Together with Cleopatra, he presided over that famous club, the Inimitable Livers, "whose members," declared Pliny, "entertained one another daily in turn at a cost extravagant beyond belief." The luxury of life at the palace, moreover, was to Antony a revelation. Cleopatra was no mere plutocrat; her arrangements were extravagant, but all in perfect taste.
Of her reckless self-indulgence, the fable of the pearl is typical. The queen had accepted Antony's wager that she could not spend ten million sesterces (90,000) upon a single banquet. The feat seemed to be impossible even in Alexandria, and finally, in order to achieve her object, the queen was forced to remove one of her huge ear-rings, a pearl of priceless value, and to destroy it in a cup of vinegar.
Antony, however, was not a man whom luxury alone could keep in bondage. This Cleopatra knew, and, as she had done with Caesar, so she did with him. She varied with his every mood, and was to him all things always, lover, hostess, friend; with him she gambled, drank, hunted, and, when his mood required it, she would don the garb of a slave and accompany him on nocturnal rambles through the streets of Alexandria.
A voluptuous dream of this nature, however, could not be of indefinite duration. Gradually Antony's better nature rekindled the flame of his old ambitions, and in the spring of B.c. 40 he left Egypt to fight his own and the battles of his country. And he had many battles to fight; absence and his neglect of Roman interests had weakened his position greatly, and, in addition, Rome, face to face with the danger of a Parthian rising, needed a soldier.
For four years, therefore, Cleopatra passed out of his life, and, during this time, the spell of her influence waned, until finally it seemed to die. In 39, Antony married Octavia, a Roman lady as noble in character as she was by birth. All that was good in Antony loved Octavia, and the man recognised her as one of the very few good influences which had been brought to bear upon his life.
Octavia, moreover, for her part, idolised her husband. Even when again he yielded
Love to Cleopatra, she was ready to lay down her life for him, and at Rome she worked unflinchingly in his interests. The pathos of Octavia' s devotion is worthy of notice, if only to emphasise the peculiar charm which Antony exercised over women. He married three times, and each of his wives in turn loved him truly in spite of all his faults.
In B.c. 37, Antony set sail for Syria, Octavia with him. Further than Corcyra, however, he would not let his wife accompany him; he declared that he did not wish her to expose herself to danger, but he had other reasons. On the voyage, it is true, he did not even touch the coast of Egypt, but, as he sailed eastward, "that great evil" - the words are Plutarch's - " which had long slept, the passion for Cleopatra . blazed forth again." And the Egyptian fanned the flame. She had kept closely in touch with Roman affairs during the years of separation, and, no doubt, it was she who suggested that Octavia should go no further than Corcyra; she feared the growing influence of her rival. Thus tempted, Antony yielded. At Antioch Cleopatra joined him, and there by a thousand ruses sought to re-establish her supremacy. Nor were her efforts unavailing, for, according to some historians, at Antioch Antony went through some form of marriage with her, and proclaimed her his wife.
If this be true, Antony rightly earned the hatred of his country. After the war, however, he stimulated this hatred further, for his triumph - and it was a triumph of unprecedented splendour - he celebrated, not at Rome, but at the Egyptian capital.
To Cleopatra victory now was almost assured. Antony the Roman was dead: he was now an Oriental potentate, and, clad in a purple robe, clasped with great jewels, and with a golden sceptre in his hand, he was posing as a king, splendid as was the queen he loved.
Love, empire, power, all seemed now to be within Cleopatra's reach, and she stretched out her hand to grasp the prize. But then, with an awful suddenness, Nemesis overtook her, and at the climax of its glory her career dashed headlong to its tragic close.
Mark Antony had outraged Rome as never Caesar had, and at last Octavian, his brother in-law and late colleague, called upon him to pay his reckoning. Both parties were evenly matched; a bloody strife was inevitable, and it was also a momentous strife - the Empire of the West grappling for supremacy with the Empire of the East. Antony should have won; the odds were in his favour. At the critical moment in the battle of Actium, however, one of the greatest and most decisive sea-fights of the ancient world, Cleopatra suddenly turned round her ship and escaped from the fury of the fray. Why? A thousand theories have been ventured, and as theories they remain. The important fact is that Antony followed her.
Gallantly his soldiers struggled, but to retrieve the fortune of the party was impossible; the leader had betrayed it, and among men who are dispirited the canker of treason spreads rapidly.
Melancholy, defeated, and inert, Antony returned gradually to Egypt, and there, as a hermit, seeing nobody, speaking to nobody, he took up his abode on a mole which he had caused to be built out into the waters of the harbour at Alexandria. At length, however, a reaction set in; he left his retreat, and, with Cleopatra, threw himself into the joys of the inimitable life again with exaggerated energy. "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." This was literally their motto now, and Cleopatra prepared for the morrow with awful cunning. She studied the effects of various poisons upon condemned prisoners lying in the cells of Alexandria, in order that she might find a poison which would make death a pleasure. And at last, as a result of her experiments, she found death's ideal agent, the poisonous sting of the asp.
Love's Last Reward
Of escape neither she nor Antony had hope; the arm of Octavian slowly but surely was circling them round. Occasionally, as the danger came nearer, Antony showed some of his old fire and daring, but resistance now was useless, and, to add to his troubles, he doubted even Cleopatra - even her he suspected of negotiating with his rival.
Cleopatra, however, loved Antony, and was true to him to death. Hoping, moreover, now to prove her loyalty, she retired to the tomb which had been built for her, and sent word to him that she was dead. On hearing this news, Antony bade a slave to kill him; he had now no object left in life. This the slave could not bring himself to do, but he set his master an example; Antony followed it, and picking up his sword, threw himself upon it.
The wound, however, though mortal, did not cause immediate death, and as the Roman lay writhing on the floor in awful agony Cleopatra sent word to him again; she wanted him. Antony raised himself and, struggling with death and with blood pouring from the wound, was carried to the tomb. By means of a rope, Cleopatra herself pulled him up into it, and here she tended him while his life-blood flowed away.
Her own life, for a while, Cleopatra still preserved; she hoped yet to save the kingdom for her children. But yield to Octavian she would not; his price was too high, and when she saw that the future held no better fate in store for her than, as a captive, to go to Rome and grace his triumph, she decided to die the death she had devised.
First she asked Octavian's permission to pay her last respects to the grave of Antony. This Octavian granted. The queen then embraced the coffin, decked it with flowers, and after that retired to her own chamber.
Here, later, Octavian's servants found her, clad in her robes of state, lying on a golden couch, dead, the asp clinging to her arm.