Part II. Roman 12. The Tragedy of Antony And Cleopatra
I 1607 Shakespeare returned to North's edition of Plutarch, from which eight years before he had taken material for Julius Caesar. Using Plutarch's biography of Mark Antony, Shakespeare wrote what was virtually a continuation of the earlier play, and made it the most Plutarchian of the three plays he derived from that source.
Antony and Cleopatra begins almost at the point where Julius Caesar had left off.
Brutus and Cassius have been defeated at the double battle at Philippi in 42 b.c. by the troops under Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar. These two, together with Lepidus, the third member of the Triumvirate (see page I-301), are now in a position to divide the Roman realm among themselves.
Octavius Caesar took western Europe for his third, with the capital at Rome itself. It was what he could best use, for it left him with the Senate and the political power-center of the realm. Octavius was a politician and the battles he could best fight (and win) were battles of words with the minds of men at stake.
Lepidus was awarded the province of Africa, centering about the city of Carthage. It was an inconsiderable portion for an inconsiderable man, and Lepidus was and remained a mere appendage of Octavius Caesar. Lepidus grew important only when someone was required to act as go-between where the two major partners were concerned.
Mark Antony had the East and this suited him very well. Except for the days immediately following Julius Caesar's assassination, Antony had never gotten along well in Rome. He preferred the Eastern provinces, which were far the richer and more sophisticated portion of the Roman realm. Mark Antony was a hedonist; he knew how to appreciate pleasure, and in the great cities of the East he knew he would find it.
He was also a soldier who welcomed war, and in the East he knew he would find that too. The Parthians were to be found there. Eleven years before they had destroyed a Roman army (see page I-257) and for that they had never been punished. Antony hoped to deliver that punishment.
... this dotage of our general's...
All Antony's plans went awry, however, when in 41 b.c. he encountered Cleopatra, the fascinating Queen of Egypt. He fell sufficiently in love with her to forget the necessity of beating the Parthians and to neglect the threat of the slow, crafty advance of Octavius Caesar in Rome.
The love story of Antony and Cleopatra has captured the imagination of the world, and has left generations sighing. (And never has it been as ap-pealingly and as majestically described as in this play.) In its own time, however, the affair must have been viewed with impatience by those soldiers who were bound to Antony and who found themselves neglected, their chance for loot and glory vanishing.
The play opens in Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt Two soldiers, Demetrius and Philo, come onstage. Philo, who knows the situation, expresses his soldierly displeasure to Demetrius, who apparently is a newcomer fresh from Rome. Philo says:
Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front.
- Act I, scene i, lines 1-6
The expression "tawny front" means "dark face" and this represents a misconception concerning Cleopatra that has been common in later times and that can never be corrected, in all likelihood. Because she was the ruler of an African land and because she was an "Egyptian," she has been presumed to be dark, dusky, swarthy, even perhaps part Negress. She may have been dark, to be sure, but she was no darker, necessarily, than any other Greek, for she was not of Egyptian descent.
Egypt had become the kingdom of Cleopatra's forebears back in 323 b.c. when Alexander the Great had died. Alexander had conquered the entire Persian Empire, of which Egypt was part, and after his death one of his generals, Ptolemaios (or Ptolemy, as he is known in English), seized Egypt. In 305 b.c. Ptolemy adopted the title of long and from then on, for two and a half centuries, his descendants, each named Ptolemy, ruled Egypt.
Ptolemy I, the first of the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt, was a Macedonian, a native of the Greek-speaking kingdom of Macedon, lying just north of Greece proper. All the Ptolemies married Greeks and all the rulers of Ptolemaic Egypt, down to and including Cleopatra, were completely Greek. Cleopatra's father had been Ptolemy XI, the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Ptolemy I. There had been a number of Ptolemaic queens, by the way, who bore the name of Cleopatra (a perfectly good Greek name meaning "glory of her father," and not Egyptian at all). The one in Shakespeare's play is actually Cleopatra VII, but she is the only one remembered today and the name without the numeral is enough. There is no danger of confusion with any of the first six.
The notion of Cleopatra as a dark African is carried on further as the speech continues, with Philo saying of Antony:
His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy's lust.
- Act I, scene i, lines 6-10
The word "gypsy" means simply "Egyptian" here, but although Cleopatra was an Egyptian by nationality, she was not one by descent. Indeed, the true Egyptians were a "lower class" to the ruling Greeks, as the natives of India once were to the ruling British. Cleopatra would undoubtedly have been terribly offended to have been considered an "Egyptian."
Furthermore, the word "gypsy" by Shakespeare's time had come to be applied to a wandering group of men and women of unknown origin. Popular rumor had them coming from Egypt, hence "gypsy," but it is much more likely they came from India (see page I-149). To call Cleopatra a "gypsy," then, is to call up visions of swarthy women in markedly non-Western costume, both to Shakespeare's audience and our own.
The triple pillar of the world. ..
Antony, Cleopatra, and their train of maids and eunuchs are entering now, and Philo says of Mark Antony, more bitterly still:
Take but good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transformed Into a strumpet's fool.
- Act I, scene i, lines 11-13
Antony is one of the three members of the Second Triumvirate. All three together support and rule the Roman realm, hence "triple pillar."
Rome is referred to here as "the world." In a way, it was to the ancients, for it included the entire Mediterranean basin and virtually all the lands that the Greeks and Romans considered "civilized."
Thus, in the Bible, the Gospel of St. Luke speaks of a decree by Caesar Augustus (the very same Octavius Caesar of this play-but a generation later) to the effect that the Roman realm be taxed. The biblical verse phrases it this way: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed" (Luke 2:1).
Of course, such phraseology is exaggerated. The Romans (and Shakespeare too) knew that the Roman government didn't rule over all the earth. There were barbarian tribes north of the northern limits of Rome, tribes who would make their presence felt all too painfully in a couple of centuries. And even if the view is confined to civilized areas, the Romans (and Shakespeare too) knew that the Roman government didn't rule over all the civilized earth. To the east of the eastern limits of Rome was the Parthian Empire, a civilized region that had already beaten Rome once and continued to remain a deadly danger to it. (There were also civilizations in China and India, but these lay beyond the Roman horizon.)
In this particular play, however, the transmutation of Rome into the world is dramatically advantageous. Antony is playing for the rule of the whole realm, and loses it, partly through his own miscalculations, and partly through his love affair with Cleopatra. It becomes intensely dramatic, then, to be able to say, he "lost the world." It becomes even more dramatic to say he lost it for love.
In fact, the English poet John Dryden in 1678 wrote his version of the tale of Antony and Cleopatra (far inferior to Shakespeare's), which he called, in the most romantic possible vein, All for Love; or the World Well Lost.
... tell me how much
Antony and Cleopatra speak now and they are engaged in the foolish love talk of young lovers. Cleopatra is pouting:
If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
- Act I, scene i, line 14
Yet Cleopatra is not a schoolgirl. She is an experienced woman who has lived and loved fully. She was born in 69 b.c., so she was twenty-eight years old when she met Antony.
Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XI, died in 51 b.c. and her younger brother, the thirteen-year-old Ptolemy XII, succeeded to the throne. Cleopatra, then nearly eighteen, ruled jointly with him. She got tangled up in palace politics, however, and fled to Syria to raise an army with which to seize undisputed control of the country.
It was at this time, 48 b.c., that Pompey appeared in Egypt, fleeing from the defeat inflicted on him at Pharsalia by Julius Caesar (see page I-257). Pompey was killed by the Egyptians and Julius Caesar landed in Alexandria soon after.
Cleopatra realized that the real power in the Mediterranean basin rested with Rome. Egypt was the only remaining independent power of any consequence along all the Mediterranean shore, and even she could not do a thing without Roman permission. She couldn't even play her game of internal politics if Rome seriously objected. Cleopatra also realized that Julius Caesar was now the most powerful Roman. If she could gain him to her side, then, he would certainly place her on the throne.
She had herself smuggled in to Julius Caesar (so the story goes) wrapped in a carpet. The later storytellers insist that when the carpet was unwrapped, she stepped out nude.
Julius Caesar did see the merits of her case (however persuaded) and spent a year in Alexandria, needlessly interfering in Egyptian politics and running considerable danger himself. During this interval, Cleopatra is supposed to have been his mistress. (He was fifty-two years old at the time, she twenty-one.) At least she bore a son which, she insisted, was his, and called him Ptolemy Caesar. The son was known, popularly, as Caesarion.
In 47 b.c. Caesar left Alexandria, went to Asia Minor to fight a brief battle, then turned westward to win victories in Africa and Spain, and finally came back to Rome as Dictator. He was assassinated just as he was about to make himself king.
There is a story that he brought Cleopatra to Rome and that she managed to get away and return to Egypt after the assassination. This, however, is based on an ambiguous line in one of Cicero's letters, and is very probably not so. Caesar was far too clever a politician to complicate his plans by bringing a "foreign queen" to Rome and setting her up as his mistress. What's more, Cleopatra was far too clever a queen to want to leave her turbulent country for others to control and loot just so she could be a hated mistress to an aging Roman politician.
She very likely stayed in Alexandria between 47 b.c., when Caesar left, and 41 b.c., when she met Mark Antony.
Fulvia perchance is angry. ..
The love murmurings of Antony and Cleopatra are interrupted, however, by messengers from Rome. Antony is annoyed at having his mood punctured and wants the messengers to be brief and leave. Cleopatra, however, is always petulant at any mention of Rome, any hint of the great affairs that might take Antony away from her as once they had taken Julius Caesar. She grows peevishly sarcastic:
Nay, hear them, Antony.
Fulvia perchance is angry...
- Act I, scene i, lines 19-20
Fulvia is Mark Antony's third wife; a fierce and ambitious woman, not inferior to Cleopatra in fire, but, presumably, lacking Cleopatra's sexual fascination. At least she didn't fascinate Antony.
Antony was her third husband. Her first husband had been that Publius Clodius who had been the occasion for Julius Caesar's divorce from his second wife (see page I-261) and who had turned into a gang leader who made Cicero his particular prey.
When Cicero was killed as a result of the proscriptions that followed the establishment of the Second Triumvirate (see page I-306), Fulvia had his head brought to her as proof of his death. When it was in her hands, she drove her hairpin through the dead tongue of the great orator with savage glee, as vengeance against the eloquence that had so lacerated two of her husbands, Clodius and Antony.
Antony had headed east, after his division of the world with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, without bothering to take the formidable Fulvia with him. (No doubt that was not an oversight, either.) Any mention of his fierce wife undoubtedly embarrassed Mark Antony, and Cleopatra knew it.
... the scarce-bearded Caesar ...
Cleopatra went further than that. The news might not be merely from Fulvia; it might be from Octavius Caesar. She says:
... or who knows
If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
His pow'rful mandate to you.
- Act I, scene i, lines 20-22
This must sting. Antony is forty-one years old when the play opens; a grizzled warrior more than a score of years in the field. Octavius Caesar is nineteen years his junior, only twenty-two years old now. Antony had to resent the fact that so young a man should be able to hold himself on an equal plane with the mature warrior.
(Incidentally, in this play Octavius Caesar is always referred to as "Caesar," where he was always referred to as "Octavius" in Julius Caesar. I shall call him "Octavius Caesar" in order to avoid confusing him with Julius Caesar.)
Cleopatra gets what she wants. The baited Antony cries out:
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space,
- Act I, scene i, lines 33-34
He refuses to hear the messengers and leaves.
... prized so slight
The soldiers, Philo and Demetrius, who have watched these proceedings with surprise and disapproval, cannot believe that Antony can be so careless of his own interests. Demetrius says:
Is Caesar with Antonius prized so slight?
- Act I, scene i, line 56
Demetrius, fresh from Rome, knows what Octavius Caesar is doing, if Antony does not.
Octavius Caesar, young though he was, was one of the master politicians of history. He lost no time in frivolity of any kind. He was a cold, shrewd man, who never made a serious mistake, and whose destiny it was to carry through to a conclusion the plans of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar. He was not, perhaps, as brilliant as the great Julius in war or literature, but he was even wiser in politics, for he carried through the necessary governmental reforms without ever making use of the hated word "king," but making himself in the end far greater than a king.
Nor did Octavius Caesar have the romantic appeal of Antony, or Antony's ability to orate, or his talent for putting on a kind of bluff, hail-fellow-well-met exterior that made him tremendously popular with the soldiers. Octavius could never be loved till age, and the realization at last of his greatness, had made him a father figure to the people.
Antony always underrated him and did not realize that the young man was building a network of alliances with politicians and generals, binding them to himself by self-interest rather than love, and weaving a net that would end by making him all-powerful.
Shakespeare too underprizes him, but this is necessary for the sake of the drama. The audience sympathy must be with the lovable profligate and not with the cool politician.
Nevertheless, though all audiences must "root" for Antony (for Shakespeare wills it so, and wins me over too), truth compels one to say that Octavius Caesar was by far the greater man of the two and that it would have been a world tragedy if circumstance had allowed Mark Antony to beat him.
... the common liar... Demetrius goes on to say:
I am full sorry
That he approves the common liar, who
Thus speaks of him at Rome;
- Act I, scene i, lines 59-61
Octavius Caesar, in his ceaseless war against Antony, made skillful use of propaganda. When the two triumvirs were at peace, Octavius carefully sapped the other's strength in the West by spreading tales of his profligacy.
Cicero's fiery and vituperative speeches in the last year of his life had covered Antony with slime. And though Cicero's invective was remorselessly exaggerated, much of it stuck. Antony, who did carouse and who loved luxury, gave all too much ground for believing much worse about him than was true.
Octavius Caesar made use of Cicero's speeches and also made use of the new matter that Antony offered. Antony was with this "foreign queen." Rome had fought many wars with Eastern monarchs and it was easy to escalate this affair with Cleopatra into threatened treason.
In contrast, Octavius Caesar never stopped playing the part of the true Roman, industrious, grave, honorable, and devoted to public affairs.
He himself was in love with no exotic temptress. He had been married twice to fine Roman girls. He had had no sons, though. His first wife was childless and his second had one daughter. He was soon to marry a third and last time, however, to the best one yet, a girl named Livia.
Livia was not yet twenty, but she was already married, had a fine young son, and was pregnant with (as it turned out) a second son. She divorced her husband to marry Octavius Caesar, but there was no stigma attached to divorce in those days. She became a model Roman matron, who remained Octavius' wife for the rest of his long life; they remained married for fifty-two years, a phenomenal length of time for a marriage in those days. Livia then lived on as his revered widow for fifteen more years. What's more, although she had no children by Octavius Caesar, her own children by her earlier marriage proved capable warriors and one of them succeeded his stepfather to the rule of all Rome.
The city of Rome was filled, then, with talk of how wicked Mark Antony was and how noble and good Octavius Caesar was, and this played an important part in Octavius' schemes. It was part of Antony's folly that he continually gave men cause to look upon these exaggerated rumors as true (as Demetrius points out) and that he never made an effort to set up effective counterpropaganda of his own. He was entirely too trusting in his own reputation and capacity as a warrior. -As though that were everything.
... Herod of Jewry...
The scene shifts to Cleopatra's palace, where we find the Queen's ladies in waiting having fun at the expense of a soothsayer, who nevertheless makes some statements which turn out to have dramatic irony. He predicts, for instance, that Cleopatra's lady in waiting Charmian will outlive her mistress, and so she does in the end-by about a minute.
At one point, though, Charmian asks him to predict some ridiculous fortunes, including:
... let me have a child at fifty, to whom
Herod of Jewry may do homage.. .
- Act I, scene ii, lines 27-28
This serves to set the time of the play in a way peculiarly useful to Shakespeare's audience. It is the time in which Herod "the Great" is on the throne of Judea.
Judea had lost its independence in 63 b.c. (twenty-two years before the time this play opens), when Pompey (see page I-255) had absorbed it into the Roman realm. It had been given some internal freedom, however, and Pompey made the capable Antipater its king. Antipater was from Idumaea (the biblical Edom) and was not a Jew by birth, though he had become one by conversion. He was assassinated in 43 b.c., just a year after Julius Caesar had been.
His eldest surviving son, Herod, also a converted Jew, and now thirty years old, was the natural successor, but the Eastern provinces were in a ferment. Brutus and Cassius were trying to strengthen themselves for the fight against Mark Antony and Octavius, and the Parthians were doing their best to take advantage of the disorder in Rome. In fact, after the Battle of Philippi, the Parthians swarmed all over Syria and Judea, and Herod was forced to flee.
He came to Antony for support, and this Antony gave him and continued to give him even though Cleopatra bitterly opposed Herod. Herod became King of Judea, then, at just about the time that Charmian refers to him so jestingly. Still, things didn't settle sufficiently for Herod actually to enter Jerusalem and take the throne till 37 B.C.
The reference to the child to whom Herod might do homage is clear enough too. Whenever the political fortunes of the Jews declined, then-hopes for an ideal king or "anointed one" rose. (The Hebrew word for "anointed one" is "Messiah.")
Now that the briefly independent Jewish kingdom under the Maccabees had fallen and the Romans were in control, Messianic hopes rose. All Judea seemed to wait for some child to be born who would be the ideal king and under whom the world system would finally break apart, with Jerusalem becoming the capital of the world and all the nations confessing the one true God.
Undoubtedly, non-Jews heard of these longings and were amused. Charmian suggests, then, that perhaps when she is fifty she may give birth to this Messiah, this true King of the Jews, to whom Herod, a mere earthly king, will have to do homage. And, indeed, Jesus was born before the end of Herod's reign at a time when Charmian, had she lived, would have been not much more than fifty.
Good Isis.. .
The mischievous Charmian also asks the soothsayer to prophesy for the courtier Alexas, who had brought the soothsayer to court for Cleopatra's amusement. She asks that a series of unsatisfactory wives be foretold for him. She says, laughingly:
Good Isis, hear me this prayer,
though thou deny me a matter of more weight: good Isis,
I beseech thee!
- Act I, scene ii, lines 68-70
Isis was the chief goddess of the Egyptian pantheon. For the most part, the Egyptian deities made little impact on the culturally snobbish Greeks and, therefore, on the Western world, which draws most of its culture from Greek sources.
Isis was the chief exception. For one thing, she was an extraordinarily attractive goddess; a thoroughly human female amid an array of animal-headed deities. She plays a sympathetic role in the Egyptian version of the vegetation-cycle myth (see page I-5). Her brother-husband, Osiris, was killed through treachery by Set, the god of darkness. Osiris' body was cut to pieces and scattered throughout Egypt. The lovely and sorrowing Isis painstakingly searched the land, collected the pieces, put them together, and brought Osiris back to life.
Isis' influence was felt outside the borders of Egypt. As the beautiful "Queen of Heaven" her worship penetrated Rome itself in the dark days of Hannibal's onslaught, when the Romans felt the shortcomings of their own gods and snatched at others. In the days of the Roman Empire (in the centuries following the time of Antony and Cleopatra) temples to Isis were built and her rites celebrated, even in the far-off island of Britain, two thousand miles from the Nile.
After Christianity was established, the spell of Isis still continued to make itself felt. As the goddess of birth and motherhood, she was frequently portrayed with her child, Horus, on her lap. The popular concept of mother and child was transferred to Christianity in the form of the Virgin and the infant Jesus, so that the aura of Isis lingers over the world even now.
A Roman thought. ..
In comes Cleopatra in dark humor, for she can't find Antony. She says:
He was disposed to mirth; but on the sudden
A Roman thought hath struck him.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 83-84
The thought of the messengers and what the news might be had apparently gnawed at Antony. Part of him is Roman still, and he left to find them.
... my brother Lucius
The news is disturbing indeed, for it deals with war, and a particularly embarrassing one too, for it is Antony's wife, of all people, who is conducting it. The Messenger says:
Fulvia thy wife first came into the field.
- Act I, scene ii, line 89
Fulvia, her eyesight sharpened, perhaps, by the anger and humiliation she felt at her husband's preoccupation with the Egyptian enchantress, saw what Mark Antony did not-that Octavius Caesar would win it all if he were not stopped.
She therefore did her best to instigate war against Octavius, raising an army and putting it in the field. It probably did not escape her calculation that if she caused enough mischief, her husband's hand would be forced and he would have to come back to Italy to fight-and rejoin her.
Mark Antony is stupefied. He asks:
Against my brother Lucius?
- Act I, scene ii, line 90
Lucius was Mark Antony's younger brother, and had held a variety of important political posts. In 41 b.c., after the Battle of Philippi and the following division of Rome among the triumvirs, Lucius Antony was made consul.
Actually, the consulate had become an unimportant office by now, for Octavius Caesar was the only real power in Rome, but it still had its prestige. It was a bow to Mark Antony's importance that his brother should be consul. Furthermore, it gave Mark Antony a foothold, so to speak, in the capital, though unfortunately for Antony, not a very competent one.
It was Lucius Antony's duty as consul to oppose the rebellious Fulvia, so that at the very first they seemed to be at war with each other. This was what occasioned Antony's surprise, that his wife should begin a war that would have to be against his brother.
Apparently, that war did not last long. Fulvia talked Lucius into joining her. The Messenger explains:
... soon that war had end, and the time's state
Made friends of them, pointing their force 'gainst Caesar,
Whose better issue in the war, from Italy
Upon the first encounter drave them.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 92-95
It wasn't quite that quick a victory for Octavius Caesar, but it was quick enough. Octavius' armies drove the forces of Fulvia and Lucius northward and penned them up in the city of Perusia (the modern Perugia, a hundred miles north of Rome). There the forces lay under siege for some months before the city was taken. This short conflict is called the Perusine War.
The war was a disaster for Mark Antony, because he knew everyone would believe that he was behind it (though he was not) and it would give Octavius Caesar all the excuse he needed to picture himself as the innocent victim of wanton aggression.
If Fulvia had to fight, she might at least not have been so quickly defeated, so that Antony might have had something to offset the propaganda victory that had been handed Octavius Caesar. Worse still was the manner of the defeat. The food supply in the city was small and it was reserved for the soldiers of Fulvia and Lucius, who let the civil population starve. Moreover, the final surrender was made on condition that the army's leaders be spared. So they were, but the city itself was sacked in 40 b.c.
This callousness on the part of Fulvia and Lucius Antony, who saved their skins at the expense of thousands of common people, was not lost on the Roman populace. They were execrated and some of the execrations were bound to fall on Mark Antony, whose reputation in Italy took another serious drop.
... with his Parthian force
But there is worse news still. It is not only inside the Roman realm that army fights army. The external enemy is tearing at the Eastern provinces and has reached a peak of power. The Messenger says:
This is stiff news-hath with his
Parthian force Extended Asia; from Euphrates
His conquering banner shook, from Syria
To Lydia and to Ionia,
- Act I, scene ii, lines 100-4
Quintus Labienus had fought on the side of Brutus and Cassius and had refused to abandon the cause even after the Battle of Philippi and the death of the two conspirators. Instead, he fled to the Parthians, whose armies hovered along the course of the Euphrates River, east of Asia Minor and Syria.
Parthia was originally the name of an eastern province of the Persian Empire. It was conquered by Alexander the Great and, after Alexander's death in 323 b.c., it was incorporated hi the Seleucid Empire (see page I-183). The Seleucid grip remained rather loose.
In 171 b.c., while Antiochus IV was the Seleucid king (see page I-183), Mithradates I became ruler of Parthia. He made his land fully independent, and under the weak successors of Antiochus IV, the Parthians drove westward. In 147 b.c. they took over control of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the home of the ancient civilizations of Sumeria and Babylonia, and in 129 b.c. they founded their own capital of Ctesiphon on the Tigris River.
The last Seleucid kings were penned into the constricted area of Syria itself, with Antioch as their capital, and in 64 b.c. that was made into a Roman province by Pompey.
Across the Euphrates, Rome and Parthia now faced each other. Under Orodes II, Parthia defeated Crassus in 53 b.c.; he was still king when the Battle of Philippi was fought in 42 b.c. He remained eager to do Rome all the harm he could and when Labienus, a trained Roman soldier, defected to him, he was delighted and promptly placed a Parthian army at his disposal.
In 40 b.c. the Parthians under Labienus moved westward, and in short order almost all of Syria and Asia Minor was occupied, with various Roman garrisons joining the renegade general. Lydia was an ancient kingdom in western Asia Minor (and still served as the name of a region of the peninsula when it was under Roman domination), while Ionia was the territory along the western seacoast of Asia Minor. The mention of the two districts by the Messenger shows that all of the peninsula was now under Parthian control. (It was from this Parthian advance that Herod fled, and in 40 b.c. the Parthians, for the only time in their history, marched into Jerusalem.)
All this is bitter for Mark Antony, for it took place in his half of the realm. He, the great soldier, has done nothing to prevent it, and he himself realizes that to Rome it will now look as though he lounged languidly with Cleopatra even while foreign armies were tearing Rome apart.
Mark Antony must realize that while he can get away with mere profligacy as long as he can win battles, the loss of his military reputation as well will cause him to lose everything. He mutters:
These strong Egyptian fetters
I must break Or lose myself in dotage.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 117-18
But another Messenger waits and Antony calls for him:
From Sicyon, ho, the news!
- Act I, scene ii, line 114
Sicyon is a Greek city in the northwest Peloponnesus, fifty miles west of Athens. It was at the peak of its power about 600 b.c. when it was the rule of three generations of benevolent "tyrants," a one-man rule that lasted longer without interruption than in any other case in Greek history. After the fall of the tyranny in 565 b.c., Sicyon was usually dominated by the larger and more powerful cities of Sparta or Corinth. Only after Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in 146 b.c. did Sicyon experience another period of prominence. When Corinth was rebuilt, however, Sicyon began its final decline and the event that the Messenger is about to tell is very nearly the last of importance in its history.
The news is brief, for the Messenger says:
Fulvia thy wife is dead.
- Act I, scene ii, line 119
Fulvia reached Sicyon in her flight from Italy and then died there in 40 b.c. Antony is stricken. Now that she is gone, he recognizes in her that energy and drive which has recently been missing in himself and says:
/ must from this enchanting queen break off:
Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know,
My idleness doth hatch.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 129-3la
Antony is doing his best to make up his mind to leave Cleopatra, and he calls his most reliable aide:
Ho now, Enobarbus!
- Act I, scene ii, line 131b
Enobarbus is a shortened form of Ahenobarbus, and the person being called is, in full, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father had fought with Pompey against Caesar and had died at the Battle of Pharsalus.
Enobarbus himself had fought with Brutus and Cassius against Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar and had commanded the fleet, in fact. Even after the Battle of Philippi, Enobarbus had held out as a pirate until he was won over by Mark Antony in 40 B.C., just before this play opens. He then became one of the most ardent of Antony's adherents.
... Sextus Pompeius
It is not surprising that Antony must leave for Rome. He must take care of the Parthian menace and he cannot do it if he leaves an angry Octavius Caesar in his rear. He must mend fences there, explain away the actions of his wife and brother, and patch up an understanding. Then, and only then, can he turn on the Parthians. In addition, there is trouble in the West, for that matter. Antony says to Enobarbus:
... the letters too
Of many our contriving friends in Rome
Petition us at home. Sextus Pompeius
Hath given the dare to Caesar and commands
The empire of the sea.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 183-87
Sextus Pompeius (also called Pompey the Younger) was the younger son of Pompey the Great. He had been in Greece with his father when the Battle of Pharsalus had been lost and he was in the ship with his father when Pompey fled to Egypt. He remained in the ship as his father was rowed to the Egyptian shore and witnessed his father being stabbed and killed when he reached that shore. He was about twenty-seven years old then.
Some years later Sextus was in Spain when his older brother, Gnaeus Pompeius, held out against Julius Caesar. He was at the Battle of Munda, in which Gnaeus was defeated and slain in 45 b.c. (see page I-258). Sextus escaped and during the confusion that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, quietly built up his strength at sea.
By 40 b.c. he was in control of the Mediterranean. He had seized Sicily soon after the assassination and was still holding it. This cut off Rome's grain supply, part of which came from Sicily itself, with the rest coming from Africa and Egypt in ships that Sextus could easily intercept. What it amounted to was that this younger son of Pompey had his hand at the throat of Rome, and Octavius Caesar, who lacked a navy, could do nothing about it.
Naturally, since nothing succeeds like success, there was the danger that Sextus' increasing power would breed still further access of power. As Antony says:
Our slippery people,
Whose love is never linked to the deserver
Till his deserts are past, begin to throw
Pompey the Great and all his dignities
Upon his son;
- Act I, scene ii, lines 187-91
(In this play Sextus' lines are identified as those of "Pompey," but I shall call him Sextus or Sextus Pompeius in order not to confuse him with his father, Pompey the Great.)
... Nilus' slime...
Enobarbus tells Cleopatra of the forthcoming separation (Antony has been with her a year), and she goes seeking Antony himself to confirm the news.
Poor Antony is in a dilemma. He is no match for Cleopatra and can only fluster and fume. He tries to be consoling and reassuring, but she will have none of it. He even tries to explain to her that her greatest fear (that he will return to his wife, Fulvia) is gone, since Fulvia is dead. She turns even that against him, saying:
O most false love!
Where be the sacred vials thou shouldst fill
With sorrowful water? Now I see, I see,
In Fulvia's death, how mine received shall be.
- Act I, scene iii, lines 62-65
In view of what is to happen in Act IV, this is dramatic irony, for Antony will react quite differently to the report of Cleopatra's death.
In frustration, Antony protests that he is faithful to her even though he must leave. He says:
By the fire
That quickens Nilus' slime, I go from hence
Thy soldier-servant ...
- Act I, scene iii, lines 68-70
Egypt is a desert land where it never rains. What makes life possible there is the presence of the Nile River. (The name is of unknown origin. The Egyptians called it simply "The River"; but the Greeks named it "Neilos," which is "Nilus" in Latin spelling and "Nile" to us.)
The Nile is an unfailing source of water for drinking and irrigation. Once a year, moreover, its level rises as the snow on the distant Abyssinian and Kenyan mountains melt. The river waters flood the banks and deposit silt brought down from east-central Africa. The water-soaked fresh soil is outstandingly fertile and in the hot African sun ("the fire that quickens Nilus' slime") generous harvests grow.
... this Herculean Roman...
When Cleopatra's perversity finally moves Antony to rage, she still fleers at him, accusing him of merely pretending anger. She says:
Look, prithee, Charmian,
How this Herculean Roman does become
The carriage of his chafe.
- Act I, scene iii, lines 82-84
The sneer refers to one of Antony's more ridiculous pretensions (though it was taken seriously in his time). Roman noblemen liked to pretend they were descended from the gods and from mythical heroes. The Julian family, of which Julius Caesar was a member, was supposed to have descended from Venus. In similar fashion, the Antonian family, of which Mark Antony was a member, claimed to be descended from Anton, a mythical son of Hercules. Mark Antony himself did everything he could to model himself on the strong man of legend.
In the end, then, Mark Antony is forced to leave angrily, defeated in the battle of words with Cleopatra.
... the queen of Ptolemy
The scene now shifts to Octavius Caesar's house in Rome. Octavius Caesar is not much better off in Rome than Mark Antony is in Alexandria. He too is beset with problems, and he is annoyed that Mark Antony's inaction makes it necessary for himself to be all the more industrious. He is saying bitterly to Lepidus (the third member of the Triumvirate) as he reads a letter:
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he;
- Act I, scene iv, lines 3-7
The phrase "the queen of Ptolemy" brings up an additional point that made Cleopatra unpopular with the Romans. In ancient Egypt it had long been the custom of the Pharaohs to marry their sisters. Since the Pharaonic blood was considered divine, it would not do to have one marry a mortal. Only a woman of the same line was a fit consort. At least, that was the rationalization.
When the Ptolemies ruled Egypt, they made it a point to adopt as many Egyptian customs as possible, in order to keep the populace quiet. This included brother-sister marriages, and Cleopatra was born of a family that had many times been involved in incest (see page I-185), something that was as repulsive to the Romans as it would be to us.
In fact, when Cleopatra's father died, Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XII,.were made joint rulers and were, in fact, married. It was expected that eventually they might have offspring who would succeed to the throne. Ptolemy XII, however, died in the course of Julius Caesar's small war in Alexandria in 48 b.c., and Cleopatra's rule was joined with a still younger brother, Ptolemy XIII.
Ptolemy XIII was only ten years old at the time, and in 44 B.C., when the news of Julius Caesar's assassination reached her, Cleopatra had the boy killed and then ruled jointly with her son, Caesarion, only three years old at the time. The new king was Ptolemy XIV.
Octavius Caesar's reference to her as "queen of Ptolemy" stressed the fact that she had been married to her brothers, and we can be sure that this was included in the whispering campaign that was conducted against Mark Antony.
... beaten from Modena...
Messages of disaster greet Octavius Caesar as they had greeted Antony. Octavius learns that Sextus Pompeius grows stronger along the coast and that pirates control the sea where Sextus himself does not. Daily Octavius Caesar's control over Rome grows shakier as its food supply dwindles. Octavius Caesar broods resentfully over the fact that he isn't being helped by Antony. Unaware that Antony is on his way westward, Octavius Caesar cries out:
Leave thy lascivious wassails. When thou once
Was beaten from Modena, where thou slew'st
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow, whom thou fough'st against
(Though daintily brought up) with patience more
Than savages could suffer.
- Act I, scene iv, lines 55-61
The reference is to the period following the assassination of Julius Caesar and deals with events not mentioned in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The events fall in the interval between Acts III and IV of that play (see page I-301).
Decimus Brutus (called "Decius" by Shakespeare) was in control of Cisalpine Gaul in northern Italy, and Mark Antony led an army northward to attack him. Decius fortified himself in Mutina, the modern Modena, 220 miles north of Rome. While Mark Antony fought there, Octavius Caesar, back in Rome, persuaded the Senate to declare war against Antony and to send an army against him led by the consul Hirtius; then another, led by the other consul, Pansa.
Mark Antony left his brother, Lucius, to conduct the siege of Mutina with part of the army, and then led the remainder against the consuls. Antony was badly defeated, but both Roman consuls were killed. (This was a stroke of luck for Octavius, for with both consuls dead, he was in full control of a victorious army.)
Antony had to retreat over the Alps into Gaul, and that retreat was attended by extraordinary suffering and hardship. Antony, in one of his better times, shared that suffering with his men and did so with such stoic patience that he endeared himself to the army. The tale of his nobility in this respect was undoubtedly told and retold with exaggeration, as we can see from the repulsive details Shakespeare has Octavius list:
Thou didst drink
The stale [urine] of horses and the gilded [scum-covered]
puddle Which beasts would cough at.
- Act I, scene iv, lines 61-63
Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra already misses Antony and is in a state of delicious self-pity. She says:
Give me to drink mandragora.
- Act I, scene v, line 4
Mandragora is an older form of "mandrake," a plant of the potato family which is native to the Mediterranean region. It has its uses as a cathartic, emetic, and narcotic. Which effect predominates depends on the dose, but Cleopatra thinks of the narcotic aspect, for when asked why she wants it, she says:
That I might sleep out this great gap of time
My Antony is away.
- Act I, scene v, lines 5-6
She thinks longingly of Antony, saying:
Where think'st thou he is now?
Stands he, or sits he?
Or does he walk?
Or is he on his horse?
O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!
Do bravely, horse, for wot'st thou whom thou mov'st?
The demi-Atlas of this earth. ..
- Act I, scene v, lines 18-23
Atlas was one of the Titans who warred against Jupiter (see page I-11). In fact, he may have been their general, for he was punished worse than the others. He was condemned to support the heavens on his shoulders.
As time went on, it became difficult to picture Atlas as holding up the sky. The Greeks learned more about astronomy and knew that there was no solid sky to support. The notion arose, then, of Atlas supporting the earth rather than the sky.
Cleopatra pictures Antony here as supporting the weight of the problems of the Roman world. He shared this weight with Octavius Caesar, of course, so he himself was but a demi-Atlas; that is, half an Atlas.
... Phoebus' amorous pinches...
In contrast, the self-pitying Cleopatra seems to herself to be ugly and old. She says:
Think on me,
That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black
And wrinkled deep in time. Broad-fronted Caesar,
When thou wast here above the ground, I was
A morsel for a monarch; and great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my brow;
- Act I, scene v, lines 27-32
Phoebus is, of course, the sun, and to be black with the sun's pinches would be to be sun-tanned. A queen like Cleopatra, however, would certainly not allow herself to grow sun-tanned. That was for peasant girls.
What is meant is that she is dark by nature because she dwelt in a tropic land. It is part of the Egyptian-Negress notion of Cleopatra, the usual false picture.
Nor is she honestly "wrinkled deep in time." At this point in the story, she is twenty-nine years old; past her first youth, perhaps, but by no means old and wrinkled.
Still it is human for her to think of herself as she was nine years before, only twenty-one, when Julius Caesar knew her; and even earlier when she met not Pompey himself, but his older son, who bore the same name.
Her opulent throne...
But now comes a messenger to Cleopatra from Antony, with the gift of a pearl and with a pretty speech. He says:
"Say the firm Roman to great Egypt sends
This treasure of an oyster; at whose foot,
To mend the petty present, I will piece
Her opulent throne with kingdoms.
All the East (Say thou) shall call her mistress."
- Act I, scene v, lines 43-46
The story was indeed spread in Rome that Antony was planning to hand over Roman provinces to Cleopatra; even to make her Queen of Rome (with himself as king, of course); that a foreign ruler would thus raise an exotic throne upon the Capitol. In the end, this, more than anything else, was to embitter Rome against Antony.
Shakespeare gets a little ahead of history here. The threat of turning the East over to Cleopatra comes later.
At the moment, Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar, each waist-deep in trouble, were going to have to be friends whether they liked it or not, for only by working together could they survive.
But Cleopatra is not concerned with practical politics now. She is delighted with Mark Antony's remembrance and is ashamed of herself for so much as remembering Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius. When Charmian teases her with her onetime love of Julius Caesar, she dismisses it with a much quoted line, saying:
My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood,
- Act I, scene v, lines 73-74
And indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of this play is that it is a paean to the ecstasies of mature love, rather than of the teen-age passions so often celebrated.
... every hour in Rome
The second act opens in Messina, Sicily, at the camp of Sextus Pompeius, who is in conversation with his captains, Menecrates and Menas. Sextus is rather euphoric, confident that his hold on Rome's food supply gives him the trump card and that Octavius Caesar and Lepidus can do nothing without Antony's military ability. As for Mark Antony, Sextus has full confidence in Cleopatra's charms. He says:
In Egypt sits at dinner, and will make
No wars without doors.
- Act II, scene i, lines 11-13
He is, however, overconfident. Another one of his captains, Varrius, conies with unwelcome news:
This is most certain, that
I shall deliver: Mark Antony is every hour in Rome
- Act II, scene i, lines 28-30
There is hope, of course, that upon arrival, Mark Antony will fall to quarreling with Octavius. This is tentatively advanced as a possibility by Menas, but Sextus shakes his head. They may have cause enough to quarrel, but as long as the danger from the sea exists, they will have to make friends. At the end of the short scene, things look as bad for Sextus as, at the start, they had looked good.
In Rome, in Lepidus' house, it is now late in 40 b.c. The confrontation between Octavius Caesar and Mark Antony is about to take place and poor Lepidus is in a sweat lest the two collide destructively. He has undoubtedly done his best to influence Octavius Caesar to be accommodating, and he pleads with Enobarbus to do the same with respect to Mark Antony.
From opposite sides approach the two triumvirs, each with friends, and each pretending to be deep in private discussion so that, for effect, he can seem to be ignoring the other.
Antony speaks first to the general at his side-his thoughts, to all appearances, on military matters in the East:
// we compose well here, to Parthia.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 15-16a
Here he goes off, apparently, into military talk unheard by the audience and undoubtedly meant to impress Octavius.
Ventidius is Publius Ventidius Bassus, who in early life had been a poor man who made a living renting mules and carriages. He rose to become a general serving under Julius Caesar in Gaul and remained loyal to Julius Caesar during the war with Pompey. After the assassination of the great Julius, Ventidius served Mark Antony and has remained loyal to him since.
Maecenas; ask Agrippa
As for Octavius Caesar, he is speaking with two men. Of what we can't say, but it is probably politics. Octavius affects carelessness. All we hear him say is:
/ do not know, Maecenas; ask Agrippa.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 16b-17
Maecenas and Agrippa are Octavius Caesar's closest associates, then and afterward. Gaius Cilnius Maecenas was a man of peace. He was several years older than Octavius Caesar and had been a friend of his since the latter was a schoolboy. In later years Maecenas was always left at home to take care of Rome when Octavius Caesar was forced to be away on war or diplomacy. In his eventual retirement, Maecenas used the wealth he had gathered to support and patronize writers and artists. So earnestly did he do this and so great were those he helped that forever after a patron of the arts has been called "a Maecenas."
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, on the other hand, was the man of war, the good right arm of Octavius Caesar, the general who fought all his master's battles, and who made it possible for Octavius to win military victories. (Why didn't Agrippa win them for himself? Because he was intelligent enough to know that he needed Octavius' brain to direct his arm. In the same way, Mark Antony needed Julius Caesar's brain to direct his arm, but he never really understood that.)
Agrippa was the same age as Octavius Caesar, was with him at school when the news of the assassination of Julius Caesar had arrived, and went with him to Italy. He did not play much of a part in the war against the conspirators, for he was still young. After the Battle of Philippi, however, Agrippa began to shine. It was he, for instance, who led the armies that penned up Fulvia and Lucius Antonius in Perusia and then defeated them.
... time to wrangle ...
Softly and eagerly, Lepidus draws the two men together. Stiffly, they sit and confront each other. Each raises the matter of his grievances. Octavius Caesar has the better of this, for he can bring up the war fought against him by Fulvia and Lucius, claiming Antony set them on. Antony objects that the war was against his own policy, and ungallantly places full blame upon his dead wife, saying, in terms that must have raised a wry smile from many a husband in the audience:
As for my wife,
I would you had her spirit in such another.
The third o'the world is yours, which with a snaffle
You may pace easy, but not such a wife.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 65-68
Nevertheless, argumentation continues till Enobarbus roughly points out the necessity of a compromise, however insincere:
... if you borrow one another's love
for the instant, you may, when you hear
no more words of Pompey, return it again:
you shall have time to wrangle in when
you have nothing else to do.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 107-10
It doesn't make pleasant listening, but it is a fair appraisal of the situation. A practical means of accommodation must be sought.
Agrippa comes up with a suggestion at once. He says to Octavius Caesar:
Thou hast a sister by the mother's side,
Admired Octavia: great Mark Antony
Is now a widower.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 123-25
This sounds as though Agrippa is referring to a half sister, but he isn't. Octavia is a daughter of the same mother as Octavius Caesar as well as of the same father.
Octavius Caesar had two sisters, both older than he. The older one, Octavia Major, was a half sister, by his father's first wife. The second, Octavia Minor, was a full sister and the one to whom Agrippa refers.
She was by no means a young virgin, but was in her mid-twenties by this time (not much younger than Cleopatra) and had been married since her early teens, bearing two daughters and a son. Her husband, Gaius Marcellus, had died the year before, so what was being proposed was the marriage of a widow and a widower.
Mark Antony agrees to the marriage and thus is produced what is hoped will be a permanent bond between the two triumvirs, someone who will be a common love and who will labor to smooth over all irritations. There is a precedent for this, in connection with the First Triumvirate, when Pompey and Julius Caesar were much in the position that Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar are now.
In 58 b.c., when Julius Caesar was leaving for Gaul, he arranged to have Pompey marry Julia, his daughter, who was in her mid-twenties at the time. It turned out to be a love match. Pompey doted on her and while the marriage lasted, peace was maintained between the two men. In 54 b.c., however, Julia died at the age of only thirty. The strongest link between the two men snapped. The civil war that followed might have been prevented had Julia lived.
It was this precedent which was now being followed. If only Mark Antony could love Octavia as Pompey had loved Julia, all might be well (and better, too, for Octavia was destined to live for thirty years more and was not to die young as Julia had done).
... my sword 'gainst Pompey
The agreement among the triumvirs was aimed particularly against Sextus Pompeius, and this was rather embarrassing to Mark Antony, who says:
I did not think to draw my sword 'gainst Pompey,
For he hath laid strange courtesies and great
Of late upon me.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 159-61
It was more than that, in fact. The two were making definite overtures toward an alliance. When Antony's mother fled Italy after the Perusine War, Sextus was ostentatiously kind to her. In fact, in a later scene, Sextus reminds Antony of this, saying:
When Caesar and your brother were at blows,
Your mother came to Sicily and did find
Her welcome friendly.
- Act II, scene vi, lines 44-46
Sextus was not doing this, of course, out of sheer goodness of heart. He expected the Perusine War would lead to a greater civil war and he was prepared to choose sides for his own greater benefit. Since Octavius Caesar was closer to himself and the more immediate enemy, he was ready to ally himself with Antony, and this kindness to Antony's mother was a move in that direction.
Indeed, Antony would have welcomed such an alliance, and in 41 b.c. the first steps toward such an understanding had been taken. Undoubtedly, if it had not been for the terrible Parthian menace, the Sextus-Antony combination would have become reality. As it was, though, Antony had to have peace with Octavius Caesar, and to get that the alliance with Sextus had to be abandoned and even war on Sextus had to be considered.
... Mount Mesena
If the triumvirs were now to turn against Sextus Pompeius, it was none too soon. Sextus had even established strong bases on the shores of Italy itself. Antony asks where he is, and Octavius Caesar answers:
About the Mount Mesena.
- Act II, scene ii, line 166
Mount Mesena is a promontory that encloses a harbor about which the ancient town of Misenum was located. That town, now long gone, was fifteen miles west of Naples. In later years, Agrippa was to construct a strong naval base there, but now it belonged to Sextus.
... the river of Cydnus
The triumvirs leave, so that Mark Antony might meet Octavia and perform whatever perfunctory rites of courtship might seem advisable. Maecenas and Agrippa remain behind with Enobarbus for a little light conversation.
Naturally, this means there is a chance for a little leering in connection with Cleopatra. Maecenas and Agrippa want all the inside information from Enobarbus. Enobarbus is only too glad to comply:
When she first met Mark Antony,
she pursed up his heart, upon the river of Cydnus.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 192-93
That takes us back to the previous year, 41 b.c., when Antony, in the aftermath of Philippi, had taken over the East and was traveling through Asia Minor, gouging money out of the miserable population for the war against Parthia he was planning. Unfortunately for him, there wasn't much money to be had, squeeze he ever so tightly. Brutus and Cassius had been there the year before (see page I-303) and they had scoured the land clean.
Antony made his headquarters in Tarsus, a city on the southeastern coast of Asia Minor, at the mouth of the Cydnus River. (In Tarsus, a generation later, St. Paul was to be born.) It seemed to Antony that the logical solution to his dilemma was to squeeze Egypt. That land, nominally independent, but actually a Roman puppet, had the greatest concentration of wealth in the Mediterranean world-wealth wrung out of an endlessly fertile river valley and an endlessly patient and hard-working peasant population.
There had been reports that Egypt had helped Brutus and Cassius, and this was very likely, for Egypt was in no position to refuse help to any Roman general who was in her vicinity with an army. Mark Antony understood that well, but what interested him was that this help could be used as an excuse to demand money. He planned to demand a great deal, and for that reason he summoned the Queen of Egypt to come to him in Tarsus and explain her actions. He had briefly seen the Queen in Alexandria in the days when Julius Caesar was there, seven years before, but not since.
Cleopatra, perfectly aware of what Mark Antony intended, and also perfectly aware of his reputation as a woman chaser and of herself as a supreme quarry, decided to come to him in conditions of the greatest possible luxury, with herself beautified to the extreme of art. Plutarch describes the scene well, but Shakespeare improves on it and places it, for greater effect, in the mouth of Enobarbus, the rough soldier, to show that even the least poetic man had to be affected by Cleopatra's unparalleled stage setting of herself.
Enobarbus, in an unbelievable outburst of sheer lyricism, says:
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colored fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 197-21 la
Agrippa, listening, can only mutter in envy:
O, rare for Antony.
- Act II, scene ii, line 21 1b
Cleopatra's strategy worked to perfection. Antony found himself sitting at the pier on a throne in Roman state-but utterly alone. He was completely upstaged as everyone crowded to watch the approaching barge. He himself was overcome. When Cleopatra invited him on board the barge, he went in what was almost a hypnotic trance, and was her slave from that moment. The Parthians were forgotten until they charged into the Eastern provinces and forced themselves upon Antony's unwilling notice.
Age cannot wither ...
Agrippa and Maecenas grow uneasy at the description. The entire accommodation of the triumvirs rests upon the stability of the marriage of Antony and Octavia. Maecenas points out that now Antony must leave her, but Enobarbus answers in an immediate and positive negative; composing in the process the most effective description of complete feminine charm the world of literature has to offer. He says of the possibility of Antony's leaving Cleopatra:
Never; he will not;
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 240-46
And what can the others offer in place of this? Maecenas can only say, rather lamely:
// beauty, wisdom, modesty, can settle
The heart of Antony, Octavia is
A blessed lottery to him.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 247-49
Thy daemon ...
Antony pledges himself to Octavia, but on leaving her and Octavius Caesar, he encounters the soothsayer, who has apparently accompanied his train to Italy. Antony asks whose fortune will rise higher, his own or Octavius Caesar's. The soothsayer answers:
O Antony, stay not by his side.
Thy daemon, that thy spirit which keeps thee, is
Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable,
Where Caesar's is not. But near him thy angel
Becomes afeared, as being o'erpow'red: therefore
Make space enough between you.
- Act II, scene iii, lines 18-24
The Greeks came to believe that with each individual was associated a divine spirit through which the influence of the gods could make itself felt. It was when this influence was most strongly felt that a man could attain heights otherwise impossible to him. Where a particular spirit was most continually effective, the man himself would be of unusual power and ability. In some cases, this belief was elaborated to the point where each individual was thought to have two such spirits, one for good and one for evil, the two continually fighting for mastery.
To the Greeks, such a spirit was a "daimon" (meaning "divinity") and in the Latin spelling this became "daemon." To the later Christians these daemons, being of pagan origin, could only be evil, and therefore we get our present "demon," meaning an evil spirit However, the Greek notion lives on with but a change of name, and. we still speak of guardian angels and we sometimes even envisage an individual as being influenced by his better or worse nature.
The soothsayer is saying that though Octavius Caesar's daemon is inferior to Antony's it can nevertheless win over the latter. In present parlance, we might say that Octavius Caesar plays in luck whenever he encounters Mark Antony. And yet this is hard to accept. It wasn't luck that kept Octavius Caesar on top through all a long life, but ability.
The Latin equivalent, by the way, of the Greek daimon was "genius" (see page I-118).
The soothsayer, in warning Antony to stay far away from Octavius Caesar, is but telling Antony what he wants to hear. (This is the supreme art of the soothsayer in all ages and places.) Antony therefore says, after the soothsayer leaves:
I will to Egypt:
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I'th'East my pleasure lies.
- Act II, scene iii, lines 39-4la
Eventually, yes, but right now he can't. There are problems he must attend to and until those are resolved, he must remain married to Octavia and must stay out of Egypt
And some of the problems are in the East and won't wait for his personal presence. His general, Ventidius, comes on scene, and Antony says:
O, come, Ventidius,
You must to Parthia. Your commission's ready:
Follow me, and receive't.
- Act II, scene iii, lines 41b-43
... be at Mount
If the Parthians must be dealt with, so must Sextus Pompeius. He was the nearer and the more immediate menace.
The new agreement between the triumvirs and, in particular, Antony's betrayal of his earlier moves toward an alliance had embittered Sextus, and he now escalated his own offensive. In the whiter of 40-39 b.c. Sextus' hand about Rome's throat tightened. Virtually no food entered the capital city and famine threatened. When the triumvirs tried to calm the populace, they were stoned.
They had no choice but to try to come to an agreement with Sextus and to allow him to enter the combine. This would make four men (a quad-rumvirate) in place of three. To discuss this, the triumvirs agreed to come to Misenum, Sextus' stronghold, to confer with him.
Shakespeare skips over the hard winter, passing directly from Antony's marriage to Octavia to the moment when the triumvirs are leaving for Misenum. Lepidus, Maecenas, and Agrippa come on scene in a whirlwind of activity, and Maecenas says:
As I conceive the journey, be at
Mount Before you, Lepidus.
- Act II, scene iv, lines 5-7
The "Mount" is the Misenum promontory where the meeting with Sextus will take place.
... his sword Phillipan
Back in Alexandria during that same whiter, Cleopatra spends a moody, restless time. She longs for the period of happiness she had experienced with Antony and says, in reminiscence, to Charmian:
/ laughed him out of patience; and that night
I laughed him into patience; and next morn,
Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed;
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan.
- Act II, scene v, lines 19-23
Cleopatra may laugh with delight as she remembers, but the picture of Antony drunk by midafternoon (the ninth hour of a twelve-hour day would be about 3 p.m.) and snoring red-faced while wearing women's clothes was undoubtedly the sort of thing Octavian propaganda was scattering all over Rome to the scandal of all good citizens.
It was the fashion of warriors in medieval legend to give names to their swords. The best-known example is that of King Arthur's Excalibur. Mark Antony's sword, Philippan, is named for the Battle of Philippi- Antony's greatest victory.
... a Fury crowned with snakes
Clearly, Cleopatra has not heard the news about Octavia and a frightened Messenger comes in to deliver it.
The Messenger begins by assuring Cleopatra that Antony is well, but he hesitates and the Queen senses that something is wrong. Yet he does not seem sufficiently distraught to be bringing news of death at that. She says to him, concerning his news:
// not well,
Thou shouldst come like a
Fury crowned with snakes,
- Act II, scene v, lines 39-40
The Greeks included in their myths three terrible goddesses, the Erinyes ("angry ones"), whose task it was to pursue and madden those who were guilty of particularly terrible crimes, such as the slaying of close kinsmen. They were depicted and described as so ferocious in appearance that the mere sight was maddening. They carried snakes in their hands, or else their hair was made up of living, writhing snakes. (Perhaps they symbolized the raging of conscience.)
To avoid offending them, the Greeks sometimes spoke of them by the euphemistic term "Eumenides" ("the kindly ones"). Aeschylus wrote a powerful play by that name, dealing with part of the Agamemnon myth. Agamemnon (see page I-89) is killed by his wife Clytemnestra on his return from Troy. To avenge his father, Agamemnon's son, Orestes, kills his mother and is pursued by the Erinyes in consequence.
The Romans called these fell goddesses "Furiae," from their word for raging madness, and the word is "Furies" in English.
... the feature of Octavia ...
The Messenger finally blurts out the news of Antony's marriage to Octavia. Cleopatra falls into a towering rage and beats the Messenger, shouting horrible imprecations upon him:
Horrible villain! Or I'll spurn thine eyes
Like balls before me: I'll unhair thy head,
Thou shalt be whipped with wire and stewed in brine,
Smarting in ling'ring pickle.
- Act II, scene v, lines 62-66
The whole scene, properly done, shows Cleopatra in a spitting, fantastic fury, and one can only feel that such rage would make Cleopatra the more attractive to Antony ("vilest things become themselves in her"). Compared with that, the gentle and modest Octavia must have seemed utterly pallid and insipid to Antony, in bed as well as out.
(I cannot resist repeating the story of the two respectable English matrons who were viewing a showing of Antony and Cleopatra a century ago, in the reign of Queen Victoria. When this scene passed its shattering course upon the stage, one of the matrons turned to the other and whispered in a most shocked manner: "How different from the home life of our own dear Queen!")
But Cleopatra's rage does not entirely wipe out her shrewdness. She questions the trembling Messenger yet again to make sure there is no possibility of mistake and says to him bitterly when the news is confirmed again and yet again:
Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me
Thou wouldst appear most ugly.
- Act II, scene v, lines 96-97
Narcissus is, of course, the lovely youth, irresistible to women, who fell in love with his own reflection (see page I-10).
With that settled, and the Messenger retiring, Cleopatra ponders her next step. She orders a courtier to go after the Messenger and question him further:
Go to the fellow, good Alexas; bid him
Report the feature of Octavia; her years,
Her inclination, let him not leave out
The color of her hair.
- Act II, scene v, lines 111-14
Thou dost o'ercount me...
The scene shifts to Misenum, where the triumvirs meet with Sextus. There is an exchange of hostages, threats, harsh language from either side.
Mark Antony tells Sextus that on land the triumvirs "o'ercount" (outnumber) him. Sextus responds sardonically:
At land indeed
Thou dost o'ercount me of my father's house:
- Act II, scene vi, lines 26-27
Here the word "o'ercount" is used in an alternate sense, meaning "cheat." The reference is to a house Antony had bought of Pompey the Great once and had then never paid for, since the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar intervened. Civil wars always end in enrichment for the victors at the expense of the losers.
... wheat to Rome
Octavius Caesar, however, coldly keeps his temper, and his steady urging of the real point causes Sextus Pompeius to bring up a suggested compromise. Sextus says:
You have made me offer
Of Sicily, Sardinia; and I must
Rid all the sea of pirates; then, to send
Measures of wheat to Rome;
- Act II, scene vi, lines 34-37
In actual fact, the offer was rather more generous than that. Sextus Pompeius already had Sicily, but to it was added not only Sardinia, but Corsica also, and these three large islands half encircle Italy. In addition, since all these were taken from Octavius Caesar's share of the realm, Sextus was to have Greece as well, so that Antony had to pocket a share of the loss.
In return for becoming the fourth man of the group, Sextus would have to take his hand from Rome's throat.
... Apollodorus carried
Sextus Pompeius accepts the compromise and all the parties fall to shaking hands and expressing affection, though Antony, as always, finds he must be the target of a continual lewd curiosity on the part of the others concerning Cleopatra.
Sextus brings up the famous story of how Cleopatra first met Julius Caesar. He says:
And I have heard Apollodorus carried-
- Act II, scene vi, line 68
It had been Apollodorus, a Sicilian Greek, who had delivered the rolled-up carpet containing Cleopatra (possibly nude) to Julius Caesar. Clearly, to bring up tales of Cleopatra's earlier amours could scarcely be calculated to please Antony, and Enobarbus manages to quiet Sextus and head him off.
Thy father, Pompey. ..
Not everyone is satisfied. When the chief characters leave, Menas, one of Sextus' captains, remains behind with Enobarbus. Menas mutters to himself:
Thy father, Pompey, would ne'er have made this treaty.
- Act II, scene vi, lines 82-83
The implication is that Sextus' father, Pompey the Great, would have had too much military and political sense to give up the trump card (starving Rome) for so little, but would have driven a much harder bargain. In this respect, Menas was being more sentimental than accurate, for Pompey the Great had been a poor politician and would undoubtedly have agreed to such a treaty or a worse one.
Later, Menas is frank enough to put the matter even more strongly to Enobarbus:
For my part, I am sorry it is turned to a drinking.
Pompey doth this day laugh away his fortune.
- Act II, scene vi, lines 104-5
The accuracy of Menas' judgment would make itself evident soon enough.
... holy, cold and still. ..
But then Menas too starts probing for information about Cleopatra and is thunderstruck when Enobarbus tells him Antony is married to Octavia. Surely, this can only be a marriage of convenience.
I think so, too. But you shall find the band that seems to tie
their friendship together will be the very strangler of their amity:
Octavia is of a holy, cold and still conversation.
- Act II, scene vi, lines 120-23
Clearly, Enobarbus doesn't think this is the sort of thing that will hold a man like Antony. He says, confidently:
He will to his Egyptian dish again.
- Act II, scene vi, line 126
... the flow o'th'Nile
The quadrumvirs are on Sextus' galley off Misenum, having a grand time, and are hilarious over their wine. Antony is in his element; he can carry his liquor better than any of them and, as an expert on Egypt, a strange and exotic land, he can regale the others with wonders. He says:
Thus do they, sir: they take the flow o'th'Nile
By certain scales i'th'pyramid. They know
By th'height, the lowness, or the mean, if dearth
Or foison [plenty] follow. The higher Nilus swells,
The more it promises...
- Act II, scene vii, lines 17-21
Antony is correct here. The Egyptian priesthood kept a careful watch on the changes in the level of the Nile and through long records had learned to forecast from early variations what the final flood level would be and from that what the likelihood of a particularly poor harvest might be. Such studies had also made the Egyptians aware of the 365-day cycle of the seasons very early in their history and had given them an accurate solar calendar, while other civilizations of the time had struggled with the much more complicated lunar calendars.
The pyramids were not, however, used as scales for the level of the Nile. Throughout history, people have wondered at the uses of the pyramids and have been reluctant to accept the fact that those monstrous piles were merely elaborate tombs. They have been accused of every other purpose but that, and some moderns have considered them the repository of the wisdom of the ages, a means of forecasting the future, and an early method of launching spaceships. But they are tombs, just the same, and nothing more.
Your serpent of Egypt.. .
Lepidus is gloriously drunk; drunk enough to wish to shine as an Egyptian authority himself. He says with enormous gravity:
Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud
by the opera tion of your sun; so is your crocodile.
- Act II, scene vii, lines 26-28
This represents the ancient belief in "spontaneous generation," the thought that unwanted or noxious species of plants or animals arise of themselves from dead or decaying matter. (How else explain the prevalence of these species despite human efforts to wipe them out.)
Antony humors the drunken Lepidus by agreeing with him, but it is quite certain that the Egyptians knew that serpents and crocodiles developed from eggs laid by the adult female. The eggs were quite large enough to see.
The situation was less certain with creatures that laid eggs small enough to overlook. It was not until half a century after Shakespeare's death that it was shown that maggots did not arise from dead meat, but from tiny eggs laid on that dead meat by flies. And it wasn't till the mid-nineteenth century that it was shown that microscopic creatures did not arise from dead matter but only from other living microscopic creatures.
Lepidus goes on to deliver a piece of egregious patronization. He says:
... I have heard the Ptolemies' pyramises
are very goodly things; without contradiction
I have heard that.
- Act II, scene vii, lines 35-37
Of course, they were not the Ptolemies' pyramises (or pyramids, as we would say) except in the sense that they were to be found in the land ruled by them. They were built by native Egyptian Pharaohs who ruled more than two thousand years before the first Ptolemy mounted the Egyptian throne. They were as ancient to the Ptolemies as the Ptolemies are to us.
And "goodly things"? Yes indeed. Considering the technology of the tune, the pyramids are the most colossal labors of man the planet has seen, with the possible exception of the Great Wall of China. They impress us now even in their rains as mere piles of huge granite blocks. When they were new, they had white limestone facings that gleamed smoothly and brightly in the sun and were surrounded by enormous temple complexes.
The Greeks, who notoriously admired no culture but their own, humbly included these non-Greek structures among their Seven Wonders of the World; and of all the Seven Wonders only the pyramids still remain.
Antony cannot resist poking fun at the besotted Lepidus, describing the crocodile in grave but non-informative phrases, ending in the portentous:
... and the tears of it are wet.
- Act II, scene vii, line 51
Any mention of crocodiles would irresistibly bring tears to mind, for the most famous (but thoroughly untrue) legend concerning the crocodile is that it sheds tears over its prey while swallowing it. Hence the expression "crocodile tears" for hypocritical sorrow.
... lord of all the world
Menas, meanwhile, has been whispering to Sextus Pompeius and pulling at his sleeve. Sextus, who is enjoying the nonsense at the table, is unwilling to leave and follows Menas only with reluctance.
Once to one side, Menas whispers:
Wilt thou be lord of all the world?
- Act II, scene vii, line 63
The half-drunken Sextus stares in surprise and Menas is forced to explain:
These three world-sharers, these competitors,
Are in thy vessel. Let me cut the cable;
And when we are put off, fall to their throats.
All there is thine.
- Act II, scene vii, lines 72-75
Sextus, sobered by the suggestion, is tempted, but then says, sorrowfully:
Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
And not have spoke on't.
In me 'tis villainy,
In thee't had been good service.
- Act II, scene vii, lines 75-77
This story is told by Plutarch and yet I wonder if it can be true. It is conceivable that the thought would have occurred to Menas and that
Sextus might have shrunk from the perfidiousness of the deed. But is it conceivable that the triumvirs would have placed themselves in Sextus' grasp without taking precautions against just such an act? If Lepidus were too stupid to foresee the possibility and Antony too careless, I would not believe it of Octavius. He would not step into the lion's jaw without some sort of rod so placed as to hold that jaw firmly open.
However, the story is a good one, true or false, and I would hate to lose it, particularly since it displays so neatly the exact moment when Sextus Pompeius reached and passed the peak of his power.
... my brave emperor
Octavius Caesar is the only one who is reluctant to drink. He cannot carry his liquor well and he does not enjoy losing his iron control of himself. The rough Enobarbus says to him with some irony:
Ha, my brave emperor!
Shall we dance now the
And celebrate our drink?
- Act II, scene vii, lines 105-7
The word "emperor" is from the Latin imperator, meaning "commander." It was a title given a successful general by his troops. It was one of the titles granted Julius Caesar by the Senate. He was not merely one of many imperators; he was the imperator of the Roman armies as a whole- the generalissimo.
Octavius Caesar eventually received the title too, and since control of the army was, at bottom, the secret of the control of the Roman state, his position as "Roman Imperator" was crucial. Through distortion we know the title as "Roman Emperor," and the state became the "Roman Empire."
Enobarbus uses the term "emperor" in its less exalted but more accurate aspect as "commander." Both Octavius Caesar and Mark Antony are referred to now and then throughout the play as "emperor."
... darting Parthia...
While Sextus Pompeius is being alcoholically neutralized in the West, Parthia is being defeated outright in the East. Leaving Antony in Italy, Ventidius sailed to Asia Minor, where in 39 b.c. he drove the Roman renegade Labienus into the eastern mountains and there defeated and killed him.
The Parthian army, under Pacorus, the son of King Orodes, still occupied Syria and Judea, however. In 38 b.c. Ventidius took his army to Syria and defeated the Parthians in three separate battles (and it was only after this was done that Herod could take his throne in Jerusalem).
In the last of the three victories over Parthia, Pacorus himself was slain. That last battle was fought (according to the story) on the fifteenth anniversary of the fateful day on which Crassus had lost his army at the Battle of Carrhae.
The third act opens, then, a year after the gay celebration at Misenum, with Ventidius returning in triumph from these wars. The dead body of the Parthian prince is being carried along with the army and Ventidius says:
Now, darting Parthia, art thou struck; and now
Pleased fortune does of Marcus Crassus' death
Make me revenger. Bear the King's son's body
Before our army. Thy Pacorus, Orodes,
Pays this for Marcus Crassus.
- Act III, scene i, lines 1-5
Parthia is called "darting" because of its reliance on archers in its battles. The Parthian arrows were their most effective weapon.
... Media, Mesopotamia...
Ventidius' aide, Silius, eagerly urges the general to pursue the enemy, to follow up the victory crushingly, and put an end to the Parthian menace forever. He says:
Spur through Media,
Mesopotamia, and the shelters whither
The routed fly.
- Act III, scene i, lines 7-9
Mesopotamia ("between the rivers") is the name given by the Greeks to the upper portion of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. It was the area within which Crassus had fought and died. The Romans struggled to grasp and hold it for centuries after Crassus' time, and from time to time succeeded. Nearly seven centuries went by before the region passed definitively out of their hands.
Media lay immediately to the east of Mesopotamia. It had been controlled by the Persians, conquered by Alexander the Great, and ruled by the early Seleucids, but at no time, then or later, could Roman force extend itself so far.
I have done enough...
Ventidius resists the temptation to continue the war. He might argue that a limited victory is safest. History is full of generals who could have gained greatly through initial victories and then went on to grasp for too much and to lose all. Adolf Hitler of Germany is only the latest example of this.
There have been exceptions, of course; Alexander the Great being the most notorious. It is hard to say how many generals have been lured to destruction by the specter of Alexander and by the fact that they themselves were not the military genius he was.
Ventidius does not advance such reasonable military grounds. He prefers instead to answer with the wisdom of the practical politician.
O Silius, Silius
I have done enough: a lower place, note well,
May make too great an act. For learn this, Silius,
Better to leave undone, than by our deed
Acquire too high a fame when him we serve's away.
- Act III, scene i, lines 11-15
Perhaps this is true in Antony's case, and if so it is another weakness of his. Since military valor was Antony's great recommendation, he could not endure having his subordinates display too much of it, lest people decide they can do without Antony.
Octavius Caesar had no difficulty of this sort. He was no military man, but he was a political genius. His generals could cover themselves with glory in his name for all he, or anyone, would care-as long as they followed his orders and left the political machinations to him.
... to Athens ...
As the Parthian menace is ended, at least temporarily, in victory, so the difficulties with Sextus Pompeius are ended, at least temporarily, in compromise. The quadrumvirs are separating and Mark Antony must go east again to look after his affairs. But still not to Alexandria. He must yet maintain peace with Octavius Caesar and that means maintaining the marriage with Octavia.
In Syria the victorious Ventidius has heard of Antony's move. He says to Silius:
He [Antony] purposeth to Athens...
- Act III, scene i, line 35
Athens was no longer the great warlike power it had been in the time of Alcibiades and Timon (see page I-140) four centuries before. While its fleet had been in being, it was a city to be reckoned with, but its last fleet had been destroyed at the Battle of Amorgos (an island in the Aegean Sea) in 322 b.c.
After that, it was at the mercy of the Macedonians and could at best only wriggle a bit when Macedon was in trouble. In 146 b.c. all of Greece, including Athens, came under direct Roman control as the province of Achaea, and the last vestige of Athenian independence was gone.
Yet Athens could, and did, make one last gamble. In 88 b.c. the kingdom of Pontus in the northeastern stretches of Asia Minor under its able king, Mithradates VI, attacked Rome. Rome was having internal troubles and was caught flat-footed. The Pontine blitz captured all of Asia Minor. For a wild moment, Greece thought that the Greek-speaking Pontines would lead the way to Greek freedom once more. Athens declared for Pontus and moved into opposition against Rome.
Rome, however, sent its able and ruthless general, Sulla, eastward. He laid siege to Athens, quite without regard to its past glories, and Mithradates of Pontus was utterly unable to send help. In 86 b.c. Athens was taken and sacked and that was the final end. Never again, throughout ancient times, was Athens ever to take any independent political or military action. It settled down to the utter quiet of a university town and for two and a half centuries it was to know complete peace at the price of complete stagnation.
It is to somnolent Athens that Antony now comes and it is there he will stay, with Octavia, for over two years.
This is too long a time for the purposes of the play, of course, since Shakespeare is anxious to show the love affair between Antony and Cleopatra to follow an absolutely irresistible course. He must therefore give the impression that Antony's connection with Octavia is fleeting.
To do this, there is a scene, following that which involves Ventidius, which shows Antony leaving with Octavia for Athens, and then, immediately afterward, one which shows Cleopatra still questioning the Messenger who brought her news of the marriage.
While tremendous events are transpiring in the outside world-a year of campaigning in Parthia and Syria, a year of negotiation in Italy-it is yet the same day in Cleopatra's palace. She is still planning to win Antony back from Octavia, and the Messenger, well knowing what is expected of him, gladly describes Octavia as short, round-faced, with a low forehead and a shambling walk.
New wars 'gainst Pompey...
Antony's establishment of his capital in Athens is, in itself, an invitation to more trouble. It was part of the compromise agreement with Sextus that the latter be given Greece as one of his provinces. Antony never lived up to that part of the bargain and may have deliberately come to Athens to make sure that Greece remained his.
Once Sextus realized that Antony was not going to keep his part of the treaty, he was naturally infuriated, and once again began his offensive against Rome's food supply. The pact of Misenum was in ruins before it really got a chance to work.
Shakespeare mentions none of this. When he turns to Antony's house in Athens, he pictures Antony as infuriated at events in Italy and placing all the blame for the renewed trouble on Octavius Caesar. Antony is saying angrily to Octavia, concerning her brother:
... he hath waged
New wars 'gainst Pompey; made his will, and read it
To public ear; Spoke scantly of me ...
- Act III, scene iv, lines 3-6
Naturally, Octavius must fight Sextus again; when Sextus begins to stop the grain shipments, Octavius has no choice but to regard it as an invitation to war.
Since Sextus' pretext is the withholding of Greece, which is Antony's act, Octavius Caesar can scarcely keep from suspecting that Antony is behind Sextus; that the two have an understanding. He therefore renews the propaganda offensive against Antony ("spoke scantly of me").
Furthermore, Octavius Caesar shored up his own popularity with the Romans by preparing a will donating money and property to the people in case of his death. He carefully let that will be made public. (Mark Antony once read Julius Caesar's will to the public, see page I-295, and he knows well how powerful a weapon a proper will can be.)
Antony might not have been so angry if Octavius Caesar's struggle with Sextus Pompeius had gone badly for the former. The situation had changed from what it was before, however. When Sextus closed off Rome's life line he found out why Menas had been opposed to the compromise agreement at Misenum. Octavius had used the respite to stock Rome and to fill its storehouses. It would take a long time before it could be choked once more and meanwhile Octavius could strike back. Sextus found that while Antony and Octavius could easily undo their part of the agreement, he could not undo his; he could not withdraw the food he had allowed into Rome.
It was still necessary to fight Sextus, however, even if Rome was not starving. Octavius Caesar twice sent out ships to fight Sextus, and twice Sextus' hardened sea fighters won.
Octavius Caesar therefore set to work in earnest. He placed Agrippa in charge and ordered him to build a fleet. Through the whole of 38 and 37 b.c., Agrippa was hard at work on this project, and Antony did not like it. The last thing he wanted was an Octavian victory at sea, for that would mean that Octavius Caesar would be free to turn to the East and would have a fleet to do it with.
Antony's impulse, then, is to engage in open hostilities, now, while Sextus can still be his ally and while Octavius is still without real power at sea. (Antony himself can always have the Egyptian fleet at his disposal, in addition to his own ships.)
Yourself shall go between's. ..
Now conies time for the purpose of the marriage of Octavia to show itself. Octavia pleads for peace between husband and brother and urges Antony to let her serve as peacemaker. Antony agrees, saying:
... as you requested,
Yourself shall go between's: the meantime, lady,
I'll raise the preparation of a war
Shall stain your brother.
- Act III, scene iv, lines 24-27
Octavia may try to make the peace, then, but if she fails, Antony will make war. Actually, she succeeded. She met her brother and managed to arrange another meeting between Antony and Octavius Caesar at Tarentum in southern Italy in 37 b.c. Peace between them continued.
So much the worse for Antony, however, and the marriage with Octavia proved a disaster for him. The peace she arranged was one in which Antony agreed to, and did, suspend his preparations for war; and in which Octavius Caesar agreed to, but did not, suspend his own preparations for sea mastery. In the interval of peace between the triumvirs, Octavius Caesar continued to build his fleet
... wars upon Pompey
Shakespeare skips this second reconciliation altogether. Immediately after the scene with Octavia in which she is sent off as mediator, Enobarbus and another of Antony's captains, Eros, rush in to discuss military matters. Eros has news, and says:
Caesar and Lepidus have made wars upon Pompey.
- Act III, scene v, lines 4-5
This sounds like the same wars that Antony has been complaining about in the previous scene, especially since Enobarbus responds by saying:
This is old.
- Act III, scene v, line 6
Actually, it is a new war, begun after Octavia has brought about the meeting at Tarentum and the reconciliation.
On July 1, 36 b.c., Agrippa's new fleet set out in three squadrons, Agrippa at the head of one, Octavius of a second, and Lepidus of a third. For two months these ships and those of Sextus met, with victory usually resting with Sextus. At one point, Octavius' squadron was nearly wiped out.
Finally, on September 3, 36 B.C., Sextus was forced to accept battle with Agrippa near the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily and Italy. This time Sextus was defeated by sea and land, and his power was utterly destroyed. He managed to get away himself and fled eastward, hoping to find safety with Antony.
... denied him rivality ...
Antony could now see into what catastrophe Octavia's mediation had led him. Octavius Caesar had beaten Sextus and Antony had lost his chance to make vigorous war against Octavius in combination with Sextus. Making that same war without Sextus and with Octavius equipped now with a victorious navy was another, and worse, matter altogether.
Nor was this the full extent to which matters had turned against Antony. Eros has more news, about Lepidus:
Caesar, having made use of him [Lepidus] in the wars
'gainst Pompey, presently denied him rivality,
would not let him partake in the glory of the action;
and not resting here, accuses him
of letters he had formerly wrote to Pompey;
upon his own appeal, seizes him;
so the poor third is up, till death enlarge his confine.
- Act III, scene v, lines 7-13
What happened was that after Sextus Pompeius was defeated, Octavius Caesar added all the conquered areas (Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and so on) to the provinces controlled by himself. Lepidus, who controlled only Africa, felt that since he had shared in the fighting, he ought to get some of the loot. This Octavius Caesar refused ("would not let him partake in the glory of the action").
Lepidus attempted to use force but this Octavius Caesar scotched at once. He entered Lepidus' camp with a small body of troops, sure that Lepidus' portion of the army would not support their general (probably he had made arrangements with Lepidus' troops in advance). He was right. Lepidus' men deserted him.
Lepidus was therefore demoted from his triumviral status and Africa was taken from him. He was not imprisoned, however, for he was not that dangerous. He was sent back to Rome and was allowed to keep the purely honorary title of Pontifex Maximus ("high priest"), in which role he had many harmless duties to perform. He kept the job for the remaining quarter century of his life and never bothered anyone again.
And threats the throat...
Octavius Caesar is now without a rival in the West. He rules all the provinces and is stronger than ever before. Antony, who had lost his chance for effective military action, can now only rage. Eros describes his actions:
He's walking in the garden-thus, and spurns
The rush that lies before him; cries "Fool Lepidus!"
And threats the throat of that his officer
That murd'red Pompey.
- Act III, scene v, lines 17-20
Sextus Pompeius, fleeing from the lost battle near Sicily, had gone first to the Aegean island of Lesbos, and then to Asia Minor. There he had been taken by a contingent of Antony's troops, and the officer in charge, assuming him to be an enemy, killed him. That was the end of Sextus Pompeius, just three years after he might have been the lord of all the world by merely cutting a hawser first and then three throats.
The officer who killed Sextus had acted hastily, however. He still had his name and he might have been a most useful pawn to Antony against Octavius. Now he was gone and Antony could only curse the excess zeal of his own loyal officer.
The situation in 36 b.c., then, was this. From a quadrumvirate there had come a diumvirate-two men, Octavius Caesar and Mark Antony.
The disappearance of the other two, Lepidus and Sextus, had resulted in their strength being added entirely to that of Octavius.
In Alexandria.. .
Between the scene just described and the next, there is a historical lapse of two years, which Shakespeare passes over in silence, though they are eventful.
For one thing, Antony, thoroughly disillusioned with the political effect of the marriage with Octavia, left her. The marriage had served Octavius Caesar's purpose only.
In 36 b.c., therefore, he left Athens and returned to Alexandria. He abandoned Octavia and returned to Cleopatra, whom he had not seen in three years. He was forty-seven years old now, and she was thirty-three, and from this point on to the end of their lives, nothing came between them.
Of course, there were still world affairs to deal with. Antony could expect no further agreements with Octavius Caesar. There was going to be war as soon as one or the other felt strong enough to push it.
Antony wanted the strength and to get it he turned and pushed against the Parthians. In a way, this was wasteful, for Antony was turning away from the main enemy (at the moment) and expending energy on a lesser foe. Perhaps we can see his reasoning, though...
Octavius Caesar had won considerable military prestige through his victory over Sextus (even though the credit belonged to Agrippa), and since military prestige was Antony's chief stock in trade he had to balance that gain somehow. The Parthians were still reeling from Ventidius' strokes and might be an easy prey. Then too, once they were beaten, Antony could face westward without having to worry about his rear.
Without provocation, then, Antony opened a campaign against the Parthians and proceeded to do what Ventidius had refused to do. He pursued the Parthians deep into their own fastnesses.
For his pains, he was trapped in the mountains and was able to escape only with the loss of more than half his army. It was almost as bad a defeat as Crassus had suffered and only the fact that he himself did not die as Crassus had done obscured the fact.
The next year, 35 b.c., he tried to retrieve matters by attacking Armenia, a much weaker adversary than Parthia. Here he won, capturing the King and bringing him back to Alexandria, where he celebrated a mock triumph. (A real triumph would have had to take place in Rome.)
Antony had returned to Alexandria with his military reputation much tarnished as a result of his Eastern adventure, rather than made glistening as he had hoped. Had he come back an easy and glorious victor over Parthia he might well have turned against Octavius at once. As it was, he seems to have decided in favor of settling for half.
He would build an Eastern empire about Egypt as a base and with Alexandria as its capital. He would assume a defensive stance and await events. In doing so, however, he could not help assuming the posture of an Egyptian king.
After all, life with Cleopatra had become a settled thing. She had had twin children-a boy and a girl-soon after he had left her, back in 40 b.c. Now he recognized them as his. They were named Alexander Helios ("the sun") and Cleopatra Selene ("the moon"). He even married Cleopatra with all solemnity, and the marriage was recognized as valid in the provinces controlled by him, even though he was still married to Octavia. (He didn't formally divorce Octavia till 32 b.c.)
It was at this point, too, that he began to hand over Roman territory to Cleopatra, as he had earlier promised.
Octavius, who had been continuing to build his strength in the West and had been preparing public opinion for an offensive against the East, found all this a godsend.
It is here that Shakespeare takes up the story. Immediately after the scene in which the fate of Lepidus and Sextus is described, the scene shifts to Rome, where Octavius Caesar is describing Antony's activity to Maecenas:
Contemning Rome, he has done all this and more In Alexandria.
Here's the manner oft: I 'th'marketplace on a tribunal silvered,
Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold
Were publicly enthroned; at the feet sat Caesarian,
whom they call my father's son,
And all the unlawful issue that their lust
Since then hath made between them. Unto her
He gave the stablishment of Egypt; made her
Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia, Absolute queen.
- Act III, scene vi, lines 1-11
Caesarion is, of course, the reputed son of Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar was the great-uncle of Octavius Caesar, actually, but in his will Julius had adopted Octavius as his son, and Octavius therefore always refers to Julius as his father. (A good propaganda point, of course.)
In a way, Antony was restoring to Cleopatra territory that had belonged to the Ptolemies at the peak of their power two centuries before. He also restored Cyrene (which Shakespeare does not mention), which Rome had annexed in 96 b.c.
What's more, their children are also endowed. Octavius Caesar goes on to say:
His sons he there proclaimed the kings of kings:
Great Media, Parthia, and Armenia
He gave to Alexander;
to Ptolemy he assigned Syria, Cilicia, and Phoenicia.
- Act III, scene vi, lines 12-16
This is not as bad as it sounds. Alexander is Alexander Helios, who at this time (34 b.c.) was six years old. The kingdoms he was given were not really Roman, so that they represented a phantom rule. Ptolemy (that is, Caesarion, who is called Ptolemy XIV) received lands that had once been Ptolemaic.
However, we can be sure that Octavius Caesar made the most of Antony's rash family-centered actions. He made it seem to the Roman populace that Antony was giving away Roman provinces to a powerful foreign queen. What's more, he had made himself king (hated word) and loved Alexandria more than Rome. He held triumphs there and Octavius Caesar found a will which he said was Antony's and which directed that Antony be buried in Alexandria rather than in Rome.
It was easy to make it appear that Antony planned to conquer the West and then not only set himself up as king in Rome but make Cleopatra queen. Accusations such as these, skillfully spread, and made plausible by Antony's own actions, utterly destroyed any credit Antony might have in the West.
My lord, Mark Antony
And in upon Octavius Caesar, at this moment, comes Octavia, apparently on her errand of mediation. She says:
My lord, Mark Antony,
Hearing that you prepared for war, acquainted
My grieved ear withal; whereon I begged
His pardon for return.
- Act III, scene vi, lines 57-60
It would appear that Octavia, who left Mark Antony two scenes before, now arrives in Rome. All the events that took place over three years-the defeat and death of Sextus Pompeius, the demotion of Lepidus, the campaigns of Mark Antony in Parthia and Armenia (to which Octavius makes reference in passing)-are all hastened over in the one intervening scene.
This serves a purpose. In many places in the play, Mark Antony is whitewashed to make him a more sympathetic hero. Here he is made to seem worse than he is so that the love story with Cleopatra can be made more dramatic.
In actual fact, he returned to Cleopatra only after three years, when his marriage to Octavia proved to be politically worthless-or worse. Here in the play, it appears that even while Octavia is on her way to intercede for Antony with her brother, the faithless Antony deserts her.
Octavius asks her where Antony is and when she innocently says that he is in Athens, her brother says:
No, my most wronged sister,
Cleopatra Hath nodded him to her.
- Act III, scene vi, lines 65-66
Cleopatra's power over Antony thus seems enormous. The truth of Antony's return would have considerably diminished the glamour of the love affair.
The kings o'th'earth ...
Indeed, Octavius goes on to say, Antony is preparing for war:
He hath given his empire
Up to a whore, who now are levying
The kings o'th'earth for war.
He hath assembled Bocchus, the King of Libya;
Archelaus, Of Cappadocia;
Philadelphos, King Of Paphlagonia;
the Thracian king, Adallas;
King Mauchas of Arabia;
King of Pont; Herod of Jewry;
Mithridates, King Of Comagene;
Polemon and Amyntas,
The kings of Mede and Lycaonia;
With a more larger list of scepters
- Act III, scene vi, lines 66-76
This list of kings sounds impressive; the sonorous syllables roll off the tongue. They are at best, however, a set of puppet kinglets, with very little power except for what prestige their names can lend Antony. Cappadocia, Paphlagonia, Pont (Pontus), Comagene, and Lycaonia are all regions in Asia Minor. Herod and Mauchas represent small kingdoms in southern Syria, and so on. Indeed, one of the kings listed, Bocchus of Libya, actually fought on Octavius Caesar's side.
Nevertheless, this sort of thing was undoubtedly used by Octavius to rouse the Roman populace with the fear that Antony was turning the whole mysterious East loose upon them.
... denounced against us...
Between this scene and the next, further crucial events take place.
Toward the end of 32 b.c. Octavius finally had the situation exactly where he wanted it. The Senate and the people had grown so exasperated that the former declared war against Cleopatra and the latter supported it avidly.
This was utterly clever. The war was not against Mark Antony, who could be pictured as a Roman general deceived and besotted by a wicked foreign queen; it was against the wicked foreign queen herself. It was not a civil war; it was a patriotic war against the dangerous kingdom of Egypt. (The fact that Egypt was helpless and harmless and that Cleopatra, minus Mark Antony, had no military power at all, could be ignored. The public knew nothing of that.)
Naturally, Mark Antony had to fight. But he had to fight now against Rome and on the side of the foreigner. Desperately he shifted his armies to Greece and prepared to invade Italy.
Cleopatra, in a decision as foolish as that of Octavius Caesar had been wise, decided to accompany Antony, and together they are now at Actium, a promontory in northwestern Greece.
The next scene, then, opens in Actium, where Cleopatra is raging against Enobarbus, who objects to her presence there. She points out that the war, after all, was declared against her:
Is't not denounced against us? Why should not we
Be there in person?
- Act III, scene vii, lines 5-6
But Cleopatra was unintentionally fighting on Octavius Caesar's side in this respect. As a foreign queen, she was no more popular with Antony's soldiers than with the enemy.
And take in Toryne
Indeed, it is the spirit of Antony's forces that is their weakest point, and Octavius Caesar knows it. Anti-Cleopatra propaganda reaches them and the desertions are numerous. The men won't fight for an Egyptian against Rome. Antony's movements are slowed and made uncertain by the increasingly doubtful loyalty of his men.
Octavius Caesar's general, Agrippa, moves quickly, however. Where it had been Antony's hope to invade Italy, it was Agrippa instead who swept across from that peninsula and landed in Greece. Antony comes in with his general, Canidius, brooding about it:
Is it not strange, Canidius,
That from Tarentum and Brundusium
He could so quickly cut the Ionian sea
And take in Toryne?
- Act III, scene vii, lines 20-23
Tarentum and Brundusium are ports in the "heel" of Italy. The Ionian Sea is the stretch of water between southern Italy and western Greece. Toryne is a small harbor in northwestern Greece, thirty-five miles up the coast from Actium.
... not well manned
Octavius Caesar's rapid movement (or, rather, Agrippa's, in his name) has cut Antony's line of communication and put him in the peril of running short of supplies. It is to Antony's interest to force a land battle; he has eighty thousand troops to Octavius Caesar's seventy thousand and it is Antony who is the better tactician on land.
On the other hand, it is to Octavius Caesar's best interests to fight a sea battle. He has only four hundred ships to Antony's five hundred, but he still would have the advantage there. Enobarbus points this out to Antony, saying:
Your ships are not well manned;
Your mariners are muleters, reapers,
people Ingrossed by swift impress. In Caesar's fleet
Are those that often have 'gainst Pompey fought;
Their ships are yare, yours, heavy...
- Act III, scene vii, lines 34-38
The growing desertions from Antony's standards have left his ships shorthanded, and their crews have had to be fleshed out by the drafting of non-sailors from the surrounding population. And, of course, though you can force a man onto a ship, you cannot force him to be a sailor.
The logical course of action would have been to retreat inland and force Octavius to follow and then fight a land battle. Even an ordinary soldier begs him to take that strategy, saying:
O noble Emperor, do not fight by sea,
Trust not to rotten planks.
- Act III, scene vii, lines 61-62
It is Cleopatra, though, who holds out strongly for a sea engagement. We can speculate why. The hardships of an army march might have excluded her and sent her back to Alexandria. A sea victory, on the other hand, would include the Egyptian fleet and entitle her to a share in the glory and the profits. She points out:
I have sixty sails, Caesar none better.
- Act III, scene vii, line 49
And Antony rejects the advice of his seasoned warriors, decides on the sea battle Cleopatra wants, and loses his last chance.
With all their sixty...
There follows the sea battle, the Battle of Actium, on September 2, 31 b.c. It is one of the crucial clashes of history.
The battle is, of course, not shown onstage, but Enobarbus supplies the vision of its crucial moment. In agony, he turns away from the sight:
Naught, naught, all naught! I can behold no longer.
Th 'Antoniad, the Egyptian admiral,
With all their sixty, fly...
- Act III, scene x, lines 1-3
When the battle began, Octavius' ships could at first make little impression on Antony's large vessels, and the battle seemed to be a useless one between maneuverability and power. Finally, though, Agrippa's superior seamanship maneuvered Antony's fleet into stretching its line, and Agrippa's ships began to dart through the openings that resulted, making straight for Cleopatra's fleet of sixty that lay in reserve.
At this point, Cleopatra ordered her flagship, the Antoniad (named in honor of Antony, of course), to turn and carry her to safety. The remainder of her fleet went with her.
The easy interpretation is that it was simply cowardice. Or perhaps the cowardice wasn't that simple; she felt the battle was lost and that retreat was necessary. She had to preserve herself from capture (with reason - for with her a captive the war would be lost), and also the treasure chest, which was aboard the ship.
The noble ruin of her magic ...
Scarus, another officer, enters in wild passion, for even worse has developed. He tells Enobarbus that, once Cleopatra sailed away:
The noble ruin of her magic, Antony,
Claps on his sea wing, and (like a doting mallard)
Leaving the fight in height, flies after her.
- Act III, scene x, lines 18-20
This is the point at which the world is lost and Antony is forever disgraced. There might be reasons for Cleopatra running away; the only reason for Antony is an impulse of love. This impulse might be understandable, even admirable, to romantics, and surely there is nothing so worth a sigh as to witness some great game tossed away for love.
Yet we must admit that however admirable it may be to ruin oneself for love, however noble to go down to personal death for love, it is not noble to cast away the lives and fortunes of thousands of others for love.
Antony abandoned a fleet that was fighting bravely on his behalf, and in the confusion and disheartenment that followed his flight, many men died who might have lived had he remained. What's more, he abandoned thousands of officers and men on the nearby mainland, who had been prepared to die for him, leaving them only the alternative of useless resistance or ignoble surrender.
We may understand Antony, but we cannot excuse him.
He at Philippi...
Antony well understood his own disgrace. After Actium, he played awhile with the idea (according to Plutarch) of retiring from the world in an agony of misanthropy and self-pity-like Timon of Athens. (It may have been the reading of this passage, indeed, that inspired Shakespeare to try his hand, rather unsuccessfully, at Timon of Athens immediately after he had finished Antony and Cleopatra.)
Antony cannot bring himself to be a Timon, however, and he must crawl back to the only place that will now receive him-Alexandria. Only Egypt is now his who once ruled half the world, and it will remain his only until Octavius Caesar comes to get him.
Antony broods madly on this same Octavius:
He at Philippi kept
His sword e'en like a dancer, while I struck
The lean and wrinkled Cassius; and 'twas
I That the mad Brutus ended. ..
- Act III, scene xi, lines 35-38
It is true. The Battle of Philippi was all Antony and Octavius' portion of the army was defeated. For that matter, Octavius' portion of the fleet was defeated by Sextus, and Octavius was sick during the Battle of Actium, so that the last two victories were all Agrippa.
Yet Octavius, always beaten, was somehow the winner because what he had he kept and what he lost one way he won another. He could use other men well and he had brains and a cool judgment, and that stands head and shoulders over mere "style."
Fall not a tear...
There is no more room for glory in Antony. Shakespeare, for what is left of the play, intends only to recoup for Antony all the sympathy he has lost by his folly in another way; he will win it all back and more by showing Antony the lover.
With all he has lost, Antony can only reproach Cleopatra sorrowfully. When she says that she did not realize he would follow her, he replies:
Egypt, thou knew'st too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by th'strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after.
- Act III, scene xi, lines 56-58
And when she weeps and begs for pardon he says:
Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates
All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss;
Even this repays me.
- Act III, scene xi, lines 69-71
What an incredible fool! What an exasperating idiot! But then why do the tears come? And they will continue. Those who can sit through the rest of the play dry-eyed are either seeing an incredibly poor performance or are afflicted with an incredibly impoverished heart.
... her all-disgraced friend
Antony has no choice now but to sue for peace and get what terms he can. He has no kings to send now; they have all deserted him in the aftermath of Actium. He sends his children's tutor to approach Octavius Caesar.
For Cleopatra, he asks that she remain Queen of Egypt only, giving up all the additions Antony has given her. For himself he asks that he remain in Egypt with her or, still less, that he be allowed to remain in Athens as a private citizen. Octavius replies to the Ambassador:
I have no ears to his request. The Queen
Of audience nor desire shall fail, so she
From Egypt drive her all-disgraced friend
Or take his life there.
- Act III, scene xii, lines 19-23
Octavius knows his own military deficiencies as well as Antony does. He knows that all his victories are the work of his allies and subordinates and that he himself has contributed nothing in the field. What he desires more than anything else, then, is a glorious triumph in Rome, such as his famous great-uncle had received. It is very likely that for himself he required no such trumperies, but he must surely have realized that his hold on the Roman people would not be complete without some public celebration of victories associated (however unfairly) with his name.
For the purpose of a triumph, Antony is useless. He is a Roman and could not be dragged at the chariot wheels, and even if he were, that would arouse dangerous sympathies. Nor could he be left alive, even as a private citizen in Athens. How long would he remain a private citizen? How soon would he begin to intrigue to regain what he had lost? For Antony, it had to be death.
Cleopatra, however, must live. She was a foreigner. She was feared to an unimaginable (and undeserved) extent. Her reputation as a charmer and as an insidious schemer against Rome was so impossibly high that the sight of her in chains walking behind Octavius Caesar's triumphant chariot would drive Rome wild with exultation and turn Octavius, truly, into another Julius. Octavius Caesar might have a triumph without Cleopatra; but without her it would be a poor thing and leave his life in that one respect forever incomplete.
Octavius was therefore ready to offer Cleopatra anything, make her any promise, in order to keep her alive.
... the boy Caesar...
The news of Octavius Caesar's terms is brought to Antony and he says to Cleopatra bitterly:
To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head,
And he will fill thy wishes to the brim
- Act III, scene xiii, lines 17-18
The play moves so quickly through space and time that there is no sensation, while watching it, of passing time. Eleven years have passed since the opening scene of the play, if we are thinking of real history. Antony is now about fifty-three years old and his head may well be grizzled. The "boy Caesar" is now thirty-three years old. He is not really venerable, but he is certainly a boy no longer.
... the getting of a lawful race
Meanwhile, another ambassador, an officer named Thidias, approaches Cleopatra separately. Clearly, if she is to be induced to sacrifice Antony, it can be best done in Antony's absence. Cleopatra is eager to flatter Octavius into decent terms, both for herself and Antony, and it must be admitted that what historical evidence we have gives us no clear sign that she dreamed of deserting Antony at any time.
However, even while she is fawning on Thidias and giving him her hand to kiss, Antony enters. In the midst of his disgrace and defeat, he finds it only too easy to believe he is being betrayed. He orders Thidias to be whipped and rages at Cleopatra for her immorality and for the other men in her life (surely this is something he knew all about to begin with). He cries out in self-pity:
Have I my pillow left unpressed in Rome,
Forborne the getting of a lawful race,
And by a gem of women, to be abused
By one that looks on feeders?
- Act III, scene xiii, lines 106-9
To those who know only as much of Antony and Cleopatra as they read in this play it would come as a surprise to know that Antony did indeed beget a lawful race (that is, legitimate children). He had two sons by Fulvia.
The "gem of women" must be a reference to Octavia, but there, too, Shakespeare is bending history. In the play Antony's connection with Octavia seems fleeting, but in actual history, he spent a couple of years with her in Athens and their relationship was long enough and real enough to produce two daughters.
... the hill of Basan...
Half mad with frustration, Antony taunts Cleopatra with her infidelities to him (in advance yet, for the examples he cites came about before they had met in Tarsus) until he makes himself a cuckold in his own eyes, crying out:
O, that I were
Upon the hill of Basan to outroar
The horned herd!
- Act III, scene xiii, lines 126-28
Basan is the biblical Bashan, an area of pasturage renowned for its fat cows and strong bulls. Thus, the psalmist describes his troubles metaphorically in this way: "Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round" (Psalms 22:12). Since bulls are homed, the reference to cuckoldry is clear (see page I-84).
But the reference is biblical. It is conceivable that a cultivated Roman of the times might have come across a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and have read it out of curiosity or interest-but to suppose that the non-intellectual Antony would do so is out of the question.
... the old ruffian...
Cleopatra manages to calm down Antony at last and bring him to what senses remain in him.
Octavius Caesar's army is now just outside Alexandria and Antony decides to meet him in one last land fight. In fact, he even-as a gesture-offers to meet Octavius in single combat.
Octavius meets this challenge with characteristic contempt. He says to Maecenas:
He hath whipped with rods; dares me to personal combat.
Caesar to Antony: let the old ruffian know I have many
other ways to die; meantime Laugh at his challenge.
- Act IV, scene i, lines 2-6
Actually, though one could not guess it from the play, eleven months have passed since the Battle of Actium. Octavius Caesar did not swoop down on Egypt at once. That could wait, for Antony and Cleopatra were helplessly penned up there.
Octavius first founded the city of Nicopolis ("City of Victory") near the site of the battle. Then he had to spend time reorganizing the affairs of the Eastern provinces that had been Antony's domain and were now his. (Egypt, be it remembered, had never, till then, been a Roman province, but was in theory an independent kingdom.)
Then he had to return to Rome to take care of pressing matters there. It was only in July 30 b.c. that he could sail his army to Egypt itself. By that tune Cleopatra was thirty-nine.
Antony and Cleopatra had spent the eleven-month respite in luxury as though they knew their time was limited and were determined to make the most of what was left. But now Octavius Caesar had come and the time for the final battle was at hand.
... the god Hercules...
The eve of the last battle is a strange one. The soldiers hear mysterious music in the air and underground, moving away into the distance. One soldier guesses at the meaning:
'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved,
Now leaves him.
- Act IV, scene iii, lines 15-16
This eerie tale is told by Plutarch and is the kind of legend that arises after the fact.
It is, of course, rather late in the day for Hercules to leave poor Antony. Hercules had clearly abandoned him on the eve of Actium.
... send his treasure after.. .
Nor is it only Hercules that abandons Antony. The common soldier who had advised a land battle at Actium now meets Antony again. If that land battle had been fought, he says:
The kings that have revolted, and the soldier
That has this morning left thee, would have still
Followed thy heels.
- Act IV, scene v, lines 4-6
Thus it is that Antony discovers that the rough and faithful Enobarbus has at last deserted him and gone over to Octavius Caesar's camp. But Antony, in adversity, always rises to heights of strength and nobility he cannot possibly reach in prosperity. He realizes that not Enobarbus' wickedness but his own follies have driven the soldier away. He is thinking perhaps that after his own desertion at Actium, no soldier owes him loyalty, and he says:
O, my fortunes have
Corrupted honest men!
- Act IV, scene v, lines 16-17
And, having learned that Enobarbus has crept away so secretly as to have been unable to take with him his personal belongings and the money he has earned in the course of his labors, Antony says to his aide-de-camp:
Go, Eros, send his treasure after; do it,
Detain no jot, I charge thee.
- Act IV, scene v, lines 12-13
... alone the villain...
Shakespeare found the tale of this princely gesture in Plutarch and it is believable in Antony. He was lost, anyway, and it was the kind of quixotic gesture a man noble by fits would make. If it had been Octavius Caesar, we might suppose it to have been done out of a desire to punish the deserter, for punishment it most certainly turns out to be.
Enobarbus is already suffering over his betrayal, and realizes that the tardy converts to Octavius Caesar's cause are not truly trusted and are certainly not honored, but live in a kind of contemptible twilight. In the midst of his misgivings, he hears his property has been sent after him. Stupefied, he bursts out in agony:
/ am alone the villain of the earth,
And feel I am so most.
- Act IV, scene vi, lines 30-34
They are beaten...
In the last battle, despite everything, the advantage falls to Antony once more. He and his soldiers fight like madmen and his officer, Eros, rushes in to say:
They are beaten, sir, and our advantage serves
For a fair victory.
- Act IV, scene vii, lines 11-12
But, alas, this is one of Shakespeare's few inventions of the play. There was no victory at this point. There wasn't even a true battle. Antony's remnant of an army gave in almost at once and Antony was penned up in Alexandria.
What Shakespeare wanted was one last unexpected uplift; one last illusion; one last hope of escape from the doom the lovers had madly woven about themselves; perhaps one sight of might-have-been for the land battle at Actium that had never come.
The victory serves also to add the last unbearable pang to Enobarbus' agony. Had those faithful to Antony had the courage and will to fight and win while he himself had slunk away, a coward traitor? He staggers into the night, crying:
Nobler than my revolt is infamous,
Forgive me in thine own particular,
But let the world rank me in register
A master-leaver and a fugitive.
O, Antony! O, Antony!
- Act IV, scene ix, lines 18-23
And so, asking forgiveness from Antony alone, and content to have all the world besides scorn him, he dies. Yet he does not have his wish, for with Shakespeare's deathless music pleading his case, who can scorn him? No one!
Again, Shakespeare follows his sources in having Enobarbus die of heartbreak. From a historical standpoint, it is hard to believe in such a death, but here, as in so many cases, it is far better to romanticize with Shakespeare than be flat with history.
There is a sequel to the story that Shakespeare doesn't hint at, but one that should be mentioned if only to soften a little our regret at Enobarbus' fate.
Enobarbus had a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who in later years served Octavius Caesar and who did well. This Lucius eventually married Antonia, who was Mark Antony's elder daughter by Octavia. They had a son, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (Enobarbus' grandson and namesake), who thus had both Enobarbus and Antony for grandfathers.
The younger Ahenobarbus married Agrippina, a great-granddaughter of Octavius Caesar and a great-granddaughter of Livia, the wife of Octavius Caesar, by her earlier marriage. Their son, the great-grandson of Antony and the great-grandson of Enobarbus, as well as the great-great-grandson of both Livia and Octavius Caesar himself, became the fifth Roman emperor in a.d. 54, eighty-four years after Enobarbus' death.
Could Enobarbus have suspected in his wildest dreams that a descendant of his would one day rule all Rome?
It is rather a shame to spoil the story by identifying this fifth emperor, the last of the house which Julius Caesar first brought to mastery in Rome, and who combined in himself the heritage of Octavius Caesar, his wife Livia, his sister Octavia, his enemy Antony, and his defected enemy, Enobarbus, but I must. The emperor was the infamous Nero, whose real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus.
All is lost
And now Shakespeare returns to history and lets Antony's forces betray him. Antony enters, shouting:
All is lost!
This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me:
My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder
They cast their caps up and carouse together
Like friends long lost. Triple-turned whore!
'Tis thou Hast sold me to this novice.. .
- Act IV, scene xii, lines 9-14
Antony is almost mad in his frustration, and when Cleopatra enters, he yells at her those words most designed to hurt her, exulting in the possibility that she may be taken by Octavius Caesar to grace his triumph.
The shirt of Nessus ...
Cleopatra rushes off, appalled by Antony's fury, and in deadly fear that he may even forestall Octavius Caesar's victory and kill her with his own hands. This possibility is made clear to the audience by Antony's rage-filled mythological allusion, when he cries:
The shirt of Nessus is upon me; teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage.
Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o'th'moon.
- Act IV, scene xii, lines 43-45
Alcides is, of course, Hercules (see page I-70). Hercules was the personification of blind strength, and since such strength can often be misapplied, several tales were told of what Hercules did in his mad rages. In one of these madnesses, he killed six of his own children and it was in penance for this that he was condemned to perform his twelve labors. Such madness Antony feels to be coming over himself.
The specific reference is to an event late in Hercules' life, when he took his last wife, Deianeira. At one time the two were crossing a river in flood. Nessus, a centaur (half man, half horse), offered to carry Deianeira across while Hercules swam. The arrangement was accepted, but, coming to the other side, the centaur galloped off with Deianeira and tried to rape her. The angry Hercules shot down the centaur with one of those arrows which had been dipped in the deadly poison of the Hydra's (see page I-237) blood.
As Nessus lay dying, he told Deianeira that if she saved some of his blood and placed it on Hercules' shirt, it would be an infallible way of assuring his fidelity. While he wore the shirt, he would love only her. Deianeira believed him.
Eventually, when Hercules began to wander, Deianeira remembered Nessus' advice and sent him a bloodstained shirt by Lichas, one of his attendants.
Hercules put it on (not noticing the blood, apparently) and at once the poison it carried from his own arrow began to burn into him with agonizing pain. He writhed in anguish, but the shirt had grown to his body and could not be removed. He seized Lichas as madness came over him, throwing him high into the air with all the might of his superhuman muscles. Lichas fell into the sea and was changed into a rock, while Hercules himself died in torture. Deianeira, at hearing the news, killed herself.
It was this "shirt of Nessus" that Antony felt himself to be wearing, and a like agony that he felt within himself. In his grief and rage he is ready to kill Cleopatra:
The witch shall die:
To the young Roman boy she hath sold me ...
- Act IV, scene xii, lines 47-48
The "young Roman boy" is now thirty-three, remember.
... the boar of Thessaly
Cleopatra is in the last extreme of panic. She knows that it is because of her that Antony has frittered away everything, and there is no doubt in her mind that he intends to kill her. She cries out to her ladies:
O, he's more mad
Than Telamon for his shield; the boar
of Thessaly Was never so embossed.
- Act IV, scene xiii, lines 1-3
Cleopatra matches Antony's example of mythological rage and madness (Hercules) with two examples of her own; making, as it happens, a mistake in each case.
It was not Telamon, but Telamon's son, Ajax (see page I-110), that went mad. After the death of Achilles under the walls of Troy, the question arose as to who was to inherit his divinely wrought armor, and the choice narrowed to the mighty-thewed Ajax and the shrewd and cunning Ulysses (see page I-92). We might suppose the Greeks reasoned that Ajax's muscles could kill only one Trojan at a time but that Ulysses' shrewd policy might yet win the war altogether. (And it did, for it was Ulysses who finally conceived the stratagem of the wooden horse-see page I-188.) So the armor went to Ulysses.
Now, finally, Ajax's long-suffering and unsubtle heart broke and he went mad. He planned to revenge himself on the leaders of the Greek army, and mistaking a herd of sheep for men, he lunged among them with his sword, screaming imprecations. When he recovered from his rage and found himself surrounded by slaughtered beasts, he realized that he had but made himself ridiculous-so he killed himself.
As for the boar of Thessaly who was so embossed (that is, foaming at the mouth with fury), he was a huge mad creature sent to Calydon to ravage the countryside because the Calydonians had neglected to make proper sacrifices to Diana (Artemis). But Calydon was in Aetolia, not Thessaly.
The sevenfold shield.. .
Cleopatra feels that the only way of saving her life (and this is straight from Plutarch and is not Shakespeare's dramatic invention) is to send news to Antony that she has died with his name upon her lips. Her feeling is that he would then realize she had not betrayed him and she could safely come back to life so that together they might plan their next move.
But she miscalculated the effect of the news on Antony. In the midst of his raving for her death, the news is brought to him that she is already dead, and instantly his rage vanishes.
The full swell of the orchestra ceases sharply and leaves behind the soft wail of one lonely flute, as Mark Antony turns to his aide and says:
Unarm, Eros. The long days task is done,
And we must sleep.
- Act IV, scene xiv, lines 35-36
He scorns the armor he is removing, for it cannot protect him from this new blow. He says:
The sevenfold shield of Ajax cannot keep
The battery from my heart.
- Act IV, scene xiv, lines 38-39
Again a reference to Ajax; this time to his famous shield, which Homer describes in connection with the duel of that hero with Hector. It was a huge shield, covering Ajax from neck to ankles, made of seven separate layers of tough oxhide and covered with bronze. It was so heavy that none but Ajax (or Achilles) could wield it, and so strong that a spear driven by the full fury of Hector's arm could penetrate but six of the layers.
... souls do couch on flowers...
Antony plans suicide and dreams that in death he and Cleopatra will be reunited. He imagines them in Elysium (see page I-13) and says:
... stay for me.
Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand,
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze:
Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,
And all the haunt be ours.
- Act IV, scene xiv, lines 50-54
I am dying, Egypt...
But even Antony's last act betrays him. He cannot have himself killed by his men. Eros kills himself rather than Antony. (That is in Plutarch and Shakespeare is not forced to make it up.) In desperation, Antony falls on his own sword, but does not aim correctly. He is badly wounded and dying, but still alive.
Now comes a messenger from Cleopatra, who, too late, fears the effect of the news of her death. She has locked herself, for safety, in her own tomb. (It was the custom of Egyptian monarchs to build, while alive, their own resting places after death-the pyramids having represented that custom at its most incredibly extreme. Shakespeare refers to Cleopatra's tomb as the "monument," and, of course, it served that purpose too.)
The dying Antony is brought to the tomb, carried on the shoulders of his guard. Cleopatra watches from a high window. She dares not open the doors to the tomb, for once Antony is dead, it seems entirely reasonable that his soldiers will kill her. From the courtyard, Antony, never more in love, calls out:
I am dying, Egypt, dying; only
I here importune death awhile, until
Of many thousand kisses the poor last
I lay upon thy lips.
- Act IV, scene xv, lines 18-21
Cleopatra and her women draw Antony up to the window on a stretcher. (Plutarch describes the effort it took to do so and how Cleopatra, with the strength of despair, managed.) The lovers are together one last moment and the kiss that Antony asked for is given.
And then he dies, fourteen years after the death of Julius Caesar had embarked him on that wild course during which he had held the world in his hands, and had thrown it away.
... eternal in our triumph
The news of Antony's death reaches Octavius Caesar, who bursts into tears.
Could Octavius, that cold politician, that efficient machine who never made a serious mistake, be so soft at the death of the man he had been fully determined to execute? Or was his sorrow a calculated device to blunt the sympathy of men for Antony?
It is clearly Shakespeare's intent to argue the latter, for as Octavius Caesar's speech grows more and more emotional and eloquent, an Egyptian arrives with a message from Cleopatra and Octavius turns off the flow at once and is all business, saying:
But I will tell you at some meeter season.
The business of this man looks out of him;
We'll hear him what he says.
- Act V, scene i, lines 48-51
Octavius Caesar learns that Cleopatra is still locked in her tomb and is sending to him to find out his terms. He is all sharpness now. His victory has been partially blunted by Antony's suicide, for in Roman terms a suicide under such conditions is a noble action and gains the dead man sympathy (which Octavius had to neutralize as far as possible by ostentatious tears and praise-as Antony had done over the corpse of Brutus, see page 1-315).
But there still remains Cleopatra. It is now in the highest degree necessary to keep her from killing herself. He sends her comforting words by her messenger and then sends Proculeius, one of his own men, to her, telling him:
... give her what comforts
The quality of her passion shall require,
Lest, in her greatness, by some mortal stroke
She do defeat us. For her life in Rome
Would be eternal in our triumph.
- Act V, scene i, lines 62-66
... conquered Egypt...
Proculeius reaches Cleopatra and asks her terms for surrender. She states them, saying:
.. .if he [Octavius] please
To give me conquered Egypt for my son,
He gives me so much of mine own as I
Will kneel to him with thanks.
-Act V, scene ii, lines 18-21
She is offering to abdicate and asking that her son be recognized as King of Egypt so that the land will remain independent to some extent. She doesn't say which son, but presumably she means Caesarion, who is now seventeen years old and who is coruler with her as Ptolemy XIV.
Naturally, this is an entirely unacceptable request from Octavius Caesar's standpoint. With the son of Cleopatra on the throne, or even alive as a private citizen, he would always be the focus for revolts. What Octavius Caesar intended, and what he did, was to annex Egypt, not only as a Roman province, but as a personal possession with he himself getting all the revenues, as though he were a king of Egypt.
This meant potential rivals would have to be put out of the way. Caesar-ion was too dangerous to be left alive, and in the aftermath of Octavius Caesar's victory, he was executed. The same fate was waiting for Antony's older son by Fulvia. Two of the children of Antony and Cleopatra were allowed to live and were brought up by none other than Octavia, who, in this, showed herself nobly forgiving. (It is also possible that Octavia had loved Antony and had felt a certain guilt in having been used by her brother as one more weapon with which to defeat him.)
The daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra Selene, was eventually married to Juba of Numidia, the son of a king (also named Juba) who had died at the Battle of Thapsus (see page I-281) fighting against Julius Caesar. The younger Juba had been given a complete Roman education and in 25 b.c. was made King of Mauretania, located where the present-day Morocco is to be found. Thus a younger Cleopatra became an African queen.
The two had a son-the grandson of Antony and Cleopatra-who was called Ptolemy of Mauretania. He was the very last of the Ptolemies. He reigned quietly till a.d. 40, when he was called to Rome and there, seventy years after the suicide of Mark Antony, was put to death by the mad emperor Caligula, for no better reason than that he had accumulated wealth which the Emperor felt he would like to confiscate for his own use.
But all that lay in the future. At the moment, Cleopatra is asking that Egypt be left to be ruled by her son, and Proculeius answers in soft words, for he knows that Roman soldiers are quietly surrounding the tomb and forcing the doors.
Suddenly Cleopatra is seized from behind and the dagger she attempts to draw is wrested from her. It is clear that she will not be allowed to commit suicide. All means for doing so will be taken from her and she will be watched. All she has left, it seems, are her memories:
I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.
O, such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man.
- Act V, scene ii, lines 76-78
He words me...
Octavius himself arrives; smooth, gentle, and gracious. In Plutarch, Cleopatra is described as being far from herself; her hair torn, her face scratched and puffy. Still, she is Cleopatra; pushing forty perhaps, but the creature of charm who could have her will of the greatest of Romans. Why not Octavius Caesar as well?
But Octavius is immune. He is cold and unimpassioned. He pushes aside the list of possessions she hands him and is ummoved when Cleopatra's secretary, currying the favor of the victor, reveals that Cleopatra, even at this great crisis, has thoughtfully listed less than half her assets. (After all, why should this disturb Octavius? He plans to take all Egypt.)
His last words to her are:
Feed and sleep:
Our care and pity is so much upon you
That we remain your friend; and so adieu.
- Act V, scene ii, lines 187-89
When she tries to prostrate herself before him, he will not allow it. But as soon as he leaves, Cleopatra looks after him bitterly and says:
He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not
Be noble to myself!
- Act V, scene ii, lines 191-92
She knows certainly that what Octavius has in mind for her is his own triumph. If she had any doubts in the matter, one of Octavius' officers, Cornelius Dolabella (according to Plutarch, and followed in this by Shakespeare), sends her secret information to this effect.
Sadly, Cleopatra pictures to her ladies the triumph in such a way as to make it plain to the audience (not Roman, and therefore not necessarily understanding the virtues of suicide) that death is preferable. As a climax she describes the comic plays that will be written about them:
Shall be brought drunken forth, and 1 shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I'th'posture of a whore.
- Act V, scene ii, lines 218-21
It is almost as though Shakespeare is preening himself here. After all, he has written the play and in it, Antony is far more than a mere drunkard and Cleopatra far more than a mere whore. The magic of Shakespeare converts them at last to ideal lovers and it is as such, thanks to him, that they will live forever.
... the pretty worm of Nilus.. .
Now must come the suicide.
Actually, the method used is a mystery. The Roman guards left behind by Octavius Caesar were surely impressed with the fact that Cleopatra must be kept alive. Cleopatra must therefore have succeeded in hiding something small and unnoticeable, prepared for such a contingency.
Her body was found virtually unmarked except for what seemed to be a puncture or two on her arm. It had to be poison then, but administered how? Was it the puncture of a poisoned needle which she had kept hidden in her hair? Or was it a poison snake?
The poison snake is much more unlikely and is, indeed, rather implausible, but it is exceedingly dramatic and, whether true or not, is accepted by all who have ever heard of Cleopatra. If they have heard only one thing of her, it is her method of suicide by snake.
She prepares for that suicide as though she were meeting her lover once again, and indeed, she expects to, in Elysium. She demands that she be dressed in her most splendid gowns as on that occasion when she met Antony for the first time:
Show me, my women, like a queen: go fetch
My best attires. I am again for Cydnus,
To meet Mark Antony.
- Act V, scene ii, lines 227-29
A peasant is brought in now with the gift of a basket of figs for her. It is this, partly, which makes the tale of the poison snake implausible. Would anyone have been allowed in to see her under the circumstances? Would he have failed to undergo a search if he were passed through? Is it conceivable that the basket of figs would have been unexamined?
Yet that is the tale that Plutarch reports as one possibility. He also talks of poisoned needles and poisoned razors.
Cleopatra asks the peasant:
Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there,
That kills and pains not?
- Act V, scene ii, lines 243-44
He does! The "pretty worm" is the asp, or Egyptian cobra, whose venom works quickly and painlessly. What's more, the creature was worshiped, as so many dangerous animals were in Egypt, and the coiled head of the cobra was worn on the headdress of the Pharaohs. A death by cobra bite was a royal death; it was rather like being bitten by a god.
Cleopatra is now ready. She says to her ladies in waiting:
Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip.
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick: methinks I hear
Antony call: I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act. I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come:
- Act V, scene ii, lines 280-87
And yet not all is pure love of Antony. There is some relish in feeling that she is depriving Octavius of his final victory. For as the asp is biting her, she says to it:
O couldst thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass
- Act V, scene ii, lines 306-8
It is well done...
Cleopatra dies. Her lady in waiting Iras is already dead of heartbreak, and Charmian (whom early in the play the soothsayer had predicted would outlive her mistress) is applying the asp to her own arm. In come the Roman soldiers, but too late.
Gaping at the dead Cleopatra, they get the significance of it at once. One of the soldiers cries:
... All's not well: Caesar's beguiled.
- Act V, scene ii, line 323
Then, when the same soldier angrily asks Charmian whether this sort of thing was well done, she answers proudly, just before dying:
It is well done, and fitting for a princess
Descended of so many royal kings.
- Act V, scene ii, lines 326-27
... an aspic's trail...
Octavius arrives to witness the defeat of what he planned as his crowning victory. They puzzle out the manner of her suicide. There is a swelling and a spot of blood on Cleopatra's breast and the soldier who had questioned Charmian now says:
This is an aspic's trail; and these fig leaves
Have slime upon them...
- Act V, scene ii, lines 350-51
It is an old superstition that snakes are slimy. They are not. Some snake-like sea creatures are slimy-lampreys, eels, salamanders. Snakes, however, are perfectly dry to the touch.
... another Antony
It falls to the cold Octavius to give Cleopatra her final epitaph. Even he is moved as he gazes at her dead body as she lies there-Cleopatra still. He says:
... she looks like sleep,
As she would catch another
Antony In her strong toil of grace.
- Act V, scene ii, lines 345-47
Nor is he vindictive. He says:
Take up her bed,
And bear her women from the monument.
She shall be buried by her Antony.
- Act V, scene ii, lines 355-57
... then to Rome
And now the world calls the one survivor and victor of all the turbulent events of the play. He says:
Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral,
And then to Rome.
- Act V, scene ii, lines 362-64
The civil wars that have lasted fifty years are over. The next year, 29 b.c., Octavius Caesar ordered the closing of the temple of Janus, indicating that Rome was at peace, the first time that had happened in over two hundred years. Then, in 27 b.c., he accepted the title of Augustus, by which he is best known to history.
From 27 b.c. Augustus reigned for forty-one years, establishing a new kind of government, the Roman Empire, and serving as its first and by all odds the greatest of its emperors. So firm was the government he established and so honored was it in the memory of man that though the last Roman Emperor in Italy abdicated in a.d 476, another ruler calling himself Roman Emperor continued to reign in Constantinople. The Constantinopolitan line, which used the title of Roman Emperor to the end, endured till 1453, and even after it was gone there was still a Roman Emperor in Vienna-a line that continued till 1806.
And even after that was gone there were emperors. In the German language, these were called Kaisers and in the Slavic languages tsars- both distortions of Caesar, the family name of Julius and Octavius. The last Russian tsar resigned his throne in 1917, the last German Kaiser in 1918, the last Bulgarian tsar in 1946.
It is interesting that 1946 is exactly two thousand years after 44 b.c., the year in which Julius Caesar was assassinated. For that length of time not one year passed in which somewhere in the world there wasn't someone calling himself by a form of "Caesar" as title (as all the Roman emperors did).
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