5 Fascinating Facts About Mark Antony

5 Fascinating Facts About Mark Antony

Patrick Lynch - February 28, 2017

Marcus Antonius, commonly known as Mark Antony, is one of the most complex and controversial characters in the history of the Roman Republic. He was born in Rome in 83 BC and his mother was a distant cousin of Julius Caesar. Antony was a politician and soldier who played a huge role in Rome’s transformation from Republic to Empire, although he didn’t live to see the latter.

Antony is known for being a loyal follower of Julius Caesar, and he fought beside the legendary leader in Gaul and during the Civil War against Pompey. Upon the death of Caesar, Antony became locked in a bitter struggle for power with Octavian. In his final years, Antony gained fame for his relationship with Cleopatra of Egypt. Together, they fought against Octavian only to suffer a decisive defeat at Actium in 31 BC. Tragically, he committed suicide in 30 BC in the belief that his lover had done the same. However, she was still alive, so he was taken to see his wife only to die in her arms.

A great deal has been written about this complicated individual but how much do you really know about Mark Antony?

5 Fascinating Facts About Mark Antony
Portrait of Julius Caesar by Jason Zhou. Putty and Paint

1 – He Wasn’t Really Julius Caesar’s Right-Hand Man

If you’ve read anything at all about Mark Antony, you’ll have seen him referred to as Caesar’s right-hand man. While he liked to boast about this supposed fact, the reality was very different. While he was also an administrator and statesman, Antony’s real skill lay in the military field, and he was an excellent soldier and leader. However, loyalty wasn’t one of his traits.

Before serving with Caesar, Antony worked with different masters in the east and seldom stayed anywhere too long. His primary political patron was Clodius Pulcher, a man known for helping anyone if the price was right. Indeed, Antony’s service under Caesar was provided by Clodius. Caesar knew of Clodius’ reputation so while he had no problems using him, he wasn’t foolish enough to expect loyalty.

Antony excelled as a military commander while serving Caesar but his poor performance as an administrator angered his master who could never fully trust him. Antony was handed governorship of Italy while Caesar was away in Egypt but made such a mess of the role that his master returned home to relieve Antony of office.

It seems increasingly likely that Titus Labienus was Caesar’s, actual right-hand man. Labienus was one of his chief lieutenants in Gaul and performed his role as Tribune of the Plebs in a manner that pleased his commander. While Antony was hopeless in the role of administrator, Labienus excelled and became known as a significant political force. Ultimately, Labienus betrayed Caesar by joining Pompey in the Civil War. Caesar learned his lesson by never trusting one of his men so implicitly. From that point onwards, he ensured several people held important positions, but none held the prominence enjoyed by Labienus.

The incident where Antony was removed from his post in Italy was the beginning of the break up in his relationship with Caesar. Antony’s attitude towards his leader took a turn for the worse, and Caesar quickly grew to distrust his lieutenant. Perhaps this is why Antony never told Caesar that he was approached by conspirators. While he refused to play a role in Caesar’s assassination, his inaction sealed his master’s fate. As he would be the most senior lieutenant left alive in the event of Caesar’s death and his leader’s factions would certainly retaliate, perhaps Antony did nothing because he realized he would become the leader of the Caesarian faction?

Sources suggest he tried to save Caesar but arrived too late to prevent the Ides of March from occurring as senators prevented him from attending the meeting. He fled from Rome dressed as a slave only to return after reaching a compromise with the men who killed Caesar. At his former master’s funeral, Antony gave a rousing speech that energized the crowd to the point where a riot broke out at the assembly. The homes of conspirators were burned to the ground and Cassius, and Brutus left Rome.

5 Fascinating Facts About Mark Antony
Cicero. Foreign Affairs

2 – He Hated Cicero

Cicero’s speeches denouncing Antony are among the most famous in Roman literature. It is clear that the great orator hated Antony, but it was probably a case of mutual loathing. When Antony’s father died, his mother married P. Cornelius Lentulus, who acted as a paternal figure, and the two apparently enjoyed a good relationship. Cicero ordered the execution of Lentulus for his role in the Cataline Affair in 63 BC. Clearly, this is something Antony never forgot, and Cicero ultimately paid for this deed, and his subsequent opposition, with his life. It is also worth noting that Cicero referred to Antony’s father as incompetent and corrupt and also wrote that his nemesis had a homosexual affair.

Cicero favored Pompey during the Civil War, but his support was apparently not too strong because Caesar forgave him upon his victory. Cicero returned to Rome after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC upon receiving a pardon from Caesar, and he even wrote a letter to Varro in 46 BC where he outlined his strategy for working with Caesar. As a constitutionalist, Caesar’s dismantling of Roman politics and his subsequent role as dictator appalled Cicero. Nonetheless, he was shocked by the Ides of March and took no part in the conspiracy.

With Caesar dead, a struggle for power ensued, and Cicero saw Octavian as a man who could restore the Republic. Cicero accused Antony of taking liberties with Caesar’s wishes in his role as unofficial executor of his former leader’s will. In 44 and 43 BC, Cicero made a series of 14 speeches (called the Phillippicae) denouncing Antony. He made the first of these speeches on September 2, 44 BC where he criticized the legislation of Publius Cornelius Dolabella and his new enemy.

At this point, Cicero and Antony were the two most prominent political figures in Rome, and the orator’s public standing had never been higher. Cicero delivered the 14th Philippic on April 21, 43 BC and in it, he demanded that Antony be declared a ‘hostis’ or enemy of the state. Unfortunately for Cicero, Antony mended his relationship with Octavian and formed the Second Triumvirate with his new ally and Lepidus.

The new Triumvirate started proscribing their enemies, and Cicero was one of their prime targets. Although he still enjoyed public sympathy to the point where people refused to give away his whereabouts, Cicero’s luck came to an end on December 7, 43 BC when he was seen fleeing from his villa in Formiae; his goal was to escape to Macedonia.

According to legend, Cicero leaned over to help the soldiers chop his head off properly, and a man named Herennius killed him first and chopped his head off afterward. Antony ordered his men to cut Cicero’s hands off and, along with his head; they were nailed on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum. Cassius Dio claimed that Fulvia, Antony’s wife at the time, pulled out Cicero’s tongue and stabbed it with a hairpin.

5 Fascinating Facts About Mark Antony
Statue of Plutarch. The Bully Pulpit

3 – He Loved Wine & Women

Although not a great deal is known about Mark Antony’s personal life, most sources agree that he was a womanizer with a love of wine. In the HBO Series ‘Rome’, he is portrayed as a sex addict with alcoholic tendencies who was prone to murderous rages. The trouble is, history is written by the winners so in the wake of his defeat to Octavian, he was always likely to be thoroughly vilified by Roman literature and he most certainly is.

The main source for Antony’s personal life comes from Plutarch, and his account is pretty damning. According to Plutarch, Antony had a thirst for wine that bordered on alcoholism. While other texts appear to confirm that the commander did indeed enjoy his wine a little too much, most of the accounts of womanizing come from Plutarch who usually brings it up in the context of his drinking.

Perhaps the main reason why we associate Mark Antony with womanizing behavior is the idea that he went ‘all in’ with Cleopatra. The thing is, his primary reason for his relationship with the Egyptian queen was probably monetary gain. It is easy to paint him in a negative light by suggesting that he risked his reputation and life to cavort with a ‘foreigner.’ In reality, Cleopatra was one of the wealthiest people in the world, and it made sense to spend time with her to raise the military forces he needed to take on Octavian.

Mark Antony was apparently an exceptionally good-looking man; even Plutarch describes him as having a ‘bold and masculine look, which is found in the statues and portraits of Hercules.’ As a result, he was typically surrounded by beautiful women which means he might not have been fixated on Cleopatra’s alleged beauty; at least not initially (His actions at Actium suggest he had long since fallen hopelessly in love with Cleopatra). Incidentally, we have no idea what Antony looked like! Octavian ensured that there are no definitive images of his enemy and none of the busts attached to the commander are 100% attributed to him. It should be noted; the fact he had multiple wives does little to dissuade us from the idea that he was a womanizer.

5 Fascinating Facts About Mark Antony
Cleopatra. YouTube

4 – He Had Numerous Wives

It wasn’t unusual to have more than one wife in Ancient Rome, but as he did with so many things in his life, Mark Antony overdid it. Most sources suggest he married four times but there might have been a fifth wife. In the Philippics, Cicero suggests that Antony married a woman called Fadia who was the daughter of a wealthy freedman. There is doubt over this union since Antony was a member of the Plebeian nobility and as such would be considered as marrying beneath himself. If he did marry Fadia, it would have been to help manage his considerable debt. According to Cicero, Fadia and all her children died by 44 BC.

His first official wife was his cousin Antonia. It was a move designed to help with his career, and they were apparently married in 55 BC. They had one daughter together and divorced in 47 BC after he accused her of adultery with Dolabella, Cicero’s son-in-law. Antony clearly enjoyed marriage because Fulvia became his next wife within a year of his divorce.

Fulvia was twice divorced before her latest marriage (both men were friends of Antony) and became a major influence on his political decisions. When Antony was in Egypt cavorting with Cleopatra, Fulvia conspired with his brother, Lucius Antonius, against Octavian. Although he denied knowledge of the incident, sources suggest he knew of the plan only to repudiate it later on. She met Antony in Athens but his anger over her conduct caused her to become grief-stricken, and this was apparently a major factor in her death.

Whether he would admit it or not, Fulvia’s death in 40 BC came at an ideal time for Antony as it enabled him to marry Octavia, sister of Octavian, as part of reconciliation between the two men. They married in the same year Fulvia died, and Octavia bore him a daughter soon after. Octavia acted as a peacemaker between her husband and brother and remained in Rome to look after his kids when he fought against the Parthians. Although they didn’t see each other again, they stayed married for another five years until 32 BC when Antony and Octavian were at war.

Cleopatra was his final wife, and he acknowledged the fact in 36 BC. As she was a foreigner and Antony was still married to Octavia, his marriage to the Egyptian queen remained unrecognized in Rome. He probably married Cleopatra to benefit from her vast wealth; Octavian didn’t provide him with the troops and resources he needed for his campaign in Parthia, so he looked elsewhere. They had three children together and remained married until his suicide after defeat at the Battle of Actium.

5 Fascinating Facts About Mark Antony
Statue of Augustus. Wikimedia

5 – He Was an Outstanding Military Commander

Even though he seemingly operated as ‘commander for hire’ under the patronage of Clodius, it shouldn’t detract from his excellent record. While he lacked the leadership and utter brilliance of Caesar (like most generals in history), he was a fine general in his own right. Antony’s military career began in Syria when he was 22 years of age, and he was quickly elevated to the position of cavalry commander in Judaea and Egypt. Antony served in this role with distinction under the leadership of Aulus Gabinus from 57-54 BC. He became a staff member under Caesar during his Gallic campaign and impressed his leader enough to receive the title Tribune of the People in 52 BC. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as good a politician or administrator as he was a soldier, so he never excelled in any non-military role.

Antony stood by Caesar and vetoed the Senate’s attempt to strip his leader of command in 49 BC. He sided with Caesar during the Civil War and played a key role in the decisive battle of Pharsalus where he commanded the left-wing. He received the title co-consul in 44 BC, and when Caesar died in the same year, Antony took control of his assets. He had mixed success when fighting Octavian initially but ultimately joined him and Lepidus in the Second Triumvirate. Antony won a series of victories against the men who murdered Caesar culminating in the decisive Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

The latter part of his military career was less successful. A failed campaign in Parthia was followed by ultimate defeat to Octavian at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. His apparent love for Cleopatra caused Antony to flee after her when the Egyptian left the battle early. It was a terrible move, out of character for such a brave warrior, and sealed his fate.

Even Plutarch praised Antony’s military skills. Perhaps his greatest strength was his ability to react positively to adversity. Whenever he was in dire straits and backed into a corner, he found a way to get out of trouble. When his army was ravaged with famine, when he didn’t have any allies and when the going got tough, Antony was one of Rome’s best generals. His troops adored him because he treated them as colleagues and friends rather than merely nameless soldiers. The Roman people liked him because he showcased many leadership traits. This makes his actions at Actium all the more galling.

His greatest weakness was his complete love of luxury. Plutarch called this a moral failure; when Antony was winning, he was lured by the trappings that accompanied it. Bizarrely, when everything went wrong, he was a brilliant leader. When things were going well, he became complacent and soft. Maybe the luxury he enjoyed in Egypt eroded his abilities, so when things got tough at Actium, he fled. Sadly, he is remembered more for this and his failures than the many successes he enjoyed in his career.