Cleopatra and Octavian


Cleopatra and Octavian – Louis Gauffier

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

Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian fought a propaganda war before any physical fighting occurred.  Each side tried to lessen the other’s authority through a series of vicious rumors and accusations.  Cleopatra was primarily targeted for her power and her gender.  Cassius Dio recreated a speech in which Octavian detailed his argument for declaring war on Cleopatra.  The document described the Queen as a “ruinous woman” “who would consider herself equal to a man,” and anyone who supported her as “slaves” and “eunuchs.”  Rome is also said to have been unfairly “disparaged and downtrodden” by Cleopatra.1 Likewise, the document criticized Antony, who “left behind his ancestral customs” and “imitated foreign and barbaric ones.”  His love for Cleopatra was mocked when he was described as an “irrational or insane” man who “bows before that woman like Isis.”2 These hostile representations of Cleopatra form the main body of classical sources describing her, which artists and authors kept alive by taking them at face value.  Octavian’s eventual victory over Antony and Cleopatra ensured that this version of events was passed down into the history books.

Although few primary sources survive describing Antony and Cleopatra’s propaganda documents against Octavian, Suetonius preserved some of the unflattering rumors that were circulated throughout Rome.  Antony claimed that Octavian prostituted himself to Caesar (who was known to have sexual relations with men), in order to get adopted as Caesar’s son.  In addition to sleeping with Caesar, Octavian was rumored to sleep with “Aulus Hirtius in Spain for three thousand gold coins,” and that he singed off his leg hairs to become more effeminate.3 Octavian was also known to have many adulterous relations, which Antony addressed in a letter to him.  In it, Antony wrote “What changed you?  That I’m sleeping with the queen?… Good for you if, when you read this, you haven’t been sleeping with Tertulla or Terentilla or Rufilla or Salvia Titisenia or all of them.”4 The propaganda war continued in this way until the fall of Egypt in 30 BCE.

Antony and Cleopatra traveled to Ephesus, where they prepared for the coming war against Octavian.  They put together a navy of five hundred festively adorned warships, one hundred thousand infantry and twelve thousand cavalry.5 On the opposing side, Octavian had fewer ships (by half) and infantry, but a similar amount of cavalry.6 The forces met at Actium, in Greece, where the decisive battle of the war was fought later that year.  Despite their larger fleet, Antony and Cleopatra lost many men to disease and did not have enough sailors to man the ships, which were much larger than those of Octavian’s fleet.  Octavian also managed to blockade Antony and Cleopatra’s forces within a gulf, preventing any supplies from reaching them.  In a strategic move before the battle, Antony had all but 60 of his ships burned, so that Octavian could not add them to his armada.7 Antony and Cleopatra engaged Octavian’s forces on September 2, 31 BCE, in what came to be known as the “Battle of Actium.”8 Despite some fighting, the “ships were seen raising their sails… fleeing through the middle of the battle line.”9 Historically, this strategy was represented as a desertion by Antony and Cleopatra of the ships that could not break out of the gulf.  In reality, the ships were most likely instructed to regroup in Egypt after breaking through the blockade since there was little chance of defeating Octavian.10 The latter interpretation likewise explains why all the ships raised their sails at the same time.

Upon returning to Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra attempted to negotiate with Octavian.  An ambassador was sent asking him to allow Cleopatra’s children to rule Egypt.  While Octavian immediately dismissed all of Antony’s requests, he responded that Cleopatra would not be denied anything reasonable if she killed or exiled her husband.  Cleopatra, not willing to fulfill the act, celebrated with Antony in the most lavish of their banquets. She gave her guests many prized possessions so that Octavian could not capture them if/when he conquered Egypt.11 This final celebration immediately preceded Octavian’s entrance into the country.

Despite their apparent sense of defeat, Antony and Cleopatra did not give up without one last fight.  Although most of Antony’s forces had deserted to Octavian, Antony still managed to attack brilliantly, driving Octavian’s cavalry back to their camp.12 Meanwhile, Cleopatra collected most of the royal treasure, which she intended to destroy should Octavian prevail.  In spite of Antony’s initial success, the majority of his remaining forces deserted to Octavian, and Antony returned to Alexandria.  Upon hearing false news that Cleopatra was dead, he attempted suicide by stabbing himself with his sword.  The wound, however, was not fatal and Antony remained conscious long enough to be brought to Cleopatra’s mausoleum, where she locked herself with her two handmaidens.13

Antony died, probably from loss of blood, shortly after meeting with Cleopatra one last time.  Cleopatra remained inside the mausoleum with the hopes that fear of losing her treasury would persuade Octavian to allow her children to rule over Egypt.14 However, one of Octavian’s soldiers snuck through an unfinished window of the tomb and captured Cleopatra before any negotiations took place.  She was held captive in the palace, during which time she stopped eating, wishing to die instead of living as Octavian’s prisoner.  In response to her fast, Octavian threatened Cleopatra with the death of her children. Believing his claim, Cleopatra began eating and allowed physicians to care for her body.15

Octavian met with Cleopatra a few days after his entrance into Alexandria.  Cleopatra prostrated herself before him, making a show of her supplication.  She willingly offered her treasury to him, but asked that she be allowed to keep several tokens as gifts for his wife and sister.16 This show was meant to convince Octavian that she was still plotting, hoping to use the gifts to gain support with Octavian’s family.  It worked.  Octavian allowed Cleopatra to return to her own room, “not depriving her of the attendants or servants to whom she was accustomed, in order to give her hope that she would accomplish her plans and prevent her from harming herself.”17 Octavian believed that he had deceived Cleopatra, but he was actually being deceived by her.

With the pretense of seeing Antony, Cleopatra was allowed to enter the mausoleum with her two handmaidens.  They were left alone, since Octavian was still under the impression that Cleopatra had no intention of dying.  While there, Cleopatra put on her most luxurious outfit and covered her sarcophagus with perfume.18 She had arranged ahead of time for poisonous snakes to be hidden in a basket of figs and brought to the mausoleum.  Just before her death, she wrote a letter to Octavian, asking him to be buried with Antony.  She then allowed herself to be bitten by a snake, grasped the crook and flail (the royal symbols of Egypt), and died while lying atop her sarcophagus.19

Cleopatra was immortalized through her death, and despite being an enemy of the Roman Empire, Octavian is believed to have granted her wish and buried her with a lavish funeral.

[learn_more caption=”Footnotes”]1Cassius Dio, 50.24-28.


3Suetonius, 68.

4Ibid, 69.

5Plutarch, Life of Antony, 56, 61.

6Ibid., 61.

7Ibid., 64.

8Jones, 154.

9Plutarch, Life of Antony, 66.

10Jones, 154.

11Plutarch, Life of Antony, 72, 73.

12Ibid., 74

13Ibid., 76, 77.

14Cassius Dio, 51.11.

15Plutarch, Life of Antony, 82.

16Ibid., 83.

17Cassius Dio, 51.11.

18Florus, Abridgement of all the Wars over 1,200 Years (2nd Century CE), 2.21.9-11.

19Cassius Dio, 51.13.[/learn_more]

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *