Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

Antony and Cleopatra

The battles of Philippi and the death of Brutus and Cassius put an end to the republican party to whom Cæsar owed his death. The whole realm was handed over to the imperial Triumvirate, who now made a new division of the vast Roman world. Antony took as his share all the mighty realm of the East; Octavius all the West. To Lepidus, whom his powerful confederates did not take the trouble to consult, only Africa was left.

The after-career of Antony was a curious and impressive one. He loved a bewitching Egyptian queen, and for a false love lost the vast dominion he had won. The story is one of the most romantic and popular of all that have come to us from the past. It has been told in detail by Plutarch and richly dramatized by Shakespeare. We give it here in brief epitome.

Fourteen years previously Antony had visited Alexandria, and had there seen the youthful Cleopatra, then a girl of fifteen, but already so beautiful and attractive that the susceptible Roman was deeply smitten with her charms. Later she had charmed Cæsar, and now when the lord of the East set out on a tour of his new dominions, the love queen of Egypt left her capital for Cilicia with the purpose of making him her captive.

It was midsummer of the year 41 B.C. when Antony arrived at Tarsus, on the river Cydnus. Up this stream to visit him came, in more than Oriental pomp, the beautiful Egyptian queen. The galley that bore her was gorgeous beyond comparison. Its sails were of Tyrian purple; silver oars fretted the yielding wave, while music timed their rise and fall; the poop glittered with burnished gold; rich perfumes filled the air with fragrance. Here, on a splendid couch, under a spangled canopy, reclined Cleopatra, attired as Venus, and surrounded by attendants dressed as Graces and Cupids. Beautiful slaves moved oars and ropes, and the whole array was one of wondrous charm. We cannot do better than quote Shakespeare's vivid description of this unequalled spectacle:

"The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Burned on the water; the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water that they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,

It beggared all description; she did lie

In her pavilion-cloth-of-gold of tissue—

Out picturing that Venus where we see

The fancy outwork nature; on each side her

Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,

With divers-colored fans, whose wind did seem

To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool."

The people of Tarsus ran in crowds to gaze on this wondrous spectacle, leaving Antony alone in the Forum. At the request of Cleopatra he came also, and was so captivated at sight that he became her slave. He forgot Rome, forgot his wife Fulvia, forgot honor and dignity, through his wild passion for this Egyptian sorceress. Following her to Alexandria, he laid aside his Roman garb for the Oriental costume of the Egyptian court, gave way to all Cleopatra's pleasure-loving caprices, and lived in a perpetual round of orgies and festivities, heedless of honor and duty, and caring for naught but love and sensual enjoyment.

Intoxicated with pleasure, Antony did not know what risk he ran. Shortly before Octavius had been spoken of as a boy, whom it would be easy to manage and control. He was feeble and sickly,—so much so, indeed, that just at this time his death was reported in Rome. But the "boy" was ambitious, astute, and far-seeing, and Marc Antony was descending to ruin with every step he took in his career of folly and profligacy.

The history of the succeeding years is long, but must here be made short. The two lords of Rome were changed from friends to enemies by the act of Fulvia, the wife of Antony. Octavius had married her daughter Claudia, and now divorced her. Anger at this, and a hope of winning Antony from the seductions of the Egyptian queen, caused her to organize a formidable revolt against Octavius. She succeeded in raising a large army, but Antony was still too absorbed in Cleopatra to come to her aid, and Agrippa, the able general of Octavius, soon put down the revolt.

Then, when it was too late to help her, Antony awoke from his lethargy, and sailed to battle with Octavius. He besieged Brundusium. But Fulvia had died, the soldiers had no heart for civil war, and the great rivals again made peace. Antony married Octavia, the sister of Octavius, they divided the Roman world between them as before, and Rome was made happy by a grand round of games and festivities.

For three years Antony remained true to his new wife, and aided Octavius in putting down the foes of Rome. Then, during a campaign in Syria, his old passion for the fascinating Egyptian returned, he called Cleopatra to him, dallied with her instead of prosecuting his march, and in the end was forced to retreat in haste from the barbarian foe.

For three years now Antony was the willing slave of the enchanting queen. The courage and stoical endurance of the soldier vanished, and were replaced by the soft indulgence of the voluptuary. The rigid discipline of the camp was exchanged for the idle and often childish amusements of the Oriental court. Cleopatra enchained him with an endless round of pleasures and profligacies. Now, while in a fishing-boat on the Nile, the queen amused him by having salted fish fixed by divers on his hook, which he drew up amid the laughter of the party. Again she wagered that she would consume ten million sesterces at a meal, and won her wager by drinking vinegar in which she had dissolved a priceless pearl. All the enjoyments that the fancy of the cunning enchantress could devise were spread around him, and he let the world roll unheeded by while he yielded to their alluring charm.



Antony posed at festive tables in the character of the god Osiris, while Cleopatra played the role of Isis. He issued coins which bore her head and his. He gave away kingdoms and principalities in the East to please her fancy. It was her hope and aim to lead her yielding lover to the conquest of Rome, and to rule as empress of that imperial city.

But the madness of Antony led to destruction, not empire. The story of his doings was repeated at Rome, where the voluptuary lost credit as Octavius gained it. Antony's friends urged him to dismiss Cleopatra and fight for the empire. Instead of this the infatuated madman divorced Octavia and clung to the Egyptian queen.

This act led to an open rupture. Octavius, by authority of the senate, declared war, not against Antony, but against Cleopatra. Antony was at length roused. He gathered an army in haste, passed to Ephesus and Athens, and everywhere levied men and collected ships. A last and great struggle for the supreme headship of the Roman world was at hand.

Octavius was not skilled in war, but he had in Agrippa one of the ablest of ancient generals, and was wise enough to trust all warlike operations to him. Antony had strongly fortified himself at Actium, on the west coast of Greece, while the strong fleet he had gathered lay in its spacious bay. Here took place one of the decisive battles of the world's history.

Antony had made the fatal mistake of bringing Cleopatra with him. Under her advice he played the part of a poltroon instead of a soldier. His chief officers, disgusted by his fascination, deserted him in numbers, and, yielding to her urgent fears, he resolved to fly with the fleet and abandon the army.

In this act of folly he failed. A strong gale from the south kept the fleet for four days in the harbor. Then the ships of Octavius came up, and the two fleets joined battle off the headland of Actium.

The ships of Antony were much larger and more powerful than those of Octavius. Little impression was made on them by the light Italian vessels, and had Antony been a soldier still, or Cleopatra possessed as much courage as guile, the victory might well have been theirs. But battle was no place for the pleasure-loving queen. Filled with terror, she took advantage of the first wind that came, and sailed hastily away, followed by sixty Egyptian ships.

The moment Antony discovered her flight he gave up the world for love. Springing from his ship-of-war into a light galley, he hastened in wild pursuit after his flying mistress. Overtaking her vessel, he went on board, but seated himself in morose misery at a distance, and would have nothing to do with her. Ruin and despair were now his mistresses.

Their commander fled, the ships fought on, and yielded not till the greater part of them were in flames. Before night they were all destroyed, and with them perished most of those on board, while all the treasure was lost. When the army heard of Antony's desertion the legions went over to the conqueror. That brief sea-fight had ended the war.

For a year Octavius did not trouble his rival. He spent the time in cementing his power in Greece and Asia Minor. Cleopatra tried her fascinations on him, as she had on Cæsar and Antony, but in vain. She sought to fly to some place beyond the reach of Rome, but Arabs destroyed her ships. At length Octavius came. Antony made some show of hostility, but Cleopatra betrayed the fleet to his rival and all resistance ended. Octavius entered the open gates of Alexandria as a conqueror.

The queen shut herself up in a building which she had erected as a mausoleum. It had no door, being built to receive her body after death, and word was sent out that she was already dead.

When these false tidings were brought to Antony all his anger against the fair traitress was replaced by a flood of his old tenderness. In despair he stabbed himself, bidding his attendants to lay his body beside that of Cleopatra. Still living, he was borne to the queen's retreat, where, moved by pity, she had him drawn up by cords into an upper window. Here she threw herself in agony on his body, bathed his face with her tears, and continued to bemoan his fate until he was dead.

She afterwards consented to receive Octavius. He spoke her fairly, but she was wise enough to see that all her charms were lost on him, and that he proposed to degrade her by making her walk as a captive in his triumph.

With a cunning greater than his own, Cleopatra promised to submit. She had no apparent means of taking her life in the cell, every dangerous weapon was removed by his orders, and he left her, as he supposed, a safe victim of his wiles.

He did not know Cleopatra. When his messengers returned, at the hour fixed, to conduct her away, they found only the dead body of Cleopatra stretched upon her couch, and by her side her two faithful attendants, Iris and Charmion. It is said that she died from the bite of an asp, a venomous Egyptian serpent, which had been secretly conveyed to her concealed in a basket of fruit; but this story remains unconfirmed.

Plutarch tells the story thus: "But when they opened the doors they found Cleopatra stark dead, laid upon a bed of gold, attired and arrayed in her royal robes, and one of her two women, who was called Iris, dead at her feet, and the other woman (called Charmion) half dead, and trembling, trimming the diadem which Cleopatra wore upon her head.

"One of the soldiers, seeing her, angrily said to her, 'Is that well done, Charmion?' 'Very well,' said she again, 'and meet for a princess descended from the race of so many noble kings.' She said no more, but fell down dead, hard by the bed.

"Now Cæsar, though he was marvellous sorry for the death of Cleopatra, yet he wondered at her noble mind and courage, and therefore commanded that she should be nobly buried and laid by Antony."

Thus ends the story of these two famous lovers of old. Octavius, afterwards known as Cæsar Augustus, reigned sole emperor of Rome, and the republic was at an end. He was not formally proclaimed emperor, but liberty and independence were thereafter forgotten words in Rome. He ended the old era of Roman history by closing the Temple of Janus, for the third time since it was built, and by freely forgiving all the friends of Antony. He had nothing to fear and had no thirst for blood and misery. Base as he had shown himself in his youth, his reign was a noble one, and during it Rome reached its highest level of literary and military glory.