Antony, Octavian, Cleopatra: The End of the Republic

Antony, Octavian, Cleopatra

March 17, 44 BCE: The Senate, unable to take a consistent stand after Caesar's assassination, decreed that the assassins were to be immune from punishment but that Caesar's acts as head of state, including his will, were to be ratified, and he was to have a public funeral. At the funeral (March 20), Brutus spoke first; however, when Antony spoke, reading the conditions of Caesar's will (leaving 300 sesterces to each citizen living in Rome and his magnificent gardens to the people as a public park), the mob was so inflamed that Caesar's body was burned then and there in the Forum and riots began against the conspirators. Within a month, the conspirators had left the city for the East because of their unpopularity in Rome. Led by Brutus and Cassius, they began to raise money and an army in Greece, allying with Sextus Pompey, now a pirate chief.

coin of Octavian and Caesar
coin minted by Octavian with head of Caesar to emphasize his adoption

April, 44 BCE: Caesar's nineteen-year-old great-nephew, Gaius Octavius Thurinus, entered Rome to claim his inheritance. Caesar's will had named him chief heir and adopted him as his son, making his name now Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (so modern historians usually call him Octavian until he received the title Augustus in 27 BCE). His claim was not well received by Antony, but after many machinations on both sides they eventually reconciled, at least on the surface.

November, 43 BCE: Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus formed an official three-man government, called “the second triumvirate”; in order to silence opposition and raise money, they carried out bloody proscriptions, executing significant numbers of senators and equestrians, including the great orator Cicero, against whom Antony was particularly vindictive.

October, 42 BCE: Antony and Octavian, leading 19-20 legions, met the 19 legions of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in Greece. In the first battle, Antony's forces defeated Cassius's troops, but Brutus's forces defeated those of Octavian. Cassius, not knowing about Brutus's success, committed suicide. Brutus did not follow up his advantage immediately, however, and a second battle was fought three weeks later, with Brutus facing the combined forces of Antony and Octavian. When Brutus was defeated, he also committed suicide, marking the ultimate end of the Republican cause.

42 BCE: After the victory at Philippi, Octavian returned to Rome, but Antony left on a triumphal tour through Greece and the East; he planned to organize and supply an army to invade Parthia, the military campaign Caesar was preparing before he was assassinated.

41 BCE: Antony ordered Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus to answer a charge that she had secretly aided Cassius before Philippi (probably a pretext to get Egyptian aid for his Parthian campaign). She sailed to Tarsus on a magnificent barge, dressed as the goddess Venus in a tableau, and utterly captivated him, especially by catering to his taste for banquets and carousing. He soon followed her back to Alexandria, delaying his Parthian campaign, and ignoring the fact that his wife, Fulvia, and his brother, Lucius, were trying to maintain his influence in Italy against the growing power of Octavian.

coin of Antony and Octavia
coin of Antony and his wife Octavia

40 BCE: The situation in Italy was deteriorating and a new civil war seemed imminent, so Antony returned to Italy. Fulvia died before he got back, and Octavian and Antony agreed to blame their disagreements on her. They concluded a pact at Brundisium in which they agreed that Octavian would be supreme in the West (Italy, Europe) and Antony in the East (Greece, Asia, Egypt); the pact was sealed by the marriage of Antony to Octavia, Octavian's sister, who had been recently widowed. Antony and Octavia lived in Athens from 40-37, and she bore him two daughters, both named Antonia. Antony issued coins that celebrated his marriage with Octavia and his reconciliation with Octavian (though note how this coin contrasts the virility and maturity of Antony with the boyish appearance of Octavian). To learn more about Octavia, visit the Portico of Octavia in Region IX south of VRoma, either via the web gateway or the anonymous browser.)

37 BCE: Antony finally departed for his Parthian campaign, but en route he met Cleopatra in Syria, and she presented him with the twins she had borne him after he left for Brundisium; he acknowledged the children, naming the boy Alexander Helios and the girl Cleopatra Selene. Antony married Cleopatra according to the Egyptian ceremony, and she conceived another child, later named Ptolemy Philadelphus. The Parthian campaign was an unmitigated disaster, with no military gains and the loss of an estimated 20,000 men. When Octavia returned from Rome to Athens to meet her husband with gifts and supplies, he ostentatiously bypassed her and Greece (which was a direct and public insult to his wife), traveling directly to Alexandria and Cleopatra. This coin, minted under the joint authority of Cleopatra and Antony in Alexandria, indicates that the rulers were not attempting to idealize or romanticize their appearance but rather to stress her royal authority and his leadership.

32 BCE: Antony made the “Donations of Alexandria,” giving away many territories of the Roman East to Cleopatra and her children, declaring Caesarion Caesar's legal heir, and formally divorcing Octavia, sending an official notice to Rome that she and his children were to leave his house. These actions were very unpopular in Rome, and the Senate, “of its own accord,” swore an extraordinary oath of loyalty to Octavian.

dupondius from Nemausus with Augustus and Agrippa
coin with back-to-back heads of Agrippa and Augustus and chained crocodile, celebrating victory at Actium

31 BCE: The Senate outlawed Antony and declared war on Cleopatra. The climactic battle occurred at sea, off the promontory of Actium in Greece. Octavian's general was the shrewd Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and Antony was hampered by defections among his officers and the presence of Cleopatra on her flagship, which his Roman soldiers deeply resented. Agrippa easily outmaneuvered Antony, and Cleopatra was the first to flee, taking her sixty Egyptian ships with her. Antony followed her in a single ship, leaving the rest of his fleet to be destroyed; this Wikipedia map shows the location and naval deployment of this battle.

30 BCE: After plans to regroup their forces in Alexandria failed, since most of Antony's remaining soldiers deserted to join Octavian, Antony committed suicide with his own sword. The circumstances surrounding his death are not certain, but several versions state that Cleopatra sent him a message that she had killed herself; when he then stabbed himself, she had him raised to her in the her tower, and he died in her arms. In any case, it is definite that she lived for some weeks after Antony's death and met Octavian on at least one occasion. Malicious sources report that she was trying to seduce Octavian also, but it is more probable that she was attempting to secure the best possible situation for her children. When she realized that Octavian was determined to parade her as his captive in his triumphal parade in Rome, she tricked him into believing that she would do this, and then had an asp smuggled in to her and died of its bite (or perhaps she took poison), along with two of her serving women (see Steven J. Willett's translation of Horace's Ode 1.37, a poem whose paradoxical images of Cleopatra reveal the fear and ambivalence she inspired among Romans).

27 BCE: Octavian formally “handed over” his power to the Senate, which then “voluntarily” gave it back to him in a new legal form, officially declaring him the princeps (leading citizen), instead of dictator, king, or triumvir; he was henceforth called Augustus (“the revered one”). In effect, absolute power was in Augustus's hands, but this was concealed by his use of the old governmental forms; although Augustus's rule is often termed a principate, he was actually the first of the Roman emperors, and the beginning of the Roman Empire is officially dated at 27 BCE. (This coin celebrates Octavian's victory at Actium and another commemorates his subsequent triumph.)

coin of Octavian with trophy coin of Octavian with captured Egypt
coin of Octavian with military trophy coin of Octavian with crocodile commemorating his victory over Egypt


Barbara F. McManus, The College of New Rochelle
revised August, 2009