Critical Decision: Octavia or Cleopatra? Guest Blogger Brook Allen


It is my pleasure to introduce Brook Allen, blogger and author of the Antonius series. The historical fiction series captures the life and essence of Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony). After reading Antonius: Soldier of Fate (Book 3), I was fascinated with the lesser-known historical figure, Octavia. She was the fourth wife of Marcus Antonius and sister of his political rival, Octavian, in the Second Triumvirate. Their marriage forged a political alliance between the two powerful leaders during the time when Cleopatra became Antonius’s lover and ally.

Below is a guest post by Brook Allen of how Cleopatra and Octavia influenced Marcus Antonius in their love triangle. Also provided are her biography contact information, and book links.

Author Brook Allen

Antonius’s Critical Decision: Octavia or Cleopatra?

Now that my final book in the Antonius Trilogy has launched, I look back as an author and feel as though I understand my “friend” Marcus Antonius a lot better.

I remember taking a tour with an archaeologist in Rome some years ago. She was a brilliant woman, eager to share her love of the city and experiences, as someone who had made a unique discovery there and had the opportunity to excavate it. However, as we were still introducing ourselves, and I mentioned I was writing on Marcus Antonius, a wall went up! The rest of the day, I felt as though she was on auto-pilot showing me around and staying distant. After talking with her more, her impassioned feelings poured forth: she HATED Antonius. She didn’t like talking about him because of what he did to Octavia.

Bust of Octavia

Wow. It was the first concrete evidence I had found of what a polarizing figure in history Marcus Antonius still is to this day. People who study the Roman world are still divided on their opinions of him. This incident really caused me to spend a lot of time researching WHY Antonius deserted his Roman wife. And I decided that I would make Octavia a pivotal figure in my story and attempt to explain his choice.

So let’s look at this “love triangle”, shall we?

Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony) had his life story told by his enemies or by men who lived roughly a century or more after him. Artwork depicting his likeness, inscriptions bearing his name, and any evidence of whatever plans he and Cleopatra had made together were all destroyed following his death. What we do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was that he was like many Roman men in his day—a ravenous wolf when it came to women. He loved whoring, having a mistress, he craved and enjoyed sex, and he was proud of his expertise in bed and his masculine ability to have sons. Wine was his drug of choice, and he probably wasn’t above trying aphrodisiacs and varying positions during sexual encounters. Sexuality in the ancient world wasn’t for the modest.

Marcus Antonius Bust

But Antonius was also a figure of power—a great deal of power, especially following the assassination of Julius Caesar. To survive politically, he required enormous amounts of gold to pay his legions, was expected to govern well, add to Rome’s growing empire, and show the usual aloof and characteristic dignitas in dealing with provincial natives.

Antonius’s marriage to Octavia occurred right after his first liaison with Cleopatra. That makes me skeptical about it being a pleasing event for him. First, his previous wife had just died—literally only months or less prior to his betrothal to Octavia. Second—well, it was Octavian’s idea, NOT Antonius’s!

And what about Octavia? How did she feel about all of this? She had been married around the age of fifteen to a much older man—Gaius Marcellus—who opposed Julius Caesar. Though it’s unclear exactly what happened, Caesar wanted the couple to divorce at one point so that Octavia could marry the recently widowed Pompeius Magnus. This arrangement fell through. Nobody knows why, but I rather doubt that Marcellus wanted to divorce his wife just because his political opponent demanded it!

Octavia was a true example of the loyal, nurturing Roman matron all of her life, in both her marriage to Marcellus and then to Antonius. She spun her own wool, was described as being quite beautiful, and once married to Antonius, supported him as much as her brother until their divorce.

How did SHE feel about marrying her brother’s rival? Frankly, I doubt she was very happy about it, either. At the time, Octavia was in a late-term pregnancy by Marcellus, who had died before their baby was born. Octavian forced her betrothal to Antonius while she was heavy with child. What woman could be pleased with that? The poor thing was still in mourning, as was Antonius for his own wife who had just died.

Behold the marriage that was depicted in Roman propaganda as the salvation of the Republic, preventing more civil war. Silver cups with mythological analogies of Octavian’s and Antonius’s peace at Brundisium were crafted, coins with both Antonius’s and Octavia’s profiles, side by side were minted. Even Virgil, in some cryptic passages of poetry, proclaimed this marriage to herald a golden age.

Ancient Coin of Marcus Antonius and Octavia

Never had a marriage been so lauded. And never had a marriage been so doomed.

In the winter preceding his return to Italy and betrothal to Octavia in late 41 BC, Antonius tasted Cleopatra’s charms for the first time. Nobody really knows whether real love existed between them. But their meeting and physical attraction became legendary in their own time.

Plutarch wrote a splendid description of the Queen (though he lived a century after her!) Still, he must have had some superb primary sources in comparison to what we have today:

For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another…”

I’m not suggesting that Octavia was UN-educated, but she probably wasn’t fluent in seven languages like Cleopatra. Egypt’s Queen had the world’s foremost library at her fingertips, along with the university at Alexandria, and the draw of countless men of science and literature. She had also proven herself capable of ruling well. She was managing increasing revenue, led Egypt through several years of drought, and had built a strong relationship with the native Egyptians in Upper Egypt—something none of her Ptolemaic forbears had achieved. In short, she was a brilliant woman and though certain examples of her coinage looks a little witch-like, her busts look attractive, if not rather pretty.

Bust of Cleopatra

As the final decade in his life continued, Antonius’s relations with Octavian had broken down. Twice, Octavian set up meetings in Italy to which Antonius arrived promptly, only to find his brother in law not just absent, but having failed to allow Antonius entry into his own country. Then there was the question of troops with which Antonius had provided Octavian, only to receive nothing in return. Really, there was very little keeping this alliance alive.

Still planning to take up Julius Caesar’s banner against the Parthian Empire, Antonius needed coin. He wasn’t getting much from his brother in law. His mother and brothers had all died, and he had already propagated a solid alliance with Egypt—the world’s breadbasket—for support in this endeavor. When he finally headed East again, he did so alone. To succeed, he’d need to renew the alliance with Egypt.

He made his choice for good or ill. He chose Cleopatra—her wealth and the side benefits of their physical relationship must have meant something to him, for many scholars agree that they married by Egyptian law prior to his Parthian adventure. He needed secure allies at his back and gold to pay his army, which was one-hundred THOUSAND strong! Yes, he made concessions to the Queen, too—ones that he may have lived to regret later. But the appearance of this “love triangle” was one of practicality, regardless of any emotion involved. Did Antonius and Cleopatra love one another? This author is convinced that they did, but hey—I’ll save that for another blog!

And what of poor Octavia?

Though it’s recorded that she spoke up on her husband’s behalf and even served as a mediator between Antonius and Octavian, she had proven that she was best at the art of domesticity and mothering. She proved it again by taking in Antonius’s children by Cleopatra after their parents’ deaths. After all she did for her brother, he allowed her a place in his households, along with all of the kids, but never “forced” her to marry again. He also built her a large entryway near the Theater of Marcellus—smaller theater that was started by Caesar and completed by her son, Marcellus. She must not have thought the porticus built in her honor was enough, for after her son Marcellus died, she gifted Rome with a library near the “Porticus Octavia”.

Porticus Octavia

Did Octavia love Antonius? Was she jealous once he left her for Cleopatra? Or did she possibly encourage him to go? We’ll never know, but people intrigued with Antonius and Cleopatra’s romance should be mindful that before Antonius was ever fully committed to Cleo, there was this unusual and unwanted love triangle adding a lot of angst to the whole story.

Biography Brook Allen

Author Brook Allen has a passion for ancient history—especially 1st century BC Rome. Her Antonius Trilogy is a detailed account of the life of Marcus Antonius—Marc Antony, which she has worked on for the past fifteen years. The first installment, Antonius: Son of Rome was published in March 2019. It follows Antony as a young man, from the age of eleven, when his father died in disgrace, until he’s twenty-seven and meets Cleopatra for the first time. Brook’s second book is Antonius: Second in Command, dealing with Antony’s tumultuous rise to power at Caesar’s side and culminating with the civil war against Brutus and Cassius. Antonius: Soldier of Fate is the last book in the trilogy, spotlighting the romance between Antonius and Cleopatra and the historic war with Octavian Caesar.

In researching the Antonius Trilogy, Brook’s travels have led her to Italy, Egypt, Greece, and even Turkey to explore places where Antony once lived, fought, and eventually died. While researching abroad, she consulted with scholars and archaeologists well-versed in Hellenistic and Roman history, specifically pinpointing the late Republican Period in Rome. Brook belongs to the Historical Novel Society and attends conferences as often as possible to study craft and meet fellow authors. In 2019, Son of Rome won the Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year Award. In 2020, it was honored with a silver medal in the international Reader’s Favorite Book Reviewers Book Awards.

Though she graduated from Asbury University with a B.A. in Music Education, Brook has always loved writing. She completed a Masters program at Hollins University with an emphasis in Ancient Roman studies, which helped prepare her for authoring her present works. Brook teaches full-time as a Music Educator and works in a rural public-school district near Roanoke, Virginia. Her personal interests include travel, cycling, hiking in the woods, reading, and spending downtime with her husband and two amazing Labrador Retrievers. She lives in the heart of southwest Virginia in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.

Contact Information Book Allen





Books by Brook Allen

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