Marc Antony: Brilliant but Flawed Commander.
By David Trumbull
By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2005
Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.
The story of Marc Antony (83-30 B.C.) is familiar to many readers from the Shakespeare plays and Hollywood movies. Early on Antony shows his soldiering skill and his imposing appearance his a great natural asset in commanding men (Life of Antony, 3-4). He rises as one of Julius Caesar's most trusted, and most effective, lieutenants in the grand struggle between Caesar and Pompey as Rome breaks into two factions in 50 B.C. (Life of Antony, 5).
The famous funeral oration over the bloody body of Caesar, following the assassination on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., is, as most readers know, the high-water of Antony's career.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!
All which excited the people to such indignation, that they would not defer the funeral, but, making a pile of tables and forms in the very market-place, set fire to it; and everyone, taking a brand, ran to the conspirators' houses, to attack them. –Life of Antony, 14.
But equally famous is Antony's precipitous downfall: his love of Cleopatra, leading to his destruction at Actium by Octavian. Is Antony then a great man or a failure? If a central task of the leader is the creation of ordered society, then character matters, and, surely, order hardly proceeds from a man whose own life is disordered by sensuality. So, what does Plutarch believe we can learn from this flawed life? Much.
To return to Plutarch's narration of the life of Antony: he tells us that Antony's familiarity among the soldiers made him popular with the men; but his undisciplined and dissolute life brought both Antony and Caesar into ill repute.
Antony was not long in getting the hearts of the soldiers, joining with them in their exercises, and for the most part living amongst them, and making them presents to the utmost of his abilities; but with all others he was unpopular enough. He was too lazy to pay attention to the complaints of persons who were injured; he listened impatiently to petitions; and he had an ill name for familiarity with other people's wives. In short, the government of Caesar got a bad repute through his friends. And of these friends, Antony, as he had the largest trust, and committed the greatest errors, was thought the most deeply in fault. –Life of Antony, 6.
Antony...lost his favor with the commonalty while...his general course of life made him, as Cicero says, absolutely odious, utter disgust being excited by his drinking bouts at all hours, his wild expenses, his gross amours, the day spent in sleeping or walking off his debauches, and the night in banquets and at theaters, and in celebrating the nuptials of some comedian or buffoon. It is related that, drinking all night..., on the morning, having to harangue the people, he came forward, overcharged as he was, and vomited before them all, one of his friends holding his gown for him. –Life of Antony, 8.
Caesar overlooks Antony's faults as his skill and courage are indispensible. With Antony as his best officer, Caesar defeats Pompey's army at Pharsalia, 48 B.C. Caesar pursues Pompey to Egypt and sends Antony to Rome with full powers to rule in his absence (Life of Antony, 7-8). When Caesar is assassinated Antony has his moment of destiny. Brutus and the conspirators flee and Antony seizes the opportunity to become chief man in Rome. Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus form the second triumvirate and set out to rule Rome. But at the moment when, as the senior member of the triumvirate, he could have achieved greatness Antony again indulges his weakness for dissolute living.
This triumvirate was very hateful to the Romans, and Antony most of all bore the blame, because...he was no sooner settled in his affairs, but he returned to his luxurious and dissolute way of living. Besides the ill reputation he gained by his general behavior...[His house ] was filled inside with players, jugglers, and drunken flatterers, upon whom were spent the greatest part of the wealth which violence and cruelty procured. Life of Antony, 21.
Antony then travels to Asia where he further indulges in sensuality with excesses that can be maintained only by imposing ruinous taxation (Life of Antony, 24). While in Cilicia in 41 B.C. Antony meets Cleopatra; his passion for her will be his undoing.
Such being his temper, the last and crowning mischief that could befall him came in the love of Cleopatra, to awaken and kindle to fury passions that as yet lay still and dormant in his nature, and to stifle and finally corrupt any elements that yet made resistance in him, of goodness and a sound judgment. –Life of Antony, 25.
Philotas, a physician of Amphissa, who was at that time a student of medicine in Alexandria, used to tell my grandfather Lamprias, that, having some acquaintance with one of the royal cooks, he was invited by him, being a young man, to come and see the sumptuous preparations for supper. So he was taken into the kitchen, where he admired the prodigious variety of all things; but particularly, seeing eight wild boars roasting whole, says he, "Surely you have a great number of guests." The cook laughed at his simplicity, and told him there were not above twelve to sup, but that every dish was to be served up just roasted to a turn, and if anything was but one minute ill-timed, it was spoiled; "And," said he, "maybe Antony will sup just now, maybe not this hour, maybe he will call for wine, or begin to talk, and will put it off. So that," he continued, "it is not one, but many suppers must be had in readiness, as it is impossible to guess at his hour." –Life of Antony, 28.
Antony dotes on Cleopatra and puts out his legal wife Octavia, the sister of Octavian. Antony has two children, Alexander and Cleopatra, by Cleopatra. And when Antony gives Cleopatra large territories conquered by Rome, the Roman people begin to grumble. Octavian seizes on the ill treatment of his sister Octavia to quarrel with Antony. Octavian reads, in the Senate, the legal will of Antony, revealing that Antony desires to be buried in Alexandria, not Rome. That was the final outrage and Rome declares war on Cleopatra and Antony in 31 B.C. (Life of Antony, 36-37 and Life of Antony, 54).
Led on to his destruction by Cleopatra, Antony begins to prepare for open war with Octavian, but he allows his infatuation with Cleopatra to cloud his otherwise clear military judgment. Antony has commanding superiority in numbers of infantry and he is about matched with Octavian for cavalry; although Antony has more ships available for this engagement, Octavian has overall sea superiority. The truth is that Antony has neither the skilled sailors nor the sort of ships needed for victory. Although Antony has the land advantage over Octavian, he choses to fight at sea to please Cleopatra. All the while Cleopatra's ship lies at some distance, ready, according to Plutarch, to flee should the battle go badly for Antony. Octavian lures Antony into open sea where, with his smaller more easily maneuvered ships, Octavian can surround Antony's fleet (Life of Antony, 60).
According to Plutarch neither side was gaining a clear advantage, when both were surprised to see Cleopatra's ships quit the scene. Antony abandons the fight and his men and follows Cleopatra. He boards Cleopatra's ship; sits in silence for three days. When Antony receives word that his forces are defeated by Octavian at the Battle of Actium, September 2, 31 B.C. (Life of Antony, 67-68), Antony and Cleopatra indulge in a final debauch of laugh-and-love-for-tomorrow-we die.
Canidius now came, bringing word in person of the loss of the army before Actium. All this, however, seemed not to disturb him, but, as if he were glad to put away all hope, that with it he might be rid of all care, and leaving his habitation by the sea, which he called the Timoneum, he was received by Cleopatra in the palace, and set the whole city into a course of feasting, drinking, and presents. Life of Antony, 71.
Cleopatra locks herself in her tomb and has word sent to Antony that she is dead. Antony falls on his sword but lingers long enough to go to the tomb of Cleopatra. The dying Antony is raised by ropes to Cleopatra's tomb and dies in her arms (Life of Antony, 76). The story of Antony and Cleopatra ends with the Queen of the Nile destroying herself with fatal bite of an asp.
Plutarch tells us that Antony's children from Cleopatra and his first wife Fulvia were reared by Octavia; they intermarried with the Imperial family and produced rulers of Rome, including the disastrous Nero, who like his forefather Antony, unwilling or unable to bridle his passions, ruined himself and very nearly ruined Rome.
The life of Antony stands as a cautionary tale of the peril of not controlling the passions. Antony was blessed with many advantages. His mother Julia was of the great family of the Caesars; his grandfather Antony had been a famous orator. Indeed, Antony is credited as being descended from the legendary hero Hercules. He had no lack of mentors and must have received the classical education of a young Roman aristocrat. So what went wrong? Plutarch traces Antony's weakness for senuality to his early corruption early by bad associates.
Antony grew up a very beautiful youth, but, by the worst of misfortunes, he fell into the acquaintance and friendship of Curio, a man abandoned to his pleasures; who, to make Antony's dependence upon him a matter of greater necessity, plunged him into a life of drinking and dissipation, and led him through a course of such extravagance, that he ran, at that early age, into debt to the amount of two hundred and fifty talents. For this sum, Curio became his surety; on hearing which, the elder Curio, his father, drove Antony out of his house. After this, for some short time, he took part with Clodius, the most insolent and outrageous demagogue of the time. –Life of Antony, 2.
For an Antony–good looking, rich, well-connected, successful in battle, beloved of his men–high command comes with an easy self-assurance. That can be a great asset as well as a grave threat. For such a man, unless he subdue his lusty spirit through introspection, reflection on the fleeting nature of fortune and fame, and constant striving for the good rather than the merely expedient or pleasant, will have little resource for withstanding the temptation to give in to desires and passions. Thus, as Plato said, great natures produce great vices as well as virtues (Life of Demetrius, 1).
Here Ends Trumbull's Summary of the Life of Marc Antony.