Read Antony and Cleopatra Online

Authors: Colleen McCullough

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Historical Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Antonius; Marcus, #Egypt - History - 332-30 B.C, #Biographical, #Cleopatra, #Biographical Fiction, #Romans, #Egypt, #Rome - History - Civil War; 49-45 B.C, #Rome, #Romans - Egypt

Antony and Cleopatra (10 page)

The Alexandrian guests, all Macedonians of the highest stratum, looked on bewildered at first, then suddenly seemed to decide that there was much to be said for dissipation. The Recorder, an awesome man of huge conceit, whooped and giggled his way through the first flagon, then seized a passing female servant and began to make love to her. Within moments he was joined by the other Alexandrians, who proved that they were any Roman’s equal when it came to participating in an orgy.

To Cleopatra, watching fascinated (and sober), it was a lesson of a kind she had never expected to need to learn. Luckily Antony didn’t seem to notice that she didn’t join in the hilarities, he was too busy drinking. Perhaps because he also ate hugely, the wine didn’t reduce him to a helpless fool. In a discreet corner Sosigenes, somewhat more experienced in these matters than his queen, had placed chamber pots and bowls behind a screen where the guests could relieve themselves through any orifice, and also put out beakers of potions that rendered the next morning less painful.

“Oh, I enjoyed myself!” roared Antony the next morning, his rude health unimpaired. “Let’s do it again this afternoon!”

 

 

And so began for Cleopatra two months and more of constant, remorseless revels. And the wilder the goings-on became, the more Antony enjoyed them and the better he thrived. Sosigenes had inherited the task of dreaming up novelties to vary the tenor of these sybaritic festivities, with the result that the ships docking in Alexandria disgorged musicians, dancers, acrobats, mimes, dwarfs, freaks, and magicians from all over the eastern end of Our Sea.

Antony adored practical jokes that sometimes verged on the cruel; he adored to fish; he adored to swim among naked girls; he adored to drive chariots, an activity forbidden to a nobleman in Rome; he adored hunting crocodile and hippopotamus; he adored pranks; he adored rude poetry; he adored pageants. His appetites were so enormous that he would roar that he was hungry a dozen times each day; Sosigenes hit on the bright idea of always having a full dinner ready to be served, together with vast quantities of the best wines. It was an instant success, and Antony, kissing him soundly, apostrophized the little philosopher as a prince of good fellows.

There wasn’t much Alexandria could do to protest against fifty odd drunken people running up and down the streets in torchlit dances, banging loudly on doors and skipping away with bellows of delighted laughter; some of these annoying people were the chief officials of the city, whose wives sat at home weeping and wondering why the Queen permitted it.

The Queen permitted it because she had no choice, though her own participation in the capers was halfhearted. Once Antony dared her to drop Servilia’s six-million-sesterces pearl into a goblet of vinegar and drink it; he was of the school that believed pearls dissolved in vinegar. Knowing better, Cleopatra did as dared, though drinking the vinegar was beyond her. The pearl, quite unharmed, was around her neck the next day. And the fish pranks never stopped. Having no luck as a fisherman, Antony paid divers to go down and attach live fish to his line; he would pull up these flapping creatures and boast of his fishing skills until one day Cleopatra, tired of his bombast, had a diver attach a putrid fish to his line. But he took the joke in good part, for that was his nature.

Caesarion watched the antics with amusement, though he never asked to go to the parties. When Antony was in the mood the pair of them would vanish on horseback to hunt crocodile or hippopotamus, leaving Cleopatra in anguish at the vision of her son mangled by massive trotters or long yellow teeth. But, give Antony his due, he protected the boy from danger, just gave him a wonderful time.

“You like Antonius,” she said to her son toward the end of January.

“Yes, Mama, very much. He calls himself Neos Dionysos, but he is really Herakles. He can balance me on one hand, can you imagine that? And throw the discus half a furlong!”

“I am not surprised,” she said drily.

“Tomorrow we’re going to the hippodrome. I’m going to ride with him in his chariot—four horses abreast, the hardest!”

“Chariot racing is not a seemly pastime.”

“I know, but it’s such
fun
!”

And what did one say to that?

Her son had grown in leaps and bounds during the past two months; Sosigenes had been right. The company of men had freed him from that touch of preciousness she hadn’t noticed until he lost it. Now he swaggered about the palace trying to roar like Antony, gave very funny imitations of the Accountant in his cups, and looked forward to every day with a sparkle and a zest he had never before displayed. And he was strong, lithe, naturally good at warlike sports—cast a spear with deadly accuracy, shot arrows straight into the center of the target, used his
gladius
with the verve of a veteran legionary. Like his father, he could ride a horse bareback at full gallop with his hands behind his back.

For herself, Cleopatra wondered how much longer she could tolerate Antony in revel mode; she was tired all the time, had bouts of nausea, and couldn’t be far from a chamber pot. All signs of pregnancy, albeit too early to be wearisome or noticeable. If Antony didn’t cease his gyrations soon, she would have to tell him that he must gyrate on his own. Strong she might be for a small woman, but pregnancy took a toll.

 

 

Her dilemma solved itself early in February when the King of the Parthians invaded Syria.

Orodes was an old man, long past war in person, and the intrigues natural to a succession of such magnitude taxed him. One of his ways of dealing with ambitious sons and factions was to find a war for the most aggressive among them, and what better war than against the Romans in Syria? The strongest of his sons was Pacorus, therefore to Pacorus must this war be given. And for once King Orodes had a loaded set of dice to throw; with Pacorus came Quintus Labienus, who gave himself the nickname of Parthicus. He was the son of Caesar’s greatest marshal, Titus Labienus, and had chosen to flee to the court of Orodes rather than yield to his father’s conqueror. Internal strife at Seleuceia-on-Tigris had also brought forth a difference of opinion as to how the Romans could be defeated. In previous clashes, including the one that had resulted in the annihilation of Marcus Crassus’s army at Carrhae, the Parthians had relied heavily upon the horse archer, an unarmored peasant trained to retreat at a gallop and let fly a murderous rain of arrows over his horse’s rump as he twisted backward—the famous “Parthian shot.” When Crassus fell at Carrhae, the general in command of the Parthian army had been an effeminate, painted prince named the Surenas, who devised a way to ensure that his horse archers did not run out of arrows: he loaded trains of camels with spare arrows and got them to his men. Unfortunately, his success was so marked that King Orodes suspected the Surenas would aim next for the throne, and had him executed.

Since that day more than ten years in the past, a controversy had raged as to whether it had been the horse archers who won Carrhae, or the cataphracts. Men clad in chain mail from head to foot, the cataphracts bestrode big horses also clad in chain mail. The source of the argument was social; horse archers were peasants, whereas cataphracts were noblemen.

So when Pacorus and Labienus led their army into Syria at the beginning of February in the year of the consulship of Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus and Gnaeus Asinius Pollio, its Parthian content consisted solely of cataphracts. The nobles had won the struggle.

Pacorus and Labienus crossed the Euphrates River at Zeugma and there separated. While Labienus and his mercenaries drove west across the Amanus into Cilicia Pedia, Pacorus and the cataphracts turned south for Syria. They swept all before them on both fronts, though Cleopatra’s agents in the north of Syria concentrated on Pacorus, not Labienus. Word flew to Alexandria.

The moment Antony heard, he was gone. No fond farewells, no protestations of love.

“Does he know?” asked Tach’a of Cleopatra.

No need for clarification; Cleopatra knew what she meant. “No. I didn’t have a chance—all he did was bellow for his armor and apply the goad to men like Dellius.” She sighed. “His ships are to sail to Berytus, but he wasn’t sure enough of the winds to risk a sea voyage. He hopes to reach Antioch ahead of his fleet.”

“What doesn’t Antonius know?” Caesarion demanded, most put out at the sudden departure of his hero.

“That in Sextilis you’ll have a baby brother or sister.”

The child’s face lit up, he leaped about joyfully. “A brother or a sister! Mama, Mama, that’s terrific!”

“Well, at least that’s taken his mind off Antonius,” said Iras to Charmian.

“It won’t take
her
mind off Antonius,” Charmian answered.

 

 

Antony rode for Antioch at a grueling pace, sending for this or that local potentate in southern Syria as he passed through, at times issuing his orders to them from horseback.

Alarming to find out from Herod that among the Jews opinion was divided; a large group of Judaic dissenters actually seemed avid to be ruled by the Parthians. The leader of the pro-Parthian party was the Hasmonaean prince Antigonus, Hyrcanus’s nephew but no lover of Hyrcanus or the Romans. Herod did not inform Mark Antony that Antigonus was already dickering with Parthian envoys for the things he coveted—the Jewish throne and the high priesthood; he was not very interested in these furtive dealings or the Sanhedrin mood. So Antony continued northward ignorant of how serious the Jewish situation was. For once Herod had been caught napping, too busy trying to cut his brother Phasael out for the hand of the princess Mariamne to notice anything else.

Tyre was impossible to take except from within. Its stinking isthmus, fouled by hills of rotting shellfish carcasses, gave the center of the purple-dye industry the protection due an island, and no one would betray it from within; no Tyrian wanted to have to send purple-dye to the King of the Parthians for a price fixed by the King of the Parthians.

In Antioch Antony found Lucius Decidius Saxa striding up and down nervously, the watchtowers atop the massive city walls lined with men straining to see into the north; Pacorus would follow the Orontes River, and he wasn’t far away. Saxa’s brother had come from Ephesus to join him, and refugees were streaming in. Ejected from the Amanus, the brigand king Tarcondimotus told Antony that Labienus was doing brilliantly. By now he was thought to have reached Tarsus and Cappadocia. Antiochus of Commagene, ruler of a client-kingdom that bordered the Amanus ranges on the north, was wavering in his Roman allegiance, said Tarcondimotus. Liking the man, Antony listened; a brigand, maybe, but clever and capable.

After inspecting Saxa’s two legions Antony relaxed a little. Once Gaius Cassius’s men, these legionaries were fit and very experienced in combat.

More upsetting by far was the news from Italia. His brother Lucius was immured inside Perusia and under siege, while Pollio had
retreated
to the swamps at the mouth of the Padus River! It made no sense! Pollio and Ventidius vastly outnumbered Octavian! Why weren’t they helping Lucius? Antony asked himself, entirely forgetting that he hadn’t answered their pleas for guidance—was Lucius’s war a part of Antony’s policy, or was it not?

Well, no matter how grave the situation in the East was, Italia was more important. Antony sailed for Ephesus, intending to go on to Athens as soon as possible. He had to find out more.

 

 

The monotony of the first stage of the voyage gave him time to think about Cleopatra and that fantastic winter in Egypt. Ye gods, how he had needed to break out! And how well the Queen had catered to his every whim. He truly did love her, as he loved all the women with whom he associated for longer than a day, and he would continue to love her until she did something to sour him. Though Fulvia had done more than merely sour, if the fragments of news he had from Italia were anything to go by. The only woman for whom his love had persisted in the teeth of a thousand thousand transgressions was his mother, surely the silliest woman in the history of the world.

As was true of most boys of noble family, Antony’s father had not been in Rome overmuch, so Julia Antonia was—or was supposed to be—the one who held the family together. Three boys and two girls had not endowed her with a scrap of maturity; she was terrifyingly stupid. Money was something that fell off vines, and servants people far cleverer than she. Nor was she lucky in love. Her first husband, father of her children, had committed suicide rather than return to Rome to face treason charges for his bungling conduct of a war against the Cretan pirates, and her second husband had been executed in the Forum Romanum for his part in the rebellion led by Catilina. All of which had happened by the time that Marcus, the eldest of the children, had turned twenty. The two girls were so physically huge and Antonian-ugly that they were married off to rich social climbers in order to bring some money into the family to fund the public careers of the boys, who had run wild. Then Marcus ran up massive debts and had to marry a rich provincial named Fadia, whose father paid a two-hundred-talent dowry. The goddess Fortuna seemed to smile on Antony; Fadia and the children she had borne him died in a summer pestilence, leaving him free to marry another heiress, his first cousin Antonia Hybrida. That union had produced one child, a girl who was neither bright nor pretty. When Curio was killed and Fulvia became available, Antony divorced his cousin to marry her. Yet another profitable alliance; Fulvia was the richest woman in Rome.

Not precisely an unhappy childhood and young manhood; more that Antony had never been disciplined. The only person who could control Julia Antonia and her boys had been Caesar, who wasn’t the actual head of the Julian family, just its most forceful member. Over the years Caesar had made it plain that he was fond of them, but he was never an
easy
man, nor one whom the boys understood. That fatal lack of discipline combined with an outrageous love of debauchery had finally, in the grown man Mark Antony, turned Caesar away from him. Twice had Antony proven himself not to be trusted; to Caesar, one time too many. Caesar had cracked his whip—
hard
.

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