The Battle of Actium (2 September 31BC)
On the Ionian Seas, just off of the shores of Greece, the navies of the fledgeling empire that Rome was becoming and the kingdom of Egypt met to decide the outcome of a political dispute. That dispute had its seeds planted first during the campaigns of Julius Caesar in Asia Minor. They were then cultivated with Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC and began to sprout during Marc Antony’s career in Asia Minor. The ultimate prize for the victor at Actium would be dominion of the Roman Empire.
While in Asia Minor in 51 BC, Julius Caesar led an army of the Roman Republic to track down the Roman general Pompeii. Caesar and Pompeii had Rome in the midst of a civil war for power of the Roman legions. After Caesar’s victories in Europe, Pompeii was forced to flee towards the edges of the Republic. Upon arrival in Egypt, which was in the middle of its own civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII, Pompeii was killed by agents of Cleopatra as she sought Roman aid in her battles. Her stratagem almost worked. While Caesar was appreciative of her dispatching Pompeii, it was not until she had seduced him that Caesar committed Roman forces to the Egyptian war and won the crown for Cleopatra.
Cleopatra bore a son for Caesar from their affair, named Caesarion or “Little Caesar”. As for Caesar himself, he returned to Rome and entered the city both as a conquering hero and as the new dictator. The Roman Empire was conceived from this action of Caesar, but not yet born. Caesar’s reign was short lived as he was quickly assassinated by members of the Senate in 44 BC. Instead of restoring peace and order to the Republic, their actions spurred Caesar’s nephew Octavian into forming an alliance with Marc Antony and Lepidus. Between Octavian and Antony’s popularity among the army, their alliance was successful in suppressing the alleged revolt of the Senators and their general Brutus, and Rome was divided mainly between Octavian and Antony. Octavian took the western half of what was becoming the Empire while Antony took the east.
Octavian was left with the large task of putting down the rest of the revolts and easing the unrest in Rome and the surrounding areas. Antony was free to travel to the relatively more peaceful eastern region. While among the Greeks, he participated in much of the Greek culture and games. Antony heavily taxed the Greeks and took much of their provisions to raise his armies. In battle in the east, he was hardly very successful however. Though he won a string of victories, he also suffered defeats. The combination of the hardship he placed on the Greeks combined with a less than glorious military record did little to earn him any friends in the east or impress his allies back home.
Antony, however, found a way to make matters even worse back home. While in Asia Minor, he ordered Cleopatra to appear and answer to charges of providing aid to his enemies. Cleopatra was still a strikingly beautiful woman and she had the confidence of not just a queen but one who had already seduced one Roman general. Arriving at Antony’s camp in Tarsus dressed as the goddess Venus, she began her seduction of Antony. Her success did much to bring the future downfall of the general.
To begin with, Antony was married to Octavian’s sister. As the affair became more public, it was a matter that caused constant shame to her and, by extension, Octavian. It could easily be seen as a matter of honor that Octavian would have to deal with Antony. In addition, Antony was becoming hopelessly attached to Cleopatra. This level of attachment was an annoyance in to military matters at first, but, as it will be later shown, proved absolutely disastrous. Finally, there was the matter of Caesarion. As an actual son to Julius Caesar, Caesarion could make claim to the Roman throne. While Roman law made it illegal to marry non-citizens, thus making the offspring of any union ineligible for inheritance, matters of law seldom affected rulers or potential rulers from pursuing what they perceived as birthrights. Marc Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra and the child made him highly influential to the boy and a further threat to Octavian’s rule.
At last, the rift between Octavian and Antony had reached the breaking point and Octavian declared war on Egypt in 31 BC after several years of propaganda warfare between the two. With the declaration of war against Cleopatra, Antony sided with the Egyptians, seeing this as his opportunity to take full control of Rome. Many of Octavian’s enemies also sided with Antony. In accounts given by the ancient historian Plutarch, Marc Antony had over 100,000 infantry under his command by September of 31 BC as well as 1200 cavalry. His armies were greater than what Octavian could have raised, and he was regarded by both sides of the conflict as one of the greatest land generals alive.
This is where the attachment to Cleopatra would prove fatal for his dreams, however. Cleopatra wanted a victory at sea. She asked Antony to meet Octavian on the seas and have the navy determine their fate. While Antony was initially opposed, and despite the advice of all his commanders, Antony agreed to Cleopatra’s plans. This was a shock to everyone, including Octavian, who is reported to have offered Antony safe voyage and enough land in Italy to stage his entire army for a land battle. One of Antony’s own captain’s is believed to have said, “O, my general, what have our wounds and swords done to displease you, that you should give your confidence to rotten timbers? Let Egyptians and Phoenicians contend at sea, give us the land, where we know well how to die upon the spot or gain the victory.” However, a sea battle was what was to be conducted, and on 2 September 31 BC, the naval battle of Actium began.
The problem that the Romans under Antony had with the sea attack was that while they possessed a great many ships, they did not have experienced sailors to take charge of them. In addition, the Egyptian ships were quinqueremes. These were large warships with catapults that were designed to inflict heavy damage on fixed locations and had bronze plated rams to plow through enemy ships. They also weighed up to 300 tons. The quinqueremes were gigantic boats that were difficult to move when fully manned. With the shortage of oarsmen and sailors that Antony had, they would prove even more so. In an effort to combat this, Antony ordered that ships crews be consolidated and that any ship that could not be manned be burned.
Octavian, on the other hand, had a well manned navy. In addition, he sailors were using liburnium ships. These were smaller, faster, and more nimble. While they could not stand against Antony’s quinqueremes in a one on one, head to head battle, Octavian’s commanders ordered the liburnium vessels to circle around Antony’s ships. Being faster and better able to cut through the water, and also containing full crews of well trained sailors, Octavian’s ships were able to swoop in and fire their darts and arrows at the crews of Antony’s ships. They would then swoop out of Antony’s range before the Egyptians had a chance to do any real damage.
The battle on the Ionian Sea started at noon as was well in progress for several hours. No one side, however, had managed to create any type of decisive maneuver or attack. Despite the lack of sailors and maneuverability on Antony’s part, his more heavily armored ships were keeping the battle fairly even with Octavian’s quicker ships and more attack oriented tactics. Then something odd happened. For seemingly no reason at all, Cleopatra ordered a retreat of her ships. Seeing Cleopatra retreat, Marc Antony quickly left the battle that was still in progress, and fled after her. It was not long after that that the remaining fleet of Marc Antony surrendered to Octavian.
The aftermath of so cowardly a flight by the Egyptians, and the way Antony charged after Cleopatra, were incredible. There was still the matter of the 100,000 soldiers and 1200 cavalry nearby. Octavian sent messengers to those men, asking their surrender and to join him. Initially, these men refused as they were extremely loyal to Antony and did not believe the tales of his retreat. After several days, however, and the flight of the majority of their own officers, the great army that Antony had raised put down their arms and accepted the terms of Octavian. Antony, himself, was never able to place himself in such an tactically advantageous position as he had at Actium. After several more defeats and the belief that Cleopatra had been captured during the fighting in Alexandria in 30 BC, he committed suicide. As for Cleopatra, after failing in an attempt to seduce Octavian following Antony’s death, she too committed suicide.
The greatest effect to come from the Battle of Actium, however, was what it did for Octavian and Rome. With the war and his subsequent actions, Antony was now a traitor to Rome. This meant that all the power that he held became Octavian’s. Octavian’s victory at Actium established himself not only as sole ruler of the Roman dominion, but also realized the efforts of his uncle 13 years before by finishing the transition of Rome from republic to empire.