Mark Antony comes to us through history most famously in Shakespeare as the man who fled from the naval battle at Actium to chase after his lover, Cleopatra. Even setting aside the cowardice attached to Antony in the bard’s famous play, there’s also the historical record which includes several ruthless political acts that Antony performed as a Roman leader and military commander.
Antony’s faults are well-documented. He was a hedonist who spent lavishly, partied hard, and may well have been a drunkard. He engaged in adulterous affairs, skipped out on debts, had children with at least four different women, and played a part in bringing down the Roman Republic. But in the course of the civil war he waged with Octavius for dominance, he was also the victim of an unprecedented propaganda campaign and his memory has been much maligned. (For example, it’s highly unlikely that Antony fled the battle of Actium in cowardice; most historians now believe that he and Cleopatra were attempting to break a naval blockade.)
If it is true that heroism and vice can co-exist in a single man, there may be no better example of that than Antony, who is seldom remembered for his genuine acts of valor, and ought to be.
In the immediate aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination, Antony gave shelter to Caesar’s widow, Calpurnia and ultimately risked the public turning against him when he made a world-changing eulogy during the dictator’s funeral. While that speech may have ultimately been self-serving, it was also an act of loyalty to his dead friend, and one taken at considerable peril.
Not long after, Antony fought a disastrous battle in Cisalpine Gaul. His legionaries were beset with every kind of calamity including famine. According to Plutarch, “Antony, on this occasion, was a most wonderful example to his soldiers. He, who had just quitted so much luxury and sumptuous living, made no difficulty now of drinking foul water and feeding on wild fruits and roots. Nay, it is related they ate the very bark of trees, and, in passing over the Alps, lived upon creatures that no one before had ever been willing to touch.”
But it wasn’t just by serving as a good example that Antony helped save his army. The plan was to meet up with friendly forces on the other side of the Alps, but when they reached the other army, Lepidus had turned against them. Again, at great risk to himself, Antony treated directly with the enemy soldiers and won them to his cause, sparing Lepidus and treating him honorably.
It seems that Antony’s heroism often showed itself in adversity. Though he fought and won many battles, it was during his disastrous defeat in Parthia that the bravery with which he mounted his retreat so impressed even his Parthian enemies that they cheered when his army crossed the river to safety.
At the end of Antony’s career, when it became clear that he might be able to save his own life by giving up Cleopatra or getting rid of her, Antony would not do it, and that also says something about his character.