Antony and Cleopatra

After the death of Julius Caesar there was a struggle for power between his supporters and those who organised his death. Mark Antony was consul at the time and had been a close friend of Caesar. He quickly published Caesar's will which revealed that he had left 300 sesterces to every man in Rome. Caesar also stated in his will that his impressive gardens were to become parks for the people who lived in the city.

This news turned the people against Caesar's murderers and they were forced to flee. Antony now held power but he was soon to be challenged by a young man of nineteen called Octavian, who was Caesar's great-nephew. Caesar had been impressed by the intelligence of Octavian and had adopted him so that he could gain power when Caesar died.

At first Mark Antony and Octavian decided to share power between them. When the Senate attempted to regain control of Rome, Antony and Octavian had 130 of them murdered. Their property was seized and given to those willing to support the new rulers.

To show his commitment to his partner, Mark Antony divorced his wife and married Octavian's sister Octavia. It was agreed that the Roman Empire would be divided between the two men, Octavian looking after western Europe and Antony, the eastern territories.

It was while he was in Egypt that Mark Antony met Cleopatra. Like Julius Caesar before him, Mark Antony soon fell in love with the Queen of Egypt. Mark Antony decided to divorce his wife and marry Cleopatra. Octavian was furious that his sister should be treated in this way. The people of Rome were also angry because Mark Antony had married a foreigner.

In 40 B.C. the Parthians invaded Roman territory, occupying Syria, advancing into Asia Minor and installing Antigonus as puppet king in Judaea. Mark Antony sent his general Publius Ventidius to oppose this invasion.

Octavian now agreed for Mark Antony to retaliate by invading Parthia. However, the rebellion in Sicily of Sextus Pompeius kept the army promised to Mark Antony in Italy. This caused a dispute with Octavian but a new treaty was signed in Tarentum in 38 BC.

Mark Antony returned to Egypt and persuaded Cleopatra to lend him the money he needed to form an alliance with Herod the Great. In 37 BC, Herod and the Roman Army took back Judaea. Herod turned Antigonus over to Mark Antony, who had him beheaded.

Mark Antony now felt strong enough to invade Parthia. However, with an army of about 100,000 Roman and allied troops but the campaign proved a disaster and after several military defeats Mark Antony was forced to carry out an humiliating retreat.

Octavian now decided to destroy the triumvirate by forming a new alliance with the traditional Republican aristocracy. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was forced to resign and Octavian began attacking Mark Antony for abandoning his faithful wife, Octavia, to be with the promiscuous Cleopatra. Octavian claimed that Cleopatra was attempting to gain control of the Roman Empire by marrying Mark Antony. Cleopatra replied that her son Caesarion, and not Octavian, was Caesar's true heir.

Painting by Anton Mengs of Cleopatra being captured by Octavian. (1770)
Painting by Anton Mengs of Cleopatra being captured by Octavian. (1770)

Octavian responded by declaring war on Cleopatra. Although some Roman legions supported Mark Antony, the vast majority took the side of Octavian.

In 31 BC Octavian defeated Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium on the west coast of Greece. Mark Antony and Cleopatra were forced to flee to Alexandria in Egypt. When Octavian's troops surrounded Alexandria, Mark Antony committed suicide by falling on his sword.

Cleopatra was captured by Octavian who planned to take her back to Rome as his prisoner. However, she was determined not to be humiliated in this way and arranged for a poisonous snake to be smuggled into her room in a large box of figs. Cleopatra then committed suicide by allowing the snake to bite her.

Cleopatra had earlier sent her son Caesarion into hiding but he was betrayed by his tutor. When Octavian found out where Caesarion was he had him murdered but spared Cleopatra's three children by Mark Antony.

Primary Sources

(1) Virgil, Aeneid (c. 19 BC)

On this side Octavian leading the Italians into battle, with senate and people... with the great gods... On the other side, with barbaric wealth and multicoloured armour, Antony... with Egypt and the men of the East... and following (the shame of it) his Egyptian wife.

(2) In his poem Ode XXXVII, Horace described Cleopatra's defeat at Actium (c. 35 BC)

Cleopatra had planned in hate to smash the Capitol and sack the conquered Roman State.

She and her plotting gang, diseased and vile, went mad with heady dreams of baseless pride.

(3) Speech by Octavian to his troops before the Battle of Actium, quoted by Cassius Dio in Roman History (c. AD 215)

We Romans are the rulers of the greatest and best parts of the world, and we find ourselves trampled on by a woman from Egypt... Egyptians worship reptiles and beasts as gods, they embalm dead bodies... Worst of all, they are not ruled by a man, but are slaves to a woman.

(4) Appian, The Civil Wars (c. AD 160)

Antony was amazed at Cleopatra's wit as well as her good looks, and became her captive as though he was a young man.

(5) Plutarch, Mark Antony (c. AD 110)

For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself remarkable... but the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation... was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another, so that there were few of the nations that she needed an interpreter... which was all the more surprising because most of her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue.


1. Describe why Octavian was upset when Antony married Cleopatra. What happened as a result of Antony's marriage to Cleopatra?

2. Read source 3. How did Octavian attempt to build up hatred against Mark Antony's forces?

3. Read sources 1 and 2. Were these writers supporters of Mark Antony or Octavian? Select passages where the authors express opinions on the subject of Cleopatra.

4. Read about Horace and Virgil. Explain the possible reasons why these two men wrote poems that praised Octavian (he later changed his name to Augustus) and criticised Antony and Cleopatra.

5. Why would it be difficult for a modem historian to find primary sources that give a good impression of Cleopatra?