The Life of Mark Antony by Plutarch

This is one of the longest lives at 87 chapters, longer than Sertorius (27), Crassus (33), Cicero (49), Brutus (53), Caesar (69), Cato the Younger (73) or Pompey (80). Dates and other information in square brackets are not in Plutarch but content I’ve added in to make the account more accurate.

Plutarch’s life of Marcus Antonius

(1) Marcus Antonius [83 to 30] came from an undistinguished family. His grandfather was murdered during the purges of Marius in 87 BC. Plutarch tells an anecdote about how, when a friend came asking for money, all his father could give him was a bowl, and that when his wife discovered it was missing she threatened to torture all the slaves to find it until his father confessed to having given it away. (Torture all the slaves? So the references to torturing slaves to  establish something, as jokily referred to in the plays of Plautus and Terence, is based on common practice.)

(2) His mother was Julia, a third cousin of Julius Caesar. When his father died, his mother remarried Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, an eminent man of noble family who was always in debt due to his extravagance and so had got lured into the Catiline conspiracy. He was one of the conspirators caught in the capital about whom the famous debate in the senate was held (where Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger put opposing views, namely clemency versus execution, as described in detail in Sallust’s Catilinarian Conspiracy). As a result of Cato’s violent argument, Lentulus was summarily executed on the orders of Cicero, consul at the time. According to Plutarch, this explains Antony’s violent hatred of Cicero who he would, 20 years later, directly cause to be executed. Thus does the whirligig of time being in his revenges.

A promising youth, Antony fell under the influence of Gaius Scribonius Curio, who debauched him with wine and women till he was massively in debt and Curio’s father banned him from the house. Then he fell in with Publius Clodius Pulcher, the street demagogue and rabble rouser. He acquired so many enemies that he thought it wise to leave Italy for Greece, where he studied military tactics and oratory. Interestingly, Plutarch tells us that Antonius adopted:

the Asiatic style of oratory, which was at the height of its popularity in those days and bore a strong resemblance to his own life, which was swashbuckling and boastful, full of empty exultation and distorted ambition.

So by chapter 2 we know where Plutarch’s sympathies lie. With Brutus the liberator and Cato the principled, against Caesar the tyrant and Antony his swaggering lieutenant. OK. Good.

(3) Antony accompanies Grabinius to Syria as captain of his horse and distinguishes himself in a siege against Aristobulus at Jerusalem in 57 BC. He plays a leading role in the campaign to restore King Ptolemy XII Auletes to the throne of Egypt after he’d been dethroned by his people. For example, capturing the city of Pelusium. (Cato 35, Pompey 49) Something which, presumably, endeared him to Ptolemy’s daughter, Cleopatra, when he was to meet her 15 years later.

(4) “He had also a noble dignity of form; and a shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Hercules.” He liked to play on his putative descent from Hercules. He dressed casually, was boastful and banterish, all this produced goodwill and reputation among the soldiers, helped by ‘his liberality, and his bestowal of favours upon friends and soldiers’.

(5) When the crisis between Caesar and Pompey came to a head, Curio, with money provided by Caesar, got Antony elected tribune of the plebs in 50 BC [following straight on from Curio’s own term]. During the crisis Antony played a key role at crucial moments. In January 49 he read out Caesar’s letter to the senate with his proposals for a compromise. It was he who suggested the further compromise that both Caesar and Pompey lay down their arms simultaneously, but this proposal was rejected by the consuls and Lucius Cornelius Lentulus (not the same Lentulus as the one involved in the conspiracy) expelled Antony from the Senate building by force and threats.

Which is why Antony changed into the clothes of a slave and headed to Caesar’s camp by the river Rubicon, there to brief him that all compromise was impossible. (Pompey 58, Caesar 30) It was the hounding of Antony in his capacity as tribune which made it possible for Caesar to dress up his motivation for invading Italy as being in part to restore the rights of the tribunes i.e. to dress up personal ambition in lofty rhetoric about rights and customs. [See the opening chapters of Caesar’s Civil War.]

(6) It was this which allowed Cicero to write, in his Philippics against Antony, that he was the prime cause of the civil war, which is, of course, silly, and Plutarch goes on to say so, and to explain that Caesar was not a man to do anything on a whim. No:

that which led [Caesar] to war against all mankind, as it had led Alexander before him, and Cyrus of old, was an insatiable love of power and a mad desire to be first and greatest.

Not a fan, then.

After Caesar crossed into Italy and drove Pompey across the Adriatic to Macedonia, he lacked the ships to follow and so turned around and headed to Spain to quell the Pompeian legions there, leaving Rome to Lepidus, who was praetor, and Italy and the troops to Antony, in his capacity as tribune of the people.

Antony curried favour with the troops by living with them and sharing their exercises and making generous gifts of money, but he was impatient with administering justice and gained a reputation for sleeping with other men’s wives. In other words, he did a lot of damage to Caesar’s cause.

(7) Nonetheless Caesar was right to put his faith in him as a general. Early in 48, having crushed Spain, Caesar has marched his army all the way back into Italy and rustled up the ships to transport them across the Adriatic. He was besieging Pompey’s army at Dyrrhachium in the Balkans with limited forces and sent word for Antony to send reinforcements. And Antony did a very good job by embarking 20,000 men and escaping the blockade of Brundisium being carried out by Lucius Scribonius Libo. He sailed them down the Macedonian coast in a storm but managed to find a safe port and so brought his forces safely to Caesar – the forces with which Caesar was to win the decisive Battle of Pharsalus later that summer.

(8) Antony distinguished himself at two engagements, where he stood and rallied fleeing troops, and Caesar gave him the decisive command of the left wing at the Battle of Pharsalus. [This is skipped over here because Plutarch describes it at length in his life of Pompey, chapters 68 to 73]. After Caesar won and had himself appointed dictator, he set off in pursuit of Pompey to Egypt, but made Antony his Master of Horse and sent him back to Rome. This post was second only to dictator and when the dictator was absent, as Caesar was, Antony was effectively in complete control.

(9) But while Caesar is away Antony shocked Rome with his loose living, his drunkenness, his heavy expenditures, his debauches with women, his spending the days in sleep or wandering about with an aching head, or attending the nuptial feasts of mimes and jesters. He has a falling out with Publius Cornelius Dolabella, who he thought had had an affair with his wife, so he drove the latter from his house. When Dolabella proposed a law for the abolition of debts and sought to enact it by force and seized the Roman Forum, Antony responded by unleashing his soldiers upon the assembled masses, killing hundreds. – The civil war had taught them nothing. Political street violence wouldn’t go away (at least not until the arrival of the ultimate strong man).

(10) When Caesar returned to Rome he disapproved of Antony’s actions, pardoned Dolabella and chose Lepidus rather than Antony to be his co-consul the next year. (Antony, in fact, was stripped of all official positions and received no appointments for the year 46 or 45 BC.)

Anthony took to wife Fulvia, the widow of both the demagogue Clodius and the hellraiser Curio, who was a tough woman and determined to reform him. Plutarch waspishly claims that Cleopatra owed her a debt because Fulvia house-trained Antony and made him ready to be ruled by a woman. [Before you get too impressed, remember this is the woman who delighted in seeing the severed head and hands of Cicero, executed in December 43 and sparked a full blown war with Octavian in 41.]

An anecdote: Antony goes to meet Caesar on  his return from Spain, but then news breaks that Caesar is dead. So Antony made his way back to Rome disguised as a slave (an echo or repeat of his flight from Rome at the start of 49) and in disguise gained admittance to his own house claiming to be a slave with a message. He hands it to Fulvia who tearfully begs for news about her beloved Antony, at which point he drops his disguise and embraces her.

(11) When Caesar returned from victory in Rome, from all the men who went to meet him it was Antony he honoured and had accompany him in his ‘car’ back to the capital. Plutarch continues the idea of rivalry with Dolabella, claiming Caesar wanted to hand over power to him but Antony vehemently opposed it. Plutarch repeats the story about Caesar being warned about Antony and Dolabella and replying that it wasn’t these fat men who worried him, it was the pale and thin ones, indicating Brutus and Cassius. [Told less convincingly than in the lives of Caesar (62) or Brutus (8).]

(12) A repeat of the story of how Antony was taking part in the annual festival of the Lupercalia and ran with a diadem to the rostra where Caesar was sitting, had his fellow athletes lift him up and place the diadem on Caesar’s head. Some applauded but when Caesar pushed it away the whole crowd applauded. This happened several times before Caesar stood in displeasure, pulled the toga from his throat and said anyone who wanted could strike him there and then. It’s an odd story, isn’t it, with a folk legend aptness but also a deep implausibility. And the related anecdote that unknown hands hung wreaths  on the heads of Caesar’s statues, which were then torn down by the tribunes. All this is told better in Caesar 61.

(13) The conspirators discuss inviting Antony to join. Trebonius shared a tent with Antony as they both accompanied Caesar back to Rome, hinted at the idea and Antony firmly refused. At which they switched round to considering killing Antony along with Caesar – a neat illustration of the way that, once you’ve crossed the line into deciding you need to kill people to get rid of the ‘tyrant’ and the ‘dictator’, it quickly becomes a list. In fact, Brutus is held up as the man of principle who insists that nobody else is harmed. Fearing Antony’s popularity and position, they nonetheless arrange for some of their number to engage Antony outside the senate hall so he is not present when the deed is done.

(14) In this account the actual assassination of Caesar takes up one short sentence. Fair enough; it is described in great and dramatic detail in the life of Caesar [chapters 63 to 69]. Anthony flees into hiding but when he realises the conspirators are harming no-one else but are holed up on the Capitol, he comes out of hiding, gives his son to them as a hostage guaranteeing safe passage, and then entertains the assassins to dinner. In the senate he proposes an act of amnesty and a distribution of provinces among Brutus and Cassius and their partisans.

In the immediate aftermath Antony was widely thought to have acted with immense wisdom to calm the risk of civil war.  But everything changed when he made the official funeral address over Caesar’s body.

At the close of his speech shook on high the garments of the dead, all bloody and tattered by the swords as they were, called those who had wrought such work villains and murderers, and inspired his hearers with such rage that they heaped together benches and tables and burned Caesar’s body in the forum, and then, snatching the blazing faggots from the pyre, ran to the houses of the assassins and assaulted them.

This one act split the city, terrified the assassins into fleeing and, in effect, restarted the civil war.

(15) The assassins fled Rome. Caesar’s wife gave Antony his fortune to dispense with and all his papers. Antony implemented Caesar’s wishes but went further, appointing magistrates who suited him, acting increasingly autocratically.

(16) Octavian It was at this point that 18-year-old Octavian arrived in Rome, a son of Caesar’s niece. When Octavian asked for the money Caesar had left him, in order to distribute the payment of 75 drachmas which Caesar had enjoined, Antony ridiculed the boy for being a mere stripling, and also blocked his attempt to become a tribune. But Octavian allied with Cicero and others of the anti-Caesar party and Antony began to fear him, so held a summit conference, gave into his demands, and was reconciled. Briefly. For then Antony learned Octavian was touring the country drumming up old soldiers and recruiting an army.

(17) Cicero was the most powerful man in Rome and got the senate to declare Antony a public enemy while he was out of the city conducting a siege. Plutarch says this drove Antony and his army out of Italy and over the Alps and they suffered hardships and starvation, but this brought out the best in him, as adversity always did, and the soldiers admired him for sharing their privations.

(18) When Antony’s army came close to camp near to Lepidus‘s the latter, who owed Antony many favours, surprised him by being reluctant to acknowledge him. He came to Lepidus’s campy dishevelled and unshaven and won the sympathy of the troops. Many of Lepidus’s soldiers implored him to usurp their commander and take over but Antony insisted Lepidus be treated with respect and when their armies united he did so. This inspired Munatius Plancus also to join him so that he crossed the Alps into Italy with 17 legions of infantry and 10,000 horse.

(19) Octavian had realised he couldn’t treat with Cicero because the latter was a man of principle, so realised he had to come to an accommodation with Antony. So Octavian, Antony and Lepidus met on an island where ‘they divided up the whole empire among themselves as though it were an ancestral inheritance’. The Second Triumvirate. They all wanted to get rid of political enemies but agreeing a list presented great difficulties. Octavian gave up Cicero to Antony, Antony gave up Lucius Caesar (Antony’s uncle) to Octavian, Lepidus gave up Paulus his brother. ‘Nothing, in my opinion, could be more savage or cruel than this exchange.’

(20) Plutarch has it that the soldiers demanded additional tokens of their alliance so Octavian married Clodia, a daughter of Antony’s wife Fulvia. As a result of these agreements, 300 men were proscribed and put to death, including Cicero. [Wikipedia has 2,000 Roman knights and one third of the senate.] Antony ordered his head and right hand be cut off, the one he had used to write his savage criticisms of Antony with, and nailed to the rostra in the forum [Cicero 48]. In the Gallic Wars Caesar remarked on the Gauls’ ‘barbaric’ practice of sticking the heads of defeated enemies on poles around their camps. How is this different? What could be more savage and barbarian?

(21) Antony emerges as the most powerful of the triumvirate but makes himself very unpopular for his dissolute living. And because he had bought up the house of Pompey [only recently and tragically dead] and the people were upset to see it closed against commanders, magistrates and ambassadors and filled instead with mimes, jugglers and drunken flatterers.

The triumvirate not only sold the properties of those they slew, but brought false charges against their wives and heirs in order to confiscate their belongings. They instituted new taxes, and plundered the  treasure deposited with the Vestal Virgins.

Then Octavian and Antony led their armies into Macedonia against Brutus and Cassius, leaving Rome in charge of Lepidus.

(22) This short chapter deals with the campaign of Octavian and Antony in Greece against Brutus and Cassius, describing but not mentioning by name the crucial two battles at Philippi in October 42, mainly to bring out how it was Antony who was victorious while Octavian was sick in his tent and his forces lost their part of the battle. [Brutus and Cassius’s campaigns in Greece, the long buildup to the battle, the battle and its aftermath are described in great detail in Plutarch’s life of Brutus, taking up the final third of the text, chapters 38 to 53, which is why he skimps it here.] In Plutarch’s account Cassius commits suicide after the first battle, Brutus after the second.

In the negotiations of the triumvirate it was Antony who insisted that Cicero was killed. In revenge Brutus ordered Hortensius to execute Antony’s own brother, Caius. In revenge, Antony had Hortensius executed on his family tomb. Thus the logic of civil wars.

(23) After the battle Octavian, still sick, returns to Rome, while Antony remains in Greece, raising money and enjoying himself, gaining a reputation as a philhellene, listening to learned debates, attending games, giving money to Athens.

(24) In 41 Antony left Lucius Censorinus in charge of Greece and he and his army crossed into Asia meaning the Eastern, Greek-speaking part of what is now Turkey. Here he was greeted as conqueror, lavished with gifts and women and lapsed into his former lifestyle of debauchery. His tax gatherers milked the territory till a brave local politician complained that they had already given Antony 200,000 talents, now he was demanding more. Which gave him pause.

For Antony was simple and slow, quick to forgive, lavish of gifts, but easily flattered and deceived by his subordinates.

(25) Enter Cleopatra who:

roused and drove to frenzy many of the passions that were still hidden and quiescent in him, and dissipated and destroyed whatever good and saving qualities still offered resistance.

Antony sends to her to attend him in Cilicia to explain her support for Cassius. Antony’s messenger, Dellius, on meeting her immediately realises his boss will be enslaved by such a lustrous woman, now at the peak of her beauty [born in 69 BC, in 41 she was 28].

(26) Cleopatra first meets Antony by sailing down the river Cydnus to his camp. This inspires the single most gorgeous description in Plutarch who says she sailed up:

the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nereïds and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.

Antony asked her to come meet him but Cleopatra refused and told him to come meet her. And he obeyed.

(27) A chapter on the character of Cleopatra, tactfully observing that she was no necessarily the most beautiful of women, but she had an ineffable charm and wove a magic every time she spoke.

(28) Instead of preparing for war against the Parthians, Antony sank into oriental sloth, went to Alexandria with Cleopatra and spent his time in feasting and drinking. Plutarch includes a very rare snippet of autobiography which hints at the personal sources of information for his biographies.

Philotas, the physician of Amphissa, used to tell my grandfather, Lamprias, that he was in Alexandria at the time, studying his profession, and that having got well acquainted with one of the royal cooks, he was easily persuaded by him (young man that he was) to take a view of the extravagant preparations for a royal supper. Accordingly, he was introduced into the kitchen, and when he saw all the other provisions in great abundance, and eight wild boars a-roasting, he expressed his amazement at what must be the number of guests. But the cook burst out laughing and said: “The guests are not many, only about twelve; but everything that is set before them must be at perfection, and this an instant of time reduces. For it might happen that Antony would ask for supper immediately, and after a little while, perhaps, would postpone it and call for a cup of wine, or engage in conversation with some one. Wherefore,” he said, “not one, but many suppers are arranged; for the precise time is hard to hit.” This tale, then, Philotas used to tell; and he said also that as time went on he became one of the medical attendants of Antony’s oldest son, whom he had of Fulvia, and that he usually supped with him at his house in company with the rest of his comrades, when the young man did not sup with his father. Accordingly, on one occasion, as a physician was making too bold and giving much annoyance to them as they supped, Philotas stopped his mouth with some such sophism as the: “To the patient who is somewhat feverish cold water must be given; but everyone who has a fever is somewhat feverish; therefore to everyone who has a fever cold water should be given.” The fellow was confounded and put to silence, whereat Antony’s son was delighted and said with a laugh: “All this I bestow upon thee, Philotas,” pointing to a table covered with a great many large beakers. Philotas acknowledged his good intentions, but was far from supposing that a boy so young had the power to give away so much. After a little while, however, one of the slaves brought the beakers to him in a sack, and bade him put his seal upon it. And when Philotas protested and was afraid to take them, “You miserable man,” said the fellow, “why hesitate? Don’t you know that the giver is the son of Antony, and that he has the right to bestow so many golden vessels? However, take my advice and exchange them all with us for money; since perchance the boy’s father might miss some of the vessels, which are of ancient workmanship and highly valued for their art.” Such details, then, my grandfather used to tell me, Philotas would recount at every opportunity.

(29) Astonishingly, Antony liked to dress up as a slave and go round the streets of Alexandria, looking through people’s doors and mocking them. And Cleopatra accompanied him in these merry jaunts! She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, and watched him as he exercised himself in arms. The Alexandrians said that he used the tragic mask with the Romans, but the comic mask with them.

He was fishing once, and had bad luck, and was vexed at it because Cleopatra was there to see. He therefore ordered his fishermen to dive down and secretly fasten to his hook some fish that had been previously caught, and pulled up two or three of them. But the Egyptian saw through the trick, and pretending to admire her lover’s skill, told her friends about it, and invited them to be spectators of it the following day. So great numbers of them got into the fishing boats, and when Antony had let down his line, she ordered one of her own attendants to get the start of him by swimming onto his hook and fastening on it a salted Pontic herring. Antony thought he had caught something, and pulled it up, whereupon there was great laughter, as was natural, and Cleopatra said: “Imperator, hand over thy fishing-rod to the fishermen of Pharos and Canopus; thy sport is the hunting of cities, realms, and continents.”

(30) Eventually the real world intruded on these larks. His wife and brother had become enemies of Octavian and been forced to flee Italy. Meanwhile, Labienus, Caesar’s best lieutenant in Gaul, who had gone over to Pompey and then escaped East after Pharsalus, was leading a Parthian army into Asia. Antony set off to engage Labienus but received messages from Fulvia.

[Fulvia had become involved in a full-blown conflict with Octavian which is known as Fulvia’s civil war or the Perusine war, because it ended up with Octavian besieging the forces of Fulvia and Antony’s younger brother, Lucius Antonius, in the Italian town of Perusia, modern Perugia.]

Plutarch has Antony changing direction to meet her but she died en route to meet him. [Wikipedia, by contrast, says Octavian took Perusia but spared both Lucius Antonius and Fulvia, sending the latter into exile at Sicyone near Corinth where she promptly died of disease.] Either way, when Antony arrived in Rome, he was able to restore friendship with Octavian by blaming any dissension on his headstrong wife.

The triumvirs divided up the empire, making the Ionian sea a boundary, assigning the East to Antony and the West to Caesar and giving Africa to Lepidus. They then arranged either to be consuls themselves or arranged for their friends and allies to have senior offices. So the Republic was in effect dead.

(31) In order to cement their alliance, Antony married Octavian’s half sister, Octavia, who was recently widowed. The senate passed a law allowing her to marry in less than the legal requirement of 10 months mourning. It’s one among many examples of the way the laws and the senate operated on a micro level to adjust things for fellow members of the small Roman elite.

(32) Pompey’s son Sextus Pompeius inherited command of his big fleet. Antony and Octavian meet him at Misenum, where they make peace [August 39]. As he is entertaining them on his flagship, a senior officer of Sextus’s whispers in his ear that they could cut their ropes, set sail, execute them, and Sextus would become ruler of the Roman world. But Sextus chooses integrity and rejects the idea.

(33) Antony sends Antony sent Publius Ventidius Bassus on ahead into Asia to oppose the Parthians while he has himself made Pontifex Maximus, as Julius had been. The partnership between Octavian and Antony functioned but Antony consistently came off worse in all their deals, even when things were decided (improbably enough) by throwing dice or cockfights (!). A soothsayer tells Antony to avoid Octavian.

Antony leaves Rome for Greece taking Octavia who has borne him a daughter. In Athens he learns that Ventidius had conquered the Parthians in battle [of the Cilician Gates] and slain Labienus [39 BC]. Antony takes part in traditional Athenian games.

(34) A more detailed description of Publius Ventidius’s successes against the Parthians which go some way to redeeming the disastrous defeat of Crassus in 53 BC. in 40 BC the Parthians invaded Syria led by Pacorus, the son of King Orodes. Ventidius met Pacorus’ huge army [in the Battle of Cyrrhestica] where he inflicted an overwhelming defeat in which Pacorus was killed [38 BC].

Ventidius doesn’t pursue them into their own land as he is worried about Antony’s jealousy, and when Antony arrived with an army, he takes over Ventidius’s siege of Antiochus of Commagené in the city of Samosata, which in fact goes very badly, leaving Antony chagrined. He sends Ventidius back to Rome for a triumph.

Plutarch makes a general point that other generals flourished under Antony or that he was more successful in campaigns conducted by those under him, namely: Ventidius against the Parthians, Sossius in Syria, and Canidius who conquered , who was left by the Armenians.

(35) Tensions had been building between Octavian and Antony who sailed for Italy with 200 ships but sent his wife on ahead of him, and when Octavia met Octavian she pleaded with him not to make her a widow, and so the two imperators were reconciled again, for the time being…

So they ate and conferred in peace, then Octavian gave Antony two legions to pursue his wars in the East while Octavian set off to quell remaining Pompeians in Sicily. Antony left Octavia and his children with Octavian.

(36) But in Asia Antony fell back into his old infatuation with Cleopatra. In October 41 he called her to attend him in Cilicia and made her a gift of ‘Phoenicia, Coele Syria, Cyprus and a large part of Cilicia…and.. the balsam-producing part of Judaea and all that part of Arabia Nabataea which slopes toward the outer sea’. Antony set up or removed monarchs, punished nations and ruled like an eastern potentate. He acknowledged his children by Cleopatra, and granted her numerous honours. In 40 she bore him two children. All this scandalised conservative Roman opinion.

37 to 52: the Parthian War

(37) In 38 BC Phraates put his father Hyrodes, king of Parthia, to death, and many nobles fled Parthia. Antony assembles a vast army, including the forces of many vassal kings, against Phraates but Plutarch tells us he mismanaged everything in his haste to win quick victories so he could get back to Cleopatra.

(38) For example, in his haste he left behind a number of state of the art siege engines in Armenia in charge of Statianus and 10,000 men. But this meant that when he laid siege to Phraata, a large city, in which were the wives and children of the king of Media a) the siege dragged on needlessly, but b) Phraates attacked the waggon camp back in Armenia, massacred the soldiers, killed Statianus and destroyed the engines. A calamity.

(39) The Parthians then march up to the besieged city, Antony lifts the siege and marches off, pretending to flee, but then turns and engages the Parthians in perfect battle order. They see them off, attacked first by the cavalry then the infantry and follow the Parthian army for many miles, but are disheartened to see how few of them they’ve killed. Then the Medes in their own camp turn traitor and attack them.

(40) It is a long punitive campaign. Some Parthian soldiers ride alongside Romans and tell them they and their king Phraates respect them, but despise Antony for relying on fear and famine rather than fighting. Eventually Antony decides to break camp and retreat. He is too downhearted to address his men but gets Domitius Ahenobarbus to do it.

(41) A  man of the Mardian race offers to guide the Roman army back, emphasising that they should avoid the open plain and cleave to hilly country. Antony is not sure whether to trust him, till the Mardian offers to be put in chains as he guides them, so they agree. On the third day the Mardian notices a dyke has been cut to pour water across then Roman path and predicts an ambush, giving Antony enough time to prepare his legions and fight it off.

(42) Having cracked the strategy for fighting them off, Antony puts his army in the shape of a hollow square with slingers and cavalry on the outside and succeeds in fighting off the notorious Parthian cavalry for four days. But Antony makes the bad decision of letting Flavius Gallus lead an attack against the Parthians and, when he gets cut off, sending only small detachments to reinforce him which all get massacred. Eventually the entire Roman army wheels round to attack the Parthians, but it was a defeat.

(43) 3,000 dead and 5,000 wounded. Plutarch is typically sentimental, saying Antony went to visit the sick and they all with tears in their eyes assured him they were fine and would be happy so long as great Antony makes it to safety i.e. testament to his popularity.

(44) The Parthians camp near the Roman camp. Antony makes a speech berating those who have fled but asking for any punishment for transgressions to come down on his head so long as his army can be victorious.

(45) The Parthians continue to harry the retreating Romans. The Romans begin to starve and experiment with unknown vegetables. One of these is a herb which drives the eater mad, producing a mad obsession to turn over and move stones, and then death.

(46) Once again some individual Parthians fraternise with Roman soldiers and say their army, too, is exhausted and hungry. But a local named Mithridates came offering advice and showed one of Antony’s lieutenants hills in the distance and told him the entire Parthian host is waiting there to ambush them.

(47) Thus warned that the road through the deserts would leave them exposed, Antony holds a council of advisers and opts to take the path through the mountains, short of water though this would leave them. The Parthians attack their rear while the troops in the van fall on a river and start drinking but the water is salt and poisonous, causing stomach cramps.

(48) The Romans march on, assured by their guide that once they cross the next river the Parthians won’t pursues them. A garbled passage seems to imply that some of the Romans attacked and looted their own baggage train. There is such confusion that Antony calls one of the freedmen in his body-guard, Rhamnus, and tells him that, when he gives the order, he is to run Antony through then cut off his head. Weeping and lamentation from his entourage. But their guide swears the river is close and word comes that the disorder in the rearguard is caused by their own forces, and everyone cheers up.

(49) The Parthians continue to harass their rearguard, raining down arrows till they arrive at The River and cross it at which point the Parthians (supposedly) unstrung their bows and praised their bravery. Would be lovely to hear the Parthian version of all this. Finally they cross the river Araxes into the kingdom of Armenia and drop to the ground and kiss it. Although they promptly fall ill of dropsies and dysenteries.

(50) Antony undertakes a review and discovers 20,000 of his infantry and 4,000 cavalry have perished. (These numbers are always suspiciously round.) More than half from disease, which sounds the right kind of amount from modern accounts of the impact of disease and famine. Plutarch says Antony blamed their defeat on Artavasdes the Armenian who had led back from Media 16,000 horsemen who would have made all the difference in encounters with the mounted Parthian cavalry.

(51) They marched on to the coast at Sidon through snowstorms and lost another 8,000 men. Here Antony was beside himself with impatience to see Cleopatra.

(52) The king of the Medes falls out with the king of the Parthians and sends word to Antony that he is ready to join him on another campaign against the Parthians. This is music to Antony’s ears because it was precisely the  lack of Medean cavalry which he blamed for his previous failure.

(53) In 35 Octavian gave permission to his sister, Antony’s wife, to sail east with a fleet carrying extensive supplies. Antony wrote her telling her to stop at Athens, at which point she realised he wanted her out of the way while he consorted with Cleopatra. And Cleopatra realised her rival wanted to engage in battle. So Cleopatra loses weight and takes to simpering when Antony is there and pining when he’s not, and is backed up by a host of sycophants who tell Antony Octavia only married him as a matter of public policy. And so Antony puts off the war to go to Alexandria to see Cleopatra.

(54) Octavia returns to Rome where she continues to live in her absent husband’s house, raising their children, behaving nobly and honourably, and by doing so helping to highlight Antony’s disreputable behaviour. By contrast Antony dresses up in oriental royal costumes, holds an elaborate ceremony at which he distributes thrones and honours to Cleopatra, and her children, for all the world like an eastern king of kings.

(55) Octavian made sure to keep all these accusations before the senate and people, drip feeding scandal. Antony replies with his own accusations:

  1. Octavian seized Sicily from Pompey but never gave him a share of it
  2. Antony lent Octavian ships which he never gave back
  3. after ejecting their fellow triumvir Lepidus from office and degrading him, Octavian was keeping for himself the army, the territory, and the revenues which had been assigned to Lepidus
  4. Octavian had distributed almost all Italy in allotments, to his own soldiers, and had left nothing for the soldiers of Antony

Octavian replied:

  1. he had deposed Lepidus from office because he was abusing it
  2. he would share whatever he’d won in war with Antony whenever Antony should share Armenia with him
  3. Antony’s soldiers had no claim upon Italy, since they had Media and Persia

Playground squabbles.

(56) Antony gathers a huge naval force of 800 ships of which 200 are Cleopatra’s though he sends her back to Egypt. Cleopatra bribes his advisers to plead her case, that she needs to be by his side. So Antony relents and invites her to Samos where they party to the sound of theatre performances, music, banquets and processions. ‘How will the conquerors celebrate their victories if their preparations for the war are marked by festivals so costly?’

(57) Then on to Athens where there are more festivals and parties and Antony makes a great speech to Cleopatra, ostensibly on behalf of the city. Antony sends word to have Octavia ejected from his house and she leaves with all his children, to the great scandal of the people.

(58) It is 32 BC and Octavian is alarmed at Antony’s preparations for war. He is unpopular because he is enforcing high taxes, a quarter of income for citizens, and eighth for freedmen. If Antony had struck now he might have won the people, but he delayed. Then senior Antony officials who had been hounded out by Cleopatra maliciously told Octavian about Antony’s will. Octavian seized this from the Vestal Virgins and read it out to the senate. The most offensive provision was that he wanted to be buried in Egypt.

A man called Calvisius then made the following charges against Antony:

  1. he had bestowed upon Cleopatra the libraries from Pergamum, in which there were two hundred thousand volumes
  2. at a banquet where there were many guests he had stood up and rubbed her feet, in compliance with some agreement  they had made
  3. he consented to have the Ephesians in his presence salute Cleopatra as mistress
  4. many times, while seated on his tribunal and dispensing justice to tetrarchs and kings, he would receive love-billets from her in tablets of onyx or crystal, and read them
  5. and once when Furnius was speaking, the ablest orator in Rome, Cleopatra was carried through the forum on a litter, and Antony, when he saw her, sprang up from his tribunal and forsook the trial and, hanging on to Cleopatra’s litter, escorted her on her way

(59) Cleopatra’s suspicion or jealousy of Antony’s entourage, many of whom she forces to flee.

(60) When Octavian was quite ready a law was passed to wage war on Cleopatra and remove from Antony the power he had handed over to her i.e. reclaim it for the Roman authorities. Octavian claimed Antony had been drugged and bewitched and was under the thumb of Cleopatra’s officials.

Plutarch gives us the usual litany of ill omens he claims occur before every war or battle:

  • Pisaurum, a city colonized by Antony situated near the Adriatic, was swallowed by chasms in the earth
  • from one of the marble statues of Antony near Alba sweat oozed for many days, and though it was wiped away it did not cease
  • in Patrae while Antony was staying there, the Heracleium was destroyed by lightning
  • at Athens the Dionysus in the Battle of the Giants​ was dislodged by the winds and carried down into the theatre
  • the same tempest fell upon the colossal figures of Eumenes and Attalus at Athens, on which the name of Antony had been inscribed and prostrated them
  • the admiral’s ship of Cleopatra was called Antonius; some swallows made their nest under its stern but other swallows attacked these, drove them out and destroyed their nestlings

(61) So war begins between Octavian and Antony. Antony had 500 fighting ships, 100,000 infantry soldiers and 12,000 horsemen and the tribute of all the kings in the east.

(62) But so in thrall is Antony to Cleopatra that he decides to fight the battle at sea, even though they are struggling to fully man their ships. These are high-sided with as many as ten ranks of oars and heavy and slow to manoeuvre. Whereas Octavian’s ships are fully manned and in perfect array. He invites Antony to come and dock at Brundisium and Tarentum and that he’ll withdraw a day’s march to allow Antony to land and arrange his forces perfectly for battle.

Antony replies by challenging Octavian to single combat; then to re-enacting the battle of Pharsalus. But while Antony was lying at anchor off Actium, where now Nicopolis stands, Caesar got the start of him by crossing the Ionian sea and occupying a place in Epirus called Toruné.

(63) Octavian’s fleet engaged Antony’s but Antony boldly had his rowers released and sent up top to look like soldiers and his ships drawn up in battle array so that Octavian was put off and withdrew. Antony sealed off watersources to prevent Octavian’s fleet watering. Domitius defected from Antony to Octavian but Antony generously sent his baggage, servants and friends after him.

Some allied kings defected. Canidius advises Antony to send Cleopatra away and abandon the naval strategy, drawing Octavian onto land where Antony has the bigger force and better track record.

But Cleopatra’s insistence that they fight a naval battle prevailed, even though she was already making preparations to flee. Octavian approves a plan to kidnap Antony as he walked on the shore and it nearly succeeded, they captured the man in front of him but Antony managed to get away.

(64) Antony burns all but 60 of the Egyptian ships and packs these with 20,000 heavy-armed soldiers and 2,000 archers. An old infantry centurion complains to Antony that naval battles are all very well for  Egyptians and Phoenicians but Romans fare best on land.

(65) Four days of rough winds and high seas but on the fifth, 2 September 31 BC the Battle of Actium took place. Antony exhorts his men and tells the captains to keep the ships in the narrow mouth of the gulf. At first Antony’s ships refused to budge and Octavian thought they were anchored, but then the more impetuous left their line to attack him. Excellent! His ships were smaller and lighter and more nimble and able to surround Anthony’s.

(66) There was little ramming because Antony’s ships were too slow and Octavian didn’t want to risk his. It was as if three or four of Octavian’s ships were laying siege to Antony’s monsters. The battle is in mid flow when Cleopatra’s 60 ships made sail and began to leave right through the battlefield. Abandoning all reason, betraying his soldiers and sailors and allies, as if bewitched, Antony leapt into a five-oared galley and made after her.

(67) He caught up with her and was taken aboard Cleopatra’s ship where he sat with his head in his hands after they’d docked at Taenarum. For three days he didn’t move until her women persuaded him to come ashore and be reconciled with her. The world lost for love.

Some of their friends arrive in heavy transport ships and tell them the fleet is destroyed but they still possess an awesome land force. So Antony wrote to Canidius ordering him to withdraw across Greece into Asia. And he hands over a big transport ship full of the rarest treasure to his friends, telling them to divide it up and make the best of their fortune.

(68) In fact his fleet held out for hours at Actium and was only overcome by a storm, while he abandoned nineteen legions of undefeated men-at‑arms and 12,000 horsemen. Madness. The greatest example in human history of a man who was pussywhipped, meaning: “Totally controlled, domineered, or emasculated by a woman.”

His men held out for seven days expecting Antony to return at any moment, but he didn’t and after their commander Canidius ran away in the night, they handed themselves over to Octavian. Octavian sails on to Greece where he redistributes the grain which Antony had stripped from them for his forces. And here again a second unusually direct bit of reminiscence by Plutarch:

My great-grandfather Nicarchus used to tell how all his fellow-citizens were compelled to carry on their shoulders a stipulated measure of wheat down to the sea at Anticyra, and how their pace was quickened by the whip; they had carried one load in this way, he said, the second was already measured out, and they were just about to set forth, when word was brought that Antony had been defeated, and this was the salvation of the city; for immediately the stewards and soldiers of Antony took to flight, and the citizens divided the grain among themselves.

(69) Antony reaches the coast of Libya, sends Cleopatra ahead to Alexandria, and takes to roaming around with just two companions. Plutarch says nothing about Antony’s state of mind but his actions betoken a ghost man, a man who has ruined his cause and his reputation and has nothing to live for. When the general commanding Antony’s forces in Libya defected to Octavian Antony tried to kill himself but is stopped by his friends.

Eventually he sails on to Alexandria where he discovers Cleopatra is engaged in a ridiculous scheme, namely to raise and drag her fleet along the course of the current Suez canal, from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea and thus go and colonise somewhere to escape conquest by Octavian. But the Arabs burned her boats and Antony convinced her he still had a land army so she desisted.

And now Antony forsook the city and the society of his friends, and built for himself a dwelling in the sea at Pharos, by throwing a mole out into the water. Here he lived an exile from men, and declared that he was contentedly imitating the life of Timon, since, indeed, his experiences had been like Timon’s; for he himself also had been wronged and treated with ingratitude by his friends, and therefore hated and distrusted all mankind.

(70) A digression on the life and notorious misanthropy of Timon of Athens, clearly a legendary figure by Antony’s time.

(71) Canidius arrives to tell him what finally happened at Actium and the news that all the kings and tetrarchs and whatnot of the Middle East are defecting to Octavian. All he has left is Egypt. At which Antony abandons his depression and goes back into Alexandria where he embarks on a new round of feasting and partying, holding coming of age feasts for his children. Antony and Cleopatra establish a new society which they call Partners in Death. Cleopatra starts collecting rare poisons and experimenting with them on prisoners. the painless ones are too slow but the quick ones are very painful. After lengthy experimentation she settles on the venom of the asp.

(72) They send a petition to Octavian, Cleopatra asking that she be allowed to keep her children, Antony that he may go and live as a private citizen in Athens.

(73) Octavian wrote to Cleopatra that he would treat her well if she would kill or expel Antony. Plutarch shares some typical gossip, telling us that the leader of Octavian’s embassy was one Thyrsus, ‘a man of no mean parts’ who had frequent converse with Cleopatra till it made Antony jealous and he had Thyrsus strung up and flogged then sent back to Octavian. After that Cleopatra went out of her way to suck back up to Antony, celebrating her own birthday very modestly but Antony’s birthday with great splendour. Octavian was called back to Rome by Agrippa.

(74) The war is suspended for winter, but next spring Octavian advanced on two fronts, coming down through Syria and advancing east across Libya. Octavian hears that Cleopatra has built an extravagant tomb into which she has collected all her treasure and sends reassuring messages to her, because he is scared she will kill herself, set light to it and thus deprive him of his loot.

When Octavian is at the outskirts of the city Antony sallies force and fought brilliantly, routing Octavian’s cavalry and driving him back to his camp. Plutarch tells a typically waspish anecdote.

Then, exalted by his victory, he went into the palace, kissed Cleopatra, all armed as he was, and presented to her the one of his soldiers who had fought most spiritedly. Cleopatra gave the man as a reward of valour a golden breastplate and a helmet. The man took them, of course — and in the night deserted to Caesar.

(75) Antony makes Octavian a second offer of single combat. Octavian of course refuses so Antony insists on leading his army into battle. At feast the night before the battle, he tells his friends he will be victorious or die trying, while they all cry.

That night, as usual with Plutarch there are omens. Just the one this time which is that over the city a great music and noise is heard as of a Dionysian festival, but it is heard to move from the city centre towards the gate facing Octavian’s camp and then disappear. It was, people said, the god he had devoted his life to, Dionysius, abandoning him.

(76) On 1 August 30 BC Antony watches his fleet set out to engage Octavian’s but, at the last minute, raise their oars in peace, surrender, and be accepted into Octavian’s fleet. Also his cavalry defects. He fights with his infantry but they are defeated. He withdraws into Alexandria ranting that he has been betrayed by Cleopatra. Scared, Cleopatra retired into her refuge, had the doors locked and barred and messengers sent to Antony telling her he was dead.

Antony goes into his chamber, laments that he has been found wanting in courage to a woman, and orders his man Eros to kill him. Instead Eros kills himself. You just can’t get the staff. So Antony tries to stab himself but makes a hash of it. When he recovers he orders the bystanders to finish him off but they all run away. Until the secretary Diomedes arrives with orders to take Antony to her tomb.

(77) A peculiar scene. Antony is carried to Cleopatra’s tomb but she refuses to unbar the doors to let him in, instead insisting that he is laid on a bier and that she and her serving women haul him up using a rope and pulley system, even though this is extremely difficult for her. When they’ve finally got him inside, Cleopatra rents her clothes and beats her breasts and there’s blood everywhere, but he tells her he’s had a good life and to look out for herself.

(78) Antony dies and his sword is taken by a servant who shows it to Octavian.

When Caesar heard these tidings, he retired within his tent and wept for a man who had been his relation by marriage, his colleague in office and command, and his partner in many undertakings and struggles.

Octavian calls in colleagues and reads out his correspondence with Antony, emphasising how reasonable he had been and how rude Antony’s replies. Then Octavian sends Proculeius to negotiate with Cleopatra, anxious that she will burn her treasure and wanting her to adorn his triumph through Rome.

(79) Proculeius wangles his way into the tomb. He goes back accompanied by Gallus and while Gallus is keeping Cleopatra in conversation by the door, Proculeius uses a ladder to get up to that window, the window they hauled Antony in through, and then down the stairs and to the door and takes Cleopatra by surprise. She tries to stab herself with a small knife but Proculeius is too fast, seizes it, shakes her down to ensure she has no other weapons, then sends her under guard to Octavian.

(80) Now Octavian finally arrives in Alexandria, proceeds to a tribunal erected in the gymnasium. The population prostrate themselves in terror but Octavian says he holds them blameless and won’t punish them. At this crucial moment Plutarch rather spoils the effect by saying Octavian does it at least in part to gratify his companion, Areius the philosopher.

(81) As for the children of Antony, Antyllus, his son by Fulvia, was betrayed by Theodorus his tutor and put to death. Theodorus stole the precious stone the boy wore about his neck but when this was discovered he  was crucified. Cleopatra’s children, together with their attendants, were kept under guard and had generous treatment.

Caesarion, who was said to be Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, was sent by his mother, with much treasure, into India, by way of Ethiopia. There Rhodon, another tutor like Theodorus, persuaded him to go back, on the ground that Octavian invited him to take the kingdom. And Octavian had him executed, after his mother died. One way of regarding this is barbaric. But it should be out in the context of the mass proscriptions Octavian enforced in Rome. His rule was characterised by large scale executions.

(82) Octavian allowed Cleopatra to bury Antony with lavish rites. Then she began to starve herself. But Octavian threatened the lives of her children and thus forced her to eke out a miserable existence.

(83) An interview between Octavian and Cleopatra at which she tries to justify her course of action but Octavian refutes her interpretations at every step. When a servant reveals that she is hiding away her jewellery she crossly slaps him and insists to Octavian that she is storing up women’s ornaments in order to send to Octavia and Livia to beg them to intercede for her. And so Octavian went away confident that she wanted to live. But she fooled him.

(84) One of Octavian’s entourage tells Cleopatra that his army is setting off for Syria and will be taking her, so she obtains permission to pour libations at Antony’s tomb one last tie and Plutarch give her a long sentimental speech.

(85) Cleopatra has a bath and then dinner. A man from the country arrives carrying a basket. The suspicious guards tell him to open it and are amazed at the size of the figs it contains. He bids them have a taste if they like so they let him pass. After her meal Cleopatra sends Octavian a written message, then has herself locked in her chamber with her two serving women. When Caesar opens the tablet and reads the message asking for her body to be buried next to Antony’s he knows what has happened and sends messengers to go instantly to prevent her. But they find Cleopatra lying dead upon a golden couch, arrayed in royal state.

And of her two women, the one called Iras was dying at her feet, while Charmion, already tottering and heavy-handed, was trying to arrange the diadem which encircled the queen’s brow. Then somebody said in anger: “A fine deed, this, Charmion!” “It is indeed most fine,” she said, “and befitting the descendant of so many kings.” Not a word more did she speak, but fell there by the side of the couch.

(86) Plutarch reports the 4 or 5 different versions of how she was poisoned, whether she stirred up the asp to make it angry, dipped her hand in the basket or took the snake out and applied it to her arm or breast. In Octavian’s triumph an ‘image’ (does this mean a model or effigy) of Cleopatra was included with the snake hanging from her, though Plutarch doesn’t say where exactly on her body.

Octavian was cross but admired her lofty spirit and so let her be buried with full rites next to Antony. Statues of Antony throughout Alexandria were torn down but those of Cleopatra were allowed to remain standing after one of her friends, Archibius, gave Caesar two thousand talents. She was 39, Antony was 55, they had been an item for 15 years.

(87) As in many a Victorian novel, Plutarch ends his narrative by tying up all the loose threads and telling us what happened to all Antony’s children and their descendants. He had seven children by three wives and their marriages and second marriages and intermarriages make for a complicated diagram. One of the two daughters he had by Octavia:

Antonia, famous for her beauty and discretion, was married to Drusus, who was the son of Livia and the step-son of Octavian. From this marriage sprang Germanicus and Claudius, Germanicus dying young but Claudius coming to the throne in the chaos after Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD.

Before Germanicus died he fathered Julia Agrippina, who, at age 13, was married off to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. They had a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. 21 years later, with Ehenobarbus dead, Agrippina married the emperor Claudius. And Claudius, having adopted Agrippina’s son, gave him the name of Nero Germanicus. This was the Nero who came to the throne in 54 AD.

So Antony’s ‘blood’, if there is such a thing, ran on into the Julio-Claudian dynasty for several generations.



Plutarch is a fatalist. He believes everything is predestined to happen. Not very often, but at various key moments when central characters try to avert war or settle conflicts or lay high-minded plans, Plutarch is at hand to tell us that an implacable fate controls our ends.

It was destined that everything should come into Caesar’s hands. (55)

A maze of cross-references

The way that the lives refer to each other creates an evermore complex matrix of cross-references, which turn them into a complex meta-narrative, or a multi-stranded history.

Iraq, Iran and the West

At some point, reading about the inexorable opposition of the Parthian Empire to the Romans (i.e. ‘the West’) and learning that the Parthian Empire was roughly cognate with present-day Iraq and Iran – made me think of the never-ending conflict between those places and ‘the West’ in my day.

Modes of death of Plutarch’s eminent Romans

  • Marius (died a natural death aged 71)
  • Sulla (died a natural death aged 60)
  • Lucullus (died a natural death aged 61)
  • Crassus (died killed in battle aged 61)
  • Sertorius (assassinated aged 53)
  • Pompey (murdered aged 57)
  • Caesar (assassinated aged 55)
  • Cato the Younger (suicide aged 49)
  • Brutus (suicide aged 43)
  • Cicero (murdered aged 63)
  • Antony (suicide aged 53)

It’s the opposite of a scientific sample but you notice how the first three died of natural causes, although Marius and Sulla had been mass murderers; somehow there was the space for them to retire, as for lucky Lucullus. But from then onwards all the rest die violent deaths, and the third aspect of trend is the number of suicides. It feels like Rome no longer had room for many of its eminent men. They were no longer just killed in battle or assassinated but removed themselves from a world which no longer had room for the beliefs or values or causes they had supported. In a voodoo kind of way it’s as if the Republic liquidated itself.

Related links

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing features of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will (it was stashed in the temple of the Vestal Virgins) and read it out in the Forum. He claimed it showed that Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82), is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’.

I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)


The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has OIne Big Idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)


The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)


Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject.

Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.


The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

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