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Friends, Lovers and Blood: Mark Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian

Updated on November 18, 2013

The Second Triumvirate

Antony, Octavian and Lepidus captured in stone.
Antony, Octavian and Lepidus captured in stone.

43 BC: The Second Triumvirate is Born

On the 27th of November, in 43 B.C., the Second Triumvirate was signed into law.

This signing represented the official consummation of a pact of military and political convenience between Octavian (the 'heir' for lack of a better term to the leadership of Rome since Caesar was assassinated) Mark Antony, who had managed the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar and butted heads often with Octavian, and the odd-man out, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus..the then Governor of Spain.

Together, these three men would lead a bloody streak of revenge killings against those thought to conspire and partake in the assassination plot and lead a campaign against the two major players who escaped after killing Julius, Brutus and Cassius.

Of course, history tells us that this triumvirate was flawed and would end up collapsing from within. But the road to that point, and the eventual downfall of Mark Antony in particular, provides some interesting historical reading.

But before the betrayal and dramatic events of later years comes the period wherein all three men worked to seek out those that they feel had betrayed Rome and its citizens, and leave their own trail of blood along the way. It began with a hit-list.

The List and the Battle of Philippi

The Second Triumvirate was compelled to create a list, in the end totaling 300 Roman senators and almost 2,000 equestrians (the 'upper-crust' folks, to put it in common vernacular).

They were ruthless in their elimination of those who may have supported the change of regime and the death of Julius Caesar. However, not everything was truly about righteous revenge. The three men who made up the triumvirate had 43 legions of soldiers between them, so they ended up needing extra land and funds to support those troops.

Eventually the elimination of those who supported the assassin's led to the assassin's themselves. Mark Antony and Octavian left Lepidus in charge of Italy in 42 BC, and went to Greece to eliminate Cassius and Brutus. The Battle of Phillipi involved Antony leading (Octavian, while competent, was not a better general than Antony) and defeating Cassius's troops in the first round, leading Cassius to commit suicide.

Three weeks later Antony met Brutus in combat, and defeated hims as well. This led to yet another suicide, this by Brutus in the face of defeat.

After the Battle of Philippi, the Second Triumvirate faced internal squabbles and infighting, eventually beginning to weaken the foundation that would lead to a major clash between the former political partners.

Brutus at Philippi

A dramatic image depicting the Battle of Philipi
A dramatic image depicting the Battle of Philipi

Mark Antony

A detailed bust of Mark Antony.
A detailed bust of Mark Antony.

The Road to Conflict

Mark Antony's main problem after the Battle of Philippi was dealing with the recovery of the Eastern possession's of Rome.

In particular, Antony had a keen desire to conquer Parthia, which was Caesar's next campaign before he was assassinated. Antony encountered Cleopatra during his preparation to invade Parthia, in which he demanded her presence as to why she supported Cassius on his departure from Rome.

She appeared, and to put it mildly, blew Antony away. He was quite smitten with her, but he had some other problems to think about. In an act of smoothing things over between himself and Octavian he married his sister, Octavia. However, he left Octavia and his children in 37 BC and ran off with Cleopatra. He fell in love, and had children with her.

Antony went onto conquer most of the Eastern territories. However, his invasion of Parthis was a bust. He lost 22,000 soldiers and while he still had an army, he was dependent upon Cleopatra's resources to support them. Not only that, he divorced Octavia in 35 BC, and officially removed all ties to Octavian as well.

Octavian was by this time annoyed and angered by Antony, and the next straw thrown by Antony and Cleopatra would officially break the camel's back.

Antony's End

Things came to a head in 34 BC, when Antony declared Caesarion, the son of Julius Caesar by Cleopatra, to be the true heir to the Roman Empire. He then married Cleopatra in 33 BC, and began to divide up the Eastern Roman provinces among her children.

Finally, in a casual event, Antony and Cleopatra issued coins which proclaimed them both as rulers and, by proxy, rightful leaders (or parents of said leaders) to the Roman empire. Octavian was furious.

Octavian dissolved the Second Triumvirate officially (it was already quite weak) and gave up his powers and vested responsibilities. Despite the political ramifications therein (and the subsequent abandonment of Rome by many senators) Octavian led a public relations campaign that published Antony's will, which listed Caesarion as the true heir of Rome. Despite the validity of this document never being ascertained, it led to numerous Roman cities across the West to align with Octavian.

In 31 BC, Octavian gained the title of Consul and the necessary votes in the Senate to declare war on Antony and Cleopatra. In September of that year, Antony's forces were cut off from their supplies in the Battle of Actium and forced to surrender.

In light of that defeat, both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. Octavian was now the ruler of Egypt, and in turn, Rome.


The Battle of Actium

A painting depicting the naval engagement during the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.
A painting depicting the naval engagement during the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

The Victor

A statue depicting Augustus in his later years.
A statue depicting Augustus in his later years.

Aftermath

Octavian had his cousin, Caesarion, killed (thus removing the only real obstacle to his political power) and made Egypt an official Roman province.

Octavian would eventually adopt the moniker or Augustus, and lead the Roman republic onto a path of internal rebuilding after the years of division and infighting. But the legacy of Antony and the failed Second Triumvirate should not be so readily forgotten.

The lack of any ability to adequately share the responsibility of policing and maintaining the Roman Empire would eventually lead to many of the practices and social programs the Romans would be best known for today. With Augustus remaining as the sole inheritor of the power, he would have the freedom to continue his efforts as he saw fit.

What if Antony had won? Would Egypt have become the new home of the Roman Empire, leaving Italy and possibly Europe as second fiddle to North Africa? Obviously we will never truly know, but it is certainly worth pondering.

The failed affair between Antony and Cleopatra paints a romantic tale that has been ripe for plays, film and poetry. But the truth of the matter requires painting it less in the light of love, and more in the shadow of politics.

With Octavian's success, a new era of the Roman Empire had begun, and history would be altered forever.

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