Cleopatra and Antony


Cleopatra e Marco Antonio Morente – Pompeo Batoni

This is Part II of the Biography series. Please click here to access Part I.

Although Cleopatra’s position in Egypt was secure, she faced environmental challenges shortly after her return from Rome.  The Nile River, whose yearly flooding provided the land with nutrient-rich mud for crops, did not rise high enough for a good harvest. Crops were the major source of Egypt’s wealth; the country typically had enough to supply the population while excess goods were exported. The drought proved to be severe and food production was limited two years in a row following Julius Caesar’s death. Cleopatra, aided by her political supporters outside of Alexandria, initiated several relief and rationing procedures to save the populace from starvation.1 However, without any goods to export, Egypt’s finances were severely weakened.

Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV, died during this time. The cause remains unknown. His name was quickly replaced in government documents by Cleopatra’s son, Ptolemy XV Caesarion, who was elevated to co-regent.

Another civil war had begun in Rome during this time. The forces of Marc Antony, a prominent general, and Octavian, who was named Caesar’s heir, pursued and executed Caesar’s assassins. The death of Julius Caesar and the fleeing of his murderers left a power vacuum in Rome. A Triumvirate was established to oversee different parts of the empire and ensure the smooth running of the government. The three leaders were Octavian, Marc Antony and a fellow general, Lepidus.

Cleopatra sent four Roman legions, which Caesar had left behind in Alexandria years earlier, to aid the Triumvirs.4 The Triumvirate expressed its gratitude by legally acknowledging Caesarion as the King of Egypt. However, Cassius, one of Caesar’s assassins, intercepted the fleet before it reached its destination and assimilated the army into his own forces.5 Upon receiving the news, Cleopatra personally escorted her Egyptian navy to provide assistance in the war. In spite of her efforts, the fleet was caught in a storm which damaged and destroyed most of the ships.6 Luckily, the fleet was still hugging the African coast at the time and survivors (including Cleopatra) were able to swim to shore. To further deter the Queen, her governor in Cyprus defected to Cassius, providing him with additional forces.

Despite the supplementary aid to the assassins’ amries, the Triumvirs prevailed at the decisive Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE.

Marc Antony was given control over the eastern portion of the Roman Empire and he proceeded to the city of Tarsus, in Asia Minor, at the conclusion of the war. He summoned Cleopatra to join him and “to answer the charge that she had given many resources to Cassius’s supporters.”7 Cleopatra, insulted at the demand, refused to go. Nevertheless, Egypt was weakened as a result of the famine and loss of military force. She could not afford to lose Roman support of her position. After several additional demands, she decided to answer the summons.

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Cleopatra’s Barge – Andre Bauchant

Cleopatra did not want to appear like a client monarch. She entered Tarsus in a state of luxury which captivated the imaginations of artists and writers throughout the millennia. She “mocked [Antony] by sailing… in a ship with its stern covered in gold, with purple sails fluttering, with rowers pulling with silver oars as flutes played, accompanied by pipes and lyres.”8 Cleopatra’s crew was replaced by young men and women dressed as figures from Greek mythology, while Cleopatra herself reclined under a canopy dressed as the goddess Aphrodite. In addition to answering his summons, Cleopatra’s trip was a symbolic gesture of friendship to Antony, who associated himself with the god Dionysus. Aphrodite was the Greek form of the goddess Isis, while Dionysus was a manifestation of her husband, Osiris.9

Cleopatra invited Antony and his men to a luxurious dinner the night of her arrival, which amazed the Romans and captivated Antony in particular. Plutarch described Cleopatra as being “at the age at which women are at the height of their attractiveness and at the peak of their intellectual powers,” at the time of her arrival.10 Upon hearing Cleopatra’s version of events, Antony cleared her of all accusations regarding the war. The traitorous Cypriot governor and Cleopatra’s last surviving sibling, her sister Arsinoe, were executed by Antony’s men at Cleopatra’s request. It remains unclear whether Arsinoe had anything to do with the governor’s defection.

Antony and Cleopatra began a romantic relationship during her stay in Tarsus. Just as her liaison with Caesar was founded on political advantage, her partnership with Antony was equally beneficial to both parties. Antony was preparing to invade Parthia, a powerful enemy kingdom to the east, and he needed the support of a wealthy nation such as Egypt. In return, Cleopatra received the support of another powerful Roman, which ensured the continuation of the Ptolemaic dynasty.13

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Cleopatra and Marc Antony as they appeared on coins together

Marc Antony decided to accompany Cleopatra back to Egypt for the winter. The pair soon became notorious for their lavish banquets, excessive spending, and impetuousness, although some of the accounts describing their deeds were undoubtedly exaggerated in later years.14 Appian wrote that the “interest Antony had once shown in all things suddenly dulled; whatever Cleopatra dictated was done.”15 Although the trip was harshly criticized in Rome, it was productive for Antony’s Parthian campaign. He used his time in Egypt to gain support from the Alexandrian people and to plan the oncoming attack.16 Cleopatra became pregnant with Marc Antony’s children during this time.

Antony’s Roman wife, Fulvia, waged war against Octavian during Antony’s stay in Alexandria.  Although she became sick and died before either side was victorious, her actions weakened the bonds of the Triumvirate.17 Antony was obligated to meet with Octavian to renew the terms of their political alliance.  To complete the signing of the treaty, Octavian offered his sister Octavia’s hand in marriage to Antony. Octavia was a respected woman, and her brother hoped she would lure Antony away from Cleopatra. Antony agreed to the alliance for the preservation of peace and, instead of returning to Egypt, sailed to Rome to celebrate the marriage.18

Cleopatra gave birth to twins on December 25, 40 BCE. The boy was named Alexander Helios “Sun,” and the girl was called Cleopatra Selene “Moon.”19

Meanwhile, Octavian’s power in the west continued to grow, increasing Antony’s determination to invade Parthia. Political power in Rome was mainly achieved through military success, and Antony needed a military victory to rival Octavian’s dominion. Due to a series of setbacks, he spent the next three years preparing for the campaign.

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The Temple of Hathor at Dendera was one of Cleopatra’s major restoration projects

Egypt returned to normal crop production after the famine. Increased trade and careful government administration greatly increased Cleopatra’s eastern supremacy during this time. A series of building projects were initiated throughout the country which secured Cleopatra’s hold over Egypt in the “traditional pharaonic manner.”20

Antony and Cleopatra did not see each other again until 37 BCE. Antony requested that Cleopatra meet with him in the city of Antioch. The pair soon resumed their romantic relationship and Cleopatra remained in the city until the following spring. The trip was also politically productive for both parties: Antony received Egypt’s monetary support for the coming campaign, while Cleopatra acquired the territories of Phoenicia, Cilicia and Syria,21 (territories that the Ptolemaic Empire lost centuries earlier). Antony attacked Parthia in 36 BCE while Cleopatra returned to Egypt.  She gave birth to a boy, Ptolemy Philadelphus, later that year.

To the detriment of both rulers, Antony’s campaign proved to be disastrous. Antony lost a third of his army with almost nothing to show for it. Octavian used this opportunity to strip Lepidus, their fellow Triumvir, of power and add Lepidus’ land to his own.22 He then sent his sister Octavia, along with aid for Antony’s soldiers, to the east, but Antony ordered her to return to Rome. Octavian hoped to exploit and publicize his sister’s mistreatment because she was so respected by the Roman populace. Octavia, however, didn’t want to be in the spotlight; she stated that she could not bear to be the cause for war between the two most important men in Rome.23

Part of Antony’s failure in Parthia was the result of betrayal by the King of Armenia. Antony spent 2 years recovering from the loss and then conquered the territory in 34 BCE.24 Cleopatra hosted a mock Roman triumph in Antony’s honor during which the Armenian royal family was marched in chains through the streets of Alexandria. Antony, dressed as Dionysus, led the procession. The parade stopped before Cleopatra, their children, and Caesarion, who were all seated on gold thrones.25 Antony used the opportunity to publicly proclaim Cleopatra and Caesarion as the rulers of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya, and Central Syria.  To his children by Cleopatra, he gave the territories of Armenia, Media, Parthia (upon its conquest), Phoenicia, Syria and Cilicia.26 He also acknowledged Caesarion as the legitimate son of Julius Caesar, a statement which directly threatened Octavian (who was Caesar’s son by adoption).27 The ceremony insulted many prominent Romans and Octavian used the opportunity to declare war against Antony and Cleopatra.28

This is Part II of the Biography series. Please click here to access Part III.

[learn_more caption=”Footnotes”]1Burstein, 22.

4Appian, 5.8.

5Burstein, 22.

6Appian, 5.8.

7Plutarch, Life of Antony, 25.

8Ibid., 26.

9Burstein, 23.

10Plutarch, Life of Antony, 25.

11Frank Roddam (Director), Cleopatra (Babelsberg International Film Produktion, 1999).


13Burstein, 24.

14Pliny the Elder, Natural History.  Pliny the Elder wrote that Cleopatra downplayed her lavish feast in Tarsus, saying she could easily spend more on a banquet. Marc Antony held her to her words. In order to win, she dissolved a large and very expensive pearl in a cup of vinegar or wine, making it the most expensive beverage in the world.

15Appian, 5.9.2.

16Burstein, 25.

17Ibid., 30.

18Ibid., 31.

19Plutarch, Life of Antony, 36.3.

20Burstein, 25.

21Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 CE), 15.4.1.

22Burstein, 27.

23Plutarch, Life of Antony, 54.

24Josephus, 15.4.3.

25Jones, 115.

26Plutarch, Life of Antony, 54.5-9.

27Cassius Dio, 49.41.4.

28Ibid., 50.4.4. [/learn_more]

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