Marcus Antonius - The Man and the Myth

  By zeno, January 2007; Revised
“… swallowed up in this menial swamp, growing so inured to its dirt and brawls that even he now referred to his genteel origin somewhat sceptically, as to a myth.”

Like Chekhov’s drunken peasant, Mark Antony’s last years were almost unimaginably distant from his adolescence, and this of course makes the most fascinating of lives and the most fertile of myths. Julius Caesar may have carved his name forever into Western History, but he was after all a descendant of Venus, and then of Aeneas. Anything less would only have been disappointing. Antony, on the other hand, was the son of a humble and honest man who was once scolded by his wife for giving away a silver dish to a needy friend. Half a century or so later, Mark Antony died in the arms of one of the most exciting personalities of the ancient world, in the most spectacular palace, in the most extravagant city. He had been Imperator and Triumvir, the highest positions attainable. Of course his continuing legacy owes a great deal to an Elizabethan playwright, but it is wrong to assume that the myth of Antony would be much different without such a revival 1500 years after his death. As I hope to demonstrate, Mark Antony remains a prominent figure of Roman history, and Roman myth, because of his own achievements, his character and his contemporaries. Even though (or because) he was vilified by Cicero and Augustus, and our ancient sources are far from favourable, Antony the hero has persisted, and even been strengthened by antiquity’s enthusiasm for his dismissal.

What makes up the myth of Mark Antony? Ernest Renan called him “a colossal child.” From this century, one might inspect Tom Holland’s critically-acclaimed Rubicon, a modern narrative on the rise and fall of the Republic. Here we find as good expression as any of the characteristics associated with Antony. After the corrupting influences of Curio and Clodius, Antony was rehabilitated by service with Caesar in Gaul. As Tribune, he fled from Rome to Caesar in a “typically-melodramatic flourish,” disguised as a slave. In the field, “there was no more natural soldier.” In the east, as a self-indulgent Dionysus-Osiris at Cleopatra’s side, “no role could have been better designed to tickle Antony’s fancy – no bed partner either.” He is portrayed as brilliant but flawed. Whilst this is a perfectly reasonable description, it has also been the standard expression of Antony; throughout Holland’s late Republic narrative, Antony seems like a loser, destined for failure and suicide. How much of this is due to hindsight, or the influence of Shakespearian tragedy is a question for another time. What is important here is the affect the damnatio memoriae of Antony (discussed later) had on our sources. Then we may ask in what ways has the myth of damned Antony overshadowed the historical Antony.

An undoubtedly crucial element of the fascination with Antony was his physical appearance. Plutarch, our best source on Antony’s life, described his “bold and masculine look, which is found in the statues and portraits of Hercules.” It is difficult to imagine higher praise, but easy to see how this has influenced our idea of Antony. Thanks to Octavian, we have no definitive images of Antony, but this has not stopped us looking. Of the busts attached to Antony, none can be positively identified. What is interesting is the way scholars look for Antony in these anonymous faces. In the Capitoline Museum in Rome, we see a “determined stare, thickset neck and square-jawed, fleshy face.” In Kingston Lacey in Dorset, we see an eastern Antony, “noble, and more ascetic.” In the Musee Archeologique, Narbonne, Antony in his fifties, “double chin and worry lines between the eyebrows. The rugged face of an older and more experienced general.” How can so much personality be seen in these anonymous sculptures? Our ancient sources do not say “determined stare.” It is a leap of historical faith, based on the myth of Antony, not the reality. The same extrapolations can be seen in the 21st Century. For a modern and more appropriately dramatic representation of Antony, we have James Purefoy’s portrayal in the HBO/BBC historical drama Rome, broadcast between 2005 and 2007. Purefoy encapsulates Antony’s reputation for good looks, a military body, a sharp temper and ruthless ambition. In an interview, Purefoy describes the Antony which the film-makers had in mind: “a larger-than-life character, who lived his life at 1,000 miles an hour… who fitted more into his 52, 53 years than most people could do in 100 years.” Naturally this sort of person is what television was made for. Purefoy’s Antony is also the most frequently nude of the dramatis personae.

Within the image of a man of Herculean yet self-destructive passions, we have one of Julius Caesar’s closest partners, a consul, a Triumvir, finally commander of half the world. Evidently therefore we are dealing with a politically savy nobleman, sensitive to the fine line between domination and proscription. But this is not immediately apparent in the myth of Antony. From our modern perspective, Antony’s personality appears confusing, even contradictory. How can such shrewd Roman politics sit alongside Eastern luxury and extragence? How can a man thrive in such polar opposites? The answer must be that Antony saw no such conflict of interests. He may have had his Alexandrian chef on 24 hour standby, but this does not rule out Antony’s touch for popular politics and aristocratic manouvering. Take Appian’s words for Antony at Caesar’s funeral: “Many other things Antony said in a kind of divine frenzy, and then lowered his voice from its high pitch to a sorrowful tone, and mourned and wept as for a friend who had suffered unjustly, and solemnly vowed that he was willing to give his own life in exchange for Caesar's.” A riot ensued. M. Brutus and Cassius could never have hoped to rouse such a popular response from the people. Cicero wouldn’t even have wanted to. Antony the politician has been sidelined to make way for Antony the soldier and Antony the hedonist, perfectly balanced between the most stimulating pursuits: sex and violence.

In war, Antony was a both a glorious and a disgraced general. Josephus, describing Antony’s first cavalry experience in the Near East, leaves us in no doubt as to his brilliance: “Mark Antony displayed superlative courage; on every field he had invariably proved his worth, but never so convincingly as now.” After the Ides, Appian writes, “Some thought that Antony ought to be killed also because he was consul with Caesar, and was his most powerful friend, and the one of most repute with the army.” After the battle of Philippi, the legions hailed Antony but jeered Octavian. In love, no one else would marry five times, to women of the highest and the lowest status. If one reason alone was needed to explain Antony’s infamy, perhaps it was his claim to have married both the daughter of a freedman and the Queen of Egypt. And there were plenty of other romantic entanglements, as so eloquently put by Purefoy’s Antony: “I’m not getting out of bed until I’ve fucked something.” Although this does not have the same ring as Shakespearian verse, it does ring true for a man who paraded leading actresses from his open sedan. In one sequence of the HBO/BBC show, Antony is interrupted whilst privately watching a male and female slave fight each other, naked except for swords, shields and helmets. This scene combines the two key elements of the myth of Antony perfectly. But it also shows the power myth has to inspire our imaginations. Our records do not say that Antony enjoyed such a pastime, but we like to think he could have. With his wealth he had the means, as we imagine his personality, he had the desire. Still, he was not entirely lost to his passions, as Southern stresses, “there are no stories that he deflowered too many Athenian virgins or wrecked too many Athenian taverns.”

Although the details are sparse, much is made of Antony’s friendships with Curio and Clodius. But a much more significant part of his life must have been Fulvia, the woman married to all three of them. In the chaotic aftermath of Caesar’s murder, Antony is considered to have been at his most cunning, diplomatic and ambitious. Goltz Huzar has suggested that these talents were now displayed “as never before and rarely later. One senses Fulvia as the Grey Eminence.” Hence she is thought to be the first living Roman woman to be coined, as a leading protagonist in 41/40. But by now Antony was involved with Cleopatra, whose own myth is one of the most dynamic in antiquity. The greatest romance of the ancient world has been cynically assessed by some historians, put bluntly by Will Cuppy as “mostly a business arrangement, since she needed protection in order to hold her throne and Antony could always use the ready cash.” Nevertheless, Cleopatra was the one person Rome could never get on with. She had already taken Caesar from them once. Now she had taken Antony. As Holland writes, “No wonder that Cleopatra’s seductiveness should have struck many Romans as something almost demonic.” Plutarch certainly believed they were in love, the best explanation for Antony being led so astray. Goltz Huzar suggests their affair may have begun sincerely, but as their situation worsened “hate must have mingled with love increasingly as both realized that their crossed purposes would bring mutual destruction.” However, the myth insists we remember a tragic couple who died together with their enemies at the gates. Antony was happy to share half the world, but Cleopatra and Octavian were not.

Straight-forward, two dimensional characters do not encourage themselves to posterity. Those that do are complex, elusive and contradictory, as illustrated by the multi-faceted Mark Antony: condemned as the brutal murderer of Cicero; dismissed as a drunken captive of Cleopatra; who wasted an empire; but praised as a skilled military leader; trusted by Caesar; seized Rome after the Ides; defeated the Republicans, and was only beaten himself by the great Augustus. The image of Antony as a kind of Janus is largely a construction post-Actium. The most complete accounts of Antony’s life come from Imperial times, when the Augustan revolution was complete. No where is the expression ‘history is written by the winners’ more appropriate than Octavian’s damnatio memoriae of “his antagonist.” On the 14th January, Antony’s birthday became nefastus. Statues, busts and portraits of Antony are noticeably absent from the world’s museums. Already by the late 30s, Octavian’s propaganda war was in full effect. Three hundred senators may have joined him in Greece in 32, but the ‘official’ presentation of a drunken slave to Cleopatra was already sealed. To pick one example, Pliny the Elder would write about “the magnitude of evils that he had inflicted upon the world through his tippling.”

The presentation of Antony as a loser was no problem for one writer, our best source for Antony’s life, Plutarch. In the Parallel Lives, Antony and his Greek opposite were distinguishable from good men as kakia, ‘conspicuous for badness.’ Plutarch was one of antiquity’s great moralisers (how else might so much of his work have survived?). For example, he disapproved of Antony’s lack of restraint and his pursuit of glory. The virtues and vices of leaders in such a tumultuous age was a popular theme for ancient writers, many of whom would announce a general moral decline. Plutarch was first and foremost keen to demonstrate models of behaviour, for example the cycle of Antony’s life: ‘born’ as a glamorous young cavalryman in Alexandria, died as an aging, misguided imperator in Alexandria. Plutarch was himself an active part of the Augustan tradition over a hundred years after Actium, announcing before a Roman audience that “Cicero, Lepidus, Pansa, Hirtius and M. Antony – by their displays of valour, their deeds, victories, fleets, wars, armies raised [Augustus] on high to be the first of Roman citizens; and [Fortune] cast down these men, through whom he had mounted, and left him to rule alone.” The Life of Antony has the most conspicuous emotional emphasis of Plutarch’s works. “Naïve as this seems,” writes Russell, “the hub of Plutarch’s interpretation was the corruptions of eros and kolakeia (flattery) by Cleopatra.” The ‘real’ bad guys Plutarch saw as Coriolanus, Crassus and Marius. Antony was meant as a cautionary tale, a demonstration of wasted talent and opportunity. Despite the best efforts of Octavian, Plutarch saw Antony as a tragic hero. Already established as a great soldier and leader, it suited Plutarch’s models to blame Antony’s downfall on a foreign woman. Their first meeting marks the discrimen, the turning point in Antony’s Life, though a strictly historical analysis might not agree. The scene itself is considered to be a Pluarchan construction. Antony 33 quotes a warning given to Antony by his Egyptian soothsayer. It is difficult to believe that Plutarch is describing a genuine incident, the (easier) cynical explanation is that this is an example of Octavian’s propaganda: “Your guardian spirit stands in awe of his, and although by itself it is proud and full of mettle, it becomes cowed and daunted in the presence of Caesar’s.” Before Philippi, after meeting with Octavian, Antony dreamt “his right hand was struck by a thunderbolt.” Was this a real story, later circulated by Antony to show it was his destiny to beat the Republicans? Or perhaps it was another alteration by Octavian, making Antony look a fool for not realising that he could never beat Caesar. The chapter suggests the latter explanation.

It is arguable that the Winston Smith treatment of Antony’s life was a necessary sacrifice after decades of violence and chaos for Rome. This simply empowers the myth of Antony even further, as Southern puts it: “the world was instructed to forget about him. The world, however, did not comply. Some of the details are lost, but Mark Antony has never been forgotten.”

Octavian could not of course destroy everything Antony had done, and some fragments of the historical Antony, from his own lifetime, survive. The only voice we have on his early career was that of his opposite Cicero and his invective Philippics, in particular the second, of which “the verdict of all ages pronounces this oration to be Cicero’s masterpiece.” By modern standards, the back-and-forth speeches by Antony and Cicero in the Forties read like schoolboy squabbling. Yet there was genuine antagonism between the two men, since the death of Antony’s step father after the Catilina conspiracy. At 19, Antony was grieving the loss of his mother’s second husband, unlikely to ever forgive Cicero. Since Marius and Sulla, neutrality was impossible, as Caesar had discovered only too late. As the immature Octavian was absent from Rome in 44, power was contested by Cicero and Antony. Arguably the nastiest slander from antiquity, “Cicero’s Antony offends against virtually every rule of aristocratic propriety.” This made a perfect source for Plutarch, Appian and Dio, and has become an essential part of every description of Antony. However, most of the accusations are common currency, like an anti-panegyric. Caesar, Pompey, Octavian and Cicero himself were accused of many similar ‘outrages.’ So enthusiastic was Cicero to put Antony down, he has actually achieved the reverse, as Holland writes, “the great orator’s assault on Antony was to prove inspirational and specious in equal measure… these tricks achieved their apotheosis.”

An enduring part of Antony’s myth is the suggestion in our sources that he must have really annoyed his enemies. Octavian’s need to outdo Antony in everything is seen in a gold aureus from 27: rather than IMP, Octavian was now CAESAR DIV F COS IV. Silver denarii from 31 showing Jupiter and Victory announce M.ANTONIO COS III IMP IIII. What we have in this inscription is a possible glimpse of the reality behind the Augustan canon that has survived. As Wardman puts it “Antony’s failure is presented [by Plutarch] as… merely another instance of a habitual dependence, not on rational choice, but on Cleopatra.” IMP IIII suggests Antony was hailed as Imperator by his soldiers for a fourth time, so perhaps his performance during the land battles at Actium was probably not as miserable as the ancient sources suggest. Octavian took the name of Caesar, undoubtedly hoping the eminence and power of the name would rub off on himself. But the damnatio memoriae could never have hoped to erase how synonymous the names of Caesar and Antony were. Fighting in Gaul and scheming in Rome, from the same generation, both enchanted by Alexandria, Antony and Caesar’s friendship must have been a genuine and enduring one. Octavian, on the other hand, was 17 when Caesar died, who had been absent from Rome for most of Octavian’s life. Cleopatra could only give Caesar a son, but Aphrodite gave Dionysus twins. Antony was more potent than Caesar, Octavian and Cicero put together. Cicero condemned Antony, Curio and Clodius, all having far too much fun whilst he was stuck in the law courts. Octavian criticised Antony’s language and oratory style, in Suetonius: “Or are you trying to acclimatize in Latin the nonsensicalities of garrulous Asiatic orators?” Despite their best efforts, we would probably rather have Antony over for dinner than Augustus.

Chekhov’s peasant started at the top before life dragged him down to the bottom. Mark Antony’s life went in the opposite direction. But both share the same sense of distance travelled, that they found themselves unimaginably removed from their upbringing. The menial swamp was Rome, his brawls were with the greatest orator and the greatest politician. What Antony did was escape from it, to his extravagant queen in her exotic land. Perhaps the most intriguing and ironic fact is that the myth of larger-than-life Mark Antony was as much a construction of his enemies as it was his own deeds. Attacked with such venom, the damnatio memoriae became the aeterna memoria. Plutarch’s Antony is so biased that, like Cicero, he inadvertently forces us to rehabilitate Antony, even though he “still remains an enigmatic, contradicting figure, defying a final appraisal.” Plutarch generates a genuine interest for psychology, as the protagonist’s mental torment becomes clear, leaving no doubt regarding Shakespeare’s interest in the man. What is left for modern interpretation is to ask how Antony became the way he did, the first priority of modern biography, but of no concern to Plutarch. Pelling describes Plutarch’s “tragic depiction of a noble and brilliant nature, torn by psychological struggle and cruelly undone by his weakness of will, by his susceptibility to others, by his sad and conscious submission to his own lowest traits.” In looking for the real Antony, we might say he was undone by politics and by Octavian; that the culture and society he lived in was full of excesses and luxuries, unfairly pinned on Antony as extraordinary; that his political judgements were sound. We might even suppose that Actium was lost by Cleopatra and won by Agrippa.

“Octavian won the propaganda battle, for uncertainties in the sources make drawing of a complete or wholly legitimate portrayal of Antony still a challenge,” writes Goltz Huzar. Historians prefer a challenge, and it is alluring to think we might get one over Cicero and Augustus if we find pieces of the man within the myth. For example, Antony’s coins from 32 and 31 proclaiming his military successes give us an idea of his own propaganda, and therefore how at least some of the Roman world must have seen him. Antony’s own propaganda survived in the negative features of Octavian’s character. Suetonius reports a rumour that Julius Caesar considered moving his capital to Alexandria. If he did, was Antony so wrong to consider the same? Is the noble, Graecian bust in Kingston Lacey’s Egypt Room a surviving piece of Antony’s last years in Alexandria? Perhaps the pursuit of leisure had faded with age, and the Alexandrian Antony was one of nobler, more prestigious activities? We have no way of knowing. Regardless, the myth of Antony is probably too potent to consider of scholarly, semi-retired Antony. As well as the underappreciated politician, Antony’s myth also lacks his role as creator of a dynasty. Long after Antony’s death, his name appears throughout the histories of Suetonius and Tacitus. The extended and incestuous family known as the Julio-Claudians established a system of government that would last as long as the Republic had. Their names are fixed in European language and culture. The Julio-Claudians were the greatest myth to come out of Rome. Yet this was not strictly true. Again thanks to Octavian’s thorough skills as editor, it is overlooked that the imperial monarchy he established was in fact the Julio-Antonio-Claudians. (Almost) all his children were adopted by Rome. As each Emperor had to worry about how he was related to Augustus or Julius Caesar, they all had roots with Mark Antony.

A notorious libertine, a Triumvir, a killer, a romantic, worthy of Virgilian verse, “in almost every way the quintessential Roman aristocrat of the First Century BCE.” To compose a list of those directly and indirectly associated with Antony reads like a Who’s Who of ancient Rome: Caesar, the Pompeians, Cicero, Octavian, Agrippa, Brutus, Cassius, Virgil, Cleopatra. And then there were his descendants, the conquering Germanicus, and the Princeps Gaius Caligula, Claudius and Nero. In the competition for imperial power after Augustus’ death, Antony’s bloodline thrived. “This wider perspective of the five generations is more thought-provoking, and even for Antony it allows the reflection that defeat was not total,” writes Pelling. The Emperor Nero was descended twice from Antony. How the singing, acting, chariot-riding Princeps compares to his ancestor is a fascinating question, requiring much more time and space than available here. “Everything Mark did was a mistake.” However Southern believes at least Antony would have approved of Claudius. As Richard Burton and Liz Taylor stand over the tomb of Alexander, they dream Alexander’s dream of a united world with no distinction between peoples in a touching scene from the 1960s Hollywood Cleopatra. Antony was distinguishable from his peers for this sentiment, which has only grown more enduring across history. Antony was the great ‘might-have-been.’ Within the myth, we glimpse another Caesar, another Augustus, perhaps even another Alexander. How much this derives from his damnatio memoriae, how much from the actual man is impossible to answer, and probably best left down to personal preference. Hopefully my idea of what Antony was, and could have been, is clear enough.


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