Octavian, Mark Antony and the Ancient Battle of “Fake News”

Disclosure: This blog may contain affiliate links, which means we may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. This comes at no additional cost to you.

In 1493, the invention of the Gutenberg printing press dramatically amplified the gathering and dissemination of news. However, this innovation came with a dark side as it later delivered the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. The Great Moon Hoax was the first-large scale news hoax in which the New York Sun published a series of articles about the discovery of life on the moon. The articles were falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, one of the best-known astronomers of that time, and were published complete with illustrations of humanoid bat-creatures and bearded blue unicorns.

Reproduction of Gutenberg-era Press on display at Printing History Museum in Lyon, France. Photograph taken by George H. Williams in July, 2004
Reproduction of Gutenberg-era Press on display at Printing History Museum in Lyon, France. Photograph taken by George H. Williams in July, 2004

Disinformation and propaganda have featured in human communication since at least the ancient Roman period. Apart from using biographers and their writings to discredit the reputation of the Roman general Mark Antony, Octavian, the adopted heir of Julius Caesar, also waged a propaganda campaign in the form of brief, sharp slogans written on coins to portray Antony as a womanizer and a drunk. Through his use of propaganda, Octavian also implied that Mark Antony had been corrupted by his affair with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and had become Cleopatra’s puppet. This early use of disinformation campaign had allowed Octavian to change the republican system once and for all and led to his road to becoming Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.

Augustus with Civic Crown. Glyptothek, Munich, Germany.
Augustus with Civic Crown. Glyptothek, Munich, Germany.

When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and emerged victorious over Pompey following a turbulent period of generals vying for power, he teased his citizens with the appearance of stability.  However, this joy was short-lived as it ended with Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. A year later, on 27 November 43 BC, Octavian, General Mark Antony and the Pontifex Maximus Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, formed a political alliance (the Second Triumvirate) to declare war on Caesar’s assassins and restore order in Rome. Formally called tresviri rei publicae constituendae (“the Triumvirate for Organizing the Republic”), the alliance was meant to form for two five-year terms. However, unlike the earlier  alliance between Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus (the First Triumvirate) which was a private arrangement among three men, the Second Triumvirate was an official, legally established institution, which vested the three men who formed it with dictatorial powers.

"Marc Antony's Oration at Caesar's Funeral" by George Edward Robertson, 1864
“Marc Antony’s Oration at Caesar’s Funeral” by George Edward Robertson, 1864

After this formation, Antony travelled to the east to prepare for his invasion of Parthia while Octavian mostly positioned himself in and near Italy. To move forward on his own, Octavian would have to establish himself as being the rightful successor of Caesar as well as being able to take on the leadership role  ahead.  However, Octavian would have to accomplish it by maintaining the appearance of continuing a republican form of government instead of establishing a kingship.  Cicero tells us  of a speech by Octavian before the Senate near the end of 44 BC in which he dramatically pointed to a statue of Julius Caesar and said, “So may I attain the honours of my father.”  This motion and mere few words tell us of Octavian’s early mastery of propaganda in this political context. With a simple, dramatic motion and declaration, Octavian conveniently glossed over not only Julius Caesar’s own authoritarianism but his own authoritarian ambitions as he theatrically defined the next chapter of his political life as that of filial piety and honour instead of personal ambition.

A sculpted bust of the Roman general, consul, and triumvir Mark Antony, now located in the Vatican Museums.
A sculpted bust of the Roman general, consul, and triumvir Mark Antony, now located in the Vatican Museums.

Octavian and Antony: The War of Words and Images

Octavian and Antony’s battle for supremacy over the Roman Empire was as much a battle of words and images as it was a battle of ships and soldiers. For the time being Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, would govern in a triumvirate with Lepidus and Mark Antony. Octavian quickly distinguished himself by closely aligning himself to the idealized version of his adopted father. Lepidus posed no threat in Octavian’s efforts to establish his image. However, the ambitions of the more well-known and flamboyant Mark Antony needed to be addressed. This would have been difficult for Octavian as invoking civil war against Antony would have been a very risky endeavour in an already war-weary society. Therefore, Octavian could not just attack Antony without unquestionable justification.

It should be mentioned that, at this time, Mark Antony was the more popular figure of the two men. Following their victories over the assassins Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC, it was Mark Antony and not Octavian who had been hailed by the troops. Octavian was, at the time, returning to Rome to recover from an illness. He was then saddled with the rather less glorious task of finding land to settle the veterans on in Italy. But Octavian made the best of this situation and successfully build up support among the lower classes. He procured land for distribution to the army veterans thus winning the loyalty of the army, and he cut taxes which then won him support among the equestrians. To further connect him with the old nobility, Octavian married Livia Drusilla. He added men from old aristocratic families to the senate and therefore began creating a new oligarchy by winning the aristocrat’s loyalty by restoring their former honours.

M. Aemilius Lepidus. 58 BC. AR Denarius (3.76 gm). Veiled head of the Vestal Virgin Aemilia right / View of the Basilica Aemilia. By CNG coins - Coin from CNG coins, through WildWinds.com, CC BY-SA 3.0
M. Aemilius Lepidus. 58 BC. AR Denarius (3.76 gm). Veiled head of the Vestal Virgin Aemilia right / View of the Basilica Aemilia. By CNG coins – Coin from CNG coins, through WildWinds.com, CC BY-SA 3.0

Octavian was present and active in Rome, finding ways of giving himself opportunities of gaining power. However, Mark Antony still had the support of his wife Fulvia and his brother Lucius in Italy who had grown concerned about the amount of power Octavian was gaining. Fulvia and Lucius tried their best to contain Octavian’s power in different ways from stalling in the Senate to pitting their forces with that of Octavian’s. Mark Antony was largely silent on these developments. It was only after discovering that Octavian had defeated Lucius at Perusia and that Fulvia was forced to flee to Greece that Mark Antony prepared to return to Italy.

Unfortunately, Mark Antony could not contain his own desire for glory as he still wanted to conquer Parthia and become recognized as a new Alexander the Great. He believed that by taking Parthia, he would avenge the death of the consul Crassus at the hands of the Parthians. This achievement would then outshine Octavian’s accomplishments and bring him fame and fortune. However, it appeared that Mark Antony severely underestimated Octavian and it would have been more prudent for him to come back to Rome immediately as Octavian now had control over Lepidus’ former troops and territories in Africa.

Illustration of Octavian, Antony and Lepidus debating proscriptions from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar by H. C. Selous - Cowden-Clarke, Charles and Mary, eds. The Plays of William Shakespeare., Public Domain.
Illustration of Octavian, Antony and Lepidus debating proscriptions from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by H. C. Selous – Cowden-Clarke, Charles and Mary, eds. The Plays of William Shakespeare., Public Domain.

It was on his way to the Parthian campaign that Mark Antony met Cleopatra and openly stayed with her in Alexandria. Apart from the obvious distress this would have caused his already struggling family in Rome, Mark Antony made himself even more vulnerable to Octavian’s propaganda firstly through not being present in Rome, then through his “eastern” clothing and attitude. To show contrast, Octavian made sure to emphasize his own preference for the west, demonstrating the dichotomy between his own patriotism and Antony’s foreign inclinations.

This propaganda against Mark Antony extended to literature. Plutarch wrote of Mark Antony being in Alexandria as “…there to keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away in enjoyments that most costly, as Antiphon says, of all valuables, time.” Plutarch references Mark Antony’s drinking again and again in his biography of Mark Antony, so much that his readers would have been forgiven in thinking that being drunk is Mark Antony’s main characteristic. Mark Antony replied to these attacks on his drinking by saying that,  in the campaign of Mutina, Octavian not only behaved in as cowardly a fashion as he did at Philippi and the naval engagement between Mylae and Naulochus, but he also tried to summon what little courage he had through drinking expensive wines while  Antony himself led his men drinking foul water like true soldiers and warriors. Indeed, in the description of the battle of Mutina, Plutarch tells us that Mark Antony amazed his soldiers when, despite the life of luxury to which he is accustomed, he drank foul water and ate wild fruits along with them.

"Venus appearing to Aeneas and Achates" by Donato Crety, 17th Century.
“Venus appearing to Aeneas and Achates” by Donato Crety, 17th Century.

The Battle of the Divine Ancestors

Cassius Dio later records Octavian’s speech before the Battle of Actium urging his men to not be afraid of a man who “abandoned all his ancestors’ habits of life, has emulated all alien and barbarian customs … and finally has taken for himself the title of Osiris or Dionysus …”. As if it was not obvious who it was that he was referring to, Octavian continues, “Let no one count him a Roman, but rather an Egyptian, nor call him Antony, but rather Serapeion”. Serapis is a Graeco-Egyptian deity. The cult of Serapis was spread by the Ptolemaic kings (Cleopatra’s ancestors) who also endorsed him as a patron of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

"Venus Directing Aeneas and Achates to Carthage" by Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) 
“Venus Directing Aeneas and Achates to Carthage” by Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) 

Octavian’s propaganda did not stop at comments on Antony’s favourable attitude towards the east, or at putting emphasis on his frivolous behaviour. In the battle of images, Antony’s use of Hercules as his divine ancestor was also rather brilliantly transformed to something sinister. At this point in time, the relationship between Mark Antony and Hercules was already well known. The use of Hercules as ancestor of the Antonii were also confirmed through coinage. A set of aurei from 42 BC by Livineius Regulus show the heads of Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavian, while the reverse of the coins depicts their mythological ancestors who are respectively, Hercules, the Vestal Aemilia and Aeneas.

Antony inserted himself into the Herculean bloodline through his emphasis of his mythical ancestor Anton, one of Hercules’ many sons. According to Plutarch, Antony even groomed himself in a way that reminds others of the image of Hercules through his “finely formed beard, broad brow, and aquiline nose” as well as his attire. Octavian had also aligned himself to a divine ancestor. Julius Caesar, his adopted father, was already deified by this time. It was also already known that Julius Caesar believed his named to have come from Iulus, the son of Aenas who was in turn the son Venus. By invoking his and Mark Antony’s divine ancestors, Octavian attacked Mark Antony by manipulating the image of his ancestor and putting it in contrast to his own. This would have also served Octavians’ purpose of gaining legitimacy to his eventual rule by linking the Battle of Actium to the gods and divinity and to give the impression that his victory is favoured by the ancestral gods.

Teracotta statue of Hercules and the Nemean Lion, unknown
Teracotta statue of Hercules and the Nemean Lion, unknown

Octavian seemed to have kept this option to strengthen his legitimacy firmly in his mind as started to mention Hercules and Antony’s relationship with him repeatedly before the battle of Actium. But the Hercules who figured in this imagery was not the great warrior had saved mankind through his deeds.  Octavian’s version of Hercules was the hero enslaved by Omphale, the barbarian woman who buys Hercules as a slave for a mere three silver talents and made him execute chores in women’s’ clothing. Just as the Lydian queen Omphale had emasculated the powerful Hercules, so too the Egyptian queen Cleopatra governed and turned the great Roman warrior into her slave. The brilliance of this counter-image is that it diffused Octavian’s unsavoury goal of promoting civil war because, through this line of propaganda, the real danger was not Mark Antony. Instead, the real danger came from the east through Cleopatra.

The Man Descended from Hercules and Dionysus

In contrast to Octavian’s meticulous image management and targeted attacks towards him, Mark Antony did not seem to spend as much of thought into his own image, let alone that of Octavian’s. Although the coins of Regulus and the passages from Plutarch imply that Mark Antony modelled himself after his divine ancestor Hercules, Mark Antony was too flamboyant for the warrior-like image that he was supposed to cultivate through his attachment to Hercules. Instead, following the division of the empire amongst the triumvirs in 42 BC, Mark Antony seemed to have found the deity Dionysus to be a more suitable model. When talking about Mark Antony’s entry in Ephesus in 41 BC, Plutarch says that “All welcomed him [Mark Antony] as Dionysus, bringer of joy, gentle and kind” – in short, very far removed from being a great, war-like, warrior. Mark Antony’s connection to Dionysus is attested by an Athenian inscription of 39 BC and strengthened by provincial coins.

Dionysus is equated with both Bacchus and Liber (also Liber Pater). Liber ("the free one") was a god of fertility, wine, and growth, married to Libera.
Dionysus is equated with both Bacchus and Liber (also Liber Pater). Liber (“the free one”) was a god of fertility, wine, and growth, married to Libera.

Roman Historian Velleius Paterculus also tells us that in 34 BC Antony gave orders that he should be called the new Liber Pater (“the Free Father”). In ancient Roman religion and mythology, Liber Pater was a patron deity of Rome’s plebeians. This might have been a move on Mark Antony’s part to gain support from the plebeians. Unfortunately, Liber Pater was also the god of viticulture, wine, fertility and freedom which ultimately made his image more or less interchangeable in the Roman minds with Dionysus. If Mark Antony was aware of this association which would have been a boon for Octavian to use against him, he did not seem to care as he impersonated Liber Pater in a procession at Alexandria where he was holding the thyrsus in his hand while wearing the buskins and riding in the bacchic chariot – all elements associated with Dionysus.

Cassius Dio later tells us that Mark Antony had himself depicted on statues and paintings as Dionysus, accompanied by Cleopatra as Selene. From then on, it was Dionysus rather than Hercules who became Mark Antony’s model and no further connections were made between Mark Antony and Hercules. 

Seemingly associating himself even further with Dionysus’ more extravagant qualities, Mark Antony and Cleopatra held an extravagant triumphal ceremony in Alexandria to celebrate Mark Antony’s annexation of Armenia. This ceremony  was perceived as “theatrical, arrogant, and revealing a hatred of Rome” by Plutarch. Mark Antony and Cleopatra sat on two thrones of gold, while their children sat on lower seated thrones. The purpose of this lavish ceremony was to confirm Cleopatra’s power and to distribute territories and kingdoms to Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s children. Mark Antony declared Cleopatra the Queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya, and Syria. He distributed Armenia, Media, Parthia, Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia to their children. This distribution would be known as the Donations of Alexandria.

Liber Pater’s Temple of Porolissum by Saturnian – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Octavian took advantage of the Alexandrian ceremony and brought the matter of Mark Antony’s ceremony to the Roman Senate. He denounced it to the Roman people to stoke more public disapproval of Mark Antony’s behaviour and further depicting Mark Antony as un-Roman, enslaved to the witchery of Cleopatra.

This is why Communication Skills are So Important

Octavian was undoubtedly a brilliant politician and propagandist. On the other hand, Mark Antony seemed to have struggled in maintaining his own public image at a time where the people of Rome needed a very concrete and targeted public messages. Octavian, for example, presented himself firmly as the heir of the divine Julius Caesar, son of Aeneas, son of Venus. He was the quintessential Roman patriot who was loyal to his family and country, with no use of any Egyptian mistress. In short, he paid close attention to Mark Antony’s behaviours, denouncing these behaviours to the Roman public, and presented himself as a much more favourable and “Roman” alternative. This did not mean that Antony did not have any tactics up his sleeves to gain advantage. He just did not communicate his intentions in a way that was recognizable to his potential supporters.

"Cleopatra showing Octavius the bust of Julius Caesar" by Pompeo Batoni, 18th century
“Cleopatra showing Octavius the bust of Julius Caesar” by Pompeo Batoni, 18th century

Beneath the lavish celebration of the Donations of Alexandria, where Mark Antony bestowed the rule of several eastern kingdoms to Cleopatra and her children, was Mark Antony’s attempt to establish and legitimize his rule and that of Cleopatra’s over the eastern world. Done correctly, this would have supplanted any claim Octavian had on the east as Cleopatra was already herself a formidable ruler and therefore a powerful ally for Mark Antony and Rome (that is if Rome chose to embrace Mark Antony as a leader). However, the way this was communicated puts Mark Antony very much at odds with the Roman traditions. To the people of Rome, with the help of Octavian’s propaganda, it appeared that Mark Antony was blinded by his love of Cleopatra. He was therefore tricked by Cleopatra into throwing away his allegiance to Rome and setting up a new Ptolemaic dynasty in the East. In reality, although Mark Antony considered Cleopatra as a valuable ally and perhaps even loved her, he was in fact taking deliberate actions of combining his forces with Cleopatra’s to ultimately defeat Octavian and take back Rome for himself. With this in mind, his choice of divine model Liber Pater with his representation of fertility and abundance seemed to make more sense as a divine ancestor if Mark Antony were to win the Battle of Actium. But before the battle, it was nothing more than an affront and only served to fuel Octavian’s narrative against him.

"The Drunken Hercules being Led by a Satyr Couple" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1616
“The Drunken Hercules being Led by a Satyr Couple” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1616

With public sentiment now heavily aligned against Antony, the Senate declared war on Cleopatra whom they blamed for making their great general Mark Antony stray from his duties. Taking advantage of this outrage, Octavian could finally rid himself of the last obstacle between himself and succession to Caesar with complete support from the people and the senate. Mark Antony also tried to use propaganda against Octavian by spreading rumours about an alleged sexual relationship between Octavian and his adoptive father. However, Octavian had the advantage of not only being closer to Rome and understanding the people’s discontent, but also being more single-minded and targeted in his attacks towards Mark Antony as Mark Antony himself struggled in maintaining his own image and public messages.

Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Silver Denarius, 32 BC
Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Silver Denarius, 32 BC

The final straw of this battle of harmful news was the matter of Mark Antony’s will. Octavian took the opportunity to expose the incriminating clauses of its content, which he pre-emptively described as “fatal to Antony’s reputation in Rome”. When Octavian went to the temple of Vesta where the will was kept and  requested the will without Mark Antony’s consent, the Vestal Virgins refused to give it to him. However, the Vestal Virgins could not physically prevent him from entering the temple and taking the will. Thus Octavian took the will and later read it aloud to the entire Roman Senate despite most of the Senate grumbling that it is highly inappropriate to do so.

Octavian highlighted a passage of the will that requested that even if he were to die in Rome, Mark Antony wished to be sent to Cleopatra and be buried in Alexandria.  Octavian, he made sure to highlight this contrast, had no plans for himself or his family to be buried in a foreign land. And so it continued through his reading where Octavian magnified and distorted selected contents of Antony’s will which he could put in stark contrast to his own very patriotic Roman behaviour.

"The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC" by Laureys a Castro, 1672
“The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC” by Laureys a Castro, 1672

In the end, Octavian and Mark Antony’s battle of images culminated into the Battle of Actium. Octavian officially declared war on Cleopatra in the Temple of Bellona in 32 BC and performed the ancient rites preliminary to war. In truth, the battle was never about Cleopatra as these proceeding was really directed towards Mark Antony. Although most senators pledged loyalty to Octavian, there were also many senators who defected to Mark Antony. However, Octavian took the opportunity to have the final word years later when, as the emperor Augustus, he wrote in his Res Gestai Divi Augusti that “the whole of Italy voluntarily took oath of allegiance to me and demanded me as its leader in the war in which I was victorious at Actium.”

"Caesar Octavianus finds Cleopatra by the body of Antonius" by Josef Platzer, 1802
“Caesar Octavianus finds Cleopatra by the body of Antonius” by Josef Platzer, 1802

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s