Let Rome in Tiber melt
Call in the messengers. As I am Egypt's queen,
Thou blushest, Antony, and that blood of thine
Is Caesar's homager; else so thy cheek pays shame
When shrill-tongu'd Fulvia scolds. The messengers!
Antony:Antony And Cleopatra Act 1, scene 1, 29–36
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. . . .
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, is just a little bit possessive of her latest lover, the Roman triumvir Marc Antony. When a messenger arrives from Rome, Cleopatra promptly launches into a jealous fit. She interprets Antony's embarrassed blush as either, or both, a mark of servitude to Caesar Octavius ("homager" means "vassal") or a mark of the shame he feels when reminded of his Roman wife, Fulvia.
In the high terms that typify the lovers' language, Antony dismisses Cleopatra's charges with the famous "Let Rome in Tiber melt." Rome could dissolve into the River Tiber and he'd be unmoved, because his world is now defined by Cleopatra's presence. What is empire to him, he asks, but mere clay? What is noble in ruling over "dungy earth," which has no inherent nobility, which yields its fruits to beast as well as to man? Nobility lies in our passions, and Antony's passions reside with Cleopatra.
When a messenger later reports to Cleopatra that Antony has remarried (Fulvia had died, it turns out), the queen exclaims "Melt Egypt into Nile!" (Act 2, scene 5)—almost a parody of Antony's line. Similar images of melting abound in this play: for example, Antony's "Authority melts from me" (Act 3, scene 13) and Cleopatra's "The crown o' th' earth doth melt" (Act 4, scene 15). Antony's cry of "Let Rome in Tiber melt" and Cleopatra's "Melt Egypt into Nile" are, in a sense, translated into events—not the fall of empire or kingdom, but the melting away of the lovers' power over their realms.