Prelude to the Roman Empire: The Battle of Actium

The Battle of Actium September 2nd, 31 B.C by Lorenzo A. Castro 1672 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The years 34-31 B.C.E. was a difficult time for the Roman Republic. The Republic had been divided in two, with general Marc Antony ruling in the East and Octavian in the West. However, in the years leading up to 31 B.C.E., Marc Antony had spent all his time in Egypt with his lover Cleopatra VII. He had also begun giving away Roman lands to Cleopatra and their children, essentially depriving Rome of some of its most valuable provinces. Antony was certainly interested in founding his own dynasties in the East that would be entirely separate from Rome. All this was a bid for power. The final blow Antony delivered was when he decided to divorce his Roman wife Octavia, Octavian’s sister, so he could legally be with Cleopatra. Octavian was enraged. He could not stand for this. Antony’s actions had embarrassed him, his family, and Rome.  From that moment on, Antony and Octavian were enemies, each vying for control of the Republic. The two men set off to face each other. Both men wanted to rule the world, but only one man could prevail.1

So it was that the two most powerful men in the world had now to face each other. They were both competing for their lives, and for control of the Roman Republic. Antony was certainly favored to win. He had the wealth and resources of the East behind him. He set out with his forces to Greece. Cleopatra followed him with ships packed full of treasure, and they both camped together in the city of Ephesus. While there, they camped in great opulence and style. From Ephesus, they were ferried over to Greece. It was while he and Cleopatra were in Greece, that Antony began to assemble his forces properly. The population of Greece was called upon to make huge sacrifices on behalf of his army, including large amounts of lumber, money, and even men. Cleopatra herself contributed almost two hundred vessels from her navy.2 All together, the lovers were able to produce a force of 130,000 troops and over 500 ships. An extremely powerful force. Octavian was young, and compared to Antony, he was inexperienced. The western half of the Republic, which Octavian ruled, could not hope to offer the wealth and resources Antony had. Many people expected him to lose. Nevertheless, Octavian had at his command a contingent of 400 ships and 80,000 soldiers. However, Octavian had one advantage Antony did not. Octavian had leading his forces the renowned admiral and strategist Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Antony should have had the advantage, but due to Agrippa’s skill, he soon found himself in a disadvantageous position.3

Antony and Cleopatra waited with consternation for Octavian and Agrippa’s first attack. Finally, at the close of winter 31 B.C.E., Agrippa attacked Antony’s southern-most outpost of Methone, a small port city, which was quickly overrun. The attack came as a shock to both Antony and Cleopatra. They had expected the attack to come in the north, and they had planned accordingly. Rather, it had come in the south, and they now were forced to make adjustments. Antony was caught off guard once more when Octavian landed with his forces in the city of Panorma. Antony must have sensed that the time for the final battle was approaching, so he set off for the city of Actium, where the bulk of his forces were based.4

The Battle of Actium, woven by Justus Van Egmont c. 1650 | Courtesy of Wikipedia CommonsAntony arrived at Actium with his army, and joined his navy in the Gulf of Ambracia. Meanwhile, Octavian arrived at the southern half of the promontory setting up camp on one side of it, while he positioned his forces around his camp and outside of the Gulf of Ambracia. Antony immediately began encountering problems. Octavian’s forces besieged his supply lines, and cut off his food supplies, forcing many of his soldiers to look for food among the local population. Antony had also camped in an area ripe with mosquitoes, and many of his soldiers got very sick with malaria. Morale in Antony’s army dropped quickly, and many soldiers and allies began to defect to Octavian. It was around this time too, that Agrippa, after capturing the strongholds of Leucas, Patrae, and Corinth, arrived with his fleet. Antony’s fleet was trapped for good. Antony would now have to fight if he wanted to break out of the gulf. Antony now had only two options. He could either attempt to retreat with his forces on land, and hope to draw Octavian to him, or he could use his fleet to break out of the gulf. On the night of September 1, 31 B.C.E., after conferring with the leaders of his forces, Antony made the decision to fight his way out of the gulf.5

Map of the Battle of Actium September 2nd, 31 B.C | Courtesy of Wikipedia commons

On the morning of September 2, 31 B.C.E., Antony’s forces, which included three main groups of vessels, ventured out of the gulf. One group situated on the left flank was commanded by Sosius, the center flank was commanded by Antony himself, and the right flank was commanded by Gellius Publicola. Behind them was trailing Cleopatra with sixty ships laden with treasure. Octavian’s forces were arranged in a similar manner to Antony’s, with his main body composed of three main groups. Octavian himself commanded the right flank, while Lurius commanded the center, and Agrippa the left flank. With the two opposing forces formed up, the two fleets faced each other in an intense stand off that lasted for three hours. Finally, the wind shifted, and Antony ordered a general advance. Agrippa seeing this, ordered all forces to backwater. He wanted Antony to expose his forces more. And Antony took the bait.6

Finally, the two sides clashed. Antony’s large lumbering galleys  battled with the swifter smaller vessels of the opposing fleet. The smaller crafts repeatedly rammed into the larger ships.7 Agrippa ordered his soldiers to use flaming projectiles. This tactic was moderately successful, and some of Antony’s ships went up in flames. Agrippa then ordered his forces to surround Antony’s vessels. However, this maneuver was countered by one of Antony’s lieutenants. As the battle between the two fleets raged on, a gap opened between them. This gap was just what Cleopatra had been waiting for. When she saw the gap she ordered her ships to hoist sail and pass through it. Her ships did this, and then they sailed off, bound for home. Both sides were shocked. It was, after all, an audacious feat to attempt in the middle of a battle. Antony, after watching Cleopatra’s escape, gave over command to one of his lieutenants. His orders were to have the rest of the fleet follow him back to Egypt. Then he too departed after Cleopatra, leaving his fleet and much of his army behind.

Antony’s  men were utterly shocked. No true Roman general would ever abandon his forces. But Antony had done just that. From that moment on, chaos ensued. Octavian and Agrippa continued to set ships ablaze. Many sailors jumped ship and swam to shore, where they dispersed into the the countryside. Those few ships that remained returned to the Gulf of Ambracia. Octavian and Agrippa merely trapped them inside the gulf again, totally unconcerned. The enemy fleet had been vanquished. On land, the remnants of Antony’s forces attempted to march on, but the soldiers would not march without Antony, and he had betrayed them. They no longer felt any loyalty towards him. Within a week, almost all the soldiers defected to Octavian. The battle for control of Rome was over. Octavian was the clear victor.8

Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Alexandria where they lived a life of numbing pleasure and debauchery. But Octavian made his way to Egypt in 30 B.C.E. Upon hearing of his arrival in Egypt, Antony did the honorable thing and took his own life on the 1st of August 30 B.C.E. Cleopatra was captured by Octavian, but she did not want to give him the satisfaction of displaying her as a trophy. So she too took her own life on the 10th of August. All this suited Octavian just fine. He was now master of Rome and of all of its territory. He would not have to share his power with anyone anymore. He was supreme. The Battle of Actium had made him so. It was the battle that ended the Roman Civil Wars for good. Octavian went on to crown himself the first emperor of the Roman Empire. He founded a dynasty that would rule a vast and powerful empire for generations. It was an empire with enormous influence, political as well as cultural and economic. It all began at Actium.9

Statue of Octavian first emperor of Rome c. 30 B.C.E | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

 

  1.  Guglielmo Ferrrero and Corrado Barbagallo, A Short History of Rome, vol. 2, The Empire: From the Death of Caesar to the Fall of the Western Empire 44 B.C- 476 A.D (New York: Capricorn Books, 1964), 54, 58.
  2. Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 349-350.
  3.  The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome, 2002, s.v. “Battle of Actium,” by Don Nardo.
  4. Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 360-361.
  5. Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 361-362.
  6. Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 366.
  7.  Nigel Rodgers, Roman Empire (Wigston, Leicester: Hermes House, 2006), 193.
  8. Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 366-369.
  9.  Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Battle of Actium,” by Roger B. McShane and Michael Witkoski.

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This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Avatar

    it’s really interesting to read about Marc Antony. He is someone everyone has heard about but not a lot of people know why they know who he is, so being able to read about his traitorous ways and how he left his soldiers and chose Egypt over Rome is just insane to see. It makes you wonder if he was actually in love with Cleopatra or just wanted his own country to rule.

  2. Avatar

    I never liked Marc Antony. How could you just leave your soldiers behind like that. I guess you could say he was in love with Cleopatra, but if he wanted to fight for control over Rome, he should have made more of an effort to stay and fight with his men. To me it just seemed like a waste of travel for Antony to attempt to defend his dearly beloved Rom, but who knows maybe he just was bested in strategy, thus paving the way for his eventual demise.

  3. Avatar

    The power of a woman is really powerful, but as well as poisonous. They do say a a woman can control a man’s actions with their beauty without even trying or knowing they can. He was willing to give up everything he had created for himself so freely without a doubt for one single woman. And in the most well known battle of Rome was lost because of beauty not power, not worth or anything. The article did a good job being able to show this detail in the story .

  4. Avatar

    Very interesting article. While Marc Antony and Octavian are well known names, I was more interested in the general Agrippa. Indeed it was the battle of Actium that this general was famous for. I wonder exactly how he was found by Octavian. As for Antony, I can’t believe it- what a coward he was. The fact that he just abandoned his troops at the battle shows he isn’t a true leader and not suitable to lead Rome.

  5. Avatar

    The battle between two members of the Second Triumvirate would set Rome on the course of success. Having Octavian as the first emperor of Rome proved to be advantageous to Rome. He helped the Romans reach prosperity, and his legendary leading ability was put on display in this article. He was an expert at commanding the outcome of any situation he desired. For every eight men Octavian had, Antony held 13 in his military; Antony, clearly the favorite, in the beginning, became overconfident, and it cost him his life.

  6. Avatar

    The Roman Empire would go on to rule the Mediterranean and much of Western Europe for the next several centuries, spreading its empire throughout the continent and forming aspects of society and education that define modern life to this day. To think that the empire would begin not only with a civil war but with two major leaders abandoning their army and fleeing battle is amazing, and likely influenced why the new Roman Empire would look so harshly on a soldier fleeing battle.

  7. Avatar

    Desertions by some of his allies and a lack of provisions soon forced Antony to take action. Either hoping to win at sea because he was outmaneuvered on land or else simply trying to break the blockade, Antony followed Cleopatra’s advice to employ the fleet. He drew up his ships outside the bay, facing west, with Cleopatra’s squadron behind. The ensuing naval battle was hotly contested, with each side’s squadrons trying to outflank the other, until Cleopatra took her Egyptian galleys and fled the battle. Antony then broke off and with a few ships managed to follow her. The remainder of his fleet became disheartened and surrendered to Octavian, and Antony’s land forces surrendered one week later.

  8. Avatar

    A very well written article about the conflict between these two roman generals. In the climax of what was an epic battle, Anthony followed his lover and Octavian fought for his love for Rome. Both Octavian and Mark Anthony are familiar names, but I never knew they both battled for control of Rome. I wonder if Cleopatra felt any different towards Mark after him abandoning his armies.

  9. Avatar

    This was great short article about a battle that changed the history of the Roman Republic and Egypt due to one woman, Cleopatra. I cant believe that a ruler such as Marc Antony would give his power, his army, his marriage and his kingdom for a woman. That is exactly what happened though, Cleopatra had complete control of this man and once that happened it was that beginning of the end for him. What a cowardly way to lose a war also, giving his command up and just abandoning your men on the battle field to chase after a woman. Then after getting them in a battle that was all about him, when he was about to get captured, committing suicide, cowardly all the at around.

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    Truly one of the most amazing naval battles of the Classical Era. Octavian really emanates Julius Caesar at this battle mostly since it was a situation similarly faced years ago during the first Roman Civil War. Caesar, out numbered in Greece by Pompy Magnus three to one, bests his far better prepared opponante by dividing his legions into a forward and reserve armies, all of which are veteran legionaries from the Gaulic Conquest, and manage to easily route Pompy. What is even more shocking, is that Mark Antony was the commander of Caesar’s reserve army! the fact he did not utilize his own advantage is one of histories great mysteries.

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