Reading The Roman Revolution 19: Antonius in the East

It’s coincidental that just as Ronald Syme turned his attention to Antonius’ time in the East, I arrived in Cyprus for the first part of my summer study season. In Chapter 19 of Syme’s The Roman Revolution, he unpacks Antonius’s work in the East while Octavian consolidated his power in Italy and at Rome.

In the popular imagination, this is the story of Anthony and Cleopatra, which has sparked romantic fantasies in both antiquity and more recent periods. Syme is, predictably, somewhat more sober in his assessment. For Antonius, Cleopatra was a key eastern dynast whose loyalty formed part of his larger eastern settlement in the aftermath of the costly, but successful Parthian campaigns. While they did have a liaison that resulted in twins and Antonius’s rewarded their alliance with expanded territory in the East, Syme describes Antonius’s relationship with Cleopatra succinctly: “If Antonius be denied a complete monarchic policy of his own, it does not follow that he was merely a tool in the hands of Cleopatra, beguiled by her
beauty or dominated by her intellect. His position was awkward if he did not placate the Queen of Egypt he would have to depose her.” Far from the Orientalizing historical narratives, Syme recognized in the relationship between Antonius and Cleopatra pure practical power.

For Octavian, making Antonius appear the Asiatic despot under the sway of the Egyptian queen contributed to his argument for a just war. Antonius through his alliance with Cleopatra constituted a foreign enemy and, even after a decade of civil war, established Octavian’s hostility toward Antonius as morally right. For Syme: “The situation and the phraseology recur in the history of war and politics whenever there is a public opinion worth persuading or deceiving.”

For Syme, Antonius was ruthless, but he was loyal both to Cleopatra and to his supporters and agreements. Octavian was not. He refused to send the troops that he promised Antonius and sent a token force and some ships instead. Moreover, he continued to build a case for war.

As per usual, the final paragraph of the chapter restates the goals of the duplicitous Octavian:

Created belief turned the scale of history. The policy and ambitions of Antonius or of Cleopatra were not the true cause of the War of Actium; they were a pretext in the strife for power; the magnificent lie upon which was built the supremacy of Caesar’s heir and the resurgent nation of Italy. Yet, for all that, the contest soon assumed the august and solemn form of a war of ideas and a war between East and West. Antonius and Cleopatra seem merely pawns in the game of destiny. The weapon forged to destroy Antonius changed the shape of the whole world.


The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

Because I’m in the field these days and it’s a bit harder to find time for slow reading, I’m going to pause this project at the very cusp of war. It’ll resume later this summer, when I have a bit more time!

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