Plutarch on the real Antony and Cleopatra

It’s difficult to separate the fact from the fiction, when dealing with Mark Antony and Cleopatra, as so little sources survive about their love affair. One that does and is fairly accessible, is that of Plutarch, a renowned Roman philosopher and biographer. Now, he was not alive to witness these events first-hand, but his account is frequently cited by historians. I didn’t get the impression that Plutarch was biased in favour of the Romans, and he appeared to portray Antony and Cleopatra both as real people. Shakespeare certainly took the events Plutarch describes as fact, so let us see what he has to say.

On first view, Mark Antony seems like a bit of a jack the lad. From a young age, he is embroiled in ‘drinking bouts, love-affairs and reckless spending.’[1] This continues throughout most of his adult life, but does come into conflict with his ‘love of honour.’[2] On one occasion, before meeting with a senator in the morning, Antony got so drunk the night before that he vomited in his toga in the senators’ presence. Now fellow students, we can relate.[3] This whole party hard lifestyle matched well with Antony’s philosophy to also work hard, as he was a well-respected politician and general, and under Julius Caesar, became one of the most powerful men in Rome.[4] Antony, controversially, boasted that he descended from Hercules, which shows that he was a bit full of himself, but he still was able to accept the ‘good humour and jokes’ that people made about him.’[5] So, he probably sounds like that typical Uni lad, that we all know. It’s clear from his youth that he definitely has a ‘weakness for the opposite sex,’ and this certainly destroys Antony later on. Enter Cleopatra.

Plutarch credits Cleo with having the ‘strongest influence’ over Antony.[6] When they first meet, she’s twenty-eight, and has already had an affair with Julius Caesar, a union which secured her position as queen of Egypt.[7] She meets Antony in 41 BC in Tarsus, Turkey, and travels to him on the river Cyndus, under a ‘canopy of cloth of gold, dressed in the character of Venus.’[8] This was a piece of dramatic, political theatre, as Cleo demonstrated her wealth and power to the stunned Antony, in an attempt to woo him and secure his support, and vice versa. Cleo had a great ‘physical presence,’ and Plutarch rightly portrays her as not just a femme fatale, but a skilled political figure, who used her femininity and beauty for political gain. As well as this beauty, Plutarch writes that she had a certain ‘charm,’[9] and that ‘Plato speaks of four kinds of flattery, but Cleopatra knew a thousand.’[10] Antony is then whisked away to Alexandria by Cleo without hesitation.[11] Her charm is demonstrated in one particular story, in which, at one of her lavish parties, she bet Antony that she could consume a meal worth 10 million silver coins. To do this, she dissolved her pearl earring in a cup of vinegar wine and drank it.[12] It’s beauty and wit that seem to define Cleopatra.

Plutarch highlights the playfulness of their relationship. Cleo often humoured Antony, and when he would go on late night strolls through Alexandria, she would dress up as a maidservant and play along in his silly games.[13] Cleo appeared to bring out this childlike side to Antony, as the Alexandrians observed that he had a ‘tragic mask for the Romans, and a comic one for them.’[14]

The lovers’ ending is romantic and iconic. Their union was controversial and the favour that Antony continually bestowed on Cleo, at times in detriment to the Roman empire, angered the senate, making an enemy of Antony’s brother in law, Octavius.[15] Eventually Octavius declares war on Antony, after denouncing him in the senate.[16] Antony and Cleo recognised their impending doom, and formed a club named the ‘Order of the Inseparable Death,’ pledging to ‘end their lives together.’[17] In preparation, Cleo busied herself with testing poisons, and ascertained that the ‘bite of an asp’ was the most ‘painless.’[18]

The affair takes a dark and betraying turn, when Antony kills himself upon the news that Cleo had done the same.[19] Plutarch doesn’t really give his thoughts on why Cleo did this. It is difficult to see them both as genuine lovers when Cleo makes such a bold political move, knowing that her association with Antony is what is killing them both. His body is ‘hauled’ up the walls of Cleopatra’s monument, where she had retreated to for safety.[20] Cleopatra in anguish tore her dress and lay it over Antony, and ‘beat and lacerated her breasts, and smeared her face with the blood of his wounds.’[21] There’s genuine pain and love here, which contrasts with her previous callous moves. I think that Cleo told Antony she was dead for political reasons, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not tearing her up inside. It’s not a cold-blooded killing but a sacrifice for Egypt, and her heritage. Plutarch portrays her as a complex woman, and maybe it’s part of the point that Plutarch, and by extension the reader, don’t fully understand her motivations, and never will.

Now, in true tragic fashion, we know that she poisoned herself, but it is unclear how the asp was brought to her. What is in a basket of figs? Did she provoke it with a spindle?[22] It’s certainly a striking image. Cleo’s handmaiden, before she too killed herself, noted that ‘It is well done, and fitting for a princess descended of so many royal kings.’[23] Cleo gets the last laugh, as Octavius was reportedly ‘vexed’ that he could not parade her around Egypt as a spoil of the war that her death had ended.[24] Octavius believed that the asp bit Cleo, citing puncture marks in her arm as evidence.[25] In his victory procession, he had a statue built of Cleo with an asp clinging to her.[26]

This article doesn’t cover half of the political drama, blood, lust and betrayal that went on behind closed doors during the lives of Antony and Cleopatra, but even if it did, I think I would still reach the same conclusion that Antony and Cleopatra both ‘lost the world for love.’[27]

Thanks for reading!

Stay safe, stay inside. Read something cheerful.

[1] Plutarch, Makers of the Rome. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilver (London, Penguin Classics, 2004), p. 272.

[2] Ibid., p. 273.

[3] Ibid., p. 279.

[4] Ibid., p. 272.

[5] Ibid., p. 274.

[6] Ibid., p. 292.

[7] Ibid., p. 292.

[8] Ibid., p. 293.

[9] Ibid., p. 294.

[10] Ibid., p. 296.

[11] Ibid., p. 294.

[12] ‘Cleopatra: Mother, Mistress, Murderer, Queen’ Channel 5 Documentary:

[13] Plutarch, Makers of Rome, p. 296.

[14] Ibid., p. 296.

[15] Ibid., p. 321.

[16] Ibid., p. 322.

[17] Ibid., p. 337.

[18] Ibid., p. 337.

[19] Ibid., p. 341.

[20] Ibid., p. 341.

[21] Ibid., p. 342.

[22] Ibid., p. 348.

[23] Ibid., p. 348.

[24] Ibid., p. 348.

[25] Ibid., p. 348.

[26] Ibid., p. 348.

[27] Ibid., p. 355.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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