Cleopatra, Caesar, Marc Antony and the Parthians

Home | Category: Age of Caesar / Age of Augustus


Antony and Cleopatra

Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) is one of the most famous women of all a time. A Greek Queen of Egypt, she played a major role in the extension of the Roman Empire and was a lover of Julius Caesar, the wife of Marc Antony and a victim of Augustus Caesar, the creator of the Roman Empire. Coin portraits and a bust reportedly made in her lifetime show her with a prominent nose and a large forehead. There were reports she had rotten teeth. But despite these flaws she is one of the world's most famous seductresses. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011; Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010; Judith Thurman, The New Yorker, May 7, 2001 and November 15, 2010; Barbara Holland, Smithsonian, February 1997]

Stacy Schiff wrote in her book Cleopatra: A Biography, “Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for 21 years a generation before the birth of Christ. She lost her kingdom once; regained it; nearly lost it again; amassed an empire; lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at 18, at the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at 39. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra's end was sudden and sensational. [Source: Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010, Adapted from Cleopatra: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff."

Cleopatra and Marc Antony began their famous love affair in Tarsus in Asia 42 B.C., after the death of Caesar when Octavian and Antony were fighting a civil war for control of Rome. Cleopatra was 29 years old at the time and is said to have purposely delayed setting out to meet him to heighten Antony's expectations. When she finally announced she was coming she sent the message: “For the good and happiness of Asia I am coming for a Festive reception...Venus has come to revel with Bacchus” Her arrival in a boat with priceless purple sails was immortalized in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra . Plutarch described it as an act of mockery.

According to Plutarch, Cleopatra arrived in Tarsus to meet Antony on a perfumed barge with purple sails. She was dressed as Aphrodite and was fanned by boys dressed like cupids. "Her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of the flute, accompanied by pipes and lutes...Instead of a crew the barge was lined with the most beautiful of her waiting women as Nerid and Graces, some at the steering oars, others at the tackles of the sails, and all the while indescribably rich perfume, exhaled from innumerable censers, was wafted from the vessel to the river banks."

Shakespeare wrote the purple sails on Cleopatra's barge were "so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them." It is believed that Cleopatra wore a fragrance with resins like balsam and myrrh and spices like cinnamon, cardamon, iris root, saffron and marjoram.

Cleopatra welcomed Antony into her bedroom, whose floor was covered with a foot and half of rose petals. In some rooms of her palace she hung nets scented with various fragrances. As a gift Antony gave Cleopatra Turkey's Mediterranean coast, the western part of Asia Minor, and parts of Syria, Phoenicia, Jordan and Cyprus. Antony returned to Egypt with Cleopatra, where he hunted and gambled and engaged in childish pranks. For fun the couple went slumming in the bars of Alexandria disguised as slaves.

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar

Cleopatra emerges from a carpet
standing before Caesar
Earlier Cleopatra had a fling with Julius Caesar. After Caesar became the dictator of Rome he arrived in Egypt during the civil war between Cleopatra and her brother. Caesar came to claim the debts Egypt owed Rome and Cleopatra saw in him a chance to win back her kingdom and expand it into Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor. Her alliance with Caesar seems to have been strategic, romantic and sexual. For his part Caesar made little mention of Cleopatra in his account of the Alexandrine wars.

Caesar initially didn't want to have anything to do with Cleopatra but he was delayed in his return to Rome by unfavorable winds. According to Plutarch’s version of events she had herself rolled up in bedsheets and delivered to Caesar, who was so besotted with her he orchestrated a reconciliation between Cleopatra and her brother and then had Ptolemy kill his former partner Pothinus. Pliny is said to be the source the rolled-up-in-bedsheets story. Many doubt its veracity. In the 1963 film “Cleopatra” Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra spills out of Persian carpet at the feet of Caesar ready to crawl up his legs.

When Cleopatra met up with Caesar he was a balding epileptic with a lot of experience with women. He was 32 years older than her and married. The two of them sailed down the Nile together in a 300-foot barge with gardens and banquet rooms. In 47 B.C., Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar’s son, Ptolemy Caesarian (“Little Caesar”) . To honor the event she had a coin minted showing her as Aphrodite nursing Eros.

Roman support of Cleopatra's armies won her full control of Egypt. She married her other little brother Ptolemy XIII and then poisoned him after Little Caesar was born. Her teenage sister, Arisnoe, who had tried to dethrone, was paraded in Rome in golden shackles but at leaste she was allowed to live in exile (at least until later one when Cleopatra persuaded Antony to have her dragged from her temple and put to death). and With things under control at home, Cleopatra went to Rome with Caesar. In Rome, she lived in one of Caesar’s suburban palaces and impressed some with her wit and turned off others with her arrogance. Her presence in Rome caused quite stir and triggered a fad for anything associated with Egypt. Many women adopted Cleopatra’s “melon” hairstyle (rows of tight briads gathered in a low bun).

Caesar and Cleopatra hosted great parties. The Roman leader even raised a golden statue to her in the temple of Venus. Even so Cleopatra was not well liked by powerful people like Cicero and her claim to any power was tied to Caesar. In 44 B.C., as Caesar was making plans to marry Cleopatra and legitimize their child, he was assassinated. This was a clear setback for Cleopatra's larger ambitions. Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian was named his heir not Ptolemy Caesarian.

Cleopatra Returns to Egypt

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae
As Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus battled Cassius and Brutus for control of Rome, Cleopatra returned home to Egypt, at a time when it was suffering a famine and plague. While she was away her brother died and Egypt was under the rule of an imposter pretending to be the dead Ptolemy XIII. Without Caesar to back her up Cleopatra ousted the pretender, seized control of Egypt and adopted a position of neutrality in the Roman civil war.

As the undisputed leader of Egypt, Cleopatra named the toddler Ptolemy Caesarian as co-ruler and turned the country around from a debt-ridden colony into a powerful semi-autonomous state that was the richest in eastern Mediterranean. As leader she cracked on corruption, discouraged officials from taking bribes from farmers and built up Egypt's fleet.

Cleopatra ruled from Alexandria and lived in a palace a short distance from the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. On the grounds was the Mousein, a center of philosophy and learning. The local people liked here because she spoke the local language and paid respects to Egyptian gods. At that point the Romans liked her because she brought in wealth for the empire.

Marc Antony at the Time He Meets Cleopatra

Marc Antony and Lepidus ultimately prevailed in their war with Cassius and Brutus for control of Rome and divided the Roman Empire among themselves, with Antony getting the East and Lepidus getting the West. In 41 B.C., while on tour of his empire to make alliances and secure funds for attack on the Parthians in Iran, Antony met Cleopatra.

Cleopatra and Marc Antony
representations on coins
At that time, Anthony was handsome and had thick curly hair. He claimed he was a descendent of Hercules and sometimes identified himself with Dionysus. Plutarch described Antony as mellow and generous but a bit of slob. Cicero called him a "a kind of butcher or prizefighter" and said his all-night orgies made him "odius." He also had a reputation for getting so drunk at all-male parties that he threw up into his own toga.

Even though women and soldiers him, Antony’s biographer Adrian Goldsworthy dismisses him as a “not an especially good general” and wrote: “There is no real trace of any long-held beliefs or causes on Antony’s part” beyond “glory and profit.”

Book: “Cleopatra and Antony” by Diana Preston, well-written and engaging rehashing of the story. “Antony and Cleopatra” by Adrian Goldsworthy ((Yale, 2010) emphasizes the military side of their relationship.

Cleopatra and Marc Antony Meet

Cleopatra and Marc Antony began their famous love affair in 42 B.C. in Tarsus in Asia Minor. Cleopatra was 29 years old at the time and is said to have purposely delayed setting out to meet him to heighten Antony's expectations. When she finally announced she was coming she sent the message: “For the good and happiness of Asia I am coming for a Festive reception...Venus has come to revel with Bacchus — Her arrival in a boat with priceless purple sails was immortalized in Shakespeare's “ Antony and Cleopatra” . Plutarch described it as an act of mockery.

According to Plutarch, Cleopatra arrived in Tarsus to meet Antony on a perfumed barge with purple sails. She was dressed as Aphrodite and was fanned by boys dressed like cupids. "Her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of the flute, accompanied by pipes and lutes...Instead of a crew the barge was lined with the most beautiful of her waiting women as Nerid and Graces, some at the steering oars, others at the tackles of the sails, and all the while indescribably rich perfume, exhaled from innumerable censers, was wafted from the vessel to the river banks."

Shakespeare wrote the purple sails on Cleopatra's barge were "so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them." It is believed that Cleopatra wore a fragrance with resins like balsam and myrrh and spices like cinnamon, cardamon, iris root, saffron and marjoram.

Cleopatra welcomed Antony into her bedroom, whose floor was covered with a foot and half of rose petals. In some rooms of her palace she hung nets scented with various fragrances. As a gift Antony gave Cleopatra Turkey's Mediterranean coast, the western part of Asia Minor, and parts of Syria, Phoenicia, Jordan and Cyprus. Antony returned to Egypt with Cleopatra, where he hunted and gambled and engaged in childish pranks. For fun the couple went slumming in the bars of Alexandria disguised as slaves.

Plutarch on the Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra

Plutarch wrote in “Lives”: “Such being his temper, the last and crowning mischief that could befall him came in the love of Cleopatra, to awaken and kindle to fury passions that as yet lay still and dormant in his nature, and to stifle and finally corrupt any elements that yet made resistance in him of goodness and a sound judgment. He fell into the snare thus. When making preparation for the Parthian war, he sent to command her to make her personal appearance in Cilicia, to answer an accusation that she had given great assistance, in the late wars, to Cassius. Dellius, who was sent on this message, had no sooner seen her face, and remarked her adroitness and subtlety in speech, but he felt convinced that Antony would not so much as think of giving any molestation to a woman like this; on the contrary, she would be the first in favour with him. So he set himself at once to pay his court to the Egyptian, and gave her his advice, "to go," in the Homeric style, to Cilicia, "in her best attire," and bade her fear nothing from Antony, the gentlest and kindest of soldiers. She had some faith in the words of Dellius, but more in her own attractions; which, having formerly recommended her to Caesar and the young Cnaeus Pompey, she did not doubt might prove yet more successful with Antony. Their acquaintance was with her when a girl, young and ignorant of the world, but she was to meet Antony in the time of life when women's beauty is most splendid, and their intellects are in full maturity. She made great preparation for her journey, of money, gifts, and ornaments of value, such as so wealthy a kingdom might afford, but she brought with her her surest hopes in her own magic arts and charms. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. c.46-c.120): Life of Anthony (82-30 B.C.) For “Lives,” written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden MIT]

“She received several letters, both from Antony and from his friends, to summon her, but she took no account of these orders; and at last, as if in mockery of them, she came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market-place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal; while the word went through all the multitude, that Venus was come to feast with Bacchus, for the common good of Asia. On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good-humour and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equalled for beauty.

Cleopatra and Marc Antony by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

“The next day, Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit and his rustic awkwardness. She, perceiving that his raillery was broad and gross, and savoured more of the soldier than the courtier, rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve. For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, 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 barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself, as to the Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt; which was all the more surprising because most of the kings, her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue, and several of them quite abandoned the Macedonian.

Cleopatra and Marc Antony as Lovers

Cleopatra seemed to be genuinely in love with Antony while Antony some historians say was "enslaved by Cleopatra's seductive powers." He treated her as a monarch of equal stature rather than a subject, much to the dismay of the people of Rome.

Antony and Cleopatra were linked for 11 years. They were together off and on for seven years, with breaks totaling three years in between. Antony was often away on military campaigns. On one campaign he reportedly plundered the famous library at Pergamum to fill the library of Alexandria. Cleopatra bore him twins — a daughter Cleopatra Selene and a son Alexander Helois — and another son Philadelphia Ptolemy.

Antony and Cleopatra also formed a strong strategic union. Antony helped Cleopatra kill her last ambitious sibling, her sister Arsinoe, and gave her territory in the Middle East. In return Cleopatra financed Antony's Parthian campaign and his battles against Octavian. Cleopatra chopped down many of the cedar trees in Lebanon to held build up Antony’s navy.

The first couple of Rome used their children to extend their empire. Cleopatra Selene married Juba II, the scholar-king of Mauritania (ruled 25 B.C. to A.D. 23) and author of books on history, art and geography. He brought Greco-Roman culture to his capital of Caesarea and explored the Canary Islands.

Cleopatra perhaps wasn’t always faithful. There is one story of Cleopatra trying unsuccessfully to seduce Herod of Palestine (the same one who is mentioned in the Bible and built the Temple in Jerusalem) to gain access to his kingdom. After his rebuff she attempted to get Antony to give her part of Herod's kingdom, but he refused because he and Herod were old friends.∵


Extravagance of Cleopatra and Marc Antony

Antony and Cleopatra referred to themselves as Dionysus and Osiris and named their children Sun and Moon. They drank, gambled and fished together — according to unflattering Roman historians anyway — and amused themselves by dressing up as servants and painting the town red and, by one account, planned to start their own club "the Society of Inimitable Lovers."

A grandson of one of Antony and Cleopatra’s cooks told Plutarch the couple used to have a series of banquets prepared for them so if they didn't like the first it was thrown out and they ate the second. While “white breasts showed through Chinese silk” they ate “every delicacy, prompted not by hunger but by a mad live of ostentation...served on golden dishes.” Antony reportedly rubbed Cleopatra's feet at banquets an adopted her custom of using a golden chamber pot.

Cleopatra once bet Marc Anthony she could give the world's most expensive dinner party and drink $500,000 worth for wine without leaving the table. To win the bet she crushed one of her pearl earrings and drank it in a goblet of wine. That one earring was said to worth 100,000 pounds of silver. Pearls (mostly from the Persian Gulf) were so valuable in ancient times that Roman general Vitellus paid for an entire military campaign by selling one of his mother's pearls. Pliny is the source of that tale.

While Antony and Cleopatra were enjoying themselves, Octavian was building up his army and navy and preparing for a fight.

While Captivated with Cleopatra, Antony Becomes Wasteful and Negligent

Plutarch wrote in “Lives”: “Antony was so captivated by her that, while Fulvia his wife maintained his quarrels in Rome against Caesar by actual force of arms, and the Parthian troops, commanded by Labienus (the king's generals having made him commander-in-chief), were assembled in Mesopotamia, and ready to enter Syria, he could yet suffer himself to be carried away by her to Alexandria, there to keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away in enjoyments that most costly, as Antiphon says, of all valuables, time. They had a sort of company, to which they gave a particular name, calling it that of the Inimitable Livers. The members entertained one another daily in turn, with all extravagance of expenditure beyond measure or belief. Philotas, a physician of Amphissa, who was at that time a student of medicine in Alexandria, used to tell my grandfather Lamprias that, having some acquaintance with one of the royal cooks, he was invited by him, being a young man, to come and see the sumptuous preparations for supper. So he was taken into the kitchen, where he admired the prodigious variety of all things; but particularly, seeing eight wild boars roasting whole, says he, "Surely you have a great number of guests." The cook laughed at his simplicity, and told him there were not above twelve to sup, but that every dish was to be served up just roasted to a turn, and if anything was but one minute ill-timed, it was spoiled; "And," said he, "maybe Antony will sup just now, maybe not this hour, maybe he will call for wine, or begin to talk, and will put it off. So that," he continued, "it is not one, but many suppers must be had in readiness, as it is impossible to guess at his hour." [Source: Plutarch (A.D. c.46-c.120): Life of Anthony (82-30 B.C.) For “Lives,” written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden MIT]

This was Philotas's story; who related besides, that he afterwards came to be one the medical attendants of Antony's eldest son by Fulvia, and used to be invited pretty often, among other companions, to his table, when he was not supping with his father. One day another physician had talked loudly, and given great disturbance to the company, whose mouth Philotas stopped with this sophistical syllogism: "In some states of fever the patient should take cold water; every one who has a fever is in some state of fever; therefore in a fever cold water should always be taken." The man was quite struck dumb, and Antony's son, very much pleased, laughed aloud, and said, "Philotas, I make you a present of all you see there," pointing to a sideboard covered with plate. Philotas thanked him much, but was far enough from ever imagining that a boy of his age could dispose of things of that value. Soon after, however, the plate was all brought to him, and he was desired to get his mark upon it; and when he put it away from him, and was afraid to accept the present. "What ails the man?" said he that brought it; "do you know that he who gives you this is Antony's son, who is free to give it, if it were all gold? but if you will be advised by me, I would counsel you to accept of the value in money from us; for there may be amongst the rest some antique or famous piece of workmanship, which Antony would be sorry to part with." These anecdotes, my grandfather told us, Philotas used frequently to relate.

20120219-Cleopatras Banquet_-.jpg
Cleopatra's Banquet

“To return to Cleopatra; Plato admits four sorts of flattery, but she had a thousand. Were Antony serious or disposed to mirth, she had at any moment some new delight or charm to meet his wishes; at every turn she was upon him, and let him escape her neither by day nor by night. She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him; and when he exercised in arms, she was there to see. At night she would go rambling with him to disturb and torment people at their doors and windows, dressed like a servant-woman, for Antony also went in servant's disguise, and from these expeditions he often came home very scurvily answered, and sometimes even beaten severely, though most people guessed who it was. However, the Alexandrians in general liked it all well enough, and joined good-humouredly and kindly in his frolic and play, saying they were much obliged to Antony for acting his tragic parts at Rome, and keeping comedy for them. It would be trifling without end to be particular in his follies, but his fishing must not be forgotten. He went out one day to angle with Cleopatra, and, being so unfortunate as to catch nothing in the presence of his mistress, he gave secret orders to the fishermen to dive under water, and put fishes that had been already taken upon his hooks; and these he drew so fast that the Egyptian perceived it. But, feigning great admiration, she told everybody how dexterous Antony was, and invited them next day to come and see him again. So, when a number of them had come on board the fishing-boats, as soon as he had let down his hook, one of her servants was beforehand with his divers and fixed upon his hook a salted fish from Pontus. Antony, feeling his line give, drew up the prey, and when, as may be imagined, great laughter ensued, "Leave," said Cleopatra, "the fishing-rod, general, to us poor sovereigns of Pharos and Canopus; your game is cities, provinces, and kingdoms."

Events in Rome While Antony Is Pursuing Cleopatra

Plutarch wrote in “Lives”: “Whilst he was thus diverting himself and engaged in this boy's play, two despatches arrived; one from Rome, that his brother Lucius and his wife Fulvia, after many quarrels among themselves, had joined in war against Caesar, and having lost all, had fled out of Italy; the other bringing little better news, that Labienus, at the head of the Parthians, was overrunning Asia, from Euphrates and Syria as far as Lydia and Ionia. So, scarcely at last rousing himself from sleep, and shaking off the fumes of wine, he set out to attack the Parthians, and went as far as Phoenicia; but, upon the receipt of lamentable letters from Fulvia, turned his course with two hundred ships to Italy. And, in his way, receiving such of his friends as fled from Italy, he was given to understand that Fulvia was the sole cause of the war, a woman of a restless spirit and very bold, and withal her hopes were that commotions in Italy would force Antony from Cleopatra. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. c.46-c.120): Life of Anthony (82-30 B.C.) For “Lives,” written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden MIT]

But it happened that Fulvia as she was coming to meet her husband, fell sick by the way, and died at Sicyon, so that an accommodation was the more easily made. For when he reached Italy, and Caesar showed no intention of laying anything to his charge, and he on his part shifted the blame of everything on Fulvia, those that were friends to them would not suffer that the time should be spent in looking narrowly into the plea, but made a reconciliation first, and then a partition of the empire between them, taking as their boundary the Ionian Sea, the eastern provinces falling to Antony, to Caesar the western, and Africa being left to Lepidus. And an agreement was made that everyone in their turn, as they thought fit, should make their friends consuls, when they did not choose to take the offices themselves.

“These terms were well approved of, but yet it was thought some closer tie would be desirable; and for this, fortune offered occasion. Caesar had an elder sister, not of the whole blood, for Attia was his mother's name, hers Ancharia. This sister, Octavia, he was extremely attached to, as indeed she was, it is said, quite a wonder of a woman. Her husband, Caius Marcellus, had died not long before, and Antony was now a widower by the death of Fulvia; for, though he did not disavow the passion he had for Cleopatra, yet he disowned anything of marriage, reason as yet, upon this point, still maintaining the debate against the charms of the Egyptian. Everybody concurred in promoting this new alliance, fully expecting that with the beauty, honour, and prudence of Octavia, when her company should, as it was certain it would, have engaged his affections, all would be kept in the safe and happy course of friendship. So, both parties being agreed, they went to Rome to celebrate the nuptials, the senate dispensing with the law by which a widow was not permitted to marry till ten months after the death of her husband.

“Sextus Pompeius was in possession of Sicily, and with his ships, under the command of Menas, the pirate, and Menecrates, so infested the Italian coast that no vessels durst venture into those seas. Sextus had behaved with much humanity towards Antony, having received his mother when she fled with Fulvia, and it was therefore judged fit that he also should be received into the peace. They met near the promontory of Misenum, by the mole of the port, Pompey having his fleet at anchor close by, and Antony and Caesar their troops drawn up all along the shore. There it was concluded that Sextus should quietly enjoy the government of Sicily and Sardinia, he conditioning to scour the seas of all pirates, and to send so much corn every year to Rome.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Marc Antony in the 1963 film Cleopatra

“This agreed on, they invited one another to supper, and by lot it fell to Pompey's turn to give the first entertainment, and Antony, asking where it was to be, "There," said he, pointing to the admiral-galley, a ship of six banks of oars. "that is the only house that Pompey is heir to of his father's." And this he said, reflecting upon Antony, who was then in possession of his father's house. Having fixed the ship on her anchors, and formed a bridgeway from the promontory to conduct on board of her, he gave them a cordial welcome. And when they began to grow warm, and jests were passing freely on Antony and Cleopatra's loves, Menas, the pirate, whispered Pompey, in the ear, "Shall I," said he, "cut the cables and make you master not of Sicily only and Sardinia, but of the whole Roman empire?" Pompey, having considered a little while, returned him answer, "Menas, this might have been done without acquainting me; now we must rest content; I do not break my word." And so, having been entertained by the other two in their turns, he set sail for Sicily.

Antony’s Campaign Against the Parthians

Plutarch wrote in “Lives”: “After the treaty was completed, Antony despatched Ventidius into Asia, to check the advance of the Parthians, while he, as a compliment to Caesar, accepted the office of priest to the deceased Caesar. And in any state affair and matter of consequence, they both behaved themselves with much consideration and friendliness for each other. But it annoyed Antony that in all their amusements, on any trial of skill or fortune, Caesar (Octavian) should be constantly victorious. He had with him an Egyptian diviner, one of those who calculate nativities, who, either to make his court to Cleopatra, or that by the rules of his art he found it to be so, openly declared to him that though the fortune that attended him was bright and glorious, yet it was overshadowed by Caesar's; and advised him to keep himself as far distant as he could from that young man; "for your Genius," said he, "dreads his; when absent from him yours is proud and brave, but in his presence unmanly and dejected;" and incidents that occurred appeared to show that the Egyptian spoke truth. For whenever they cast lots for any playful purpose, or threw dice, Antony was still the loser; and when they fought game-cocks or quails, Caesar's had the victory. This gave Antony a secret displeasure, and made him put the more confidence in the skill of his Egyptian. So, leaving the management of his home affairs to Caesar, he left Italy, and took Octavia, who had lately borne him a daughter, along with him into Greece.

“Here, whilst he wintered in Athens, he received the first news of Ventidius's successes over the Parthians, of his having defeated them in a battle, having slain Labienus and Pharnapates, the best general their king, Hyrodes, possessed. For the celebrating of which he made public feast through Greece, and for the prizes which were contested at Athens he himself acted as steward, and, leaving at home the ensigns that are carried before the general, he made his public appearance in a gown and white shoes, with the steward's wands marching before; and he performed his duty in taking the combatants by the neck, to part them, when they had fought enough.

“When the time came for him to set out for the war, he took a garland from the sacred olive, and, in obedience to some oracle, he filled a vessel with the water of the Clepsydra to carry along with him. In this interval, Pacorus, the Parthian king's son, who was marching into Syria with a large army, was met by Ventidius, who gave him battle in the country of Cyrrhestica, slew a large number of his men, and Pacorus among the first. This victory was one of the most renowned achievements of the Romans, and fully avenged their defeats under Crassus, the Parthians being obliged, after the loss of three battles successively, to keep themselves within the bounds of Media and Mesopotamia. Ventidius was not willing to push his good fortune further, for fear of raising some jealousy in Antony, but turning his aims against those that had quitted the Roman interest, he reduced them to their former obedience. Among the rest, he besieged Antiochus, King of Commagene, in the city of Samosata, who made an offer of a thousand talents for his pardon, and a promise of submission to Antony's commands.

Marc Antony offering a sacrifice

Antony’s Failure Against the Parthians

Plutarch wrote: Antony “sent Cleopatra to Egypt, and marched through Arabia and Armenia; and, when his forces came together, and were joined by those of his confederate kings (of whom there were very many, and the most considerable, Artavasdes, King of Armenia, who came at the head of six thousand horse and seven thousand foot), he made a general muster. There appeared sixty thousand Roman foot, ten thousand horse, Spaniards and Gauls, who counted as Romans; and, of other nations, horse and foot thirty thousand. And these great preparations, that put the Indians beyond Bactria into alarm, and made all Asia shake, were all we are told rendered useless to him because of Cleopatra. For, in order to pass the winter with her, the war was pushed on before its due time; and all he did was done without perfect consideration, as by a man who had no power of control over his faculties, who, under the effect of some drug or magic, was still looking back elsewhere, and whose object was much more to hasten his return than to conquer his enemies. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. c.46-c.120): Life of Anthony (82-30 B.C.) For “Lives,” written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden MIT]

“For, first of all, when he should have taken up his winter-quarters in Armenia, to refresh his men, who were tired with long marches, having come at least eight thousand furlongs, and then having taken the advantage in the beginning of the spring to invade Media, before the Parthians were out of winter-quarters, he had not patience to expect his time, but marched into the province of Atropatene, leaving Armenia on the left hand, and laid waste all that country. Secondly, his haste was so great that he left behind the engines absolutely required for any siege, which followed the camp in three hundred wagons, and, among the rest, a ram eighty feet long; none of which was it possible, if lost or damaged, to repair or to make the like, as the provinces of the Upper Asia produce no trees long or hard enough for such uses. Nevertheless, he left them all behind, as a mere impediment to his speed, in the charge of a detachment under the command of Statianus, the wagon officer. He himself laid siege to Phraata, a principal city of the King of Media, wherein were that king's wife and children. And when actual need proved the greatness of his error, in leaving the siege-train behind him, he had nothing for it but to come up and raise a mound against the walls, with infinite labour and great loss of time. Meantime Phraates, coming down with a large army, and hearing that the wagons were left behind with the battering engines, sent a strong party of horse, by which Statianus was surprised, he himself and ten thousand of his men slain, the engines all broken in pieces, many taken prisoners, and among the rest King Polemon.

“This great miscarriage in the opening of the campaign much discouraged Antony's army, and Artavasdes, King of Armenia, deciding that the Roman prospects were bad, withdrew with all his forces from the camp, although he had been the chief promoter of the war. The Parthians, encouraged by their success, came up to the Romans at the siege, and gave them many affronts; upon which Antony, fearing that the despondency and alarm of his soldiers would only grow worse if he let them lie idle taking all the horse, ten legions, and three praetorian cohorts of heavy infantry, resolved to go out and forage, designing by this means to draw the enemy with more advantage to a battle. To effect this, he marched a day's journey from his camp, and finding the Parthians hovering about, in readiness to attack him while he was in motion, he gave orders for the signal of battle to be hung out in the encampment, but, at the same time, pulled down the tents, as if he meant not to fight, but to lead his men home again; and so he proceeded to lead them past the enemy, who were drawn up in a half-moon, his orders being that the horse should charge as soon as the legions were come up near enough to second them....

“The war was full of hardship for both sides, and its future course was still more to be dreaded. Antony expected a famine; for it was no longer possible to get provisions without having many men wounded and killed. Phraates, too, knew that his Parthians were able to do anything rather than to undergo hardships and encamp in the open during winter, and he was afraid that if the Romans persisted and remained, his men would desert him, since already the air was getting sharp after the summer equinox. He therefore contrived the following stratagem. 2 Those of the Parthians who were most acquainted with the Romans attacked them less vigorously in their forays for provisions and other encounters, allowing them to take some things, praising their valour, and declaring that they were capital fighting men and justly admired by their own king. After this, they would ride up nearer, and quietly putting their horses alongside the Romans, would revile Antony because, when Phraates wished to come to terms and spare so many such excellent men, Antony would not give him an opportunity, but sat there awaiting those grievous and powerful enemies, famine and winter, which would make it difficult for them to escape even though the Parthians should escort them on their way. [Source: Parallel Lives by Plutarch, published in Vol. IX, of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1920, translated by Bernadotte Perrin]

Parthian Empire

Fighting Between the Romans and Parthians

Plutarch wrote: “On the fifth day, however, Flavius Gallus, an efficient and able soldier in high command, came to Antony and asked him for more light-armed troops from the rear, and for some of the horsemen from the van, confident that he would achieve a great success. Antony gave him the troops, and when the enemy attacked, Gallus beat them back, not withdrawing and leading them on towards the legionaries, as before, but resisting and engaging them more hazardously. The leaders of the rear guard, seeing that he was being cut off from them, sent and called him back; but he would not listen to them. Then, they say, Titius the quaestor laid hold of his standards and tried to turn them back, abusing Gallus for throwing away the lives of so many brave men. But Gallus gave back the abuse and exhorted his men to stand firm, whereupon Titius withdrew. Then Gallus forced his way among the enemy in front of him, without noticing that great numbers of them were enveloping him in the rear. But when missiles began to fall upon him from all sides, he sent and asked for help. Then the leaders of the legionaries, among whom was Canidius, a man of the greatest influence with Antony, are thought to have made no slight mistake. For when they ought to have wheeled their entire line against the enemy, they sent only a few men at a time to help Gallus, and again, when one detachment had been overcome, sent out others, and so, before they were aware of it, they came near plunging the whole army into defeat and flight. But Antony himself speedily came with his legionaries from the van to confront the fugitives, and the third legion speedily pushed its way through them against the enemy and checked his further pursuit. [Source: Parallel Lives by Plutarch, published in Vol. IX, of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1920, translated by Bernadotte Perrin]

“There fell no fewer than three thousand, and there were carried to their tents five thousand wounded men, among whom was Gallus, who was pierced in front by four arrows. Gallus, indeed, did not recover from his wounds, but Antony went to see all the others and tried to encourage them, with tears of sympathy in his eyes. The wounded men, however, with cheerful faces, seized his hand and exhorted him to go away and take care of himself, and not to be distressed. They called him Imperator, and said that they were safe if only he were unharmed. For, to put it briefly, no other imperator of that day appears to have assembled an army more conspicuous for prowess, endurance, or youthful vigour. Nay, the respect which his soldiers felt for him as their leader, their obedience and goodwill, and the degree to which all of them alike — men of good repute or men of no repute, commanders or private soldiers — preferred honour and favour from Antony to life and safety, left even the ancient Romans nothing to surpass. And the reasons for this were many, as I have said before: his high birth, his eloquence, his simplicity of manners, his love of giving and the largeness of his giving, his complaisance in affairs of pleasure or social intercourse. And so at this time, by sharing in the toils and distresses of the unfortunate and bestowing upon them whatever they wanted, he made the sick and wounded more eager in his service than the well and strong.

“The enemy, however, who had been already worn out and inclined to abandon their task, were so elated by their victory, and so despised the Romans, that they even bivouacked for the night near their camp, expecting very soon to be plundering the empty tents and the baggage of runaways. At daybreak, too, they gathered for attack in far greater numbers, and there are said to have been no fewer than forty thousand horsemen, since their king had sent even those who were always arrayed about his person, assured that it was to manifest and assured success; for the king himself was never present at a battle. Then Antony, wishing to harangue his soldiers, called for a dark robe, that he might be more pitiful in their eyes. But his friends opposed him in this, and he therefore came forward in the purple robe of a general and made his harangue, praising those who had been victorious, and reproaching those who had fled. The former exhorted him to be of good courage, offered themselves to him for decimation,0 if he wished, or for any other kind of punishment; only they begged him to cease being distressed and vexed. In reply, Antony lifted up his hands and prayed the gods that if, then, any retribution were to follow his former successes, it might fall upon him alone, and that the rest of the army might be granted victory and safety.

Parthian warrior

“On the following day they went forward under better protection; and the Parthians met with a great surprise when they attacked them. For they thought they were riding up for plunder and booty, not battle, and when they encountered many missiles and saw that the Romans were fresh and vigorous and eager for the fray, they were once more tired of the struggle. However, as the Romans were descending some steep hills, the Parthians attacked them and shot at them as they slowly moved along. Then the shield-bearers wheeled about, enclosing the lighter armed troops within their ranks, while they themselves dropped on one knee and held their shields out before them. The second rank held their shields out over the heads of the first, and the next rank likewise. The resulting appearance is very like that of a roof, affords a striking spectacle, and is the most effective of protections against arrows, which glide off from it. The Parthians, however, thinking that the Romans dropping on one knee was a sign of fatigue and exhaustion, laid aside their bows, grasped their spears by the middle and came to close quarters. But the Romans, with a full battle cry, suddenly sprang up, and thrusting with their javelins slew the foremost of the Parthians and put all the rest to rout. This happened also on the following days as the Romans, little by little, proceeded on their way.

Defeat of the Romans by Parthians

Plutarch wrote in “Lives”: “Famine also attacked the army, which could provide itself with little grain even by fighting, and was not well furnished with implements for grinding. These had been abandoned, for the most part, since some of the beasts of burden died, and the others had to carry the sick and wounded. It is said that one Atticº choenix of wheat brought fifty drachmas; and loaves of barley bread were sold for their weight in silver. Resorting, therefore, to vegetables and roots, they could find few to which they were accustomed, and were compelled to make trial of some never tasted before. Thus it was that they partook of an herb which produced madness, and then death. He who ate of it had no memory, and no thought of anything else than the one task of moving or turning every stone, as if he were accomplishing something of great importance. The plain was full of men stooping to the ground and digging around the stones or removing them; and finally they would vomit bile and die, since the only remedy, wine, was not to be had. Many perished thus, and the Parthians would not desist, and Antony, as we are told, would often cry: "O the Ten Thousand!" thereby expressing his admiration of Xenophon's army, which made an even longer march to the sea from Babylon, and fought with many times as many enemies, and yet came off safe. [Source: Parallel Lives by Plutarch, published in Vol. IX, of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1920, translated by Bernadotte Perrin]

“And now the Parthians, unable to throw the army into confusion or break up its array, but many times already defeated and put to flight, began once more to mingle peaceably with the men who went out in search of fodder or grain, and pointing to their unstrung bows would say that they themselves were going back, and that this was the end of their retaliation, although a few Medes would still follow the Romans one or two days' march, not molesting them at all, but merely protecting the more outlying villages. To these words they added greetings and acts of friendliness, so that once more the Romans became full of courage, and Antony, when he heard about it,

“But word was at once brought to the Parthians that Antony was advancing, and contrary to their custom they set out in pursuit while it was yet night. Just as the sun was rising they came up with the rear-guard of the Romans, which was foredone with sleeplessness and toil; for they had accomplished two hundred and forty furlongs in the night. Moreover, they did not expect that the enemy would come upon them so quickly, and were therefore disheartened. Besides, their contest intensified their thirst; for they had to ward off the enemy and make their way forward at the same time. Those who marched in the van came to a river, the water of which was clear and cold, but had a salty taste and was poisonous. This water, as soon as one drank it, caused pains, accompanied by cramping of the bowels and an inflammation of one's thirst. Of this too the Mardian had warned them, but none the less the soldiers forced aside those who tried to turn them back, and drank. Antony went round and begged the men to hold out a little while; for not far ahead, he said, there was another river which was potable, and then the rest of the way was too rough for cavalry, so that the enemy must certainly turn back. At the same time, too, he called his men back from fighting and gave the signal for pitching the tents, that the soldiers might at least enjoy the shade a little.

“Accordingly, the Romans went to pitching their tents, and the Parthians, as their custom was, at once began to withdraw. At this point Mithridates came again, and after Alexander had joined him he advised Antony to let the army rest only a little while, and then to get it under way and hasten to the river, assuring him that the Parthians would not cross it, but would continue the pursuit until they reached it. This message was carried to Antony by Alexander, who then brought out from Antony golden drinking-cups in great numbers, as well as bowls. Mithridates took as many of these as he could hide in his garments and rode off. Then, while it was still day, they broke camp and proceeded on their march. The enemy did not molest them, but they themselves made that night of all other nights the most grievous and fearful for themselves. For those who had gold or silver were slain and robbed of it, and the goods were plundered from the beasts of burden; and finally the baggage-carriers of Antony were attacked, and beakers and costly tables were cut to pieces or distributed about.

“And now, since there was great confusion and straggling throughout the whole army (for they thought that the enemy had fallen upon them and routed and dispersed them), Antony called one of the freedmen in his body-guard, Rhamnus by name, and made him take oath that, at the word of command, he would thrust his sword through him and cut off his head, that he might neither be taken alive by the enemy nor recognized when he was dead. Antony's friends burst into tears, but the Mardian tried to encourage him, declaring that the river was near: for a breeze blowing from it was moist, and a cooler air in their faces made their breathing pleasanter. He said also that the time during which they had been marching made his estimate of the distance conclusive; for little of the night was now left. At the same time, too, others brought word that the tumult was a result of their own iniquitous and rapacious treatment of one another. Therefore, wishing to bring the throng into order after their wandering and distraction, Antony ordered the signal to be given for encampment.

captive Parthians

“Day was already dawning, and the army was beginning to assume a certain order and tranquillity, when the arrows of the Parthians fell upon the rear ranks, and the light-armed troops were ordered by signal to engage. The men-at arms, too, again covered each other over with their shields, as they had done before, and so withstood their assailants, who did not venture to come to close quarters. The front ranks advanced little by little in this manner, and the river came in sight. On its bank Antony drew up his sick and disabled soldiers across first. And presently even those who were fighting had a chance to drink at their ease; for when the Parthians saw the river, they unstrung their bows and bade the Romans cross over with good courage, bestowing much praise also upon their valour. So they crossed without being disturbed and recruited themselves, and then resumed their march, putting no confidence at all in the Parthians. And on the sixth day after their last battle with them they came to the river Araxes, which forms the boundary between Media and Armenia. Its depth and violence made it seem difficult of passage; and a report was rife that the enemy were lying in ambush there and would attack them as they tried to cross. But after they were safely on the other side and had set foot in Armenia, as if they had just caught sight of that land from the sea, they saluted it and fell to weeping and embracing one another for joy. But as they advanced through the country, which was prosperous, and enjoyed all things in abundance after great scarcity, they fell sick with dropsies and dysenteries.

“There Antony held a review of his troops and found that twenty thousand of the infantry and four thousand of the cavalry had perished, not all at the hands of the enemy, but more than half by disease. They had, indeed, marched twenty-seven days from Phraata, and had defeated the Parthians in eighteen battles, but their victories were not complete or lasting because the pursuits which they made were short and ineffectual. And this more than all else made it plain that it was Artavasdes the Armenian who had robbed Antony of the power to bring that war to an end. For if the sixteen thousand horsemen who were led back from Media by him had been on hand, equipped as they were like the Parthians and accustomed to fighting with them, and if they, when the Romans routed the fighting enemy, had taken off the fugitives, it would not have been in the enemy's power to recover themselves from defeat and to venture again so often. Accordingly, all the army, in their anger, tried to incite Antony to take vengeance on the Armenian. But Antony, as a measure of prudence, neither reproached him with his treachery nor abated the friendliness and respect usually shown to him, being now weak in numbers and in want of supplies.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.