In 34 BC Antony held a celebration in Alexandria for his victories in the East (Dio, 49.41). The event was also to announce a re-ordering of the Eastern provinces.
The procession had elements of the Roman triumph with the captive Armenian king being led through the city in chains and Antony riding a chariot to be cheered by the crowds. The centrepiece, however, was not particular Roman.
The captives and booty were presented before Cleopatra. Cleopatra was called ‘Queen of Kings’ and her son Kaisarion hailed ‘King of kings’. The children of Antony and Cleopatra were gifted Syria (Ptolemy), Cyrenaica (Cleopatra Selene) and Armenia and Parthia (Alexander Helios).
It is not clear what these gifts meant in practical terms. Syria remained a Roman province and had a Roman governor. Cyrenaica was similarly ruled. Parthia was not even under Roman control. The titles given to Cleopatra and her eldest son had resonance in the Near East, referencing a title that has a tradition that went back to the Assyrians. But it is not evident that other regimes of the region (such as the Herodians) were suddenly subjects of Cleopatra. It is also clear that Antony was making the decisions.
It might seem at first that the granting of these lands was unrepublican, an exercise of power on a vast scale. But it was in keeping with how Romans had behaved in the East before. Governors had an enormous level of legal discretion. If they conquered a place, they had choices about what to do with it. That might involve annexing it and setting up a Roman administration. They could pass their power to pre-existing local powers (cities or kings) or they could just abandon them. In the East, the previous grand conqueror had been Pompey the Great and he had established many kings to rule the various lands he had conquered. Once a Roman magistrate had acted, he would return to Rome and his actions might be considered by the senate. The strong expectation was that those acts would be ratified.
Consequently, these were lands in Antony’s gift and many of them has already been to the various kings. These kings were not removed from office, but were made subordinate in some unclear sense to Cleopatra and her children. So why give them again? And what changed when he did give them? How did Antony benefit from these acts?
One of the possible ways of thinking about these actions is to regard them as plans for a future that did not happen. If they were designed as a blueprint for the governance of Eastern Mediterranean over the following decades, then we can hardly know their full intent, because the plan was never realised. Might Antony have been planning a future in which his and Cleopatra’s children exercised a vaguely defined hegemony over the entire region?
Since the Donations had no immediate implications, their importance was likely symbolic. His alliance with Cleopatra was never a secret, but now it was put at the heart of the regime. Antony advertised that his household now included Cleopatra and her children and that his or her futures were inextricable tied together.
Romans had a different conception of public and private than we do. An elite household was not just a place where important people lived. It was the centre of a business in which the current generation was managing the assets that had been accumulated for, in some cases, centuries. It was a busy place. A senator’s household would run his estates, manage his financial interests, and support his political activities.
What was the role of a wife? We might see the wife as subordinate to the male: this is the conventional wisdom concerning Roman women. But we might also think about a household as a joint enterprise in which a woman would be heavily invested. After all, the future of her children would depend on the success, economic, social, and political of that household. Most elite Roman women brought substantial wealth to a household. Some brought prestige. But whatever a conventional Roman woman might bring, it was so much less than Cleopatra offered Antony: unthinkable wealth, immense prestige, and huge political authority.
We might think of all Roman elite households as a form of partnership. Antony was thus acknowledging his partnership with Cleopatra. If we think that this might have caused a scandal, then we would a special explanation to account for Antony’s behaviour. He clearly thought his associate with Cleopatra was of enormous political benefit. He advertised that partnership on his coinage, coinage in which the pair exhibit remarkably similar noses and chins. He advertised it with the Donations. He was an enormously successful politician and military who had for twelve years been at the top of Roman politics. Could he have been very wrong about how his relationship with Cleopatra would be understood?
There is a chronological link between the Donations of Alexandria and the worsening of relations between Antony and Octavian. Cleopatra, who had been Antony’s partner for some time, was clearly an issue of contention. But what was the issue and why did the Donations seemingly mark a decisive point?
There are two possible answers. The first relates to the issue of kingship. Antony never called himself king. But the Donations made clear that his children would kings and queens. But was Roman kingship too difficult for the Romans?
The second possible answer relates to antipathy to Cleopatra herself as holding Roman power. Might some in Rome have objected to a Ptolemaic queen in their midst?
But if we think about the issue from Antony’s perspective, it suddenly becomes more simple. The mother of some of Antony’s children and his wife and partner, the woman who brought him prestige and authority and with whom he had formed a partnership was a queen. It was an undeniable political and social fact. Could Antony deny his wife and children? Why would he want to?
The Donations told a truth that might have been uncomfortable: in the future, the East would be ruled by Roman kings. It was, of course, a future that came to pass, but not in the way intended at the time of the Donations.