Even by today’s standards, the love affair of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII was pretty scandalous. Queen Cleopatra of Egypt had already had relations with Julius Caesar in a political power move that solidified her status as Egypt’s leader and gave her a son, cleverly named Caesarion.
However, when Caesar was assassinated years later, neither Cleopatra nor Roman triumvirate member Mark Antony were very pleased with the ascension of Caesar’s legal heir, Octavian. Further making family get-togethers awkward was Antony’s decision to abandon his wife, Octavia Minor, who was Octavian’s sister. He left Octavia Minor in favor of the infamous charms of Cleopatra, becoming something of a stepfather to Caesar’s son with the Egyptian beauty in the process.
This did not go over well in Rome, where not only did Octavian probably not like his sister being kicked to the curb, but politicians worried that Antony’s newfound unity with Cleopatra (and thereby, Egypt) would be a threat to the Roman Republic.
See, Antony may not have been heir to the throne, but he was a famous military leader and had the loyalty of many of Caesar’s veteran soldiers. In fact, leading up to the Battle of Actium, Antony’s military might equaled that of Octavian. The final slap in the face was when Antony unsuccessfully tried to lobby for Caesar and Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, to take the throne instead of Octavian.
Things escalated, as they have a way of doing in these types of family dramas, and war was declared. The Battle of Actium was the decisive scrap between the two forces, as Antony’s large warships were outmaneuvered by Octavian’s smaller vessels. Also, Antony’s ships were undermanned due to a nasty outbreak of malaria preceding the battle. Finally, Quintus Dellius, one of Antony’s best generals, defected to Octavian’s side before the battle and gave away Antony’s strategies.
The sea battle turned out to be a disaster for Antony, and afterward many of his soldiers deserted him. Unfortunately, that wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to the famous loverboy, as he got some bad intel that claimed Cleopatra had been captured, and thus decided to end his own life in a Shakespearean twist. Even his suicide attempt (via stabbing himself with a knife) didn’t work out that well, and he had time to be taken to Cleopatra and die in her arms.
Cleopatra obviously did not take this development well, and she tried to work her charm one more time by attempting to arouse the pity of Octavian. She was not successful, and she ended up committing suicide as well, famously doing so by coaxing a poisonous asp to bite her. To add insult to injury, Cleopatra’s son with Caesar, Caesarion was killed under Octavian’s orders later on that year, allowing Octavian to know that he had vanquished all of his challengers in one fell swoop.
With these events, not only did the long line of Egyptian pharaohs end, but the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. If there was any good to come out of it in terms of Marc Antony and Cleopatra’s doomed romance, it was that their three children together were spared from the vengeance of Octavian and raised by Antony’s spurned wife, Octavia Minor. Obviously, she did not carry a grudge as well as her brother.