Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Romans - F. J. Gould

The Man Who Looked Like Hercules

A tall, strong general, with large forehead, full beard, and a pleasant look in the eyes—such was Antony, who lived from about 83 B.C. to 30 B.C. When his soldiers stood eating at plain wooden tables in the camp, he would stand and take a share with them, and laugh and talk as if he were a common man of the ranks. And his men loved him for his free ways and cheerful temper. They admired his fine appearance, and said he was like the hero Hercules.

Antony was generous to his foes. Once, in a battle in Egypt, a person with whom he had been friendly was slain on the opposite side. No sooner did Antony hear of his old friend's death than he sent some Romans to search for the body. When it was found, Antony had it buried with a quite royal funeral.

To his friends he was even too generous, for he hated to be thought mean. Once he ordered his house-master (steward) to set apart a sum of money for a beloved companion. The steward placed the silver in a heap, and hoped Antony would change his mind, and give less. When Antony saw what was in the mind of the steward, he said, in a cool, stately manner:

"The amount is too small; double it, and take it to my friend."

In war he was ready to scale the walls of fortresses, to dash on horseback at the enemy, to endure hunger and thirst. When there was peace, he gave himself up to riotous living. The train of servants carrying his gold and silver vessels, etc., was a little army. They would set up his tent in a pleasant shady grove, beside a river, and lay a table as if in a palace-chamber. Tame lions would be harnessed to his chariot, so that crowds of folk would come and stare. He amused himself with actors and jesters. He would drink too much at a nightly feast, and sleep a drunken sleep the most part of the next day. Antony looked as strong as Hercules, and his body was indeed as manly, but not so his mind; he had not the strength to go without wasteful and selfish pleasures.

You have heard how Julius Csar died. After the death of Csar, his nephew Octavius (who was later the Emperor Augustus) fought for the mastery. Antony was beaten, and fled. His soldiers passed the Alps on their way to Gaul. So hungry were they that they were glad to chew the bark of trees. The general shared their coarse food, eating bark or roots or tough meat, and drinking unclean water, and making no complaint. Men flocked to him in Gaul. He now felt he was as powerful as Octavius and Lepidus. This Lepidus had been one of Csar's stoutest captains.

At last the three rivals met on an island in the beautiful Rhine river, and they talked and argued, and planned how they should divide the Roman Empire between them. The old Roman Republic was coming to an end. Emperors were now to hold the sway, instead of consuls, for some hundreds of years.

But Antony was not earnest enough to keep a grip on his share of the empire. He ran after pleasures as little boys run after butterflies. It fell to his lot to govern Asia Minor. He entered the city of Ephesus as if he came with a show for a circus. Women dressed as priestesses of the wine-god Bacchus (Bak-kus) and men attired like wild satyrs of the woods marched and danced in procession. And the streets of the city were crowded with noisy revelers who wore ivory crowns, and waved spears garlanded with ivy, and made merry music on harps and flutes and mouth-organs. Antony rode gayly amid the throng, and a roar of voices hailed him:

"Bacchus! Bacchus! ever kind and free! Yo! yo! Bacchus!"

Ah, but the hard-working people of Asia had to pay for all his follies, and many a poor cottager and artisan was forced to give heavy taxes to Antony's officers.

Making his way toward the East, he halted amid the mountains of Cilicia. There he expected to meet a lady of whom he had often heard, but whom he had never yet beheld. This was Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. She meant that he should see her in her glory, so she arranged to travel down a river to his camp. Her galley was a splendid boat: its stem was plated with gold, its sails were colored purple, and the oars were silver. Musicians played while the rowers rowed, and all kept time together. Under an awning of cloth of gold sat the lady of Egypt, fair as a Greek goddess, while maids who seemed to be lovely nymphs of the sea waited upon her, and pretty boys fanned her with long fans. The white smoke of incense curled over the galley, and smelled sweet. Multitudes of people ran along the banks of the river, gazing on the wondrous scene.

And when Antony saw her he loved her with a love that made him forget his own wife, and too often drew him away from his duty as a soldier and a Roman. When he stayed for a while in the city of Alexandria, at the mouth of the river Nile, wild and strange were his tricks and sports. At night he and Cleopatra would sometimes stroll through the streets, dressed as mere slaves, and act as if they were roysterers from a tavern.

One day Antony sat by a pool of water, fishing, and idle courtiers and ladies reclined in the shade of trees near by, and all the company were gay. Not many fish bit Antony's hook, and the queen smiled at his failure. So he bade a slave dive slyly into the water, and fasten a dead fish to the hook, so that Antony might appear to be catching something after all. This trick was repeated several times, amid the applause of the courtiers. But Cleopatra saw the deceit, and ordered one of her own servants to dive and fix a dried and salted fish to the lordly Roman's fishing-rod. Shouts of laughter pealed out when Antony drew up a fish that looked as foolish as it was salt. And Antony laughed at himself.

The next scene, however, was very different.

In this scene we find Antony once more a general, and leading his army of Romans into the far-off land of the Parthians. Often before had the Romans engaged in deadly struggle with these people of the East, and well did they know the terror of the Parthian darts. Antony was near to disaster more than once. His men were heroes. They marched a thousand miles into this savage district. They had to retreat through rocky passes, where no water was to be had. They beat off the enemy in eighteen fights. Antony lost twenty thousand infantry and four thousand horsemen. Thirst and sickness had killed many of these loyal soldiers. And when the army crossed a river which divided the Parthian region from Armenia, and they were free from the attacks of their fierce foes, they kissed the very ground for joy. But other troubles followed, for, in crossing the hills to the Mediterranean Sea, Antony lost some thousands of men in the deep snow-drifts, and through the bitter cold. In truth, he had not taken pains to carry on the war with care and prudence. He had hurried his men from place to place too swiftly, for he wished to get back to the Queen of Egypt. And thus he left his duty undone.

He had put away his wife as one whom he despised. The lady was sister to Octavius, and Octavius treated this act as a cause of war. In the port of Ephesus Antony placed his army in eight hundred and ninety ships, two hundred of these being sent by the queen. This huge fleet sailed to the island of Samos, and there waited for a while. All princes and governors in Antony's quarter of the empire were collecting heavy taxes, the money being dragged from the homes of the people in towns and villages. Many a heart was sore, because the war had taken the household savings. At Samos, however, enjoyment went on briskly. Stage-players and musicians amused the Court of Antony and Cleopatra, and roars of laughter were heard at the feasts.

Octavius brought his army across the sea to the coast of Epirus, opposite the western shore of Italy, and his navy prepared to meet the attack of Antony. The place of battle was called Actium. As Octavius went from his tent to the galley, he met a man driving an ass.

"What is your name?" he asked.

"Good Fortune."

"And the name of your ass?"


Glad was the heart of Octavius when he received this answer. It was a happy omen. He did indeed gain the victory, and a brass statue of the driver and the ass was afterward set up on that spot.

Antony's ships were large, and had on them big wooden towers, whence the men could shoot. About each large vessel of Antony's several of the ships of Octavius would gather close, and fighting went on furiously hand to hand.

In the midst of the tumult sixty ships suddenly left Antony's fleet. They were Cleopatra's. The queen was flying from the conflict. Antony again forgot his duty. He boarded a five-banked galley, and ordered the crew to sail in the track of the queen. He left his friends struggling, to live or die, as might happen. The queen raised a signal. Antony headed straight for her royal galley, and went on board; and the fleet sailed on to the south, and the noise of war was heard no more. Antony sat silent, his head between his hands. He felt ashamed and miserable. Neither he nor the queen spoke for a long time.

And so they came to Alexandria in Egypt. The stern victor followed. Soldiers and sailors alike deserted to Octavius. Antony saw that his cause was lost. He stabbed himself with a sword, and lay dying.

The queen had fled to a massive tower, where she had hidden her treasure of gold, silver, emeralds, pearls, ebony, ivory, and cinnamon. She and two women were alone. The dying Antony was borne to the gate of the fort. She would not open, but said that he should be hoisted on his couch by ropes to a window. The queen and her two companions strained hard at the ropes and drew him up.

Antony: I am dying, Egypt, dying;

Give me some wine, and let me speak a little.

And as she bent over him he murmured that, if he must be vanquished, he was willing that a Roman should vanquish him.

I lived, the greatest prince of the world,

The noblest, and do now not basely die.

Not cowardly put off my helmet to

My countryman; a Roman by a Roman

Valiantly vanquished. Now my spirit is going,

I can no more.


Thus he died. He had seemed so strong; and he was indeed strong in body. But he had not a strong will to go the way that was best for himself and Rome.