Jan 142016


Today is the birthday (83 BCE) of Marcus Antonius, commonly known in English as Mark or Marc Antony, Roman politician and general who played a critical role in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the autocratic Roman Empire – usually called the Roman Revolution. Mark Antony has shown up in posts here before, particularly as a critical player in the deaths of Cleopatra https://www.bookofdaystales.com/cleopatra-and-the-asp/ and Cicero https://www.bookofdaystales.com/cicero/ The waning moments of the Roman Republic were exceptionally turbulent times with powerful figures rising, then falling, left and right. Mark Antony, friend and ally of Julius Caesar, was the last of the shooting stars to ascend and burn out before Octavian/Augustus ultimately triumphed, making Rome a dictatorial, hereditary empire. This period is, without question, the most studied point in ancient Roman history.


Antony was a supporter of Julius Caesar, and served as one of his generals during the conquest of Gaul and the Civil War with Pompey https://www.bookofdaystales.com/crossing-rubicon/ Antony was appointed administrator of Italy while Caesar eliminated political opponents in Greece, North Africa, and Spain. After Caesar’s murder by a faction – the Liberatores – led by Brutus and Cassius in 44 BCE, Antony joined forces with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, another of Caesar’s generals, and Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, forming a three-man dictatorship known to historians as the Second Triumvirate. The Triumvirs defeated the Liberatores, at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, and divided the government of the Republic between themselves. Antony was assigned Rome’s eastern provinces, including the client kingdom of Egypt, then ruled by Cleopatra VII Philopator, and was given the command in Rome’s war against Parthia.

Relations among the Triumvirs were strained as the various members sought greater political power. Civil war between Antony and Octavian was averted in 40 BCE, when Antony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. Despite this marriage, Antony carried on a love affair with Cleopatra, who bore him three children, further straining Antony’s relations with Octavian. Lepidus was expelled from the triumvirate in 36 BCE, and in 33 BCE disagreements between Antony and Octavian caused a split between them. Their ongoing hostility erupted into civil war in 31 BCE, as the Roman Senate, at Octavian’s direction, declared war on Cleopatra and proclaimed Antony a traitor. Later that year, Antony was defeated by Octavian’s forces at the Battle of Actium. Defeated, Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide.


With Antony dead, Octavian was the undisputed master of the Roman world. In 27 BCE, he was granted the title of Augustus, marking the final stage in the transformation of the Roman Republic into an empire, with himself as the first Roman emperor.

Antony features in two of Shakespeare’s plays – Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. Julius Caesar, despite its title, focuses on Antony’s defeat of Brutus and the conspirators after Caesar’s murder, with Antony’s funeral oration being the most famous segment. In it Antony skillfully appears to condemn Caesar as a tyrant and praise Brutus as a man of the people, but in reality turns the crowd against Brutus and in favor of his own ambitions as successor to Caesar. Despite a certain degree of poetic license, Shakespeare stays fairly close to historical fact.


Caesar’s funeral was held on 20th March (five days after his murder). Antony, as Caesar’s faithful lieutenant and reigning Consul, was chosen to preside over the ceremony and to recite the eulogy. During a demagogic speech, he enumerated the deeds of Caesar and, publicly read his will, which detailed the donations Caesar had left to the Roman people. Antony then seized the blood-stained toga from Caesar’s body and presented it to the crowd. Worked into a fury by the bloody spectacle, the assembly rioted. Several buildings in the Forum and some houses of the conspirators were burned to the ground. Panicked, many of the conspirators fled Italy. Under the pretext of not being able to guarantee their safety, Antony relieved Brutus and Cassius of their judicial duties in Rome and instead assigned them responsibility for procuring wheat for Rome from Sicily and Asia. Such an assignment, in addition to being unworthy of their rank, would have kept them far from Rome and shifted the balance towards Antony. Refusing such secondary duties, the two traveled to Greece instead.


Despite the provisions of Caesar’s will, Antony proceeded to act as leader of the Caesarian faction, including appropriating for himself a portion of Caesar’s fortune rightfully belonging to Octavian. Antony enacted the Lex Antonia, which formally abolished the Dictatorship, in an attempt to consolidate his power by gaining the support of the Senatorial class. He also enacted a number of laws he claimed to have found in Caesar’s papers to ensure his popularity with Caesar’s veterans, particularly by providing land grants to them. Lepidus, with Antony’s support, was named Pontifex Maximus to succeed Caesar. To solidify the alliance between Antony and Lepidus, Antony’s daughter Antonia Prima was engaged to Lepidus’s son, also named Lepidus. Surrounding himself with a bodyguard of over six thousand of Caesar’s veterans, Antony presented himself as Caesar’s true successor, largely ignoring Octavian. So the stage was set for Antony and Octavian to defeat the conspirators, and for Octavian subsequently to turn on Antony.

Here’s a recipe from Apicius that could have graced Antony’s table at some point. Molded aspics are attested in Roman texts as fancy centerpieces. I used to make a chicken aspic as a party piece once in a while when I was much younger. They weren’t very popular, so I stopped making them. The principle is simple – lightly grease a fancy mould with a clear oil. Pour a thin layer of aspic in the mould and let it gel slightly. For my aspic I used a clarified stock plus the requisite amount of gelatin dissolved in the warmed stock. Then put a decorative component on the bottom. Fill up the mould with meat, vegetables, or whatever, so that you have pretty layers – leaving a small gap between the filling and sides of the mould. Then fill up the mould with aspic and let set in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. Unmould by immersing the mould in warm water for a few minutes, being careful not to let the water flow into the mould. Place a serving plate on top of the mould, say a prayer, and invert. With luck it will come out clean. Serve immediately.


The following recipe is a translation which I have edited. It gives you some ideas for what you might use as a filling. If I were to use this recipe I would place the dressing in the base of the mould.

Salacattabia Apiciana (Apician Jelly)

Put in the mortar celery seed, dry pennyroyal, dry mint, ginger, fresh coriander, seedless raisins, honey, vinegar, oil and wine; crush it together in order to make a dressing of it. Place 3 pieces of Picentian bread in a mould, interlined with pieces of cooked chicken, cooked sweetbreads of calf or lamb, [ewe’s] cheese, pine nuts, pickled cucumbers, finely chopped dried onions, covering the whole with jellified broth. Bury the mould in snow up to the rim; unmould, sprinkle with the above dressing and serve.

Aug 122013


Cleopatra VII Philopator, known to history simply as Cleopatra, died on this date in 30 BCE allegedly from a self induced venomous snake bite. She was the last de facto pharaoh of Ancient Egypt (her son, Caesarion, succeeded her but was immediately executed). She was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a lineage of Greek origin that ruled Ptolemaic Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death during the Hellenistic period. The Ptolemies, throughout their dynasty, spoke Greek and refused to speak Egyptian, which is the reason that Greek as well as Egyptian languages were used on official court documents such as the Rosetta Stone. Cleopatra did learn to speak Egyptian, however, and represented herself as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess, Isis. The stele below shows Cleopatra (right) dressed as a male pharaoh presenting a gift to Isis who is breastfeeding her son Horus (the deified persona of the pharaoh).

cleo and isis

Cleopatra originally ruled jointly with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, and later with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, whom she married as per Egyptian custom.  Although acceptable, there is no evidence to suggest she consummated these marriages. Her co-rule with Ptolemy XIII was deeply problematic.  It was clear from the outset when Ptolemy XIII succeeded his father as pharaoh in 51 BCE that Cleopatra was the real ruler of Egypt, and so he engaged in civil war with her.  He attempted to curry the favor of Julius Caesar by executing his main rival in Rome, Pompey the Great, when he sought refuge in Egypt. But when Ptolemy attempted to present Pompey’s head to Caesar upon his arrival in Egypt in 48 BCE, Caesar was disgusted by the act of treachery and rejected all overtures of alliance.  Instead Caesar became Cleopatra’s ally and lover, and together they defeated Ptolemy (allied with his other sister Arsinoe IV), at the siege of Alexandria in 47 BCE.  Ptolemy XIII fled and was drowned while attempting to cross the Nile.


On Ptolemy XIII’s death Cleopatra married her other brother who became co-ruler as pharaoh Ptolemy XIV.  There was no mistaking the power structure this time, however.  Ptolemy XIV was pharaoh in name only (he was 13 when he became pharaoh). Cleopatra had a son by Caesar, Ptolemy Philopator Philometor Caesar, commonly known as Caesarion (little Caesar).  As far as we know he was Caesar’s only son.  It is generally assumed, but not proven, that Cleopatra poisoned her brother some time in 44 BCE, whereupon she replaced him with her son as her co-ruler Ptolemy XV (aged 2). The stele below depicts Cleopatra (far left) dressed as Isis presenting Caesarion (next left) to the gods.


After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, Cleopatra aligned herself with Mark Antony in opposition to Caesar’s adopted son and legal heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus). She became Antony’s lover, and bore him the twins Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios, and then another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus.  After losing the naval Battle of Actium, and then being defeated in a brief battle outside Alexandria by Octavian’s forces, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra followed suit, according to tradition killing herself by means of an asp bite on August 12, 30 BC. She was briefly outlived by Caesarion, who was declared pharaoh by his supporters. But he was soon killed on Octavian’s orders, and Egypt became the Roman province of Aegyptus.

Battle of Actium

Battle of Actium

Ancient sources, particularly Roman ones, are in general agreement that Cleopatra killed herself by inducing an Egyptian cobra to bite her. The oldest source is Strabo, who was alive at the time of the event, and might even have been in Alexandria when it happened. He says that there were two stories: that she applied a toxic ointment, or that she was bitten by an asp on her breast. Plutarch, writing about 130 years after the event, reports that Octavian succeeded in capturing Cleopatra in her mausoleum after the death of Antony. He ordered his freedman Epaphroditus to guard her to prevent her from committing suicide, because he allegedly wanted to present her in his triumph in Rome. But Cleopatra was able to deceive Epaphroditus and kill herself nevertheless. Plutarch states that she was found dead, her handmaiden Iras dying at her feet, and another handmaiden, Charmion, adjusting her crown before she herself fell. He then goes on to state that an asp was concealed in a basket of figs that was brought to her by a peasant, and, finding it after eating a few figs, she held out her arm for it to bite. Other stories state that it was hidden in a vase, and that she poked it with a spindle until it got angry enough to bite her on the arm. Finally, he indicates that in Octavian’s triumphal march back in Rome, an effigy of Cleopatra that had an asp clinging to it was part of the parade.


To this day, Cleopatra remains a popular figure in Western culture. Her legacy survives in numerous works of art and the many dramatizations of her story in literature and other media, including William Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, Jules Massenet’s opera Cléopâtre and many films, notably  the 1963 extravaganza Cleopatra (famously starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whose acting can only charitably be called “abysmal.” The sets and costumes were great, though). In most depictions, Cleopatra is portrayed as a great beauty, and her successive conquests of the world’s most powerful men are taken as proof of her personal charm, political acumen, and sexual appeal.


In his Life of Antony, Plutarch remarks that “judging by the proofs which she had had before this of the effect of her beauty upon Caius Caesar and Gnaeus the son of Pompey, she had hopes that she would more easily bring Antony to her feet. For Caesar and Pompey had known her when she was still a girl and inexperienced in affairs [she was actually 21], but she went to visit Antony at the very time when women have the most brilliant beauty.” Later in the work, however, Plutarch indicates that “her beauty, as we are told, was in itself neither altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” He says that her attractiveness lay more in her wit, charm, and “sweetness in the tones of her voice.” Whatever the case, she wielded enormous power during her reign, navigating dangerous waters, and brought down only by the vicissitudes of political fortune.

Ful medames is the obvious dish to celebrate this anniversary. It is the national dish of Egypt, typically eaten at breakfast but available from street vendors throughout the day. Its base is a bowl of dried fava beans (also called broad beans or horse beans) that have been slowly simmered. Various garnishes and flavors may be added including cumin, olive oil, yoghurt, boiled eggs, tomato, and cucumber. It is typically eaten with Egyptian flatbread. You can get dried fava beans at many supermarkets and health food stores.

The roots of ful medames  can be traced to Ancient Northern Sudan and Egypt. Quantities of beans have been found in Twelfth Dynasty tombs (1991-1786 BCE). Fava beans are also mentioned in Hittite texts and the Bible. Ramses II of Egypt (c. 1303-1213 BCE) is known to have offered 11,998 jars of beans to the god of the Nile. Some believe that the word medames was originally Coptic (Egyptian), meaning “buried,” and its use here might mean that the beans were buried in a pot with hot coals to cook. This cooking method is mentioned in the Talmud Yerushalmi, indicating that the method was used in Middle Eastern countries in the fourth century. Ful medames is one of the oldest dishes in the world, and even if they were not Cleopatra’s mainstay, she must have eaten them at least on occasion.


Ful medames

You don’t really need an exact recipe for this dish. All that making ful medames amounts to is putting a quantity of dried fava beans in a pot, covering with unsalted water, and then simmering until very tender (usually around 3 hours).  It’s exactly the same process as for cooking dried beans. Cooking them overnight in a crock pot is perfect. You want to be sure that the cooking liquid reduces to form a thick sauce, and to enhance the sauce it is customary to mash a few beans into the cooking liquid towards the end of the cooking process.  You can also add a small amount of red lentils to cook with the beans.  They quickly reduce to a mush and thicken the sauce.

Serve the ful in bowls with flatbread and with any, or all, of the following available for guests to add as they please: extra virgin olive oil, cumin, boiled eggs, lemon wedges, plain yoghurt, tahini, chopped parsley, chopped tomatoes, chopped cucumber, chopped scallions, feta cheese, finely chopped garlic, olives  . . . you name it. Olive oil, cumin, and boiled eggs are my favorites – very traditional.