Antonius was born in Rome around 83 BC. His father was his namesake, Marcus Antonius, the son of the great rhetorician Marcus Antonius Orator executed by Gaius Marius' supporters in 86 BC. Through his mother Julia Caesaris he was a distant cousin and relative of Julius Caesar. His father died at a young age, leaving him and his brothers, Lucius and Gaius, to the care of his mother. Julia Antonia (known in sources by her married name, to distinguish from the other Julias) then married Publius Cornelius Lentulus, a politician involved in and executed during the Catiline conspiracy of 63 BC.
His early life was characterized by lack of parental guidance. According to historians like Plutarch, Antonius spent his teenage years roaming through Rome with his brothers and friends (Publius Clodius Pulcher among them). Together, they embarked on a rather wild sort of life, frequenting gambling houses, drinking too much and involving themselves in scandalous love affairs. Plutarch mentions the rumour that before Antonius reached 20 years of age, he was already indebted the sum of 250 talents (equivalent to several million euros).
After this period of recklessness, Antonius went to Greece to study rhetoric. During this visit, he joined the cavalry in the Roman legions of the pro-consul Aulus Gabinius en route to Syria. In this campaign, he demonstrated his talents as a cavalry commander and distinguished himself with bravery and courage. It is during this campaign that he visited Egypt and Alexandria for the first time.
Supporter of Caesar
In 54 BC, Antonius becomes a member of the staff of Julius Caesar's armies in Gaul. He again proved to be a competent military leader in the Gallic wars, but his personality caused instability wherever he went. Caesar himself was said to be frequently irritated by his behaviour.
Nevertheless, Antonius became a wholehearted Julius Caesar supporter and dedicated his year as tribune of the plebs, in 50 BC to his cause. Caesar's two pro-consul commands, during a period of 10 years, were expiring and the general wanted to return to Rome for the consular elections. But resistance from the conservative faction of the senate led by Pompey was demanding the command of Caesar's legions. This he could not do, because Pompey himself was the general of an army as great as his. Antonius proposed that both generals lay down their commands. The idea was rejected and Antonius resorted to violence, ending up expelled from the senate. He travelled in full to meet Caesar, then stationed in northern Italy. With all hopes of a peaceful solution for the conflict with Pompey gone, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, starting the last Republican civil war. During the civil war, Antonius was Caesar's second in command. In all battles against the Pompeians, Antonius led the left wing of the army, a proof of Caesar's confidence in him.
When Caesar became dictator, Antonius was made master of the horse - the second most important political office - and in this condition he remained in Italy in 47 BC, while Caesar was fighting the last Pompeians, hidden in the African provinces. But Antonius' skills as administrator were a poor match to his military ones. Conflict soon arrived and, as on other occasions, Antonius used violence. Hundreds of citizens were killed and Rome herself was in a state of war. Caesar was most displeased with the whole affair and removed all political responsibilities from Antonius. He was also removed from Caesar's presence for two years. Reconciliation arrived in 44 BC, when Antonius was chosen as partner of Caesar's fifth consulship.
Whatever conflicts between the two men, Antonius remained faithful to Caesar at all times. In the Lupercalia festival (February) of that fatidic year, Antonius publicly offered Caesar a diadem. This was an event fraught with meaning: a diadem was a symbol of a king and, in refusing it, Caesar demonstrated that he did not intent to abolish the Republic.
On March 15 44 BC (the Ides of March) Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators, led by Cassius and Brutus. In the turmoil that surrounded the event, Antonius escaped Rome dressed as a slave, fearing that the dictator's assassination would be the start of a bloodbath among his supporters. That did not occur and Antonius soon returned to Rome, discussing a truce with the assassins' faction. For a while, Antonius, as consul of the year, seemed to pursue peace and the end of the political tension. Following a speech by Marcus Tullius Cicero in the senate, an amnesty was agreed for the assassins. Then came the day of Caesar's funeral. As Caesar's eternal second in command, partner in consulship and cousin, Antonius was the natural choice to make the funeral eulogy. In his speech, he stroke his accusations of murder and sealed the fates of the conspirators. Showing a talent for rhetoric and dramatic interpretation, Antonius snatched the toga from Caesar's body to show the crowd the scars of the stabs. That night, the Roman populace attacked the assassins' houses, forcing them to flee for their lives.
The death of Caesar had left an open space in Rome's politics. The Republic was dying and yet another civil war was starting. It was then that Octavianus, Caesar's great nephew and adopted son, emerged on the political scene. As heir of Caesar's name and estate, he had a great political potential, due to the esteem of the population and the loyalty of the legions. He was also very willing to fight for power with the other two main contestants: Antonius himself and Lepidus. After a few months of difficult negotiations, the three men agreed to share the power as the second triumvirate. The Triumvirs for the Organization of the People gained official recognition by the Lex Titia, a law passed by the Assembly in 43 BC, which granted them virtually all powers for a period of five years. To solidify the alliance, Octavianus married Clodia, Antonius' step-daughter. The triumvirs then set to pursue the assassins' faction, fled to the East, and murder their supporters who remained in Rome. Cicero was the most famous victim of these violent days; knowing that Antonius had a grudge against him, the writer committed suicide before they could kill him. Antonius and his wife Fulvia did not spare the body: Cicero's head and hands were posted in the rostra, with his tongue pierced by Fulvia's golden hairpins. After the twins battles at Phillipi and the suicides of Brutus and Cassius, no one else would defy their power.
With the political and military situations dealt with, the triumvirs divided the Roman world among themselves. Lepidus took control of the western provinces and Octavianus remained in Italy with the responsibility of securing lands for the veteran soldiers: an important task, since the loyalty of the legions depended heavily on this promise. As for Antonius, he went to the Eastern provinces, to pacify yet another rebellion in Judaea and attempt to conquer the Parthian Empire. During this trip, he met Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in Tarsus, in 41 BC, and became her lover.
Meanwhile, in Italy, the situation was not pacified. Octavianus' administration was not appeasing and revolt was about to happen. Moreover, he divorced Clodia giving a curious explanation: she was annoying. The leader of this revolt was Fulvia, the wife of Antonius, a woman known to history for her political ambition and tempestuous character. She feared for her husband political position and was not keen to see her daughter put aside. Assisted by Lucius Antonius, her brother-in-law, Fulvia raised eight legions with her own money. Her army invaded Rome, and for a while managed to create problems to Octavianus. However, in the winter of 41-40 BC, Fulvia was besieged in Perusia and forced to surrender by starvation. Fulvia was exiled to Sicyon, where she died while waiting for Antonius' arrival.
Fulvia's death was providential. A truce with Octavianus was negotiated and reinforced by Antonius' marriage to Octavia, Octavianus' beloved half-sister. This peace, known as the Treaty of Brundisium, reinforced the triumvirate and allowed Antonius to finally prepare his long awaited campaign against the Parthians.
Antonius and Cleopatra
With this military purpose on his mind, Antonius sailed to Greece with his new wife. But the rebellion of S--tus Pompeius, the last of the Pompeians, in Sicily kept the army promised to Antonius in Italy. With his plans again severed, Antonius and Octavianus quarreled again. This time with the help of Octavia, a new treaty is signed in Tarentum in 38 BC. The triumvirate is renewed for a period of another five years (ending in 33 BC) and Octavianus promised again to send legions to the East.
But by now Antonius was sceptical of Octavianus' true support of his Parthian cause. Leaving Octavia pregnant of her second Antonia in Rome, he sails to Alexandria, where he expects funding from Cleopatra, the mother of his twins. The queen of Egypt loaned him the money needed for the army, but the campaign proved a disaster. After a series of defeats in battle, Antonius lost most of his Egyptian army during a retreat through Armenia in the peak of winter.
Meanwhile in Rome, the triumvirate was no more. Lepidus was forced to resign after an ill-judged political move. Now in sole power, Octavianus was occupied in wooing the traditional Republican aristocracy to his side. He marries Livia and starts to attack Antonius in order to raise himself to power. He argues that Antonius was a low moral man, leaving his faithful wife Octavia, abandoned in Rome taking care of the children, to be with the promiscuous queen of Egypt. Antonius is accused of everything, but most of all, of becoming native, an unforgivable crime to the proud Romans. Several times Antonius was summoned to Rome, but remained in Alexandria with Cleopatra and her funds.
Again with Egyptian money, Antonius invaded Armenia, this time successfully. In the return, a mock Roman triumph is celebrated in the streets of Alexandria. The parade through the city was a fac-simile of Rome's most important military celebration. For the finale, the whole city was summoned to hear a very important political statement. Surrounded by Cleopatra and her children, Antonius is about to put an end to his alliance with Octavianus. He distributes kingdoms between his children: Alexander Helios is named king of Armenia and Parthia (not conquered yet), his twin Cleopatra Selene gets Cyrenaica and Libya, the young Ptolomy Philadelphus is awarded with Syria and Cilicia. As for Cleopatra, she is proclaimed Queen of Kings and Queen of Egypt, to rule with Caesarion (Ptolomy Caesar, son of Julius Caesar), King of Kings and King of Egypt. Most important of all, Caesarion is declared legitimate son and heir of Julius Caesar. These proclamations are known as the Donations of Alexandria and caused a fatal breach in Antonius' relations with Rome.
Distributing insignificant lands among the children of Cleopatra was not a peace move, but was not a serious problem either. What seriously threatened Octavianus' political position was the acknowledgment of Caesarion as legitimate and heir to Julius Caesar's name. Octavianus' base of power was his link through adoption with Caesar, that granted him the most needed popularity and loyalty of the legions. To see this convenient situation attacked by a child, sired by the richest woman in the world, was a thing that Octavianus could not accept. The triumvirate expired in the last day of 33 BC and was not renewed. Another civil war was beginning.
During 33 and 32 BC a propaganda war was fought in the political arena of Rome, with accusations flying between sides. Antonius (in Egypt) divorces Octavia and accuses Octavianus of usurpation of power, of being an social upstart and forging the adoption papers by Julius Caesar. Octavianus responds with treason charges, of illegally keeping provinces that should be given by lots to other men, according to Rome's tradition, and starting wars against foreign nations (Armenia and Parthia) without the consent of the senate. Antonius is also held responsible for S--tus Pompeius execution with no trial. In 32 BC, both consuls (Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Gaius Sosius) and a third of the senate abandon Rome to meet Antonius and Cleopatra in Greece.
In 31 BC, the war started. Agrippa captured the naval ports of Methone, loyal to Antonius. The enormous popularity of Octavianus with the legions secured the defection of the Cyrenaica and Greece provinces to his side. In September, the naval battle of Actium takes place. Antonius and Cleopatra's navy was destroyed and they were forced to escape to Egypt.
Octavianus, now close to absolute power, does not intend to give them rest. In August 30 BC, assisted by his loyal and talented general Agrippa, he invaded Egypt. With no other refuge to escape to, Antonius committed suicide. A few days later, Cleopatra herself followed his example.
With the death of Antonius, Octavianus became uncontested ruler of the Roman world. After this last republican civil war, no one else attempted to take power from him. In the following years, Octavianus, known as Augustus Caesar after 27 BC, managed to accumulate in his person all administrative, political and military offices. During his life, the Roman Republic is not officially ended. It is only at his death, in 14 AD, that the succession through Tiberius instituted the beginning of the Empire.
Antonius' marriages and descendants
- Previous marriages to Fadia and Antonia Hybrida (his direct cousin)
- Marriage to Fulvia
- Marcus Antonius Antyllus, executed by Octavian in 31 BC
- Iullus Antonius, married Marcella Minor, daughter of Octavia
- Marriage to Octavia
- Antonia Major, married Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus
- Antonia Minor, married Drusus, the son of Livia
- Children from Cleopatra
- The twins
- Alexander Helios, the sun
- Cleopatra Selene, the moon, married King Juba II of Numidia Mauritania
- Ptolemy Philadelphus.
83 BC – born in Rome
54-50 BC – joins Caesar's staff in Gaul and fights in the Gallic wars
50 BC – tribune of the plebs
48 BC – master of the horse
47 BC – ruinous administration of Italy: political exile
44 BC – consul with Caesar
43 BC – forms the second triumvirate with Octavianus and Lepidus
42 BC – defeats Cassius and Brutus; travels through the East
41 BC – meets Cleopatra
40 BC – returns to Rome, marries Octavia; treaty of Brundisium
38 BC – treaty of Tarentum: triumvirate renewed until 33 BC
36 BC – disastrous campaign against the Parthians
35 BC – conquers Armenia
34 BC – the donations of Alexandria
33 BC – end of the triumvirate
32 BC – exchange of accusations between Octavianus and Antonius
31 BC, September – battle of Actium
30 BC – Antonius and Cleopatra commit suicide
Reference: Antony, by Plutarch