The story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony has captured people’s minds and imaginations for hundreds of years. It is a tale fraught with drama and sensation, of the exotic Egyptian queen and the powerful Roman general. One of the most powerful retellings of their tragic love affair was by William Shakespeare in the early 1600s. Since then, other authors and even musicians have commemorated them through literature and opera. During the past century, a number of films and television series based around the same story were also produced, showing that over the course of a thousand years, the story has still remained popular.
Cleopatra is believed to have been born in 69 BC in Alexandria, Egypt to powerful parents of Greek origin. Her family made up the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt for many years. For a while she ruled Egypt alongside her father and later became the country’s only ruler. Her first political alliance was with the famous Roman general, Julius Caesar, and after becoming his mistress, they had a son together.
Mark Antony, another key figure in the world of Roman politics, was a close ally of Caesar. He was born around 87 BC, making him almost twenty years senior to Cleopatra. He was born into a prominent political family, but spent his early adult years recklessly. In 49 BC, when a friend of his passed away, he took the man’s wife, Fulvia, as his own. After incurring a high level of debt in Rome, Antony fled to Greece and later joined the military. He moved upwards quickly, in part due to his familial connections with Julius Caesar. Along the way, he allied himself with Octavian, who later ruled the entire Roman empire.
When Julius Caesar was assassinated, Mark Antony was among three men who continued to rule Rome. To ensure Egypt’s loyalty to Rome, he sent for Cleopatra to discuss political alliances together. She refused him twice, and when she eventually did agree to meet with him, he was won over by her charm. They soon began a relationship and later moved back to Egypt, where they were married. As with her relationship with Caesar, this new marriage solidified Cleopatra’s union with Rome. Antony’s first wife, Fulvia, acted out in response to this by organizing an attack against Octavian and claiming she was acting on Antony’s behalf. Mark Antony tried to repair the damage by returning to her, although it was already too late and she died soon after. As an additional step, he married Octavia Minor, the sister of Octavian, to reunite the two families. Now it was Cleopatra’s turn to hear of Antony’s infidelity, mere weeks before delivering twin babies. Despite this, she continued to help and support Antony in his military endeavors. By this point, Antony had doubts about Octavian’s true loyalties; he left Octavia Minor (who was pregnant) and returned to Cleopatra. Enraged and determined to gain more power, Octavian publicly spoke out against Antony and Cleopatra and launched a military attack, while in Egypt, Antony officially declared his alliance and loyalty to Cleopatra. Afraid for her life, Cleopatra hid in her own burial tomb, amid rumors that she was already dead. With Octavian gaining a steady advantage in the fight, Antony killed himself with the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had done so too. With this knowledge, along with the fact that she would be made a prisoner of Octavian, Cleopatra also committed suicide. There are many different theories today as to how exactly she died, but the earliest records mostly agree that it was due to a self-inflicted cobra bite.
The immense turmoil of these events has captivated people for so many centuries. With such power struggles and changing alliances, both in love and war, it is no wonder that we continue to wonder about it today.
Have a look at the resources below to learn more about the tragic and tumultuous times of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
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