The Story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony


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The Story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony

After Caesar's murder, Rome was in turmoil. Several armies competed for control. The two greatest generals were Mark Antony and Octavian. Octavian was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, but Mark Antony led a larger army.

When Antony asked Cleopatra to meet with him, Cleopatra decided that she had another opportunity to return to power both in Egypt, and in Rome. She had made one ruler of Rome fall in love with her. Could she conquer another Roman leader's heart? She agreed to meet with Mark Anthony in 42 B.C. and her royal ship was prepared to take her to him.

A legend says that Cleopatra dressed herself as Venus, the Roman goddess of love. She filled her ship with so many rose petals that the Romans knew of her fragrance before they could see her ship. The boat was sailed by her maids, who were dressed as sea nymphs (fairies in Roman mythology). She reclined under a gold canopy, fanned by boys in Cupid costumes.

At their first meeting, Antony was immediately love-struck with the Egyptian queen. Forgetting his responsibilities, he accompanied Cleopatra to the Egyptian city of Alexandria and spent the winter with her there.

Mark Anthony and Cleopatra became lovers. According to Plutarch, a famous Roman historian, Cleopatra "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... However, the Alexandrians in general liked it all well enough, and joined good-humoredly and kindly in his frolic and play."

Finally, "rousing himself from sleep, and shaking off the fumes of wine, Anthony said goodbye to Cleopatra and returned to his duties as a ruler of the Roman empire. Six months later Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios." [Plutarch's Lives: Mark Anthony]

It was four years before Cleopatra saw Mark Anthony again. During that time Antony married Octavian's half-sister, Octavia. They had two daughters. This was not a love-marriage, but a marriage that would bring peace between Mark Anthony and his rival, Octavian. (But instead, it only brought about war.)

In 37 BC, while on his way to invade Parthia, Antony enjoyed another stay with Cleopatra. He hurried through his military duties and raced back to Cleopatra. From then on Alexandria was his home, and Cleopatra was his life. He married her in 36 BC and she gave birth to another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, Octavia remained loyal to her unfaithful husband. She decided to visit Antony, and when she reached Athens she received a letter from him saying that he would meet her there. However, Cleopatra was determined to keep Antony away from his other wife. She cried and fainted and starved herself and got her way. Antony cancelled his trip, and Octavia returned home without seeing her husband.

The Roman people were disgusted by the way Antony had treated Octavia, his Roman wife. They were also angry to hear that Cleopatra and Antony were calling themselves gods, new Egyptian gods! Worst of all, in 34 B.C. Antony gave away large chunks of the Roman Empire as gifts to Cleopatra and her children. He made one of his children with Cleopatra the king of Armenia, another queen of Cyrenaica and Crete, and the third the king of Syria. Caesarion, her child with Julius Caesar, was proclaimed the "King of Kings," and Cleopatra was the "Queen of Kings."

Angered by all of this, Octavian convinced the Roman Senate to declare war on Egypt. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony had gone too far!

The Sea Battle of Actium, 30 B.C.

The Deaths of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra
In 31 B.C. Anthony's forces fought the Romans in a sea battle off the eastern coast of Actium, Greece. Cleopatra was there with sixty ships of her own. However, the battle did not go well for Anthony. His ships were slow and awkward. The Roman ships were lighter and swifter.

Seeing that the battle was being lost, Cleopatra fled. This act of cowardice dealt a serious blow to the morale of Antony's men. Octavian's sailors cheered and fought even harder! Why did she do this? The battle was nowhere near lost. There was not even clear which fleet was winning before Cleopatra cut her cables and ran.

Then something even more surprising happened: Anthony abandoned his men to follow her! The Romans saw this as proof that Anthony was bewitched by his love of Cleopatra, unable to think or act on his own. The Romans knew that victory would be theirs.

Cleopatra and Mark Anthony returned to Egypt. Anthony lived alone for a time, brooding, while Cleopatra prepared for an invasion by the Roman ships. Then Anthony heard that his forces had surrendered at Actium and his allies had changed sides and gone over to Octavian. He returned to Cleopatra to party away their final days before the Romans came for them.

In 30 B.C. Octavian's ships reached Alexandria. Mark Anthony marched his army out of the city to meet the enemy. He stopped on high ground to watch what he expected would be a naval battle at sea between his fleet and the Roman fleet. Instead he saw his fleet salute the Romans with their oars and join them. At this, Anthony's cavalry also deserted him. His infantry were soon defeated and Anthony returned to the city, thinking that Cleopatra had betrayed him.

Terrified that he would harm her, Cleopatra fled and locked herself in her palace. She ordered her servants to tell Anthony she was dead. Believing it, Anthony cried out, "Now, Anthony, why delay longer? Fate has snatched away your only reason for living."

He went to his room, stabbed himself in the stomach and passed out on a couch. When he woke up he begged his servants to put him out of his misery, but they ran away. At last Cleopatra's servant came and told him Cleopatra wanted to see him.

Overjoyed to hear Cleopatra was alive, Anthony had himself carried to her. Cleopatra was afraid to open the door because of the approach of Octavian's army, but she and her two serving women let down ropes from a window and pulled him up. Distraught, Cleopatra laid Anthony on her bed, cried, and called him her lord, husband and emperor. Anthony told her not to pity him, but to remember his past happiness. Then he died.

The Death of Cleopatra

When Octavian and his Roman soldiers finally reached her home, Cleopatra pulled out a dagger and tried to stab herself. However, she was disarmed and taken prisoner. Her children were also taken prisoner and were treated well.

Octavian allowed Cleopatra to arrange Anthony's funeral. She buried him with royal splendor. After the funeral she took to her bed, sick with grief. She wanted to kill herself, but Octavian kept her under close guard. One day he visited her and she flung herself at his feet, nearly naked, and told him she wanted to live. (Was this a trick so she could kill herself, or was she trying to get Octavian's attention and capture his heart?) But Octavian showed no interest in her.

Cleopatra was determined to die. She knew Octavian intended to humiliate her by marching her through Rome in chains. According to legend, she returned to her guarded home, took a bath, and ordered a feast. While the meal was being prepared a man arrived with a basket of figs. The guards checked the basket and found nothing suspicious, so they allowed the man to deliver it to Cleopatra.

After she had eaten, Cleopatra wrote a letter, sealed it, and sent it to Octavian. He opened it and found Cleopatra's plea that he would allow her to be buried in Anthony's tomb. Alarmed, Octavian sent messengers to alert her guards that Cleopatra planned to commit suicide. But it was too late.

They found the 39-year old queen dead on her golden bed, with one maid dying at her feet. Her other maid was weakly adjusting Cleopatra's crown. And she too fell over dead.

Two small puncture wounds were found on Cleopatra's arm, and it was believed that she had allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (a small poisonous snake) that was smuggled in with the figs.

As she had wished, she was buried beside Anthony.

What Happened to Her Children?

Cleopatra was the last pharaoh. After her death Egypt became a Roman province. Because Caesarion was Julius Caesar's son and might pose a threat to Octavian's power, Octavian had the boy strangled by his tutor. He was about 17 years old then: 47-30 B.C. Cleopatra's other children were sent to Rome to be raised by Octavia, his half sister and Mark Anthony's Roman wife. Cleopatra Selene married King Juba II of Mauretania and had two children. No one knows what happened to Cleopatra's two sons by Mark Anthony, but they seem to have disappeared mysteriously.  

Is it True that She Died by a Snake Bite?

It is possible, but death by snake bite would have been a painful way to go. Since Egyptians at that time were skilled in preparing poisons and medicines, it's possible that she poisoned herself. This seems more probable, since her two maids also died. A snake would not be able to kill three people. But we'll never know for sure which account is true.


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