Mark Antony was in his element. The thirty-four-year-old Master of Horse was in effect ruler of Rome. By early October he had shipped all Caesar’s mutinous legions from Durrës back across the Strait of Otranto to Brindisi in southeastern Italy. Almost as soon as he set foot back in Italy, the other consul for the year apart from Caesar, Publius Servilius Isauricus, appointed by Caesar before he left Rome to undertake the invasion of Greece, bowed to orders from Caesar and appointed Antony Master of Horse. Traditionally this post was occupied by the deputy of a Roman dictator. In this case it was a highly illegal appointment, but it gave Caesar’s rule, and that of his deputy, a thin veneer of respectability.
While Caesar had taken the title of Dictator, under Roman law it was a temporary position, lasting a maximum of six months, and while the recipient remained at Rome at that. Just as Caesar was not entitled to still call himself Dictator, no one, neither he nor another consul, could bestow the title and powers of Master of Horse on Antony. Those powers, of martial law, made Antony absolute ruler of Rome in Caesar’s absence, answerable to no one but Caesar. And how Antony intended enjoying those powers.
First discharging the Pompeian prisoners once he landed back in Italy, he had distributed Caesar’s previously rebellious legions. The 25th, 26th, and 29th went into camp in Puglia. The 11th and 12th had overcome their rebelliousness once separated from the strike’s ringleaders in the Spanish legions and had marched to Illyricum with General Cornificius, with orders from Caesar to tackle Pompeian supporters and local partisans who had taken over the main cities and towns of today’s Croatia. This was the mission that Antony’s brother Gaius had set out to accomplish the previous year with the amphibious landing that had gone disastrously wrong and resulted in the seventy-five hundred men of his landing force going over to Pompey.
This time the two legions sent to secure Croatia had taken the overland route. They would be joined a little later by retired lieutenant general Aulus Gabinius. This was the same General Gabinius who had restored Ptolemy XII to the Egyptian throne. Exiled by the Senate six years before for extortion, he had been recalled by Caesar, and now, after Caesar received intelligence—false, as it turned out—that republican generals who had escaped after Pharsalus were regrouping their forces in Macedonia, Gabinius had the job of eliminating opposition forces in Illyricum. Arriving with two legions newly levied in Italy earlier that year, the 34th and the 35th, Gabinius combined them with the 11th and the 12th and took command of difficult operations to take Croatian cities and towns, some of which remained loyal to the republican Senate while others had made a bid for independence. Gabinius would die from ill health in the costly campaign, which General Corfinius would eventually succeed in completing.
As for the men of the still defiant 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th Legions, Antony led them up the Appian Way to Rome. Installing the four legions in a camp on the Field of Mars outside the city walls, he told their legionaries that only Caesar could resolve their continued demands for discharge and bonuses. Until Caesar completed his business with Pompey in the East and returned to Rome, he told them, they would have to stay where they were, or risk being branded deserters, a crime punishable by death.
Antony then set up residence in Pompey the Great’s mansion in the Carinae or Keels district of Rome. This was a vengeful act the “feckless nobody” took great pleasure in, for he had known full well how Pompey despised him. The Master of Horse now spent his time enjoying himself, becoming a “night liver,” eating long, luxurious dinners with his friends and favorites, drinking all night, and bedding any woman he pleased. It was even suggested that he also had an eye for pretty boys. He spent the daytime sleeping, and walking off his binges.
When Caesar’s supporters at Rome began arguing among themselves, Antony made no attempt to intervene, just left them to it. He was having too much fun to be bothered with the petty affairs of government. First-century Jewish writer Josephus would describe Antony as “one that openly indulged himself in such pleasures as his power allowed to him.”
Antony was merely reverting to type. As a young man, he and his best friend, Gaius Curio, had led just such an indulgent life together. In those days Curio had to borrow heavily to keep up with his friend. In the end, Curio’s father had banned Antony from his house because he considered him a bad influence on his son. But Curio had acquired a taste for the high life under Antony’s tutelage and continued to live well above his means until, in 50 B.C., after both he and Antony had been elected Tribunes of the Plebs, the debt collectors began to increasingly knock on his door.
Curio had initially supported Pompey in the Senate, but when Caesar discreetly paid off his huge debts after being approached to do so by Antony, Curio switched sides—this was the price of having his debts cleared up. When, in January 49 B.C., neither Antony nor Curio had been able to push Caesar’s demands through the Senate and they had both fled to him after he crossed to Rubicon, he had rewarded them with military appointments—Antony commanding half the troops in his initial advance down through eastern Italy, Curio commanding four legions made up of mostly former senatorial troops whom Caesar had subsequently sent to occupy Sicily. Now Curio was dead, killed by senatorial forces, along with the men of the 17th and 18th Legions, after he had attempted to invade North Africa from Sicily for Caesar in the summer of 49 B.C. But Antony was very much alive, and enjoying the fruits of his support for Julius Caesar.
Orator and senator Marcus Cicero knew Antony well. Having eventually sided with Caesar after initially supporting Pompey, Cicero was now bitterly regretting his decision as he contemplated the poor character of many of the other men who supported Caesar, some of them with criminal records, others, rank opportunists. Antony in particular he considered “odious.” Even many of Caesar’s hard and fast supporters disliked Antony, considering him lazy, self-indulgent, and self-opinionated. Most kept such thoughts to themselves, knowing that no one could hold a grudge or enjoyed his revenge more than Mark Antony.
Before they’d parted at Farsala, Caesar had briefed Antony on his plan to go after Pompey wherever his flight might take him, while Antony took control back at Rome. Caesar would have told him that Marcus Brutus thought that Pompey could head for Egypt to call in the debt he felt was owed him by Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra. Antony had met both young Egyptian royals when he was a twenty-eight-year-old colonel stationed in Egypt in 55 B.C., following the restoration of their father to his throne by General Gabinius’s legions. Antony had by that time already gained mild fame as the fearless hero of the Roman siege of the Jewish fortress of Alexandrium in Judea. “Mark Antony fought bravely and killed a great number,” Josephus was to write of the siege, “and seemed to come off with the greatest honor.”
Cleopatra, plain second daughter of the king of Egypt, had not made an impression on Antony in 55 B.C. Aged just thirteen or fourteen when they met at the royal court in Alexandria, she had been, according to Plutarch, unworldly and naive back then. There is no record of what Antony thought of her at the time, nor of what she thought of him. Neither could have guessed how their lives and deaths would become intertwined over the next eighteen years.
Happily ensconced at Rome, living a life of leisure, Antony would play no part in Julius Caesar’s life-and-death struggles in the coming months and years. Nor would he attempt to help him once the news reached Rome that Caesar was in trouble in the East. Not that Caesar ordered Antony to send him help, even though, with increasing desperation, he ordered other subordinates, those in the East, to send him reinforcements and supplies. And, if ordered to do so, Antony no doubt would not have hesitated to obey.
But should Caesar perish in the East, then Antony, his duly appointed deputy, had the position, the troops, and the ambition to step up and take his place as ruler of the Roman world.