the pirate Sextus Pompey, remained there. In 36 Antony again took up his affair with Cleopatra. He found a complex situation in the East. The area had been seriously disturbed by the wars of Caesar and Pompey and the exactions of Brutus and Cassius. Furthermore, the Parthians were attacking Roman territory. Antony seems to have established good relations with the local dynasts and created for himself a certain amount of popularity, even though his financial exaction must have lain heavily on the provincials. His generals were successful in beating back the Parthians, although an expedition which Antony undertook to Parthia itself turned into a disaster.

In the meantime he was becoming increasingly involved with Cleopatra, politically as well as romantically. Cleopatra saw him as a wonderful opportunity to revive the past glories of the Ptolemies. What the ideas of Antony were is not clear. The picture of Antony enslaved to the Egyptian queen was in part the result of the propaganda efforts of Octavian. However, he certainly was dependent on Cleopatra for money, and he did make territorial concessions and grants of titles to Cleopatra's family.

At the close of 33 the second triumvirate legally came to an end. At the same time the crisis between Octavian and Antony was coming to a head. Antony still had support in Rome. However, Octavian played his cards well, raising public indignation by announcing Antony's divorce of Octavia for Cleopatra, reading Antony's will in which his strong ties to Cleopatra were stressed, and circulating such rumors as Antony's plans to move the capital to Alexandria.

Octavian systematically rallied the support of Italy, while Antony's Roman friends had mixed emotions about waging war on the side of the Egyptian queen. The two men and their armies met off Greece at Actium on Sept. 2, 31. In a confused battle the fleet of Antony was routed. With Cleopatra he fled back to Egypt, where he committed suicide upon the arrival of Octavian.


Further Reading on Mark Antony

Ancient sources on Mark Antony are Cicero's Philippics, which presents a hostile view, and Plutarch's Lives. Arthur Weigall, The Life and Times of Marc Antony (1931), is a lively biography. R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939; corrected repr. 1952), is still the best work for placing Antony in his period. See also Frank Burr Marsh, A History of the Roman World from 146 to 30 B.C. (1935; 2d ed. rev. 1953), and Hans Volkmann, Cleopatra: A Study in Politics and Propaganda (1953; trans. 1958).