On 1 August 30 BC, the Roman General Mark Antony committed suicide in Alexandria, having lost the battle of Actium against Octavian. His third wife Cleopatra also killed herself. His death freed up Octavian, his great political rival, to take the name Augustus.
Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) was born in 83 BC and before his marriage to Cleopatra, he was married to Octavia Minor (69 BC – 11 BC) – the elder sister of the Emperor Augustus, whose parents were Gaius Octavius and Atia, the daughter of Caesar’s sister, Julia. Octavian and Octavia were therefore the nephew and niece of Caesar, Cleopatra’s lover.
Before marrying Mark Antony, Octavia had three children with her first husband, Gaius Claudius Marcellus – her son Marcus Claudius Marcellus and two daughters, Claudia Marcella Major and Claudia Marcella Minor. (The major and minor denote the elder and younger).
Octavian married off his sister Octavia to Marcus Antonius for political expediency, after her first husband died and Mark Antony’s first wife Fulvia died. Together they had two daughters – Antonia Major and Antonia Minor.
Mark Antony’s affair with Cleopatra is legendary, after he supplanted Caesar in her affections. With Cleopatra, Mark Antony went on to have three children and he also formally recognised a son she had had with Caesar. However, it is likely that the support of her army as well as her charms made Mark Antony decide they should be the ultimate power couple.
Despite Octavia supporting her husband financially in his military campaigns and taking care of all the children from their marriages – including Cleopatra’s offspring – Mark Antony divorced her after she failed to turn up with troops promised for his army.
However, after his death, Octavia’s son Marcellus was chosen to succeed Augustus as emperor, rather than Mark Antony’s heirs – and Octavia was upheld as a shining example of a good Roman woman for her devotion to her duty as a wife and mother. There is a monument to her in Rome – the Porticus Octaviae.
Octavia is the grandmother of the Emperor Claudius, the great grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and the great great grandmother of the Emperor Nero – she is also my 57th great grandmother, making Mark Antony my 57th great grandfather through their daughter, Antonia Minor.
Octavia’s son Marcellus died at the age of 19 in 23 BC – he is commemorated in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. When Virgil read the passage describing his death to Octavia, she is said to have fainted. A painting by the artist Jean-Joseph Taillasson (1745-1809) depicts the scene.
Read more about Mark Antony‘s life.