"The Death of Cleopatra", a 1881 painting by Juan Luna. We can safely say that her death was a result of the disastrous game of propaganda between Octavian and Mark Antony. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Fake News” in Ancient Rome; Famous Cases of Disastrous Propaganda

Propaganda played a major role in Roman politics but there is one specific case that truly stands out.

Fake news. This is the modern name of an ancient method of influence called propaganda. We see it every day, whether it is in the news or in social networks. We can easily assume that propaganda has never been easier and there have been striking examples in recent years.

Nevertheless, history knows of more than one or two examples of brutal propaganda in ancient times. Especially when it comes to Rome, it was always present in the political game. Let’s go back to the times of the Second Triumvirate, a period of civil wars and endless political chaos in Roman history.

Propaganda in Ancient Rome: The Story of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra

Rome's territories during the Second Triumvirate. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Rome’s territories during the Second Triumvirate. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nearly 2000 years ago, there was a famous alliance between Octavian, surprisingly named by the mighty Julius Caesar as his successor, and the former right hand of Caesar – Mark Antony. Even not knowing a lot about Roman history, would you expect that any kind of alliance would last long? No, of course.

The story is well known – Mark Antony, who took control of the eastern provinces of Rome, retired from Rome and moved to the splendor of the Alexandria, tempted by his beloved Cleopatra.

At the same time, his ally, but also a major rival, Octavian (later Augustus Caesar), remained in Rome and, in addition to dealing with the hardships of the Italian lands and western provinces under his rule, had to learn how to influence the Senate.

It was at this time that one of the most ferocious propaganda campaigns in Roman history, culminating in 33 BC, was in full swing. Both sides were fighting for only one thing – to gain public support, which would guarantee their military potential to influence events.

Roman aurei with the figures of Mark Antony (left) and Guy Octavian (right), carved in 43 BC. in honor of the conclusion of the Second Triumvirate. On each of them is engraved the inscription "III VIR RP C", which means "One of the three men ruling the Republic". Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Roman aurei with the figures of Mark Antony (left) and Guy Octavian (right), carved in 43 BC. in honor of the conclusion of the Second Triumvirate. On each of them is engraved the inscription “III VIR RP C”, which means “One of the three men ruling the Republic”. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At the peak of this political game, Octavian obtained a document that he claimed was Antony’s official will. In those days, every wealthy man wrote his will long before he felt death approaching. The official documents were handed over for storage in the Vestal temple and no one had the right to receive the document before its author has died. This is what makes this propaganda story so deep.

How Octavian obtained Mark Antony’s will is another story. The important thing is that this document turned out to be a real “sensation”, as we would call it today.

Octavian read the document aloud before the Senate (as Plutarch writes) and also exercised the right of senators to make copies of the will, which would be presented at the forum and sent by courier to all parts of the provinces. The act of reading a foreign will is in itself a “barbaric” act for the Romans, but this fact remained in the background as the audience learned what Mark Antony’s last will was.

With the document, Octavian finally managed to convince the Senate – including the many supporters of Antony – that Mark Antony was blinded by love and had surrendered completely to the power of the seductive Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

What did Mark Anthony’s will include?

Marble bust portrait of Octavian, now kept in the British Museum. Credit: British Museum
Marble bust portrait of Octavian, now kept in the British Museum. Credit: British Museum

The will contained many clauses that inflamed the Romans on a very particular topic – the anti-Eastern (and anti-Cleopatra) prejudices that were just waiting to be “stepped on”. From time immemorial, the Romans distrusted the riches and luxuries of the East, not to mention the idea of ​​a woman receiving any kind of power. And Cleopatra had not just anything, but the full and enormous power (and means) of a Pharaoh.

What Anthony wrote in his will confirmed that he intended to bequeath all his property to his children by Cleopatra. As far as we know, they had three children – twins Cleopatra Selena and Alexander Helios, and a son Ptolemy Philadelphia.

Anthony’s legacy was also not small and represented the vast territories of the eastern provinces that were under his rule after the conclusion of the Second Triumvirate. In his will, Anthony also declared that Caesarion, Caesar and Cleopatra’s son, was the legal heir of Caesar.

Cleopatra and Caesarion. Reliefs from the temple in Dendera. Credit: Britannica
Cleopatra and Caesarion. Reliefs from the temple in Dendera. Credit: Britannica

This was extremely dangerous for the authority of Octavian, who was adopted by Caesar and was his only heir. Was Mark Antony to succeed with his plans, it would leave Octavian supportless and stripped off his power.

Anthony wrote in his will that he wanted to be buried in the Ptolemaic family mausoleum in Alexandria. The Romans considered this last wish to be the most brutal. It succeeded in convincing the people and the Senate of Rome that Anthony, if left to rule in Rome, would push the state back into a monarchy.

What is intriguing is that once the contents of the will were brought to light, it no longer mattered whether the document was genuine or forged. Mark Antony’s will turned out to be the propaganda victory Octavian needed and hoped for. The Senate of Rome took away Mark Antony’s imperium which left him without any legitimate right to lead legions.

Consequences

"The Battle of Actium", oil on canvas, Laureys a Castro. Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich
“The Battle of Actium”, oil on canvas, Laureys a Castro. Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich

Mark Antony was deemed a traitor which gave Octavian all the necessary reasons to turn people against him and eventually declare war on him. What happened, however, was quite the opposite. Rome did declare war but not on Mark Antony. Instead, the target was Cleopatra and this was a truly smart move.

The move was another ingenious step by Octavian. Antony’s declaration of war would mean civil war, and in civil wars, the people very rarely failed to hate the leaders of both warring parties. However, the war against Cleopatra was another matter – Rome was now facing an external enemy, not one of its best generals.

When the two sides met in the battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian won an important victory, which later brought him the final victory in the war. The end is also known, Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Octavian remained the sole ruler of Rome.

After a few more years, he adopted the cognate Augustus, and in practice, Rome officially became an empire.

All in all, this is the story presented to us by the winning side. The ones who prevail are never to be judged. They have the right to give their own version of the story.

As I see it, this is one of the most striking examples of propaganda in Roman history. To what extent it is true, I do not know, but it resulted in the beginning of a whole new era in the history of the ancient world.


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Sources:

Goldsworthy, A. (2010, September 28). The True Story Of ‘Antony And Cleopatra’.
Haughton, B. (2021, January 13). Cleopatra & Antony.
Meares, H. (2020, September 09). Antony and Cleopatra’s Legendary Love Story.
STEINMETZ, P., PRESS, P., & FORMAN/GTRES, P. (2019, February 13). Inside the decadent love affair of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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