The Roman Republic ended in war. Octavian, Julius Caesar’s anointed heir, defeated Antony and his lover Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, to rise to unchallenged power as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. He ended a long cycle of internal conflict in the Roman world, a territory that Julius Caesar had realised was too big to be ruled by its old institutions.
Caesar leaves a messy inheritance
Julius Caesar’s extraordinary personal power was the prime motive for his assassins, who wanted to revive the power of the Senate in Roman politics. However, the dictator had been enormously popular, and the aristocratic plotters who killed him would soon be faced by men ready to fight to take his place.
Antony was Caesar’s man for years. He was his deputy when he crossed the Rubicon River into Italy in 49 BC to trigger the civil war with Pompey, and was his co-Consul when he died. He was powerful and popular with lots of military experience.
Octavian was Caesar’s great-nephew and had been named as his heir and adopted son in a will made two years before Caesar died. He had proved effective in his short military career, and his links to Caesar gave him instant popularity, particularly with the army. He was only 19 when Caesar died and away from Rome, but would not stay so for long.
After putting down revolts in support of Caesar’s assassins, Octavian and Antony ruled as part of a Triumvirate with Lepidus until 36 BC, when they took joint power, splitting the Empire into Octavian’s West and Antony’s East.
Swords drawn: Octavian vs Antony
Just two years later, Antony went too far when he struck a deal with Cleopatra, his lover, that handed Roman territory in Egypt to her and the son she had borne Caesar during her long affair with the Roman leader.
Octavian’s sister was Antony’s wife, and he’d already publicised his adultery. When Antony married Cleopatra in 32 BC and seemed on the verge of setting up an alternative Imperial capital in Egypt, Octavian persuaded the Senate to declare war on Cleopatra, who they blamed for seducing their former hero.
As Octavian had foreseen, Antony backed Cleopatra, decisively cutting his ties with Rome and Octavian set off with 200,000 legionaries to punish the renegade pair.
The war was won in one decisive sea battle, off Actium in Greece. Octavian’s fleet of smaller, faster vessels with more experienced crews devastated Antony’s ships and his army surrendered without doing battle.
Antony fled with Cleopatra to Alexandria while Octavian plotted his next move.
He marched to Egypt, cementing the support of legions and Roman client kingdoms along the way. Antony was massively outnumbered, with around 10,000 men at his command who were quickly defeated by one of Octavian’s allies as most of the remainder of Antony’s forces surrendered.
The lovers’ suicides of Antony and Cleopatra
With no hope left, Antony messily killed himself on 1 August 30 BC, after apparently failing to strike a deal to protect Cleopatra.
Cleopatra then attempted to secure a deal for herself and Caesar’s son, Caesarion, but Octavian refused to listen, having the young man killed as he fled and warning his mother that she would be paraded in his triumph back in Rome.
Octavian was desperate to keep Cleopatra alive. He wanted a high-status prisoner, and her treasure to pay his troops. Cleopatra was able to kill herself though – possibly using a poisoned snake.
Nothing now stood between Octavian and total power. Egypt was granted to him as his personal possession and by 27 BC the granting of the titles Augustus and Princeps confirmed him as Emperor.
Telling the tale
The story of Antony and Cleopatra – the great Roman and the beautiful queen who caused him to turn his back on his nation – is compelling.
Romans and Egyptians no doubt told the tale many times and one surviving account has proved the most durable. Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans was published in the late 1st century, pairing men from both civilisations.
Antony was paired with Demetrius, the king of Macedonia who died in enemy captivity and spent many years with a courtesan as his companion.
Plutarch was interested in character rather than history and his book was a defining text of the rediscovery of classical civilisation during the Renaissance. Among its most devoted readers was one William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is a fairly faithful telling of the tale, going so far as to lift some phrases directly from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s work.
Antony and Cleopatra would both be remembered by history as great public figures, but their love story – no matter how embellished – has taken them into different territory. Both, and Cleopatra in particular, have been portrayed in literature, film, dance and every other medium of art countless times.