The Banquet Of Anthony And Cleopatra, By Jacob Jordaens (c. 1593–1678)

This drawing, by the Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens (c. 1593–1678), was inspired by stories of the romance between Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, and Mark Antony, a military leader who was vying for power over the Roman Empire. Antony and Cleopatra were both heavily linked to the famous Roman dictator, Julius Caesar, who had held Rome in his clutches since the time of the First Triumvirate (c. 60-53 BCE) and his victory in the subsequent Civil War against his fellow triumvir, Pompey the Great (d. 48 BCE). Mark Antony had been Caesar’s most trusted lieutenant, often tasked with keeping an eye on the city of Rome while the dictator was fighting elsewhere. Cleopatra, on the other hand, had been Caesar’s ally and lover—together, she and Caesar had a child who could have potentially become the monarchal ruler of both Rome and Egypt. Nevertheless, the status quo was dealt a huge blow when conspirators rose up against Julius Caesar and slew him on March 15, 44 BCE. Mark Antony was able to maintain influence after the death of Caesar by joining in a new triumvirate—alongside Octavian (later known as Augustus) and Lepidus—that seized power in Rome by 43 BCE. As part of the arrangement, Mark Antony would be overseeing Rome’s eastern holdings, which gave him ample opportunity to meet with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Cleopatra welcomed Mark Antony, thinking that as an experienced military man who had been one of Julius Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants, he would be a safe bet against the young Octavian, Julius Caesar’s untested great-nephew and adopted son, who was a genius at statecraft but lackluster at war. As told by the great ancient biographer and essayist, Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s relationship really took off when they met each other at the Cydnus (Berdan) River, where Cleopatra made a great impression on the Roman leader. Plutarch wrote:

“She came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a painting, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market-place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal” (Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Life of Antony, chapter 26).

After this grand introduction, Antony and Cleopatra quickly began meeting in social gatherings. They alternated between feasts hosted respectively by the Egyptian Queen and the Roman general, each trying to outdo the other in extravagance. It soon became evident that the personalities of the two were highly compatible, and they scheduled increasingly frequent outings together, becoming close friends during the course of their parties and dates. Plutarch wrote:

“Antony sent her an invitation to dinner, but she thought it preferable that he should come to her. Without a moment’s hesitation he agreed, because he wanted to show her that he was a good-natured, friendly sort of person. On his arrival he found preparations that beggared description, but he was especially struck by the amazing number of lights…The next day it was his turn to entertain with a banquet. He desperately wanted to outdo the brilliance and thoroughness of her preparations, but it was precisely in these two respects that he failed and was defeated by her. However, he was the first to make fun of the unappetizing meagreness of what he had to offer. Cleopatra could see from Antony’s jokes that there was a wide streak of the coarse soldier in him, so she adopted this same manner towards him, and now in an unrestrained and brazen fashion” (Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Life of Antony, chapters 26-27).

Eventually, Cleopatra managed to drag Mark Antony to her realm’s capital city of Alexandria, where the Egyptian queen ingratiated her new Roman friend into Alexandrian high society. There, the banquets continued, even increasing in frequency and intensity, but, thankfully, there would now be more hosts available to throw the parties. On this new phase, Plutarch wrote, “[Antony] was carried off by her to Alexandria where he indulged in the pastimes and pleasures of a young man of leisure, and spent and squandered on luxuries that commodity which Antiphon called the most costly in the world—namely, time. They formed a kind of club called the Society of Inimitable Livers, and every day one of them had to entertain the rest. They spent incredible, disproportionate amounts of money” (Life of Antony, chapters 28). Jacob Jordaens, in his illustration, likely attempts to re-create one of these legendary feasts attended by Antony and Cleopatra. Yet, the two lovers and their burgeoning relationship could not escape Roman politics and war.

While Mark Antony was partying and distracting himself with Cleopatra, his great rival back in Rome, Octavian, was honing his own abilities while also recruiting military officers who rivaled Antony in tactical and strategic skill. Most notably, Octavian’s brilliant admiral, Marcus Agrippa, would prove to be the undoing of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian launched his master plan in 32 BCE, when he convinced the Roman Republic to declare war against Egypt and its queen, Cleopatra. At that time, it was open knowledge that Cleopatra and Mark Antony were lovers, so the move also served as a painful test of loyalty that was carefully crafted to target Antony. The Roman historian Cassius Dio (c. 163-235 CE) recorded some of the arguments that Octavian may have used to stir up sentiment in Rome against Antony and Cleopatra, stating:

“[Octavian] denounced Antony for his union with Cleopatra, for begetting their children whom he had acknowledged as his own, and for the gifts he had made to them. In particular he attacked Antony because he was using the name Caesarion for Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, and thus making him a member of the Caesarian family…Antony had testified to Caesarion that he was without doubt Julius Caesar’s son, had made enormous settlements upon his children by the Egyptian queen, whom he was bringing up, and had ordered that his body should be buried in Alexandria by Cleopatra’s side. The Romans were so outraged by these disclosures that they were willing to believe that other rumours current at the time were true, namely that if Antony were victorious, he would hand over the city of Rome to Cleopatra and transfer the seat of government to Egypt” (Cassius Dio, The Roman History, 50.1-4).

Such, then, was the power couple that inspired Jacob Jordaens’ artwork. Although Antony and Cleopatra were, indeed, a great and mighty pair, they underestimated Octavian’s political mastery and his ability to recruit and utilize talented people—a trait shared by many great rulers of empires. Marcus Agrippa, Octavian’s aforementioned admiral, outmaneuvered and outplayed Mark Antony, cornering him and Cleopatra in Alexandria by 30 BCE. Defeated, Antony and Cleopatra took their own lives.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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