One of the central figures in the drama of the collapse of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire was Marc Antony.
He was a rather odd figure in Roman History. He came from a notable but pleblean family.
Neither was he wasn’t a great general. Yet he was at the right place at the right time, and his actions played a huge part in the republic’s collapse.
Learn more about Marcus Antonius, aka Marc Antony, and how he found himself at the center of Roman history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The man that history knows as Marcus Antonius is better known in the English-speaking world as Marc Antony, not to be confused with the Latin Grammy Award-winning musical artist and former husband of Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony.
The reason we call Marcus Antonius Marc Antony is totally due to William Shakespeare, who refers to him as such in his play, Julius Caesar. Because he is so much better known by his Shakespeare moniker, for the rest of this episode, I’ll simply refer to him as Marc Antony or just Antony.
Marc Antony was born into a noteworthy family, the gens Antonia, on January 14, 83 BC. A Roman gens was sort of an extended family who all claimed the same ancestry and had the same nomen, referring back to my episode on Roman naming conventions.
There were both patrician and plebian wings of the Antonia gens, and he came from the plebian wing of the family.
His father was Marcus Antonius Creticus, who was, by all accounts, an incompetent general who was given the task of clearing the Mediterranean of pirates. He attacked the island of Crete, which had formed an alliance with the pirates and was defeated. His cognomen “Creticus” means “conquerer of Crete” and was given to him sarcastically.
His grandfather was a gifted orator named Marcus Antonius, who was killed by Marius during the first Roman civil war.
His mother was a woman named Julia, who was Julius Caesar’s distant third cousin.
Marc Antony’s father died in Crete when he was only nine years old.
His mother remarried a man named Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, who was later executed on the order of Cicero due to his involvement in the Cataline Conspiracy, on which I’ve also done a previous episode.
Marc Antony spent his adolescence with little parental supervision and got into trouble. He was associated with a street gang in Rome led by the Roman politician Publius Clodius Pulcher. He also happened to accrue a significant gambling debt.
In 58 BC, he fled to Athens, where he studied philosophy, but he was really there to avoid his debtors.
In 57 BC, he joined the army under the command of Aulus Gabinius, the proconsul of Syria, and was given command of his cavalry.
Here, he found great success on and off the battlefield. He assisted Gabinus in restoring Ptolemy XII to the throne of Egypt as a client king of Rome.
While he was in Egypt, he briefly met the 14-year-old daughter of Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra.
While he was in Egypt, Rome came under the control of the First Triumvirate, which consisted of Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. One of the men they used to bring order to the streets of Rome was Publius Clodius Pulcher, in whose gang Marc Antony once belonged.
It was through him that Antony managed to secure a position on the staff of Julius Caesar in 54 BC, right in the middle of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.
Under Caesar, Antony proved himself to be an exceptional military leader. He was well-liked by his men, and he developed a friendship with Caesar that would last his entire life.
In 52 BC, Caesar sent him to Rome so he could begin his political career. He was elected to the position of quaestor, and his assignment was to serve Caesar, so he went back to Gaul. There, he fought with Caesar at the Battle of Alesia.
I’ve done a previous episode on the Battle of Alesia, one of the most improbable and incredible battles in all of history.
After his year as quaestor was over, Caesar appointed him Legate, a position equivalent to a high-ranking general, which gave him command of two full legions.
While serving under Caesar, the situation in Rome was falling apart. Crassus, one of the triumvirs, had been killed in battle, and Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter, Julia, died in childbirth.
Pompey was elected sole consul in 52 BC. Eventually, as relations between Caesar and Pompey worsened, Antony was sent back to Rome in 49 BC. He was elected Tribune of the Plebs, from where he could veto any legislation and protect Caesar.
That year, things fell apart, and while Antony tried to negotiate a compromise on Caesar’s behalf, the senate refused to budge, eventually causing Antony to fee to Caesar’s army on the banks of the Rubicon River, the traditional boundary of Italy.
Caesar marches into Rome unchallenged and then leaves Rome to take on the forces of Pompey and the Senate, leaving Antony back with the title of propraetor and governor of Italy.
Antony was, by all accounts, a pretty awful administrator, but he did represent Caesar’s interests while he was away.
Caesar took care of business in Spain and then went to Greece, where Pompey and the senate’s forces had gathered. However, Caesar didn’t have enough ships, so he only took two legions with him to Greece and left his five other legions with Antony in Italy.
Antony managed to get the other legions across the Adriatic Sea to Greece by tricking the commander of Pompey’s fleet.
In Greece with Caesar, he was clearly cemented as Caesar’s number two man, and he served with distinction there, including leading troops on the battlefield in the decisive Battle of Pharsalus in August of 48 BC, where Caesar defeated Pompey.
After the battle, Caesar returns to Rome, gets named dictator, and appoints Antony as his Master of the Horse, which is basically like being vice-dictator.
Caesar then left Rome in 47 BC to go to Egypt to pursue Pompey and left Antony in Rome to take care of matters there. While in Egypt, he placed Cleopatra on the throne, had an affair with her, and they had a child together by the name of Caesarion
Once again, Antony proved himself to be a poor and unpopular administrator. This led to a rift with Caesar, and when he came back to Rome, he stripped Antony of all official titles.
Despite the rift and several years on the sidelines, Antony remained loyal, which paid off in the year 44 BC, when he was named consul alongside Caesar, who also happened to have been appointed dictator for a 10-year term.
This was later upgraded to dictator for life when their terms began as consul. During the festival of Lupercalia in February, Antony offered Caesar a crown during one public display, which Caesar famously turned down, indicating he refused to be a king.
However, others saw it differently, and on March 15, 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated on the floor of the Senate.
The assassination of Caesar ended one chapter in the life of Marc Antony and began another.
With Caesar dead and him the only sitting consul, Marc Antony found himself in a leadership position without being subordinate to Caesar.
Antony found himself the leader of the Caesarian forces and managed to negotiate an agreement with the Senate faction that had Caesar killed. With an army outside the city, he negotiated terms very favorable to himself.
When Caesar’s will was read, it was discovered that his heir and posthumously adopted son was his great-nephew, Octavian.
Part of the agreement with the Senate was that Caesar would get a public funeral, which Antony presided over. He gave a fiery eulogy, which set the crowd to riot and attack the homes of the conspirators, causing many of them to flee Rome.
Shakespeare captured this event in the famous speech that begins, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ear.”
Antony and Octavian soon found themselves in conflict as to who was going to head the Caesarion faction, and Antony’s forces were actually pushed back out of Italy.
However, it soon became obvious that as Antony and Octavian were fighting with each other, the forces of the Senat were waiting for the two to weaken each other so they could attack the survivor.
Antony and Octavian put aside their differences and joined forces, creating what was known as the Second Triumvirate, along with one of Caesar’s generals, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Antony and Octavian sealed this pact by Antony marrying Ocativan’s sister, Octavia.
The three divided up the administration of Rome between them. Lepidus got North Africa, Octavian got Italy and the western provinces, and Antony got the wealthy eastern provinces.
It was during this period of consolidating power that the triumvirate issued a proscription list, confiscating the property of anyone on the list who could be legally murdered. This was when Antony got his revenge on Cicero, who had killed his stepfather.
The Triumvirate Forces were victorious over the Senate at the Battle of Phillipi in 42 BC.
With the assassins defeated, Lepidus was soon pushed aside, leaving Rome divided between Octavian in Rome and Antony in Alexandria, where he had begun an affair with Cleopatra.
Antony and Cleopatra had three children together, and they married in an Egyptian ceremony without Antony first divorcing Octavia.
Relations between Octavian and Antony worsened, and each knew that there would eventually be a war, but neither wanted to be the one to strike first.
Each knew that no one wanted another Civil War, and so didn’t want to be seen as the aggressor.
When the Roman lands were split between them, Antony thought he got the better deal because Octavian was stuck dealing with all the domestic problems of Rome. However, it also gave Octavian the opportunity to issue propaganda against Antony without any rebuttal.
Antony was painted as someone who had gone native, adopting Egyptian customs and abandoning Rome. Much of this was spun in such a way as to make it seem like it was Cleopatra’s fault and Antony was just a victim.
What caused a break with Rome and a turn in public attitudes towards Antony was a proclamation made by Antony and Cleopatra in 34 BC, known as the Donations of Alexandria. In it, Antony gave several Roman provinces to his and Cleopatra’s children.
Eventually, this became too much even for Antony’s supporters, several of whom defected to Octavian’s side. They told him about Antony’s will, which had been filed at the Temple of Vesta in Rome.
In 32 BC, Octavian managed to get hold of the will and read it publicly. In it, Antony confirmed giving away Roman provinces and expressed a desire to be buried in Egypt, not Rome.
This outraged Romans such as the Senate stripped Antony of all official positions and declared war on…..Cleopatra. Octavian didn’t want this to be seen as another civil war.
In 31 BC, Octavian forces met the forces of Antony and Egypt at the Battle of Actium, a naval battle that took place off the coast of Greece.
The battle was decisively won by Octavian, causing Antony to flee back to Egypt, with most of his remaining Roman forces deserting him.
Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Alexandria, where Octavian’s forces pursued them.
Knowing that the end was near, with the people and army of Rome having turned against him, he took his own life in 30 BC by falling on his sword.
The rise and fall of Marc Antony is an unusual tale in history.
During his life, he showed displays of brilliance, like when he manipulated the Senate after the assassination of Caesar. He managed to maneuver them into giving him exactly what he wanted so he could cause them to flee the city.
He showed moments of brilliance on the battlefield, having commanded legions under Caesar during some of his greatest battles.
At the same time, he was also an inept administrator and, in the end, alienated his own troops and the Roman public.
In the centuries that have passed since his death, Caesar, Octavian/Agustus, and Cleopatra have all been the subject of plays and movies. Marc Antony has a supporting role in all of their stories, yet there are seldom any stories where he is the central character.
Much of the reason we know him today is because he was at the right place and the right time. He joined Caesar’s army at its peak and managed to work his way into a position of authority just when Caesar increased his power over all of Rome.
Historians have painted Marc Antony as someone ruled by his emotions and passions, who was ultimately out-maneuvered by his rival and former partner Octavian.
Marc Antony’s role in the rise of Julius Caesar and as one of the principal characters after his assassination gives him a central role in the death of the Roman Republic.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
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