Cleopatra and Antony: ‘Till Death Do Us Part

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae : Painting by Frederick Arthur Bridgman | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Winner of the Fall 2017 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Political History”

Everyone can recall the famous words “‘Till Death Do Us Part.” For most, such vows are given at the beginning of a marriage that anticipates a long and happy life together. However, in the case Cleopatra and Mark Antony, it was a completely different story. Their marriage was brief and they had far less time together than they most likely wanted to have.

From the very beginning, Cleopatra was smart, cunning, witty, and independent, and most of all she was a natural leader. She knew how to get things done, and as the Queen of Egypt, this was a crucial skill to have. She also knew what to do in order to gain what she wanted. Of course, when it came to Antony, it was no different. Antony was a Roman politician and general, and Cleopatra knew that she wanted him and she knew just how to get him.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra : Painting by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema | 1883 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cleopatra and Antony met in 42 B.C.E., shortly after the death of Julius Caesar, who was also a former lover of Cleopatra. Not too long after Caesar’s death, many Romans started to suspect that Cleopatra had played a role in Caesar’s death, and among them was Antony. Being overly suspicious of her, Antony demanded to have a meeting with Cleopatra, and although she agreed to meet with him, she was making plans of her own on the side. When Cleopatra arrived in Tarsus, she came on a perfumed ship decorated with purple sails, she dressed as Venus, the goddess of love, and she welcomed Antony as Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Cleopatra “played him like an instrument,” so much that she was able to persuade him to come to her quarters for a feast.1 Cleopatra did things how she wanted to, and a prime example was her meeting with Antony. Soon after this encounter, Antony became completely taken by her; he was “amazed at Cleopatra’s wit as well as her good looks, and became her captive” as though he was a young boy in love.2 Not too long after, they became lovers. By that time, however, Antony had become the joint ruler of the Roman Empire, and his co-ruler, Octavian, was out to get him.3

Cleopatra and Antony, now lovers, were very open about their relationship. The two did not try to cover up or deny their relationship. Cleopatra invited Antony to banquets, whether it was political or not, and they both liked to play around with each other, even making bets about silly things. In one case, Cleopatra told Antony that she could spend 10,000,000 sesterces on a single banquet, which was an enormous sum. Curious, Antony wanted to see how she could possibly do it. He was skeptical about it, so he decided to bet that she could not do it. The next day, Cleopatra set before him a fine banquet. As the last course was being served, the servants put before her a single vessel with vinegar, making Antony even more curious as to what on earth she would do. She took a pearl earring and dropped it into the vinegar, and when it was completely melted, she swallowed it. Plancus, who was umpiring the bet, declared that Antony had lost the bet.4 Cleopatra loved to show off and prove just how smart and cunning she could really be. After losing the bet, Antony could not help but be even more captivated by Cleopatra, especially because of her brains. With every little thing that she did, when she showed him her smarts and cunning abilities, he grew more and more in infatuated with her.

Antony and Cleopatra (1891) | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By 40 B.C.E., while their relationship progressed, Octavian was making plans to destroy Antony. In order to give him another reason for hating Antony, Octavian was making an arrangement that he knew Antony would mess up. Octavian arranged for his sister, Octavia, to marry Antony. This supposedly would create a better bond between the two rulers, but Octavian knew that Antony would end up leaving Octavia for Cleopatra. In fact, he counted on it.5 And Antony did marry Octavia, but it was only for the sake of saving his relationship with Octavian. He really wanted to make it work so as not to have a war in the future. However, his efforts did not pay off, and when Octavia bore a girl from Antony, Cleopatra bore twins from him as well. In 32 B.C.E., Antony ended up leaving Octavia after all, choosing to be with Cleopatra. Octavian knew that Antony would eventually leave his sister, and everything seemed to be working according to his plan.

When Antony left Octavia, he went to Cleopatra, and they continued their romance in public, both of them free from any other romantic entanglements.6  They lived together, and they even had children together. They eventually even went on to become married, although some scholars dispute this, such as Sheila Ager. But there is no doubt that they lived as though they were married. In the words of the classical scholar Ager, Antony treated Cleopatra, “with whom he had long been madly in love…as his wife.”7 In any relationship, it is natural to bear children, and in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, it was no different. The couple had three children in total together, their names being Cleopatra Selene II, Alexander Helios, and Ptolemy Philadelphus. Antony even ended up giving the throne of Armenia to his son Alexander Helios.8

Rare coin of Antony and Cleopatra that was offered for sale in 2010 dating from 32 B.C. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Their happiness did not last long, however, due to Octavian’s wrath and power. Octavian realized the extent of influence that Cleopatra held over Antony, and he used that fully to his advantage.9 He was still trying to steal the power that Antony had, and he began to put a new plan in motion that would lead to a war and ultimately, to the demise of the two lovers. Octavian produced a document that many scholars now believe to have been a forgery. Octavian claimed that the document was Antony’s will. It stated that, in the event of Antony’s death, he would leave his part of Rome’s possessions in Cleopatra’s hands. Of course, when the Roman Senate heard this, they became outraged and declared war against both Antony and Cleopatra.10

In an attempt to win the war against Octavian, Antony took his forces to meet Octavian’s. The Battle of Actium then took place in 31 B.C.E. Antony was supported fully by Cleopatra. However, they lost the battle and the two lovers were forced to flee to Alexandria, Egypt.11 Eventually, despite all of their efforts, Octavian’s troops caught up with them in Alexandria. But Antony decided that he did not want to surrender, be captured, or be killed by Octavian’s troops, and that he would rather die his own way on his own terms. He ended up stabbing himself with his sword, committing suicide.

The Death of Cleopatra | Painting by Juan Luna | 1881 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

However, Cleopatra was captured by Octavian, who was planning to take her back to Rome as his prisoner. Cleopatra, being the strong-willed woman that she was, had other plans than to become a slave to Octavian, so she made arrangements for her own suicide. She had an asp, a snake with poisonous venom, “carried in to her with the figs and lay hidden under the leaves in the basket.”12 Once she had the asp, she clutched the hissing snake, mouth wide open, fangs visible, and then she pressed it to her breast, her throat muscles contracted in a vicious spasm, and eventually she died from the bite.13

Their romance may not have been long, only lasting from 42 to 31 B.C.E., It may not have been the type that everyone dreams of, and all of the events that occurred during their time together, especially at the Battle of Actium, may have led to their deaths. But it was a strong romance nonetheless.14 Cleopatra and Antony are remembered as a couple, “perhaps the most famous lovers from history.”15 The two lover’s tales are still told to this day and will continue to be told for generations to come.

  1. Ancient Civilizations Reference Library, 2000, s.v. “Cleopatra,” by Judson Knight and Stacy A. McConnell.
  2. Appian, The Civil Wars (Penguin Classics, 1996), 391.
  3. Ancient Civilizations Reference Library, 2000, s.v. “Cleopatra,” by Judson Knight and Stacy A. McConnell.
  4. Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Younger to Laberius, c. AD 95, in Cleopatra.
  5. Ancient Civilizations Reference Library, 2000, s.v. “Cleopatra,” by Judson Knight and Stacy A. McConnell.
  6. Sheila L. Ager, “Marriage or Mirage? The Phantom Wedding of Cleopatra and Antony,” Classical Philology 108, no. 2 (April 2013): 141. Ager writes: “No one disputes the existence of the private relationship between Antony and Cleopatra.”
  7. Sheila L. Ager, “Marriage or Mirage? The Phantom Wedding of Cleopatra and Antony,” Classical Philology 108, no. 2 (April 2013): 144.
  8. Sheila L. Ager, “Marriage or Mirage? The Phantom Wedding of Cleopatra and Antony,” Classical Philology 108, no. 2 (April 2013): 144.
  9. Encyclopedia Judaica, 2007, s.v. “Cleopatra,” by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik.
  10. Ancient Civilizations Reference Library, 2000, s.v. “Cleopatra,” by Judson Knight and Stacy A. McConnell.
  11. John Simkin, “Cleopatra,” Spartacus Educational, last modified August 2014.
  12. Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives: Life of Mark Antony (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 1920).
  13. Pat Brown, The murder of Cleopatra: history’s greatest cold case (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2013), 32.
  14. Thomas Burgon, “Observations on a coin of Cleopatra and M. Antony,” The Numismatic Chronicle 1, no. 1 (April 1839): 200.
  15. Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra (Yale University Press, 2010), 1.

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106 Responses

  1. This was a very interesting story, I originally heard a little bit about it during class and was delighted to find more about the story here. I never quite knew how close Anthony’s and Cleopatra’s relationship was or how Octavian was so power hungry until now. Its a shame that the two lovers could not share the life that they wanted and live long lives together.

  2. We actually recently talked about this in class so this was a good read. We talked about how it was so odd she just so happened to have a poisonous snake on her. It is something that personally I question, however it is sad she killed herself. It is sad they both did, especially because the had a love for one another that did not get to reach to its full potential. This article is very well written and I enjoyed reading it.

  3. This story, although tragic, is a beautiful love story. I find it invigorating that Octavian was so power-hungry, he went to whatever measures he could in order to prove Antony’s disloyalty. I don’t fully understand why Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves, a lot of it has to do with pride, but they refused to surrender and that is admirable.

  4. This article was really well written and tells a super good story. It really fascinated me since this is a story I haven’t heard in a very long time it was interesting to read about it and kind of getting to understand it all over again. The fact that this kind of story occured so long ago is unreal and hard to believe in some ways. It’s ironic that their love story was cut short due to a fued, that is probably something that occured so often back then, occurred even after them with Romeo and Juliet, and even occurred now. Super good article!

  5. This was such an amazing article! The writer did a great job setting the article up as a story, and I could really feel the suspense while reading it. I honestly can’t believe that this kind of love story really happened so many years ago because it seems unreal. It seems like a story that Shakespeare would write with all the love and death taking place. It was really cunning of Octavian to have his sister marry Antony, knowing full well that he was going to remain with Cleopatra.

  6. The article was so interesting that this is for the first time that I am reading or hearing about Anthony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra used her talents and skills for her own good but I would say she is not cunning, it is just that she has a great talent to influence others and bring her on her side. Mark Anthony’s and Cleopatra’s love story was also very unique.
    Congratulations for the great work!

  7. Everyone knows or learns eventually about the romance between Cleopatra and Antony but the story is never fully told or at least it was not to me and this article really captures the essence of their tragic love story. Love is always cut short by some sort of feud between two people and in this case it was Octavian who cut their story short because he wanted full control of the Roman Empire and this was his way of getting it. Great article very well organized.

  8. The article is so exciting. I only know Cleopatra as the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, yet not much about her personal life, especially her sad love story with Mark Antony, who was a Roman political and general. Their love was so beautiful; however, sadly, it did not last for a long time.

  9. I have heard about Cleopatra and Antony being together, but never to this detail. It’s interesting two see how two individuals who ruled different places united together and ruled together. It does sound like a movie, but with a tragic ending. Octavian did everything he could to take control away from Antony, and this is ultimately what led to the end of Cleopatra and Antony’s sad ending. It would have been interesting to see how history would have changed if they won that battle, and if they had managed to stay together.

  10. What a great article. I had never heard this story before, although I have heard of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony by name. This story is sad seeing as how all Cleopatra and Mark wanted was to live happily together. Greet is great motivator for wrong doing as said in the article Octavian wanted Anthony dead to gain full control of Rome.

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