Inside the decadent love affair of Cleopatra and Mark Antony

A Roman general and an Egyptian queen, Mark Antony and Cleopatra flaunted their scandalous love affair while challenging the power of Rome.

This 1883 painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema shows Mark Antony impatiently waiting for a glimpse of the alluring Cleopatra when they meet in Tarsus on her luxurious barge.
Photograph by CHRISTIE’S IMAGES/CORBIS/CORDON PRESS

In 42 B.C. Rome’s three most powerful men carved up the republic among them. The triumvirate of Lepidus, Octavian, and Mark Antony was an uneasy alliance after turbulent times. Placed in charge of the eastern provinces, Mark Antony found himself far from Rome and immersed in the Hellenistic culture he had always adored. It was a heady combination that drew him into the arms of Cleopatra, Egypt’s beguiling queen. (Read more about archaeologists' search for Cleopatra.)

As Antony journeyed to take up his new responsibilities, amorous adventures ranked low on his agenda. The triumvirate that ruled over Rome’s vast territories needed to urgently restructure the army in the east, secure new sources of military funding, and launch a punitive expedition against the Parthians to avenge a humiliating defeat in 53 B.C. Julius Caesar had been planning such an expedition before his assassination, and Antony was keen to be seen to continue his great mentor’s work. He also knew that a major victory against a foreign foe would greatly enhance his personal prestige and power.

Mark Antony’s interests, however, extended beyond Roman politics. He had a deep love of the Greek Hellenistic culture that Alexander the Great’s conquests had firmly embedded in the lands that now formed Rome’s eastern provinces. The abundant cultural distractions helped to alleviate the heavy cares of state, and Antony took full advantage as he toured his territories. Visiting Athens, he won the sobriquet “Dionysus the giver of joy,” and traveling in Asia Minor, he was met in Ephesus by a spectacular procession of men and women dressed as satyrs and priestesses of Bacchus, the Roman god of revelry. The citizens of Ephesus bestowed upon the Roman Antony the divine title of “Dionysus the benefactor.” (Learn more about Greek culture that Antony adored.)

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