Marcus Antonius, Pharaoh?
by: Q. Pomponius Atticus
If Augustus had seen the Hollywood movie Cleopatra (1963), there’s a great chance he would’ve been delighted to see how the official propaganda he initiated against Marcus Antonius has withstood the ages. For both in the movie and in many of the ancient sources we have at our disposal, we get a very similar image of Marcus Antonius, a blatantly stereotyped, one-dimensional image, precisely as a propagandist would design it to slander his opponent.
Writers serving under Augustus and his right hand Maecenas describe Antonius as an oriental, power-mad tyrant, a decadent, cruel, unrestrained, violent madman. Another smart ploy the Augustan propaganda machine applied to blacken Antonius’ reputation was to portray him as a languid slave of Cleopatra, the notorious femme fatale who had already conquered Rome’s greatest conqueror, Iulius Caesar before; the bad image of the decadent East, culminated in the person of Cleopatra, became associated with Antonius.
A clear dichotomy was thus shaped : the Apollonian, Italic leader Augustus against the Dionysiac, Eastern tyrant Antonius. When Augustus’ army triumphed over Antonius and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE, the former propaganda became official history and in that form, it has survived the ages until now.
For now, let us try to look at what might have been beyond that veil of propaganda, for other sources, in the first place Ploutarchos, give us shallow hints of who the real Marcus Antonius might’ve been.
As a young man already, Marcus Antonius was fascinated with Greece and the East in general. As almost every Roman aristocrat in his time, he had completed his higher studies in rhetoric, literature and philosophy in Athens, where he was well-loved by the population, as he adapted many Greek customs (one of them growing a beard, which was totally un-Roman), and did the city many good services.
His philhellenism was rewarded with the official citizenship of both Athens and Alexandria, that other great cultural center in the Greek-speaking world. He always felt much akin to the Greeks in spirit and even began to identify himself with their god Dionysus in his years as a student there. The accusation that the evil queen Cleopatra turned the decent Roman boy Antonius into an Eastern despot is therefor clearly a falsehood.
Ploutarchos, with his keen psychological insight, further presents us an insightful analysis of Antonius’ character, often contradictory with what the ‘official truth’ tries to make us believe.
As a moralist, Ploutarchos naturally denounces Antonius’ apparent love of luxury and his licentiousness, but he greatly nuances his reputation as an irresponsible autocratic despot. Among other things, he praises Antonius as a great leader of men, a sympathetic, complex personality and a brave general who truly lived with and among his soldiers and shared their lot.
His final conclusion is that Antonius could’ve been a great leader, but was ultimately defeated due to his uncontrolled and passionate nature. This vision of Antonius as a tragical hero was later adopted by Shakespeare in his play Antony and Cleopatra.
But what were Antonius’ ambitions then? Certainly not conquering Rome, as Augustus proclaimed, for during the second triumvirate, which consisted of Augustus, Antonius and the much less important Lepidus, the only thing Antonius asked for was to be consul together with Augustus, and to have enough legions to defend his beloved East, which was the area assigned to him by the initial treaty that formed the basis of the 2nd triumvirate. In this treaty, Augustus was given the West to command, Antonius the East and Lepidus the South (Africa).
Further, Antonius always claimed he had no ambition whatsoever to conquer Italy and establish himself as sole ruler of Rome; he loved the East too much to be sincerely interested in becoming the leader of his homeland. And as it seems, his actions were consistent with his words, for instead of marching against Rome he made war with the Parthians, so as to extend his part of the empire even deeper into the East.
As the arguments pile up, we see few reasons not to believe that his only wish was to expand and rule the part of the empire that had been given to him, and that he was not the licentious, evil knave Augustus wanted the Populus Romanus to believe.