After talking with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis about their current production of Antony and Cleopatra, I decided to meet up with Roman historian Karen Acton at Washington University in St. Louis to get a sense of the real people behind the legend. Was Antony a party-boy? Did Cleopatra kill herself out of love for Antony? Together, we look back at Plutarch's The Life of Antony, which William Shakespeare used to write his play, and the texts that survive about the lovers from their contemporaries, rivals, and ancient Roman writers.
Rebecca King: Hey there, listeners. I’m Rebecca King, and you’ve just tuned in to Hold That Thought. This week, following our interview with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis about their current production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, I decided to meet up with one of the classics professors and Roman historians at Washington University in St. Louis to get the scoop on the real Antony and Cleopatra and the sources Shakespeare used to write his play.
Karen Acton: My name is Karen Acton. I’m an assistant professor in the Classics department. I’m the Roman historian, especially in empirical history, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the late republic. Antony and Cleopatra died in 30 BCE, so they are living and operating in the first century BCE. Their deaths really mark the end of the roman republic and the beginning of what we call the Principate, or the period of Roman Empire. Their dates are actually really important for understanding these people, theses historical people, and why they did the things they did.
RK: Marc Antony was born in 83 BCE, a year of civil war, Acton says. For most of his life, in fact, Rome was in a state of civil war, and as Antony matured, he found himself on one winning side and then another before he finally met up with Julius Caesar in the 40s, becoming one of his most trusted lieutenants. In fact, while Caesar was in Egypt having his own affair with Cleopatra and squashing the last of the resistance to his rule, he left Antony in charge of Rome, and after Caesar was assassinated, Antony made a bid for power, splitting the empire 3 ways with Octavian and Lepidus. We actually know a lot about Antony and his life from writings both before and after his death.
KA: Antony has his own kind of independent existence in Latin literature. There is a whole series of speeches directed at him by the orator, Cicero, which just tear apart his character, say all sorts of horrible things about his drunkenness and debauchery and lack of regard for civic virtue and everything, and that’s kind of an intentional character assassination in the context of the years 43, 42 right after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Cicero hated Antony. Antony hated Cicero. A lot of what he is saying is rhetorically amplified, but it all points to somebody who had a reputation for wild living that made him really popular in Rome in a way that terrified Cicero. “Why are the people of Rome supporting somebody who has such a flashy and exciting way of life?” And for Cicero, the answer was not obvious that the people of Rome loved being entertained by politicians with flashy and exciting ways of life. Antony was a super successful politician. Cicero couldn’t really handle that. So we have a lot of material about Antony depicted in a really negative way but help reveal the picture of Antony, the political creature, before everything happens with Egypt.
RK: There are even record of Antony’s own writing.
KA: He wrote speeches on his own for himself on his behalf. There is one text—it doesn’t survive, we don’t have it—but it was called “On his Own Drunkenness,” and it seems to be a response to Cicero. Cicero is writing all this stuff, you know, “Ah, Antony is just getting drunk all the time, and he’s having these wild parties, and he’s surrounded by actors which is terrifying.” Some how at some point, Antony wrote a rebuttal on his own drunkenness, and we have no idea of knowing whether what he was saying was, “In fact, I’m not that drunk. You’re wrong.” Or whether he was saying, “Yeah! I’m drunk now.” And to be honest, I think it was probably the latter. I think his political identity was someone who lived large and was successful—was successful in was, successful in politics. He had a kind of vivid personality, and so for the people who supported him, a response to Cicero that went along the lines of “Yeah, I drank 10 bottles of wine this morning, and I still won the battle” would be a really powerful statement.
RK: However, getting a clear picture of Cleopatra from Roman sources is much more difficult. Roman writers found the queen terrifying.
KA: We know a lot about her career independent of her relationships with Caesar and Antony, because Egypt was a major political issue for Rome in the late 50s and early 40s. It was unstable. There was a lot of factional politics within Egypt. So, the leaders of Egypt were appealing to Roman senators to come in and sort everything out. Cleopatra was made coregent of Egypt with her father in the middle of the 50s at the age of 14. She has been in control of Egypt for decades by the time she meets Antony, so she had her own place within Egyptian politics, but also in Roman politics. I think the problem, though, with talking about Cleopatra from Roman sources is that she is pretty much always this terrifying monster to the Roman imagination. Romans are intensely xenophobic people, so her Egyptianness is just terrifying to them. And the fact that she is a woman and foreign and a queen makes her this specter. You see that in the way she is depicted actively seducing, preying upon Roman leaders. We can kind of have a look at Antony’s career, because Roman sources know how to deal with Antony’s career. Cleopatra is a lot harder to understand, because it is always being filtered through these layers of Roman interpretation and paranoia and fear.
RK: I asked Professor Acton if Cleopatra’s sexuality, a characteristic of her persona that persists strongly even today, was something ancient writers focused on in their attacks as well.
KA: Oh my god, yeah! And that is part of her foreignness and her gender, and it’s an attack against her. I think that Roman sources describe her in the way that they describe her as aggressive, as masculine, as assertive, because all of those things indicate problematic female sexuality. So Cleopatra is kind of the anti-Roman woman, and if a good Roman woman, somebody like Octavia, is chaste, quiet, obedient, humble, and domestic, then the opposite of a good Roman woman is somebody who is in the public sphere, is sexual, is aggressive, does masculine things like lead armies and govern kingdoms. Cleopatra is the anti-Octavia, and Shakespeare is inviting us to view them as pairs opposite twin characters. But there he is participating in a tradition that the historical Octavian himself initiated. Octavian is the one who created a public image for Octavia as the Roman answer to Cleopatra. It was Octavian that wanted Octavia and Antony to marry so that Antony would have this connection between the two families but really so there would be this connection between Antony and Rome, thinking that if he mistreated Octavia by doing thins like not paying attention to her not living with her, not treating her like a wife, he could use that as a way to drive a wedge between Antony and the Roman public. So this dichotomy of Octavia and Cleopatra is something that was very much a part of the culture of the 30s leading up to the conflict between Octavian and Antony.
RK: All of those sources about Antony and Cleopatra were available to a writer named Plutarch, who 150 years after their deaths authored the text that Shakespeare would use to write his play.
KA: We have a huge body of material from Plutarch. The Life of Antony, the biography of Antony, comes from a series of parallel lives of famous figures from Greek and Roman history, and the purpose of this was to use the lives of each of these people to explore aspects of morality and virtue. He was also interested in comparing a Greek life to a Roman life to explore the similarities and differences between Greek and Roman culture and to align Greek and Roman history. He was a Greek author living in a Roman world, so he wanted to bring together traditions of Greek and Roman history.
RK: Plutarch wrote The Life of Antony, and as Acton described, it focuses on Antony’s nature and what the events of his life reveal about his character. And despite Cicero’s earlier critiques, Plutarch is a pretty even-handed biographer, noting his faults but also giving credit where it’s due.
KA: Very rarely does he ever in any of his biographies say, “This person was just awful. There is nothing praiseworthy of this person.” He often says in adversity, Antony was excellent. When his army was in dire straights, when his army was inflicted with famine, when he didn’t have any allies, he was the greatest leader that the Romans had ever had. His troops loved him. He treated them like his colleagues, like his friends. He had the undying loyalty and support of the Roman people, because he had these exemplary qualities of leadership. But, he says Antony’s moral failure was when he was successful he was seduced by success. So he was really only excellent when everything was going wrong. Then he could become the most superlative of men, but in luxury, he became luxurious. When he was successful, he became soft. So Plutarch is tracing that narrative of moral decline, I guess, in Antony, and showing how Antony’s failures were kind of innate in his character.
RK: Plutrach’s portrayal of Cleopatra, on the other hand betrays, his Roman sensibilities.
KA: In Plutarch, Cleopatra is this seductive force; she is the agent of Antony’s undoing. So he is redeemable. He has these virtues, but she is always this destructive foreign influence that ruins him. She kind of in some ways becomes the villain of the Antony story. At the same time, as a modern reader, she really captures our imagination. I think it is kind of hard for us to understand the degree to which ancient literature presents her as monstrous, because we read things like Plutarch’s Life of Antony and think she’s just the coolest person ever. Her confidence in herself, her power, her intelligence, she’s presented as being a genius of languages. She’s a good ruler. She cares about her people. She has a kind of historical agency that as a modern reader, I think is just irresistibly fascinating. If I were a Roman reader, I would not be reading it that way.
RK: In his text, Plutarch captures the meeting between Antony and Cleopatra, which Shakespeare chose not to include in his play. According to Plutarch, Antony summoned Cleopatra to ask her about reports that someone in Egypt had offered to harbor Caesar’s assassins. Notably, the author slips into the queen’s point of view, sharing her confidences that she’s seduced Roman men before and now that she is older and more experienced, she’ll do it again. So she rides t meet Antony on the opulent royal barge, wearing her finest, surrounded by clouds of perfume, gold, and servants dressed like attendants of the goddess Venus. Even in her final hours, Plutarch’s Cleopatra stays calculating and in control, showing perhaps a little less passion than in Shakespeare’s version.
KA: And her death—and this may be something Shakespeare changes—her death is not a romantic suicide. She said as she is dying she is going to be reunited with Antony, but her death is an act of political defiance. The kingdom has been captured, she’s been defeated, she’s been taken prisoner, and she knows that if she’s brought to Rome, she going to be put on display and she’s going to be publicly paraded through the city and she’s going to be mocked and she’s going to be degraded. So she finds a way not to do that. She’s shown doing research; she has a very scientific mind, so after the battle of Actium but before Alexandria is captured, she brings together as many different poisons as she ca. Ok, she’s not a good person; lets be clear about that. She brings together as many poisons as she can and orders prisoners to test them all so that she can find the most painless one. She knows that if she is going to have to kill herself, she doesn’t want to die bloated, she doesn’t want to die blotchy, she doesn’t want to die screaming in agony. I mean, who would? So she tests all of these different poisons, and that’s how she ends up with the asp. So, she takes 100% ownership of her death.
RK: Many thanks to Professor Karen Acton for taking the time to meet with me. And thanks to you, too, for tuning into Hold That Thought. Join me next week for our next chapter of Summer with the Bard, and if you are interested in seeing Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s performance of Antony and Cleopatra in Forest Park, which you definitely should not miss, performances continue through June 14th. You can find more information about this on our website at holdthatthought.wustl.edu. That’s holdthatthought.wustl.edu.