On the first day of August, 31BC: Antony, Cleopatra and the Fall of Egypt author David Stuttard takes a look back at the real story behind Antony and Cleopatra and how August got its name…
Two thousand and forty one years ago today, on the 1st of August 30 BC, in the city of Alexandria by the western mouth of the Nile Delta, Mark Antony committed suicide. Popular tradition tells how he died, cradled in the arms of his beloved Queen Cleopatra, and how, shortly afterwards, she took her own life.
As so often happens, however, popular tradition remembers only half the truth – and in this case (in my opinion at least) the half which is forgotten is the more interesting. Yes, Antony did kill himself on August 1st 30 BC, but the circumstances surrounding his death were far from romantic.
Five years before, in the winter of 36-35 BC, Antony had suffered what in all probability was a severe mental breakdown following a disastrous military expedition against Parthia, the great empire which embraced Iraq, Iran and other territories, and which was to prove the bane of Rome for centuries. More than a third of his troops had been wiped out, either in the fighting or in the terrible retreat, and, when he arrived in the safe haven of Syria, Antony himself, nominally one of the two most powerful men in the Roman world, was left pacing the storm-lashed beach waiting for Cleopatra to come and take him home.
Ever since then, his behaviour had become increasingly erratic, and his generalship in the civil war against his erstwhile colleague Octavian had been catastrophic. At the Battle of Actium (2nd September, 31 BC) in western Greece, he and Cleopatra had abandoned their burning fleet, while they themselves took flight for Alexandria. Now, less than a year later, with the ravening Octavian at that city’s gates, the tables turned. Antony’s fleet and army abandoned him. The game was clearly up.
It is now that truth diverges from romantic legend. We like to think that Antony and Cleopatra, passionate lovers to the end, committed suicide in each others’ arms. Not so. In fact, Cleopatra had been negotiating with the enemy for some time. She realised that Antony was a liability, and now she sent a servant to tell him that she was dead. The news, she calculated, would drive Antony to suicide. She was right. But even a successful suicide was beyond Antony’s capabilities. Badly injured, he was taken to Cleopatra. Whether he died from his wounds, or whether the Egyptian queen was forced to expedite his death, we can only speculate.
With Antony disposed of, Cleopatra spent the next ten days negotiating with Octavian. No doubt she tried to win him over as she had once won over both Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, but Octavian was altogether more calculating than either of those hot blooded conquerors had been. In the end, Cleopatra was found dead. How she had died, though, was a mystery. Stories quickly circulated that she had poisoned herself or allowed herself to be bitten by an asp, but the truth was never established. It is perhaps more possible that she was the victim of a state execution.
Yet it was not Cleopatra’s death but Antony’s, which Octavian would celebrate as marking the beginning of his sole command of the Roman world. And when in January 27 BC Octavian took the title of Augustus, he bestowed upon the month, at whose start his rival Antony had died, the same name: August.
David Stuttard and Sam Moorhead’s book, 31 BC: Antony, Cleopatra and the Fall of Egypt is published by the British Museum Press. Look out for David’s article on the death of Cleopatra in the forthcoming British Museum Magazine.