Great European of the Week: Mark Antony

Of all the empires of Europe, it is the Roman that has found the most lasting fascination among subsequent generations. There is indeed something of an epic quality handed down from the Hellenistic world, and one of the most epic figures of the age was Marcus Antonius – known to us as Mark Antony.

Mark Antony was one of the major actors in the last days of the Roman Republic

Mark Antony was one of the major actors in the last days of the Roman Republic

By the time Antony was born into an aristocratic family on 14th January 83 BC, the Roman empire stretched from Spain to the Middle East and was facing a period of protracted political crisis. Aspiring to life in the army, he spent time in the empire’s eastern territories before joining Julius Caesar, his cousin once-removed, to assist in the northern campaigns in Gaul. Antony supported Caesar throughout his consul- and dictatorships, and was forced to flee Rome temporarily after the plot to assassinate his cousin was carried out successfully.

However, as time would tell (and perhaps against the hopes of the conspirators) Caesar’s reign had fundamentally altered the balance of Roman politics. Just as Caesar and Pompey had wrestled for control of the capital and the empire, Antony now found himself in 43 BC facing off against Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian. And, as before, the attempt to establish governance by triumvirate failed. The eventual result was the death of Antony and Octavian’s ascent to become the first Roman Emperor, Augustus.

Antony did not become Rome’s ruler, but history has nevertheless romanticised his legacy. His love affair in the midst of political crisis with the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, has become legendary, the subject matter of one of Shakespeare’s greatest romantic tragedies. And whilst he might not have been emperor himself, three subsequent Roman rulers – the madman Caligula, the reflective Claudius and the psychopath Nero – were all his descendants. He remains one of the iconic figures of the Roman world.

Image: “Mark Antony, Musee de Augustins, Toulouse” courtesy of Claire Croft, released under Creative Commons licence 3.0 share alike

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