Ancient History & Civilisation

Octavia & Mark Antony:
Mother love trumps the rest

What happens when the mother of the century meets the world most flagrant, testosterone-filled lover and fighter? If it’s Rome in the first century B.C., they marry. But first, a little background.

Talk about male virility and fertility—over the course of fifty-six vigorous years, Mark Antony married (and/or formed serious relationships) with five women, several of them simultaneously. It couldn’t have been easy to please them or maintain a regular visitation schedule, given the sailing times and road distances between Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Not one to shirk his responsibilities, multitasker Mark also conducted business on the move (he would have adored cell phones) and took care of his aged mother by dragging Mom along.

And these five simply represented his legal wives and key lovers! In his youth, Mark made love to a spectacular variety of ladies. One special squeeze was a singer-hoofer-mime-actress named Lycoris. With her, he traveled by litter throughout Italy, in a procession of wine-quaffing, music-playing disreputable characters carousing together.

To warm up nuptially, he wed a freedwoman named Fabia about whom little is known—solely a mention in Cicero’s letters. Mark was also fooling around with Fulvia Flacca Bambula (yes, that really was her name), at that time married to a scandalous patrician named Clodius Pulcher.

At age thirty-nine, Mark Antony married his first cousin Antonia, which lasted just two years until he caught her in an affair with his best friend and kicked her out. They had a daughter together.

A year later, Mark entered into marriage number three with Fulvia, now widowed and a mother of three. Their blended family included four kids. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship; Fulvia possessed political moxie, sexual desire, and wealth in abundance; so did Mark, although he ran through his money much faster than she did. In short order, the couple produced two sons. After Caesar’s assassination rocked Italy, Mark and Fulvia became even more powerful, thanks largely to the generous terms of Julius Caesar’s will.

At the same time Queen Cleopatra VII, who’d been in Rome as a guest of Julius Caesar, was anxious to return home. Before she scuttled back to Egypt, however, Cleo decided to get into Mark’s good graces by loaning him money. It was partly a bribe to shore up her position as queen of an independent Egypt, and partly because she thought it wise to bankroll one of the likeliest male contenders to rule Rome in the future.

Three years later, she and Mark Antony rendezvoused again, in Asia Minor, ostensibly to discuss the status of her land as a client state. Chemistry took over, and Mark became besotted with Cleopatra. He bedded her, the result of which was the birth of twins in due course.

Once Fulvia caught wind of all this, she exploded with anger. While she was frantically fighting a small war against Octavian on Mark’s behalf, there he was, sleeping with some hussy! Irate, Fulvia died of an illness in May of 40 B.C., at which time Mark Antony and Octavian sat down to an informal bull session to see if they could come to terms before all-out war.

Mark ungallantly blamed the recent hostilities on his newly dead wife, but found it hard to brush away his sexual alliance with the queen of Egypt. (Secretly, Octavian was probably delighted, since most of Rome already hated Cleopatra, and she made a perfect pretext to go to war.)

Octavian himself had his own weighty family problems, which the ever-ready Mark agreed to solve. He had a sister, Octavia, who was moping around, newly widowed, heavily pregnant, and mourning her husband of fifteen years. The obliging Mark married Octavia in the fall of that same year. With her three children, the household now numbered at least nine youngsters from a variety of connubial events.

Things went swimmingly for three years, at least from Octavia’s point of view. She loved children, producing two more, and loved Mark, even though he was pushing fifty by now.

But Mark suffered from a chronic itch. And now only Cleopatra could scratch it. He began to commute to Egypt, resulting in another young’un on the way for Cleo— and demands from the Egyptian queen for a more permanent relationship.

After a hurtful divorce from Octavia in 36 B.C., Mark Antony settled in with his fifth wife (not recognized as such by the Romans, of course) in Egypt. Their fateful challenge to Rome met with failure and humiliating defeat in 31 B.C. The two lovers (Mark aged fifty-six, Cleopatra at thirty-nine) committed suicide and were buried together.

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Octavia, the emperor’s sister, had five children and two husbands, the second being Mark Antony. After the Cleopatra debacle, this compassionate woman also adopted all of Mark’s kids from prior marriages.

In the aftermath of the Mark/Cleopatra suicides, in 30 B.C. Octavia showed her most compassionate side. Although her brother Octavian (now Rome’s first emperor) fought her on this issue, Octavia stepped up to become the sole caretaker of her children with husbands one and two, plus all of Antony’s children with Fulvia. Not only that, this deeply forgiving and maternal woman volunteered to become the guardian of the three surviving progeny of Mark and Cleopatra; toddler Ptolemy Philadelphus and the ten-year-old twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios.

Octavia took great care that all of her children, whether adoptive or blood kin, married well; they became the patrician backbone, an imperial dynasty of sorts, for the next generation of Julio-Claudians.

One standout was Cleopatra Selene, who blossomed under Octavia’s care, growing up smart and emotionally stable. Her marriage to Juba II, king of Mauritania, was a long-lived success on both sides.

The greatest tragedy to befall maternal Octavia? The unexpected and sorely lamented death of her oldest son, Marcellus, at that time the golden boy and heir apparent to her brother, Octavian Augustus.

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