But the high life did not last long – trouble developed soon. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian faced the task of simultaneously providing land for the retirement of the pro- and contracaesarian veterans of the civil war – most of the latter having been pardoned by Caesar before his death. The choice was either to enrage the citizens by confiscating the required land or enrage the veterans, who then might easily decide to support a possible opponent of the triumvirate. Octavian resolved in favour of the veterans by confiscating no less than eighteen towns and their hinterlands for the soldiers – driving whole populations out – which, of course, resulted in civil unrest.
Enter Fulvia Flacca Bambula, widow of two former supporters of Caesar and third wife of Mark Antony (from 47 or 46 BC until 40 BC). She was, through her family connections, by far the most powerful woman in Roman politics ever, and managed even during Antony’s absence in Egypt to raise eight legions – formally commanded by Lucius Antonius, Mark’s younger brother – in Italy for a civil war against Octavius and his veterans, the so-called Perusine War. She apparently committed, however, the critical mistake of not telling her husband of her campagn and Anthony’s supporters in Gaul – for the want of orders – did not come to help the rebels. They subsequently lost the war and Fulvia fled to meet her husband in Athens. It would appear that the triumvir, upset with his dear wife, sent her into exile, where she dutifully died, and sailed back to Rome to mend affairs within the triumvirate.
Antony thus had to return to Rome on urgent business and Cleopatra was absolutely not amused when he – in a scheme to lessen tensions within the triumvirate – not only married Octavia, the elder sister of Augustus, in Rome, but also produced two daughters with her. Yet the Perusine War had critically lessened his subsequent political influence and Octavian gained the upper hand, first in Italy, and then in Gallia.
This was documented by a new agreement between the triumvirs in the Treaty of Brudisium, in which the West fell to Octavian and the East to Antony, while Lepidus received Africa Provincia as a sort of junior partner. In this context also fell the abovementioned marriage of Antony and Octavia.
Anthony then set out on his grand design, the war against the Parthian Empire – for which Cleopatra and Egypt had to pay a most substantial contribution. The less is said about the campaign the better – there were a few successes but defeats as well and the “Endsieg” remained a chimaera . At least the campagn had a somewhat positive end when Anthony conquered Armenia in 35 BC.
Yet in the aftermath of this success, Anthony developed a clear case of megalomania in addition to his infatuation, yes, besottedness with the queen. For a long time, he had followed a strategy to use the prestige and power of the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty to set up a hellenistic follow-up state to the Seleucid Empire in Asia and in 36 BC had presented a plan of making pseudo-donations to titular hellenistic rulers – client kings – which were to form buffer-states on the Parthian borders. At this time, Octavian had agreed and such donations were presented at Antiochia. In 34, however, as Jenny Hill describes …
“… During this triumph in Alexandria (for his victory in Armenia the preceding year) , Mark Antony proclaimed Cleopatra the ‘Queen of Queens’ and claimed that he, not Octavian, was the adopted son of Caesar. He also formally pronounced Cleopatra and Caesarion the joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus, Alexander Helios (his first-born son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Media, Armenia and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene II (his daughter, twin of Alexander) the ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus (his second son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia.”
These declarations – usually called the Donations of Alexandria – meant the end of the triumvirate and were an invitation to war – not because of the titular land grants but because of Antony’s claim of the Caesarian inheritance for Caesarion – not Octavian. This Octavian could not suffer. His claim to rulership was adoption by Caesar – through which he not only had inherited possessions and authority but also the loyalty of Caesar’s veterans and personal popularity. This status being called into question by a biological son of Caesar – by the richest woman in the world – he could not possibly survive. Antony’s declaration meant war – but it hadn’t yet begun
Sparks began to fly in earnest and a full-fleged propaganda war began. Octavian basically argued – very much in public – that Anthony was not only giving away the spoils of the Armenian war but also possessions that legitimately belonged to Rome and had been paid for by the blood of the legions, that Antony was but the “slave” of a foreign queen, to whom he had bequeathed huge properties – and that to his children, a most un-Roman idea. By his giving away provinces he also deprived deserving senators of proconsulships and was starting wars, as against Parthia and Armenia, without the senate’s consent. The pro-Antony faction in the capital accused Octavian of unspeakable crimes in Gallia and Spain in addition to homosexuality and cowardice. Par for the course, one could say.
In the eyes of most Romans, Octavians arguments were better and thus the political battle developed very much to his advantage. He was also able to rouse the feelings of the citizens of the capital in regard to the various executions without trial that had become standard procedure in the East – and of course in Egypt.
In 32 BC, the senate formally deprived Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra – not Anthony. It was very important for Octavius not to appear to start another civil war – thus Cleopatra – still very unpopular in Rome – was the perfect target. Yet the political majorities were not clear and almost half the senate left Rome and defected to Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.
War finally broke out, and the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, decided emphatically against the fortunes of the couple. In August 30, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa led an invasion of Egypt which the wrought-out country was powerless to resist.
Antony committed suicide in the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had done so already. When he, lethally wounded, was informed of the fact that she was still alive, he was brought to her and died in her arms.
Octavian captured Cleopatra but allowed her to bury him in the usual fashion. She was destined to be led through Rome in Octavians’ subsequent triumph and afterwards ritually murdered. Robby House writes:
Another prevalent form of execution was that of Strangulation. This was perhaps the most popular form of execution for Rome’s greatest enemies although in those cases it was usually referred to as ritualistic strangulation which would often occur after the vanquished and shackled enemy was paraded through the streets of Rome as part of a Roman Triumph. While many of the victims were publicly strangled in the Forum area, perhaps the most famous war trophy was that of Gallic Chieftain Vercingetorix, arguably Caesar’s greatest foe in the field of battle. Perhaps out of some sort of pity, Caesar had him strangled away from the eyes of Rome’s citizens inside the confines of his cell in the Tullianum Prison (a.k.a. the Mamertine Prison).
Cleopatra knew very well what Octavian intended, and hence, after a few failed attempts, she took her own life – either on August 10 or 12, 30 BC. The popular story goes that she died by the bite of an asp – an Egyptian cobra – but it is also quite possible that she took poison. Egyptian medicine knew many potent toxins, such as Hemlock, Opium, Belladonna or Aconitine, and combinations of them which yielded deadly potables or ointments. The snake story is, of course, the best copy, and hence it does not surprise that the subject was taken on by a plethora of painters, of which we show a few below.
And a few famous statues …
Thus ended the life of the last Pharaoh of Egypt.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)