Love on the rocks. It may have begun with Antony’s affair with Cleopatra, which was, at the beginning, a statecraft spiced with pleasure. However, it turned into infatuation poisoned by statecraft. And then came the denouement. Perhaps love and politics don’t mix…
On September 2, 31 B.C. in the Bay of Actium off the west coast of Greece, the brave and vaunting Mark Antony, co-ruler of the Roman world, fixed himself forever in human memory as the most besotted lover in human history. That day, locked in combat for supremacy of the Roman world, Anthony abandoned his ships and his troops and set off in hot pursuit of Queen Cleopatra as she sailed away from the battle.
Antony’s sailors surrendered, his leaderless army laid down its arms. His hated rival Octavian became the first emperor of Rome. In a singular act of blind frustration Antony had encompassed a singularly shattering ruin, and the story of it has bemused humankind ever since.
And well it might. For no other major episode in history has been shaped so decisively by the essentially private passion of love. Yet, there has always been something amiss in the story. It is our common experience of love that arouses our suspicion, for love normally runs a course from hoot to warm to cool. With Antony, it began cool and ended in consuming passion. At its outset, Antony’s affair with Cleopatra was chiefly statecraft spiced with pleasure. Not for years would it become infatuation poisoned by statecraft.
Even Shakespeare got it wrong. He assumed that Antony was more or less in Cleopatra’s thrall. Even that left a problem: the sheer durability of Cleopatra’s appeal. The Bard had little explanation why Cleopatra should finally enslave Antony ten years after she first became his mistress. To understand that, we should probably part from the arena of love and return to the loveless arena of power.
For Anthony, the issue was how to establish autocratic power on some sort of legitimate foundation, in what was still, in theory, a republic. In 41 B.C. when Antony summoned Cleopatra to his royal bed autocratic power of the most commanding sort was his to enjoy, though it rested on shaky foundations. Antony was Ceasar’s spiritual heir but had no tangible legitimacy, since Octavian was Ceasar’s legal heir. From the moment he went East to rule his half of the world, his life became one long quest for legitimacy. The quest took him to Cleopatra, queen and pharaoh of Egypt. The direction was all but inevitable.
If Antony could conquer and annex the eastern empire of the Parthians, he could realize Ceasar’s greatest military project and be hailed as Rome’s second founder. Egypt beckoned Antony immediately. If he could draw upon its riches, he could carry out his vast scheme of conquest without hindrance from Octavian. Egypt of course meant Cleopatra blocking Antony’s hunger for gold. But Cleopatra had other charms. She had been Ceasar’s mistress and the mother of his child. The idea of trumping Ceasar’s adopted son by championing his blood son was ever present in the Ceasar haunted brain of Antony. Hoping to secure the independence of her dynasty, Cleopatra fell in with Antony’s plans and into his arms.
She quickly discovered Antony’s glaring weakness. He loved the noise and tumult of revelry and the ecstatic pleasures of victory. He loved great deeds, but he loved even more the celebration of them. He had the ambition to reign as king, but his greatest joy was to ride in triumph. So, he was not at all Cleopatra’s infatuated lover. Her promise to put Egypt’s wealth at his disposal, she perceived was tempered by the understanding that Antony’s Parthian campaign was more a political necessity than an overflowing ambition. In return for gold, she demanded large chunks of Roman territory for her dynasty and he had no choice but to agree.
Antony’s predicament was that the more dependent he became on Egypt, the less secure his support in Rome. The nimble Parthian cavalry almost destroyed Antony’s army and he was never the same again. His vainglory, hitherto an amusing vice, now became dangerous, and Cleopatra exploited it to secure her own dynasty. In Egypt,Antony was a pharaoh’s consort, the god Dionysus incarnate. Ultimately, Antony was compelled to wage civil war against Ceasar’s legal heir, Ocatavian.
Ultimately, Antony was beaten not by Cleopatra’s allure but by Ceasar’s daunting presence. He had failed in his quest for legitimacy; he had failed as the executor of Ceasar’s plans. As civil war tensions mounted, a change came over Antony. The more he was forced to turn away from Ceasar’s memory, the more desperately he clung to Ceasar’s mistress. At Actium, his infatuation for Cleopatra was not his downfall but merely the final straw and ultimately it cost him his honor and his name.
Posterity is only half right in remembering Antony as the man who encompassed his ruin for love. That love had been born in his poltical ruin, and in his ruin as a man.