The Life and Times of Mark Antony, Caesar's Trusted Aide
The final, turbulent days of the Roman Republic are some of the most thrilling pages of the world’s history, and also very important. In this period, many influential figures had their role to play in deciding the fate of the most powerful empire of the time. One such figure is the famed Mark Antony – a Roman politician, a general, triumvir, consul, tribune, and magister – a man of many skills and great influence.
A crucial cog in the complex mechanism of the downfall of the Roman Republic, Mark Antony was truly a man like no other. His story went from ambition to abyss and shows us a glimpse into the life and mind of a truly capable man, a man with ravenous political appetites. Join us today as we revisit the final days of the Roman Republic and retrace the steps of Mark Antony – one of history’s greatest figures.
From Trouble to Success: The Early Youth of Mark Antony
The Antonia gens, the lineage, and family into which Mark Antony was born in 83 BC, was ancient and distinguished, but even so, it was plebeian. This was the ‘lower’ social cast in ancient Rome, with the upper being the patrician caste. This included all the families of noble and historic backgrounds, while the plebs were all those Roman citizens of mostly ordinary distinguishing.
But even so, the Antonia gens was reputable and had several prominent figures in its past. Mark Antony’s own grandfather was Marcus Antonius Orator – one of the most skilled orators of his age, who was executed as a consequence of the first civil war of Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
Most accounts of Mark Antony’s life come from highly biased sources, mainly from Cicero and Plutarch. Marcus Tullius Cicero, his contemporary and a sworn enemy, compiled a very negative and one sided account of his life, often making it difficult to understand the true nature of Mark Antony. What we know from Plutarch and Cicero, is the fact that Antony spent his early youth without direct parental guidance.
A Roman marble bust of Mark Antony. (PericlesofAthens / CC BY-SA 4.0)
His father was called Marcus Antonius Creticus, and earned the nickname “Creticus” after he suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Cretan pirates. Either way, Creticus was generally considered as one of the typical inept and villainous public figures of the late Roman Republic . The man died in 71 BC, which left Antony and his siblings in care of their mother and her new husband.
The youth of Mark Antony was turbulent and rowdy, mostly due to a lack of proper parental figures. He spent his teenage years gambling, drinking, and living a generally promiscuous life. Cicero claims, although biased, that Antony was in a homosexual relationship with Gaius Scribonius Curio.
Either way, young Mark Antony, in consequence of this wild lifestyle, has amassed a large crippling debt, amounting to near six million sesterces – an enormous amount for the time. Thus, he decided to flee Rome in his early twenties. He fled to Greece in 58 BC, embarking on philosophical and rhetorical studies in Athens.
Born to Lead – Mark Antony’s First Military Successes
Merely a year later, Mark Antony would have his first taste of military command, when the managed to enter into service under a commander and governor Aulus Gabinius, when he was 26 years old. His service led him into Syria, where Gabinius was tasked with controlling Judaea and with conducting patrols of the troublesome Parthian borders.
It was during these early years of his military service that Mark Antony married for the first time. He married his cousin – Antonia Hybrida Minor – the daughter of his own uncle.
Bust of Antonia Hybrida Minor, Mark Antony’s first wife. (Jbribeiro1 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Under the leadership of Gabinius, Mark Antony garnered a good reputation, and became an active player in the next important campaign that Gabinius undertook. In 55 BC, he was tasked with intervening in the political affairs of Egypt. By that time, Rome had already indirectly controlled much of what went on in the Egyptian court.
The crisis consisted of a rebellion by Berenice, the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes. Ptolemy reached out to Gabinius in search of assistance, which the latter begrudgingly gave. It is said that Mark Antony, showing his ambitious and adventurous spirit, actively encouraged the interference of Gabinius into the affairs of the Egyptian ruler.
And thus, Mark Antony found himself in Egypt, eager to seek fame and exploits. He successfully captured Pelusium on his way to Alexandria. They eventually reached Alexandria, bringing the Egyptian crisis to an end, as Ptolemy XII Auletes captured and executed his own disloyal daughter and her followers.
Afterwards, Antony spent some time in Alexandria, where he became a popular figure. He was known as a handsome, athletic womanizer, a courageous leader of men, and a true soldier who led from the front.
Soon after their stay in Alexandria, Aulus Gabinius – and Antony with him – returned to Judaea to quell yet another Jewish rebellion. After this, they remained in Syria through the next year.
The Turbulent Conflict in Rome
All the while this occurred; Rome was enveloped in an active and turbulent political atmosphere. At the time when Antony was in Greece and entered into Gabinius’ service, Julius Caesar was in the midst of his activities in Gaul, and the fate of the Republic’s success resided in the hands of three influential men – Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gnaeus Pompey Magnus.
As a new conflict with the Parthian Empire loomed in the east, Crassus – desiring the wealth from such an undertaking – traveled over to Syria in order to replace Gabinius. The latter would return to Rome, only to be tried for his illegal activities in Egypt.
Up to a point of that conflict, until around 54 BC, Mark Antony was in Crassus’ service and achieved some great successes in his service as a young and up and coming commander. He shrewdly avoided returning back to Rome with Gabinius – he feared the consequences of the Egyptian affair, and also his creditors who still sought their owed sesterces.
Instead, the pages of history show Mark Antony on his way to join the military staff of Julius Caesar in Gaul. He avoided Rome and sailed straight to the port of Massilia (Marseilles). At this time, Caesar was in his sixth year of the Gaul campaign.
Antony’s service in Gaul is sparsely recorded, but it is clear that he rose to some prominence, being one of Caesar’s generals. During this time Antony and Caesar became close, which allowed Antony to rise further in his life and political career. This was clear when Caesar had sent him to Rome to enter the political sphere.
Mark Antony served Caesar during the Gaul campaign. The ancient Mediterranean in 50 BC at the end of Caesar's Gallic Wars, with the territory of Rome in yellow. (Coldeel / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The former even wrote to Cicero, urging him to support Mark Antony in his candidature to become a quaestor. Quaestors were public officials, 20 of which were elected each year, and they at once entered the Senate. Antony was successfully elected in 52 BC and became the member of the conservative Populares faction.
Afterwards, he rejoined Caesar, fighting in the famous Siege of Alesia, in which the Gallic leader Vercingetorix was defeated, and the Roman conquest of Gaul finally secured. After this achievement, Caesar promoted Antony to the rank of legatus – a high ranking military official.
Around this time, the shaky political alliance between Rome’s three leading political figures – Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar – called the First Triumvirate, was finally breaking at the seams. Crassus had died quite ingloriously in 53 BC, following a disastrous defeat against the Parthians.
This left only Pompey and Caesar in what was a tri-umvirate. The two of them already had a shaky relationship, ever since Caesar’s own daughter, Julia - who married Pompey to cement their political alliance – died at childbirth, causing much grief for Julius Caesar.
The gap between Pompey and Caesar grew larger, both politically and personally, leading to a turbulent series of clashes between their supporters in Rome, and eventual anarchy. Pompey, who was now elected a consul, eliminated Caesar’s supporters, to which the latter had to react.
To ensure a foothold against Pompey – in the political struggle – Caesar sent Mark Antony to act as his protector. He was elected a tribunus plebis – a people’s tribune – and could thus effectively place a veto on any actions that were aimed against Caesar.
In the same year of his election as tribune, the conflict between Caesar and Pompey grew out of proportions and became a civil war. Antony, who as a tribune offered a solution to resolve the conflict between the two officials, was expelled from the Senate by force on the order of Lucius Cornelius Lentulus and Marcus Porcius Cato – both staunch opponents of Caesar.
Mark Antony fled back to Caesar at the boundary formed by the Rubicon River. Upon hearing the news and seeing that there was no hope to avoid the conflict, Caesar used the unlawful expulsion of Antony from the Senate as the pretext to march his armies on Rome. On 10th January, 49 BC, he crossed the River Rubicon – an act that meant war.
In the ensuing operations, Mark Antony was made a governor of Italy and the commander of the army. During this time, it was stated that Antony was Caesar’s top general, and enjoyed a high reputation. It was clear that by this point Mark Antony had become a highly influential and famed person.
Eventually, Caesar managed to defeat Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Defeated and broken, the latter fled to Egypt where he was executed by Ptolemy XIII. Afterwards, Caesar proclaimed himself as dictator, with Antony being his second in command. In the following year, Caesar entered Egypt and deposed Ptolemy XIII, placing his daughter Cleopatra on the throne.
Mark Antony commanded the left wing of Caesar's army at the Battle of Pharsalus, the decisive battle of Caesar's civil war. (Kirill Lokshin / Public Domain)
Meanwhile, Mark Antony was left in Rome to govern and establish order. This was the first time it became clear that his personality was much more suited for adventurous military roles – he found himself increasingly incapable of governing and grew unpopular in Rome. His growing mistakes, wrong decisions, and a cooling of relations with Caesar, led to him being stripped of official positions, and his status was reverted to private citizen.
His Fate Without Caesar – Mark Antony’s Slow Downfall
After the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 BC, Mark Antony fled Rome, fearing for his life, as a supporter of the assassinated dictator for life. When the imminent danger was over, he returned and quickly became active. He seized the state treasury and received all of Caesar’s property and documents.
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Mark Antony fled Rome after the assassination of Caesar. (Hohum / Public Domain)
This made him effectively the heir of Caesar and the leader of the pro-Caesar faction. In the ensuing turmoil that arose in Rome, Antony managed to strike a deal between the Caesarian faction and the Liberatores who assassinated Caesar.
Afterwards, it was revealed that Caesar stated in his will that his heir would be Gaius Octavius. But it was in effect Antony that remained the most active political figure in the turbulent days of post-assassination Rome.
He brought a number of laws in effect, and mostly ignored Octavian as the true heir. He surrounded himself with a vast army of bodyguards and proclaimed himself as the true heir of Caesar. This, of course, led to a bitter conflict with the young, up-and-coming bright leader Octavius. Things quickly turned sour for Antony, and losing support, he was defeated in 43 BC at Mutina.
After this defeat, in a paradoxical turn of events, Octavius formed an alliance with his opponent Antony, leading to the creation of the Second Triumvirate – a three man dictatorship that was to rule the Republic for five years. They then focused on defeating the remaining Liberatores, which they finally managed in 42 BC, after the major victory at the Battle of Philippi.
Map of the Roman Republic after the establishment of the Second Triumvirate, formed by Octavius and Mark Antony. (ColdEel / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The next decade saw several major military campaigns undertaken by Rome, in which Antony was an active figure. But by 30 BC, the young Gaius Octavius – full of ambition and with the aim of becoming the sole ruler of Rome, placed great pressure on Mark Antony with the intent of overwhelming him in a political struggle.
Much like the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, the feud between Octavius and Antony quickly became an open conflict. Antony was now deeply involved with Egypt’s famed ruler Cleopatra, with whom he had a passionate romantic affair.
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Mark Antony meets with Cleopatra. (Botaurus / Public Domain)
A Lover’s Demise – Mark Antony Dies
The main body of that war was short and brutal, with the overwhelming successes of Octavius. Suffering major defeats, and with Octavius invading Egypt in 30 BC, Mark Antony chose a tragic end to his once glorious fate.
Backed into a corner with no valid exits, Antony and his mistress Cleopatra decided to take their lives. Wrongly believing that Cleopatra already took her own life, Antony stabbed himself with his own sword.
Not immediately perishing, he realized that Cleopatra was still alive, and was brought to her – dying in her arms. Heartbroken, Cleopatra killed herself sometime later that month, either by poisoning herself or allowing a deadly cobra to bite her.
Either way, this was a tragic end of the life of one of the most ambitious figures of Rome. Rising from a troubled youth to riches and political influence, Mark Antony showcased the true spirit of Rome – ambition, conquest, and military prowess.
But the adventurous spirit of this man was not cut out for the vicious political intrigues of the late Roman Republic. Where others chose power – he chose love. And as the final exclamation of his love, he took his own life.
Top image: Mark Antony's oration at Caesar's funeral. Source: Mharrsch / Public Domain.
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