Mark Antony is one of history’s most interesting figures. His life is a tale of intrigue, savagery and brilliance from beginning to end. His family, the gens Antonia, were believed to have descended from Heracles. He was a legendary general and one of Julius Caesar’s most loyal friends. You can find almost every mythical trope in Antony’s life. There is a tempestuous and scornful wife, a glamorous and exotic mistress, a transnational military career fending off invasions and quelling internal rebellions. There is a colossal civil war in which the new Roman Empire finally replaces the Roman Republic. There is a terminal phase of oriental decadence leading to dissolution and death.
Antony styled himself after, or even as, Bacchus. This is the god of wine, dissolution, change. In Greek he is Dionysus. He is in dialectical tension with Apollo, who is light, reason, form. Some even worshipped Antony as a kind of incarnation of the deity. That kind of thing can go to a man’s head – and it did. Memorably, Plutarch describes the moment when the man and his animating spirit disentangled, under siege in Alexandria. He tells us that excellent music is heard, and Bacchus abandons Antony.
Many centuries later, modern Greece’s greatest poet – an Alexandrian at that – would seize on this line in Plutarch’s biography and spin it out into a meditation on loss. It is like a stoic hymn. It commands us to be brave and unsentimental in the face of loss. It is, I think, an expression of the pale fire of Plato’s Hellenism – the only kind of paganism that the Gospel could quicken into the life of Truth.
God Abandons Antony When suddenly, at midnight, you hear an invisible procession going by with exquisite music, voices, don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all come to nought - do not mourn in futility. As one long ready, and brave, bid her farewell, the Alexandria that is leaving. Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, that your hearing deceived you: don’t degrade yourself with foolish hopes like these. As one long ready, and brave, as befits you, you who have been shown worthy of this such a city, go steadily to the window and listen deeply, but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward; listen, as though for the last time, to the voices, to the exquisite music of that strange procession, and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
ΑΠΟΛΕΙΠΕΙΝ Ο ΘΕΟΣ ΑΝΤΩΝΙΟΝ Σὰν ἔξαφνα, ὥρα μεσάνυχτ’, ἀκουσθεῖ ἀόρατος θίασος νὰ περνᾶ μὲ μουσικὲς ἐξαίσιες, μὲ φωνές— τὴν τύχη σου ποῦ ἐνδίδει πιά, τὰ ἔργα σου ποῦ ἀπέτυχαν, τὰ σχέδια τῆς ζωῆς σου ποῦ βγῆκαν ὅλα πλάνες, μὴ ἀνοφέλετα θρηνήσεις. Σὰν ἕτοιμος ἀπὸ καιρό, σὰ θαρραλέος, ἀποχαιρέτα την, τὴν Ἀλεξάνδρεια ποῦ φεύγει. Πρὸ πάντων νὰ μὴ γελασθεῖς, μὴν πεῖς πῶς ἦταν ἕνα ὄνειρο, πῶς ἀπατήθηκεν ἡ ἀκοή σου· μάταιες ἐλπίδες τέτοιες μὴν καταδεχθεῖς. Σὰν ἕτοιμος ἀπὸ καιρό, σὰ θαρραλέος, σὰν ποῦ ταιριάζει σε ποῦ ἀξιώθηκες μιὰ τέτοια πόλι, πλησίασε σταθερὰ πρὸς τὸ παράθυρο, κι ἄκουσε μὲ συγκίνησιν, ἀλλ’ ὄχι μὲ τῶν δειλῶν τὰ παρακάλια καὶ παράπονα, ὡς τελευταία ἀπόλαυσι τοὺς ἤχους, τὰ ἐξαίσια ὄργανα τοῦ μυστικοῦ θιάσου, κι ἀποχαιρέτα την, τὴν Ἀλεξάνδρεια ποῦ χάνεις.