Mark Antony lost his father when very young, and although his mother, who was of the family of the Cæsars, took great pains with his training and education, he formed a friendship with a bad man named Curio, who led him into all sorts of dissipation. After spending all the money his father left him and finding himself deeply in debt besides, he gladly accepted an invitation to accompany Gabinius, the consul, in his campaign in Syria. There he distinguished himself so that more important enterprises were intrusted to him, and he won a high reputation as a commander.
In ancient times it had always been said that the Antonys were descended from Hercules, and Mark was so proud of this that he dressed in imitation of that god as he appeared in paintings and statues. Besides, he had a noble bearing, his beard was full, his forehead large, and his nose aquiline, so when people looked at him they were really reminded of Hercules.
When Rome was divided into two parties, the one headed by Pompey and the other by Cæsar, Curio, Antony's bad friend, joined the latter and persuaded Antony to do the same. He went to Gaul, where he spent some time; then, being provided by Cæsar with money and credit, he returned to Rome, where he was first made quæstor, then tribune. In the latter office he was of the greatest service to Cæsar, and fled to him in disguise to report how the two questions had been put to the senate whether Pompey should dismiss his army or Cæsar his.
It was then that the conqueror marched into Italy, drove out Pompey, and placed Antony as tribune to govern Rome while he marched into Spain. Antony was exceedingly popular with the soldiers, but he was too lazy to pay attention to the wants of the people, and so committed many serious errors. But Cæsar would never listen to any charges against him, nor had he ever cause to complain of his lack of courage, skill, or energy in military affairs.
Indeed, he so signalized himself in the various battles that took place later that his reputation, next to Cæsar's, was the greatest in the army. After the celebrated battle of Pharsalia, in which he commanded the left wing, because Cæsar considered him his best officer, he was sent to Rome as Master of the Horse. That was an office next in power to the dictator, and Cæsar showed his high opinion of Antony in giving it to him.
But Antony was too fond of drinking and carousing, which gave great offence to the better class of Roman citizens; so when Cæsar came back from Spain, although he was very gentle with Antony and did much towards reforming him, he took Lepidus not Antony, to be consul with him. Antony's morals improved when he married, for Fulvia, his wife, had a good influence over him.
His friendship for Cæsar was so great, that when the murder of that conqueror was decided on, some of the conspirators made it their business to detain him in conversation outside the senate-house. He was much shocked when he heard of the dreadful deed, but immediately took measures to prevent a civil war. He called the senate together the very next day, and secured the appointment to foreign countries of Brutus and Cassius, who had led the conspiracy. For himself, he aimed at becoming ruler-in-chief, and made the best of his opportunity when delivering the funeral oration in the market-place over the body of Cæsar. He expressed his horror at the murder, showed the bloody stains on the dead man's clothing, and called those that had committed the deed villains and assassins.
The populace grew so excited over his remarks that Brutus and his party were obliged to leave the city, and Cæsar's friends joined themselves to Antony, whose power became absolute. He got possession of Cæsar's papers, and carried into effect all that he had meant to do, appointed the magistrates named therein, recalled some from exile, and freed others from prison, as Cæsar's letters directed. His power was the greater because his brother Caius was prætor, and his brother Lucius tribune of the people.
But his schemes were thwarted by Octavius Cæsar, who came to Rome shortly after his uncle Julius was killed. Octavius made certain claims which Antony refused to grant, so he formed a strong party in the senate, and won over to his side Cicero and many others who hated Antony.
A report was carried to Antony that Octavius was plotting against his life, whereupon he went about and made offers to the old soldiers to take sides with him. Octavius did the same. Cicero was at that time a man of the greatest influence in Rome, and he did what he could to arouse the people against Antony. Finally he persuaded the senate to pronounce Antony a public enemy, and to order the two consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, to drive him out of Italy. A battle took place near Modena, in which the consuls were killed. But Antony was defeated and obliged to fly. It was then that he showed how great he was, for he bore all sorts of suffering and privation like a true hero, and set a wonderful example of patience and endurance to his soldiers.
Octavius was now satisfied, for he had desired only to humble Antony, not to destroy him. As soon as that was accomplished, he began to consult his friends as to the best manner of making his peace with the exile. It was brought about in this way:
After his defeat, Antony determined to make his way to the other side of the Alps, to join his army with that of Lepidus, whom he had befriended on several occasions. But when he came in sight of the camp he received no encouragement to approach nearer. However, feeling that he had little to lose, and possibly much to gain, he disguised himself in a large dark cloak, made his way into the trenches, and began to address the army of Lepidus. His speech had such an effect that Lepidus took alarm, and ordered the trumpets to be sounded, so that he could not be heard. But that night two of the soldiers, disguised in women's clothes, were sent by their comrades to confer with Antony. They advised him to make an attack on Lepidus, whom they offered to put to death. Antony would not listen to such a proposition, but the next morning he marched his men up to the river which divided the two camps, and was himself the first to plunge into the water and swim across. He was received by the soldiers, who not only held out their hands to help him ashore, but beat down the works to make way for his soldiers. So he entered the camp of Lepidus as absolute master. He did not take an unfair advantage of his position, though, for he treated Lepidus with the greatest kindness, called him Father when he addressed him, and left him the honor of being general.
Octavius Cæsar, as we have said, was anxious to make a friend of Antony, because he knew that it would be a benefit to himself, so as soon as he heard how Antony had increased his forces by his alliance with Lepidus, he sent messengers to propose a conference. It was agreed upon, and the three leaders, Lepidus, Octavio Cæsar, and Antony, met on a small island. The conference lasted three days. It was decided that the three should divide the empire among them, and under the name of triumvirs they should have supreme authority for five years. This was called the second triumvirate. But before the three triumvirs separated a question arose which perplexed them. It was whom to destroy, each desiring to save his friends and get rid of his enemies. It ended by condemning friends and relatives with horrible, cold-blooded indifference. Cicero's head was offered to Antony in exchange for that of his uncle and the brother of Lepidus. Never was a more barbarous compact made, for these men consented to the death of their friends without even the excuse of hatred. Besides the three mentioned, hundreds of others were killed before the triumvirate was fairly established.
It was abominable to the Romans, who blamed Antony most of all, because he was older than Cæsar, and had more authority than Lepidus. He made himself still more obnoxious by going to live in the house of Pompey the Great, who had been the most temperate and decent of their citizens, and filling it with actors, jugglers, and all sorts of bad people, on whom he spent enormous sums of the public money, seizing it in many instances by violence and cruelty.
This lasted until the war with Brutus and Cassius broke out; then the army was divided between Antony and Octavius Cæsar, who marched into Macedonia, Lepidus being left in command of Rome. All the honor of this war belongs to Antony, for Cæsar was completely routed by Brutus in the first battle. However, Antony defeated both Cassius and Brutus at Philippi, Cæsar was sent home ill, and, after a short visit to different parts of Greece, Antony passed over to Asia.
There he returned to his former dissipations, and surrounded himself with wicked companions, to gratify whose coarse, low tastes he was often known to deprive some of the most virtuous citizens of all their wealth. His way was to pretend they were dead, and so seize their property. He presented his cook with a splendid estate as a reward for a well-served banquet, and did numerous other absurd things.
Later, he went to Egypt and spent some time at Alexandria, where he was entertained in a most sumptuous manner by the beautiful, gifted queen Cleopatra. He was suddenly recalled to Italy, because of a war which his brother and his own wife had declared against Octavius Cæsar; but before he reached there his wife died, and that event put an end to the trouble.
A reconciliation was effected between Octavius and Antony, which was strengthened by the marriage of the latter with Octavia, sister of Cæsar. After this took place a new division was made of the empire, the eastern provinces falling to Antony, the western to Cæsar, and Africa to Lepidus. Antony lived quietly for a couple of years, then went back to Asia, where he engaged in a long and difficult war with the Parthians. Never was a more splendid army gathered together than the one he led; but he made many mistakes, and was at last badly defeated.
Cleopatra had joined Antony, and he was so much in love with her that he wanted to marry her. He therefore neglected Octavia, in consequence of which Cæsar brought serious charges against him in the senate, for it displeased the conqueror exceedingly to have so virtuous and noble a lady as his sister badly treated.
Antony, on the other hand, accused Cæsar of certain acts of injustice, and of taking upon himself too much power. Cæsar's answer was that he had put Lepidus out of the government because his conduct had been bad; that he would divide what he had got in war with Antony as soon as Antony gave him a share of Armenia, and that Antony's soldiers had no claims in Italy."
Upon this Antony prepared for war. He gathered together a splendid fleet of eight hundred vessels, of which Cleopatra provided two hundred, besides a large sum of money, and provisions for the whole army. If he had chosen to fight Cæsar by land without delay, he would have been successful, for Cæsar's preparations were by no means complete. But he was guided by the advice of Cleopatra, and waited until the Romans also had collected their fleet, and then the fight took place at Actium, on the sea. Even then he ought to have won the victory, for his fleet was twice the size of Cæsar's, and everything was in his favor; but the Romans set fire to all the Egyptian vessels except sixty, and long before the battle was decided those sixty hoisted sail, in obedience to Cleopatra's order, and put out to sea, a fair wind carrying them towards Peloponnesus.
That utterly ruined Antony's cause, for, like a weak, unprincipled general, he followed the Egyptian queen, and, after losing three hundred ships and five thousand men, his fleet gave up the contest. It was long before Antony's soldiers consented to believe that he had basely deserted them, but when at last the truth was no longer to be doubted, they submitted to the conqueror.
Antony went to Africa, utterly disgusted with life, and built himself a little house near Pharos, on a mound out in the sea, where he lived separated from all mankind. But he recovered from his fit of sulking when news was brought to him of the defeat of his army at Actium, that several powers had deserted him and gone over to Cæsar, and that nothing in Egypt remained to him. Having little to hope for, he determined to throw off care and enjoy himself. So he went to Alexandria, where he was again received by Cleopatra, whose palace was a scene of constant feasting and revelry.
There he remained until Cæsar marched against him with a large army, and then he had the mortification of seeing his fleet join that of Cæsar, while his cavalry deserted him and went over to the enemy also.
Cleopatra was so afraid that Antony might accuse her of having betrayed him that she sent him word she was dead. As soon as he heard the sad news he went to his room and requested Eros, a faithful servant, to kill him. Eros drew his sword as if he meant to obey, then turning away, slew himself, and fell at his master's feet.
"This, Eros, is well done," said Antony; "you show your master how to do what you had not the heart to do yourself." He then plunged the sword into his bowels, and threw himself on a couch near by to die.
Cæsar entered the city in triumph, and, mounting a platform in the exercise-ground, told the citizens that he freely forgave them for the sake of Alexander, who had built their city, and for the city's sake, which was too large and beautiful to be destroyed.
Many kings and great commanders asked for the honor of burying Antony, but Cleopatra performed that rite with royal splendor. Cæsar treated the queen with great respect, but when she was secretly informed that she was to be sent a prisoner to Rome, she had an asp brought to her in a basket of figs, and let it bite her arm. The poison did its work quickly, and Cæsar's messengers were surprised, when they went to capture the queen, to find that she had been dead several hours. Cleopatra was thirty-nine years old at the time of her death, and had been on the throne twenty-two years.
Antony was in his fifty-sixth year when he killed himself. He can scarcely be ranked among the great men of ancient times, for he had neither genius nor moral strength, and he was too much a slave to pleasure to be considered a good man, yet few possessed more devoted friends or warmer partisans. He lost his empire by his own fault, for he deserted those who were fighting for him, and his death is an example of unpardonable weakness.