After the murder of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire is ruled by the noble triumvirs Mark Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius (Caesar’s nephew). Antony, given the Eastern sphere to rule, goes to Alexandria and there he sees and falls passionately in love with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. She is the flower of the Nile, but she is also the mistress of Julius Caesar and many others. Antony is so enamored of her that he ignores his own counsel and the warnings of his friends. As long as he can, he also ignores a request from Octavius Caesar that he return to Rome. Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great, and a powerful leader, is gathering troops to seize Rome from the rule of the triumvirs, and Octavius Caesar wishes to confer with Antony and Lepidus. At last the danger of a victory by Sextus Pompeius, coupled with the news that his wife Fulvia is dead, forces Antony to leave Egypt and return to Rome.
Because Antony is a better general than either Lepidus or Octavius, Pompeius is confident of victory as long as Antony stays in Egypt. When Pompeius hears that Antony is returning to Rome, he is reduced to hoping that Octavius and Antony will not mend their quarrels but continue to fight each other as they did in the past. Lepidus does not matter, since he sides with neither of the other two and cares little for conquest and glory. Pompeius is disappointed, however, for Antony and Octavius join forces in the face of common danger. To seal their renewed friendship, Antony marries Octavia, Octavius’s sister. Pompeius’s scheme to keep Antony and Octavius apart fails, but he still hopes that Antony’s lust for Cleopatra will entice him back to Egypt. To stall for time, he seals a treaty with the triumvirs. Antony, accompanied by his new wife, goes to Athens to deal with matters relating to the Roman Empire. There word reaches him that Lepidus and Octavius had waged war in spite of the treaty they signed and that Pompeius was killed. Octavius next seizes Lepidus on the pretext that he aided Pompeius. Now the Roman world has but two rulers, Octavius and Antony.
Antony cannot resist the lure of Cleopatra. Sending Octavia home from Athens, he hurries back to Egypt. By so doing, he ends all pretense of friendship between him and Octavius. Both prepare for a battle that will decide who is to be the sole ruler of the world. Cleopatra joins her forces with Antony’s. Antony’s forces are supreme on land, but Octavius rules the sea and lures Antony to fight him there. Antony’s friends and captains, particularly loyal Enobarbus, beg him not to risk his forces on the sea, but Antony is confident of victory, and he prepares to match his ships with those of Octavius at Actium. In the decisive hour of the great sea fight, however, Cleopatra orders her fleet to leave the battle and sail for home. Antony, too, leaves the battle, disregarding his duty toward his honor, and because he sets the example for desertion, many of his men go over to Octavius’s forces.
Antony sinks in gloom at the folly of his own actions, but he is drunk with desire for Cleopatra and sacrifices everything, even honor, to her. She protests that she did not know that he would follow her when she sailed away, but Antony has reason to know she lies. However, he cannot tear himself away.
Octavius sends word to Cleopatra that she may have anything she asks for if she will surrender Antony to him. Knowing that Octavius is likely to be the victor in the struggle, she sends him a message of loyalty and of admiration for his greatness. Antony, who sees her receive the addresses of Octavius’s messenger, rants and storms at her for her faithlessness, but she easily dispels his fears and jealousy and makes him hers again. After his attempt to make peace with Octavius fails, Antony decides to march against his enemy again. At this decision, even the faithful Enobarbus leaves him and goes over to Octavius, thinking Antony has lost his reason as well as his honor. Enobarbus is an honorable man, however, and shortly afterward he dies of shame for having deserted his general.
On the day of the battle, victory is in sight for Antony despite overwhelming odds. Once again, though, the Egyptian fleet deserts him. With the defeat of Antony, Octavius becomes master of the world. Antony is like a madman and thinks of nothing but avenging himself on the treacherous Cleopatra. When the queen hears of his rage, she has word sent to him that she is dead, killed by her own hand out of love for him. Convinced once more that Cleopatra was true to him, Antony calls on Eros, his one remaining follower, to kill him so that he can join Cleopatra in death. However, Eros kills himself rather than his beloved general. Determined to die, Antony falls on his own sword. Even that desperate act is without dignity or honor, for he does not die immediately and can find no one who loves him enough to end his pain and misery. While he is lying there, a messenger brings word that Cleopatra still lives. He orders his servants to carry him to her. He dies in her arms, each proclaiming eternal love for the other.
When Octavius Caesar hears the news of Antony’s death, he grieves. Although he fought and conquered Antony, he laments the sorry fate of a great man turned weakling and ruined by his lust. He sends a messenger to assure Cleopatra that she will be treated royally, that she should be ruler of her own fate. The queen learns, however, as Antony warned her, that Octavius will take her to Rome to march behind him in his triumphant procession, where she, a queen and mistress to two former rulers of the world, will be pinched and spat upon by rabble and slaves. To cheat him of his triumph, she puts on her crown and all her royal garb, places a poisonous asp on her breast, and lies down to die. Charmian and Iras, her loyal attendants, die the same death. Octavius Caesar, entering her chamber, sees her dead, as beautiful and desirable as in life. There is only one thing he can do for his onetime friend and the dead queen: He orders their burial in a common grave, together in death as they wished to be in life.