The play opens in 41 BC, when Antony and Octavian share the rulership of the Roman world with the third triumvir, the inoffensive Lepidus. Antony is tasked with bringing order to the eastern provinces, and creating some defence against marauding Parthian horsemen who regularly invade Syria. Octavian is in Rome, consolidating his hold on Italian politics and finding land and money to pay his troops. Octavian is Julius Caesar's adopted son, but much Antony's junior partner in years and military experience. His current problem is Sextus Pompey, Pompey the Great's son, who has turned pirate and withheld the grain supplies from Egypt so necessary to Rome's survival. Peace between the parties is made in Brundisium (40 BC), and the pact strengthened by Anthony agreeing to marry Octavia, Octavian's long-suffering sister and another pawn in his political manoeuvring.
Cleopatra is in Egypt, to which she fled when Julia Caesar was assassinated in 45 BC. She has taken no new lover, but rules her country competently, knowing there are always new claimants to the throne, especially her half-sister Arsenoë, then residing in Greece. Cleopatra VII is a Ptolemy, the Macedonian rulers of the last and richest Hellenic kingdom to remain outside Rome's clutches. Cleopatra has to balance the unruly passions of her polyglot subjects, who would welcome a recovery of the former territories of Judea and Syria, with the iron reality of the times, the aggressive expansion of the Roman state.
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