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GCSE Ancient History

OCR GCSE in Ancient History: J151/J051

Unit: AO33: Option 1: Cleopatra and her impact on Roman politics, AD 41–59

This handbook is designed to accompany the OCR GCSE in Ancient History specification for teaching from September 2009.



Unit A033: Women in Ancient Politics: Option 1: Cleopatra and her impact on Roman politics, 69–30 BC

Horace Odes 1.37

Now friends is the time to drink and to dance, beating the earth with feet set free; now it's time to decorate the couches of the gods with feasts like those of the Salian priests.
Before this day, it would have been a sacrilege to bring up the Caecuban wine from our family cellars, while that queen was preparing some insane destruction for the capitol and planning a funeral for our empire.
She had with her that disgraceful mob of diseased men; she herself was out of control, hoping for whatever she wanted, made drunk by sweet good fortune. But hardly one ship was saved from the fire; and although she was out of her mind, drunk on Italian wine, Caesar brought her back to her senses and to real fears; as she fled from Italy, Caesar pursued her, just like the hawk hunts the gentle dove, or a quick hunter pursues the hare on the snow-filled plains of Thessaly. His aim: to put in chains this doomed, destructive monster.
But she sought a nobler way to die; she did not, like most women, fear the sword, nor did she escape on a swift ship to some secret shore where she could hide. She dared to look upon her defeated palace calmly and bravely held onto the bitter snakes so that her body might drink their black poison.
Determined to die, she became even more fierce; she had no intention, although no longer a queen, to be brought in ships to Rome, and led in a proud triumph, for she was not some obscure, ordinary woman.

Plutarch: The Life of Mark Antony 24-37



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Then he left behind Lucius Censorinus in charge of Greece. He went across to Asia and took possession of the wealth there. Kings waited at his door. The wives of kings competed with one another with their gifts and using their beauty, allowed themselves to be seduced by him. In Rome Octavian was being worn out by political in-fighting and wars; meanwhile Antony was enjoying a great deal of leisure and peace, and had returned to his usual way of life by his personal desires. Cithara-players like Anaxenor, flute-players like Xanthus, Metrodorus, a dancer, and other such bands of Eastern performers surrounded him. They were worse in their excessive corruption than those Italian scoundrels he had with him, and they streamed into his home and took control. For many there was no way that they could suffer the idea that everything was being wasted on such things. For all of Asia, just as that city of Sophocles, in the same way, was filled with incense, and

‘with hymns too and sad groans’.

At any rate, when Antony entered Ephesus, women dressed as the followers of Bacchus, with men and boys made to look like Satyrs and Pans, led him in. The city was full of ivy-wreaths and thyrsus-wands and harps and pipes and flutes while the citizens called him Dionysus, bringer of Joy and Protector. And of course he was seen like that to some, but to many others he was Dionysus Eater of raw flesh and the Savage. For he stole from the well-born men their possessions and gave them as gifts to rogues and flatterers. Some indeed took the property of others who were still alive by claiming that they were dead. He gave as a gift the house of a man from Magnesia to a cook. It is said that he did this because the cook became famous on the basis of one dinner. Finally, when he was placing a second tax on the cities, Hybreas, speaking for Asia, dared to say this: "If you are able to take the tax twice in one year, you can surely provide us with two summers and two harvests. He spoke as if he was at a public meeting but in a way which suited Antony's taste. Then Hybreas continued more practically and boldly, that Asia had given him two hundred thousand talents; he said “ If, on the one hand, you have not received this money, then ask for it from the ones who collected it; on the other hand, if you did collect it, and do not have it, we are finished." These words deeply affected Antony; for he had not realized most of what had happened, not that he was so laid-back, but rather because in his open-heartedness he trusted those around him.


He was, so to speak, straightforward by nature, and he was slow to realise things were happening. However when he did realise he had made a mistake, his regret was considerable. He would admit his mistakes to those who had been badly treated and he was generous in repairing the wrongs as well as harsh in punishing the criminals. Even so people considered that he was far more likely to give favours than punishments. As far as the outrageous fun and joking he enjoyed, it had its own remedy. In fact anyone might joke with him, and he liked being made fun of just as much as he enjoyed making fun of someone else. It was this aspect of character which harmed many of his affairs because he couldn’t believe that people who made jokes really intended to flatter him. He had never realised that some men speak bluntly, openly using it like some spicy seasoning to hide the sickly taste of the flattery. Such men use this direct way of talking when drinking or drunk. That way, when dealing with business-affairs, they appear not to be the sort whose only method is to flatter, but the sort who are convinced by better knowledge.
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So this was Antony’s character when this final disaster - his love for Cleopatra - overtook him. This love stirred up to near-madness those many passions which were up till now hidden, or kept under control. It now removed and destroyed any useful or saving qualities which could have held out against it. In this way he was captured by her. While preparing for the Parthian war, he ordered Cleopatra to meet him in Cilicia in order to answer to the charges made against her of supplying a large amount of money to help Cassius in the war against himself and Octavian. Dellius was sent by Antony, but when he saw Cleopatra, he understood her cunning and cleverness in conversation. Straightaway he realized that Antony was unlikely to do such a woman any harm, in fact it was more likely that she would have the greatest influence with him. He therefore changed his approach to flatter her and persuade the Egyptian queen to go to Cilicia ‘dressed to the best of her ability’ (as Homer says); not to be afraid of Antony, who was the most pleasant and well-disposed of commanders. She was convinced by Dellius. She understood Romans from the evidence of her previous affairs with Caius Caesar and Gnaeus the son of Pompey, and so she hoped that she would more easily bring Antony under her power. For they had known her when she was still young and less experienced in these matters. However, she was not intending to go to Antony at the precise time when women’s beauty is at its most radiant and they are at the peak of intellectual ability. Therefore she prepared many gifts, a great amount of money, and ornaments which it was right for her to take given her position as Queen and the great wealth of her kingdom. However, she placed most hope in herself, and the near-magical charms which her presence could provide.


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She received many requests both from Antony himself and from his friends calling for her to visit him; yet, she treated him with such contempt and laughed at him to the extent that she sailed up the river Cydnus in a river-craft covered in gold, its purple sails in the wind, its rowers pressing on with silver oars to the sound of flutes, pipes and citharas. She herself lay back beneath a canopy embroidered with gold, dressed to look like Aphrodite [Venus] in some painting, while on both sides stood boys made up as Cupids in paintings who fanned her. In the same way the most beautiful of her maids, in the clothes of Nereïds and Graces, were placed, some at the rudders and others at the sail-ropes. Marvellous strong-smelling perfumes drifted from many burners towards the banks of the river. Some of the people escorted her on both banks of the river right up the river from its mouth, while others came down from the city to see the sight. The crowd that had gathered in the market-place gradually moved away. Finally only Antony himself, seated on his platform, remained. Everywhere there was the rumour that Aphrodite would celebrate with Dionysus [Bacchus] for the good of Asia.

Therefore, Antony sent an invitation to her for dinner; but she thought that it was better for him to come to her. So immediately wishing to show his readiness to accept and his generosity, Antony agreed and went. What met him was a preparation that was beyond any description, but what especially amazed him was the enormous number of lights. We are told that many of these lights were hung from the roof and displayed everywhere at once; they were arranged and organised in patterns and at angles to each other in order to form squares and circles, in such a way that few sights could have been as beautiful or as worth-seeing as this.


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On the next day, Antony supplied the banquet for her; he was eager to surpass her feast in its brilliance and presentation; however, in both of these he was completely defeated and left way behind. He was the first to joke about the squalid and common nature of his efforts. Cleopatra saw in these jokes that in Antony there was a lot of the soldier and the common man, and used this way of behaving towards him, showing confidence and no restraint now. Her beauty, so we are told, was not itself outstanding; it did not immediately strike those who saw her; yet being with her had an inescapable hold; when talking with her, she was persuasive, and the character which surrounded her whole manner in company had a force to it. Her voice had a pleasantness of tone; and her tongue, like some musical instrument with many strings, could be turned to whatever language she wished, so that in conversations with barbarians, she rarely spoke through and interpreter, mostly making her own replies on her own regardless of whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Parthians. Indeed, it is said that she had learnt the languages of many other peoples, although the kings of Egypt before her had not even tried to learn the Egyptian language, and some actually had given up speaking their own Macedonian dialect.




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In this way Cleopatra so completely took control of Anthony, that while Fulvia, his wife, was waging war on his behalf with Octavian in Rome and a Parthian army commanded by Labienus was threatening Mesopotamia (the generals of the king had appointed Labienus Parthian commander-in chief over this area), and was about to invade Syria, he let himself be carried off by her to Alexandria. There, like a young man with time on his hands for leisure, he wasted his time spending it upon amusements and pleasures, time which Antiphon calls the most expensive of all goods. They had a group around them called ‘The Inimitable Livers’, and every day for each other they gave feasts of an unbelievable and immeasurable expense. In fact, Philotas, the doctor from Amphissa, used to tell my grandfather, Lamprias, that he was in Alexandria then, learning his skills. He got to know one of the Queen’s cooks. He was easily persuaded by him (being a young man) to view the expensive preparations for one of the feasts. So he was taken into the kitchen, where he saw all the other preparations and eight wild boars roasting; he said that he showed amazement at the number of diners. But the cook laughed and said: "There are not many guests, only about twelve; but each thing placed before them must be perfect, and this could be ruined by a moment’s delay. For Antony would demand his dinner straightaway but then, shortly afterwards, might put it off to ask for a drink or fall into some conversation with someone. So” he said, “we arrange not one dinner but many. For it is hard to hit upon the right time." Philotas used to tell this story; and he said in addition that he became eventually an attendant of Antony’s eldest son by Fulvia. He said that he often dined with him at his house with his other friends, when the young man did not dine with his father.


Once when a doctor was annoyingly holding forth on many matters as they dined, Philotas stopped his mouth with some clever saying such as: "To the patient who is in a fever you should give cold water; but everyone who has a fever is feverish to some extent; therefore to everyone who has a fever cold water should be given." The man was shocked and was silent, but Antony’s son saw this and laughed and said, "I will favour you with all of this.” and he pointed to the middle of the table full of many large drinking cups. Philotas accepted this show of kindness, but did not suppose that a boy of his age was able to give away so many things. After a short while, however, one of the slaves brought the cups to him in a sack, and told him put his seal upon it. When Philotas objected and was afraid to take them, "You are being foolish to hesitate," said the slave “Don't you know that it is the son of Antony who gives them to you, and he can give you all these golden cups if he wishes? However, trust me and change them all for silver with us; perhaps his father might want one of them; they are old and of excellent workmanship and valuable." This is the sort of story Philotas would tell my grandfather whenever he got the chance.


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Now Cleopatra displayed her flattery, not like Plato says in four sorts; while Antony was spending his time either in some amusement or some serious matter, she was always bringing some new pleasurable diversion or charming activity, and so keeping him well-trained and under control day and night. She played dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, and when he exercised himself in full armour she watched him; when at night he liked to stand outside the doors or windows of the ordinary people to make fun of those inside, she used to put on the clothes of a servant-girl and join him in his games. Antony also would dress up like some slave. He often returned home driven by abuse and sometimes blows. In fact most people knew it was him. The Alexandrians enjoyed this sort of silly behaviour and played along with their usual good taste, saying with affection that Antony put on his tragic face for the Romans and his comic one for them.

It would be pointless to list all the many childish games he got up to at that time. Once, however, he went fishing, caught nothing and was annoyed especially since Cleopatra was there also. So he ordered some fishermen to dive down and without being seen attach some previously caught fish to his line; he then pulled up two or three of these – but he did not manage to do this without Cleopatra noticing. She told her friends what he had done, and invited them to come and watch the next day. As a result, a large number of friends climbed into the boats. When Antony let down his line, she ordered one of her servants to go down first to his hook and attach a salted Black Sea fish. Antony was convinced that he had caught a fish, so he pulled his line up, and as expected, everyone started laughing. Cleopatra then said to him “Commander, you had better hand over your fishing-rod to the kings of the Pharos and Canopus; you should be hunting cities, kingdoms, and continents."
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While Antony was playing the young fool like this, two messages brought him down to earth: the first from Rome, that Lucius his brother and Fulvia his wife had fallen out with one another; next they had started a war with Octavian, but they had lost badly and had fled from Italy; the second message was no more pleasing, that Labienus, commanding the Parthian force, was overrunning Asia from the Euphrates and Syria as far as Lydia and Ionia. So finally, like a man woken from a deep sleep brought on a by a night of heavy drinking, Antony set out to stop the Parthians, and reached Phoenicia; there, a letter arrived from Fulvia full of complaints. He turned round and headed towards Italy with two hundred ships. During the journey, he picked up a number of his friends who were fleeing from Italy, and he learnt that Fulvia had started the war; she was naturally the sort of energetic woman, who likes to get involved in men’s affairs; in this way she had hoped to draw Antony away from Cleopatra by causing trouble in Italy.  Fulvia was sailing to meet him, but she became ill and died at Sicyon, as it happened. This provided a greater opportunity for Antony and Octavian to be reconciled. In fact, on Antony reaching Italy, Octavian clearly showed he had no wish to accuse Antony of causing the war but rather blamed Fulvia. The friends of the two men did not allow the excuse given to be questioned. Instead they made peace between them and divided up the leadership of the Empire, drawing a boundary with the Ionian Sea and giving to Antony the East, and to Octavian the West; Lepidus was allowed to have Africa. They also arranged that, when they felt they did not need to be consul, the friends of each of them should take the office by turns.


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Both sides thought this arrangement reasonable but they also needed some strong connection, which fate now provided. Octavia was the elder sister of Octavian, although their mothers were different; she was the child of Ancharia, while Octavian, by a later marriage, was the son of Atia. Octavian was very fond of his sister, who was, as we say, a marvel of a woman. Her husband, Caius Marcellus, had died a little earlier, and she was now a widow. Antony, too, with the death of Fulvia, was viewed as a widower. He did not deny his affair with Cleopatra; he did not, however, agree that she was his wife, and in this matter of how to describe his relationship, his reason and his love for the Egyptian were fighting it out. Everyone was working to arrange this marriage. They hoped that Octavia, who had great dignity and commonsense to add her beauty, would stand by Antony’s side and eventually be loved by him, as was natural with such a woman. In this way, they hoped, she would bring some stability and safety for their affairs and harmony for the world. So when both men had agreed terms, they went to Rome and finalised Octavia's marriage, although the law did not allow a woman to marry before her husband had been dead ten months. In this case, however, the senate passed a decree to put aside this restriction on time.




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Sextus Pompeius held Sicily and was harassing the coast of Italy. With his many pirate ships under the command of Menas the pirate and Menecrates, he had made the sea un-sailable. He was considered to favour Antony, since he had welcomed Antony's mother when she fled from Rome with Fulvia. Therefore they decided to have an agreement with him. The men met for this purpose at Cape Misenum. Pompey’s fleet was anchored off-shore and the forces of Antony and Octavian were drawn up on land nearby. It was agreed that Pompey should have Sardinia and Sicily, but that he should keep the sea clear of pirates, and should send to Rome an agreed amount of grain. They invited each other to dinner. They cast lots to choose who was to provide the first dinner and it happened to be Pompey. When Antony asked him where they would dine, "There," said he, pointing to his command ship with its six banks of oars, "for this is the only house left to Pompey by his father." This he said as a way of blaming Antony who now owned the house once owned by Sextus’ father, Pompeius. So anchoring his ship close by, he constructed a walkway from the ship to the shore, and eagerly welcomed them on board. When they were thoroughly at ease with each other and they were joking freely about Antony and Cleopatra, Menas the pirate came up to Pompey and spoke in a way that the others could not hear. "Do you want me to cut the ship's anchor ropes and make you leader not only Sicily and Sardinia, but of the whole Roman empire?" he said. Pompey, when he heard this, for a short while thought to himself, and then said: "Menas, you ought to have done this without speaking to me first; but now let us be happy with the present arrangement; for it is not my nature to break an oath." Pompey, then, after being dined in his turn by the two others, sailed back to Sicily.




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Once this agreement was made, Antony sent Ventidius to Asia ahead of himself to prevent the Parthians gaining further ground. Meanwhile Antony, as a favour to Octavian, was inaugurated as priest of Julius Caesar. In addition, they dealt together with other important political matters in a friendly atmosphere. However, Antony was annoyed that in their somewhat competitive amusements he always came off worse than Octavian. Antony had with him a man from Egypt who told fortunes by examining horoscopes from birth-dates. This man, either because he wanted to please Cleopatra, or because he wanted to tell Antony the truth, openly said that his fortune was great and very bright, but was always obscured by Octavian’s; and he advised him to get as far away from the young man as possible. He said to Antony "Your spirit fears his; and although it is proud and stately when it is by itself, when his is present, yours becomes downcast and dispirited." In fact, events seemed to prove the Egyptian right. For the story is that whenever they cast lots or threw dice for amusements they were playing, Antony lost. They would often use fighting cocks and quails, and Octavian's would beat Antony.

Antony was annoyed, although he did not show it, and he now took more notice of the Egyptian. He left Italy, after leaving the management of his household affairs to Octavian. He took Octavia with him as far as Greece. She had by now given birth to a daughter. He spent the winter at Athens where he received news that Ventidius had been successful. He had defeated the Parthians in battle and killed Labienus, and Pharnapates, the best of King Hyrodes’ generals. In celebration of this victory Antony gave a feast for the Greeks, and as gymnasiarch organized athletic contests for the Athenians. He left at home the insignia of his Roman command, and went to the games carrying the sticks of a gymnasiarch, in Greek dress and white shoes, and as presiding judge, he would twist the necks of the young contestants to part them.

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When he was ready to set out for the war, he took a wreath from the sacred olive-tree, and according to a certain oracle, he carried with him a vessel filled with water from the Clepsydra. Meanwhile Pacorus, the king's son, moved again with a large army of Parthians against Syria; Ventidius met him and defeated him in Cyrrhestica, and destroyed much of his army. Among the first to be killed was Pacorus. This became one of the most glorious of Roman achievements, and provided the Romans with complete revenge for the disaster suffered by Crassus. It also kept the Parthians again within Media and Mesopotamia, since they had now been completely defeated in three battles. Ventidius, however, decided not to pursue the Parthians any further, because he feared the jealousy of Antony; but he moved against those who had revolted and defeated them. He besieged Antiochus of Commagené in the city of Samosata. When Antiochus asked permission to pay a thousand talents and do as Antony commanded, Ventidius told him to send his offer to Antony. Antony himself was now quite near, and would not allow Ventidius to make peace-terms with Antiochus. He wanted at least this one achievement to be in his name, and not everything credited to Ventidius. But the siege went on for a long time, and the citizens in the city, since they realized they could not make terms with Antony, rallied to its defence. Antony got nowhere with the siege. He now felt ashamed and repentant, and gladly made peace with Antiochus for three hundred talents. He sorted out some minor matters in Syria and then returned to Athens. He sent Ventidius home for his triumph, after first giving him the honours he deserved.
Ventidius is the only man up to now to celebrate a triumph over the Parthians. He was a man of undistinguished birth, but his friendship with Antony gave him opportunities to do great things. He used these well and confirmed what has usually been said of both Antony and Octavian: that campaigns led by others were more successful than the ones commanded by themselves. For Sossius, Antony's general, achieved a lot in Syria, and Canidius, left by Antony in Armenia, defeated them, and as the kings of the Iberians and Albanians, going as far as the Caucasus. as a result of these achievements, the name and fame of Antony's power was increased among the Barbarians.

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