Friday, May 21, 2010

The Faces of Mark Antony

I have recently been re-reading the Life of Antony, a perhaps 40-page biography of Mark Antony written by the first century Greek historian and moralist Plutarch. The work is a part of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, "a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues and vices." Plutarch, besides being a great writer and a virtual fountain of anecdotes, is also the source of some potential answers to a question that has long been bothering me: Who is Mark Antony?

Surely similar questions tickled the mind of Shakespeare as he wrote his plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. And no doubt Ivan Turgenev had in mind the nature of Antony, perhaps the most famous of lovers, when he wrote his autobiographical novella First Love. I have read all of these works, and yet the true identity of Antony remains a mystery. Unfortunately, these great writers were working with the same information that we all have: the dead and decaying words of a handful of classical historians. The true nature of the real Mark Antony is doomed to remain a mystery, but writers like Cassius Dio, Appian, and Plutarch, together with the many fictional works they have spawned, afford a basically complete, if unverifiable tableau.

Antony's life can be neatly divided into three main segments:

--Julius Caesar's second in command - After a rocky early manhood of wild parties and large debts, Antony fell in with the famous future dictator and proved to be a perfect fit for Caesar's regime of blunt militarism and blatant populism. Plutarch writes of Antony, "What may seem to some very insupportable, his vaunting, his raillery, his drinking in public, sitting down by the men as they were taking their food, and eating, as he stood, off the common soldiers' tables made him the delight and pleasure of the army." He proved himself regularly on the battlefield as a good commander and soldier -- courageous, energetic, and tactically skilled, if occasionally rash -- and he fell easily into the hardships and deprivations of soldierly life, though he lived opulently when not at war.

-- A triumvir with Octavian and Lepidus - When Caesar was assassinated by the group of senatorial conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius, Antony came immediately to the fore as a ruthless, conniving and capable statesman in his own right. Cicero, in fact, reportedly lamented their failure to kill the errand boy along with the master. Their over-careful squeamishness proved to be the downfall of both the senate's power and the Roman Republic. For a while, Antony ruled all of Rome together with Octavian (who later became the first emperor and gave himself the honorific of Augustus), with a much weaker man, Lepidus, luckily yet unluckily stuck in there as the third wheel.

--Cleopatra's lover/bitch - Ah, but there were too many roosters in the hen house that was Rome, so Antony, as the stronger and older triumvir, went off to the eastern provinces, home of much of the empire's wealth and grain. But he fell under the spell of Lust, Love, or a queen named Cleopatra. Cleopatra encountered Caesar and Pompey in her "salad days," as Shakespeare put it, "but she was to meet Antony in the time of life when women's beauty is most splendid, and their intellects are in full maturity." (she was about 28; the average life expectancy throughout the Ancient World has been estimated at 35) However, she was apparently no great looker, according to Plutarch and according to her extant sculptures. Did she woo those foreign envoys with intelligence? Power? Or even drugs? This last ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, this perfect symbol of foreignness and mystery continues to intrigue, often at the expense of Antony.

From this vague outline, I suppose, I could begin to sketch a character. Luckily, great writers who have come before have already done the lifting. Shakespeare -- great at many things, but particularly great at constructing characters -- has given us not one but two distinct portrayals of Antony. There is the very capable, even conniving statesman of Julius Caesar and the hapless frat boy, hopelessly in love with an exotic queen in Antony and Cleopatra. The same Antony who holds up Caesar's bloody, holey toga to incite the mob to riot later watches in awe as Cleopatra sails down the Nile on her golden barge. Shakespeare lifted both scenes directly from Plutarch.

Cicero offers a third view in his Philippics, a series of fiery, damning speeches against Antony. Cicero describes Antony as an ignorant buffoon, a hedonistic drunkard, and -- worst of all -- a womanly dandy. However, Cicero was about as "fair and balanced" as Fox News. He also used the Philippics to praise the relatively young and harmless Octavian to the heavens. A lot of good that did: during the proscription, when the triumvirs drew up a long list of people to kill, Antony put Cicero first on the list, and Octavian made no objection. Cicero's hands and head were nailed to the doors of the senate house, as if to say, "Big Brother is watching" (or something like that).

My last impression of Antony comes from a very different source: from Ivan Turgenev's short novel First Love. The narrator is a young man, modeled after Turgenev himself, who falls desperately in love with his neighbor, Zinaïda, a woman five or six years his senior. Unfortunately, he is just one of about a half dozen suitors, ranging in age from the sixteen years of the narrator to the forty or fifty of the mature old bachelor. Zinaïda takes advantage of them all, though her real love is revealed in a surprise ending. In the below scene, there can be no doubt who represents Cleopatra. There is, however, some discrepancy over who is the real Antony.

She went up to the window. The sun was just setting; high up in the sky were large red clouds.

'What are those clouds like?' questioned Zinaïda; and without waiting for our answer, she said, 'I think they are like the purple sails on the golden ship of Cleopatra, when she sailed to meet Antony. Do you remember, Meidanov, you were telling me about it not long ago?'

All of us, like Polonius in Hamlet, opined that the clouds recalled nothing so much as those sails, and that not one of us could discover a better comparison.

'And how old was Antony then?' inquired Zinaïda.

'A young man, no doubt,' observed Malevsky.

'Yes, a young man,' Meidanov chimed in in confirmation.

'Excuse me,' cried Lushin, 'he was over forty.'

'Over forty,' repeated Zinaïda, giving him a rapid glance....

I soon went home. 'She is in love,' my lips unconsciously repeated.... 'But with whom?'

Indeed, Zinaïda and by extension Cleopatra, is an enchanting woman. Yet I am quick to dismiss such characters -- as I said in my mini-review of Antony and Cleopatra: 'The Big C' herself. The real fascination with First Love is the picking apart of Antony -- in all his forms.

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