Monday, February 1, 2016

History's Great Love Story: Cleopatra and Mark Antony

Alexander the Great (356 BC-323 BC) king of Macedonia conquered the Persian Empire. His victorious military campaigns created the biggest empire known to the ancient world. His untimely death in 323 BC made his generals fight among themselves for the piece of the empire that he had left behind. Ptolemy (367 BC-283 BC) one of his generals whom he made governor of Egypt, secured for himself Egypt and made himself its king or Pharaoh.

Ptolemy made Alexandria, a city founded by Alexander, as his capital. He and his descendants created a dynasty of Macedonian/Greek kings and queens that ruled Egypt for about three centuries. Under the Ptolemaic dynasty Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city that had Greek, Jewish and indigenous Egyptian population with Greek as the lingua franca. In its heyday the city rivaled Athens as the intellectual and cultural capital of the ancient world.

Like Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Ptolemaic kings adopted the native Egyptian costume, traditions and observation of religious holidays to gain the native Egyptians’ loyalty. They also followed Egyptian royal practices such as marriage between siblings to confine power within the ruling family. Although the Ptolemies attained a measure of success in dealing with their native Egyptian subjects, rebellion was not uncommon. During the Hellenistic Ptolemaic era a growing power, the Roman, loomed in the horizon and was set to replace the Hellenistic kingdoms as the leading power of the ancient world.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in a movie
Cleopatra VII (69 BC-30 BC), a queen from the Ptolemaic dynasty, was the daughter of Ptolemy XI I (112 BC-51 BC). When he died in 51 BC she became a queen or pharaoh of Egypt. But following Egyptian royal tradition she would co-rule with her younger brother Ptolemy XIII. Also in line with royal tradition Cleopatra should marry him.

The shaky arrangement of sharing power with another member of a family created problem in unity of leadership since Ptolemy XIII wanted to exercise power all by himself and drove his sister into exile in Syria. She gathered an army of men to reclaim her share of the Egyptian throne, but her effort and her strength were not enough to overcome Ptolemy XIII.

Roman consul Julius Caesar, who was in a military campaign, and Cleopatra came across each other in Syria. Eventually, they became lovers. Caesar sympathized with her cause and pledged to help her. In 47 BC Caesar launched a campaign in Egypt against Ptolemy XIII and killed him in battle. Caesar then reinstated Cleopatra as the queen or pharaoh of Egypt.

Again, following tradition, Cleopatra had to marry another younger brother Ptolemy XIV (59 BC-44 BC) as her co-ruler. After stabilizing the situation in Egypt she went to Rome to live as mistress of Caesar. She then bore him a child named Caesarion who would later become Ptolemy XV.

Mark Antony
In 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated. The vacancy in leadership and power had to be filled up with the three of the most powerful personalities in the Roman world namely Mark Antony (83 BC-30 BC), Gaius Octavius or Octavian (67 BC-14 AD) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (89 BC-12 BC); thus, the second triumvirate emerged. Mark Antony used the assassination of Caesar to turn the Romans against the conspirators which gave him a time for power in Rome. His greatest rival was Octavian, the grand nephew of Caesar and his designated heir. In 42 BC the triumvirate crushed the forces led by two assassins of Caesar, the Roman statesman Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, who sought the restoration of the Roman republic. 

After defeating the assassins of Caesar, the triumvirate met in Italy in 40 BC to arrange for the division of the Roman territories that they would control and govern and to avoid conflict with each other. Antony was given the Eastern portion which extended from the Adriatic Sea to the Euphrates River.

In the midst of the turmoil in Rome Cleopatra returned to Egypt with her child Caesarion. She did not involve herself in the war to help the triumvirate. To have a sole power in Egypt she caused the poisoning of Ptolemy XIV. 
Mark Antony who now controlled the Eastern part of the Roman territories summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus in Cilicia to explain her conduct during the civil war. However, in their meeting Mark Antony was captivated with her charm and beauty so that he felt in love with her. And they become lovers. His love absolved her of the shortcomings that she had made. He later accompanied her in her return to Egypt.

To secure his position in the east, Mark Antony must have goodwill with his strongest rival in the triumvirate, Octavian, the heir designate of Julius Caesar. Lepidus, the other triumvir was the weakest and the most submissive. To cement his political relation with Octavian, Mark Antony married the latter’s sister Octavia. After his marriage Mark Antony returned to Egypt to continue his life with Cleopatra. She gave birth to two children by him.

Mark Antony’s affairs with Cleopatra came to Octavian’s notice. This together with the former’s defeat in his campaign against the Parthians in 36 BC was used by him to excite the Romans against Mark Antony. Octavian’s rhetoric against his arch rival deepened Romans’ dissatisfaction to Mark Anthony. And it’s only a matter of time that the forces of the two triumvirs would clash for supremacy and another civil war would ensue. A victory against Mark Antony would give Octavian the opportunity to eliminate his closest and strongest rival. Octavian declared a war against Mark Antony in 32 BC. Upon knowing it, Mark Antony divorced Octavia.

The battle line was drawn. Octavian’s forces were pitted against those of Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. They finally met in 31 BC in Actium. Mark Antony fared badly against the forces of Octavian in the naval battle. Cleopatra, realizing the futility of further engagement withdrew her Egyptian fleet. Mark Antony followed her, and they fled to Alexandria.

The death of Cleopatra
The following year, as the troops of Octavian was marching toward Alexandria, Antony was deceived with a false report that Cleopatra had died. The information devastated Mark Antony. He reacted by killing himself with his sword. The unfortunate turn of events was a big blow to the Egyptian queen. This was aggravated by rumors that Octavian would display her body in Rome. Realizing that her end was now inevitable Cleopatra decided to end her life by poisoning herself. Traditions had it that she had her hand bitten by an asp.  

Caesarion or Ptolemy XV the son of Cleopatra by Julius Caesar and the last king of the Ptolemaic dynasty was put to death by Octavian. That act effectively put an end to Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty.  Octavian later became first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. He annexed Egypt as a Roman Province.