Egyptians: Dio Cassius’ speech by Octavian on the “effeminate” Antony (early third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: Dio Cassius’ speech by Octavian on the “effeminate” Antony (early third century CE),' Last modified October 13, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9785.

Author: Dio Cassius, Roman History, 50.25-27 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Lucius Cassius Dio, or Cassius Dio (who wrote his history about the Romans some time after 229 CE), was an intellectual from Nikaia in Bithynia who was also firmly embedded in the upper echelons of the Roman imperial elites as a son of a Roman senator who himself followed the career path of a senator. In this passage set just before the battle of Actium (31 BCE), Dio has Augustus address his soldiers with a critique of Antony as an Egyptianizing and, therefore, “effeminate” person who has rejected his own Roman ancestral customs for those of another, inferior people. The notion that eastern peoples generally were “effeminate” and “slavish” was widespread among the imperial elites and has its counterparts in earlier Greek ethnographic thinking.

This is somewhat representative of some of the propaganda that could be used against rivals in struggles among the imperial elites (particularly in narratives about Octavian and Antony). Dio himself has a penchant for worrying about and relating episodes in which members of the imperial elites compromise Roman obligations by wrongly adopted foreign ways (on which see the discussion of the supposed adoption of Judean ways at this link).

Works consulted: B. Jones, “Cultural Interactions and Identities in Cassius Dio’s Early Books,” in Cassius Dio’s Forgotten History of Early Rome: The Roman History, Books 1-21, ed. Christopher Burden-Strevens and Mads Lindholmer (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 285–310.

Source of the translation: E. Cary and H.B. Foster, Dio’s Roman History, 9 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-27), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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Book 50

[Mark Antony as an adopter of Egyptian customs and rejecter of ancestral Roman customs]

25 [Octavian’s speech to his army before the battle at Actium:] “Who would not mourn at seeing Roman soldiers acting as bodyguards of their [Egyptian] queen [Kleopatra]? Who would not groan at hearing that Roman knights (equestrians) and senators fawn upon her like eunuchs? Who would not weep when he hears and sees Antony himself – the man twice consul, often imperator, to whom was committed in common with me the management of the public business, who was entrusted with so many cities, so many legions – when he sees that this man has now abandoned all his ancestors’ ways of life, has emulated all alien and barbarian customs, that he pays no honour to us or to the laws or to his ancestors’ gods. Instead, that man bows down to her [Kleopatra] as if she were some Isis or Selene, calling her children Helios and Selene. Finally he takes for himself the title of Osiris or Dionysos and, after all this, makes gifts of whole islands and parts of the continents, as though he were master of the whole earth and the whole sea? (5) All these things seem marvellous and incredible to you, soldiers, as I am well aware, but you should be more indignant. For if these unbelievable things are actually true and if that man in his luxurious indulgence commits acts at which anyone would grieve who learns of them, would it not be reasonable that you should go beyond all bounds in your rage?”

26 “Yet I myself [Octavian] was so devoted to Antony at the beginning that I gave him a share in our command, married my sister to him, and granted him legions. After that I felt so kindly, so affectionately, towards him, that I was unwilling to wage war on him merely because he had insulted my sister, or because he neglected their children together, or because he preferred the Egyptian woman to her, or because he bestowed upon that woman’s children practically all your possessions, or for any other cause. My reason was, first of all, that I did not think it proper to assume the same attitude toward Antony as toward Kleopatra, because I considered her – if only on account of her foreign birth – to be an enemy by reason of her very conduct, but I believed that he, as a citizen, might still be brought to reason. Later I entertained the hope that he might, if not voluntarily, at least reluctantly, change his course as a result of the decrees passed against her. Consequently I did not declare war upon him at all. He, however, has looked haughtily and disdainfully upon my efforts, and will neither be pardoned though we would fain pardon him, nor be pitied though we try to pity him. He is either heedless or mad — (5) for, in fact, I have heard and believed that he has been bewitched by that accursed woman. Therefore Antony pays no heed to our generosity or kindness, but being a slave to that woman, he undertakes the war and its self-chosen dangers on her behalf against us and against his country. In view of all this, what is left for us to do except the duty of fighting against him, together with Kleopatra, and repelling him?

[Antony as Egyptian, not Roman]

27 “Therefore let no one count Antony a Roman, but rather an Egyptian, nor call him Antony, but rather Serapion. Let no one think he was ever consul or imperator, but only gymnasiarch. For he has himself, of his own free will, chosen the latter names instead of the former, and casting aside all the revered titles of his own land, has become one of the cymbal players from Kanopos [in the Delta of Egypt]. Again, let no one fear him on the ground that he will turn the scale of the war. For even in the past he was of no account, as you who conquered him at Mutina [43 BCE] know clearly enough. And even if he did at one time attain to some valour through campaigning with us, be well assured that he has now spoiled it utterly by his changed manner of life.”

[Antony’s supposed Egyptian effeminacy]

“For it is impossible for one who leads a life of royal luxury, and coddles himself like a woman, to have a manly thought or do a manly deed, since it is an inevitable law that a man assimilates himself to the practices of his daily life. (5) A proof of this is that in the one war which he has waged in all this long time, and the one campaign that he has made, he caused the death of vast numbers of citizens in the battles, returned in utter disgrace from Praaspa [in Media, centre for Parthian kings], and lost ever so many men besides in his flight. So, then, if any one of us were called upon to execute a ridiculous dance or to cut a lascivious fling, such a person would surely have to yield the honours to him, since these are the specialities he has practised.”

“But now that the occasion calls for arms and battle, what is there about him that anyone should dread? His physical fitness? But he has passed his prime and become effeminate. His strength of mind? But he plays the woman and has worn himself out with unnatural lust. His piety toward our gods? But he is at war with them as well as with his country. His faithfulness to his allies? But who does not know how he deceived and imprisoned the Armenian? His kindness to his friends? But who has not seen the men who have miserably perished at his hands? His reputation with the soldiers? But who even of them has not condemned him? A sign of this is that numbers daily come over to our side. For my part I think that all our [Roman] citizens will do this, as on a former occasion when he was on his way from Brundisium [Brindisi, Italy] to Galatia [i.e. the Celtic region]. So long, to be sure, as they expected to get rich without danger, some were very glad to stick with him. Yet they will not care to fight against us, their own countrymen, on behalf of what does not belong to them at all, especially when they may without risk gain both their lives and their happiness by joining us.”

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