The Battle of Actium (2 September 31 BCE, fought in the Ionian Sea off Actium, Greece) was the decisive engagement of the civil war fought between Octavian Caesar (l. 63-14 CE, later known as Augustus, r. 27 BCE - 14 CE) and the forces of Mark Antony (l. 83-30 BCE) and Cleopatra VII of Egypt (l. c. 69-30 BCE). The battle was the culmination of over ten years of rivalry between Octavian and Antony following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE and the resultant alliance of Octavian, Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (l. 89-12 BCE) known as the Second Triumvirate (43-36 BCE) formed to pursue and defeat Caesar’s assassins, which they did at the Battle of Philippi (42 BCE).
After Philippi, the Second Triumvirate ruled different regions of the Roman Republic but mutual suspicion and resentment between the three men resulted in its fracture in 36 BCE, when Lepidus was exiled by Octavian, and end in 33 BCE when Antony refused to participate. The Battle of Actium was the conclusion to an enmity between Octavian and Antony which began shortly after the formation of the Second Triumvirate. Having lost the battle, Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves the following year and Octavian became the first Roman emperor in 27 BCE.
Actium, then, has traditionally been cited as the pivotal battle which gave birth to the Roman Empire. Historians over the last century have increasingly favored the opinion that Octavian’s effective use of propaganda made the battle inevitable and its favorable outcome propelled him to power. The underlying forces which drove the various players in the conflict to meet at Actium, however, were set in motion long before.
Caesar, Cleopatra, & Second Triumvirate
Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus (l. c. 115-53 BCE), and Pompey the Great (l. c. 106-48 BCE) formed the First Triumvirate (60-53 BCE) which essentially divided Rome’s territories between them. Rome had become a Mediterranean superpower after the First Punic War (264-241 BCE) and steadily expanded its reach since. Caesar and Pompey were the two leading generals of the day and Crassus was the richest man in Rome. Crassus, wanting to be the equal of these two in military matters, led an army against the Parthians in 53 BCE but was killed and his forces scattered at the Battle of Carrhae.
Without Crassus to mediate between them, Caesar and Pompey’s rivalry erupted in civil war (49-45 BCE). Caesar pursued Pompey to Egypt, where Pompey thought he would find friends, but he was assassinated under the direction of Ptolemy XIII (l. 62/61-47 BCE, younger brother of Cleopatra VII who at that time was in exile), who thought Caesar would be grateful for his efforts.
Caesar reinstated Cleopatra VII as queen after she appealed to him for help in person and Ptolemy XIII was killed in 47 BCE. Caesar and Cleopatra then became lovers, even though he was married to Calpurnia, and she gave birth to his son Caesarion in 47 BCE. Caesar brought Cleopatra and Caesarion to Rome in 46 BCE, openly declaring her his consort and Caesarion his son, which upset many of the Roman Senate who placed the blame on Cleopatra for bewitching Caesar.
Among those who had the most cause to dislike and distrust Cleopatra was Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian whom Caesar chose as his heir in 44 BCE. Octavian understood that an actual son of Caesar could later exercise claim to rule. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, Cleopatra and her son fled back to Egypt and Octavian joined with Antony and Lepidus in the Second Triumvirate pursuing Cassius (l. c. 85-42 BCE) and Brutus (l. 85-42 BCE) to their deaths at Philippi.
Afterwards, Octavian returned to Rome while Antony went to Tarsus in Cilicia where he commanded Cleopatra to appear to answer charges she had aided Brutus and Cassius. Cleopatra famously met Antony in 41 BCE outside the gates of Tarsus, arriving in luxury aboard her barge on the Cydnus River. The two quickly became lovers and Antony remained in the east.
Second Triumvirate Discord
Also in 41 BCE, Antony’s younger brother Lucius Antonius revolted against Octavian and was suppressed and, in response, Antony sided with Sextus Pompey (l. 67-35 BCE), son of Pompey the Great, who had continued the war with Caesar after his father’s death in 48 BCE and, since Caesar’s assassination, had been running a fleet of pirate ships out of Sicily which was interfering with Rome’s food supply. Antony’s support of Sextus led to his blockading the town of Brundisium and Octavian marched to relieve it but, instead of fighting Antony, he made peace which included Antony marrying Octavian’s sister Octavia.
Antony broke off his accord with Sextus, and the latter was defeated and killed in 35 BCE in a joint effort between Octavian, his brilliant general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (l. 64-12 BCE), and Lepidus, a victory due almost wholly to Agrippa’s skills. Lepidus chose to claim the victory for himself and hurried to add Sicily to his holdings. This move was strongly opposed by Octavian who then exiled Lepidus from the Second Triumvirate, sending him back to Africa where he had been governing.
Octavian and Antony were now the two powers in Rome with factions backing each. Antony decided to enlarge Rome’s territory and prestige in the east by subduing Parthia – which he chose because of Crassus’ earlier defeat. His campaign was poorly managed, however, and he was defeated in 36 BCE with the loss of 30,000 men. Antony’s failed campaign damaged his reputation while elevating Octavian’s who, in 34 BCE, led a series of brilliantly successful campaigns to secure the north-eastern frontiers of Italy.
Antony again failed in an attempt to conquer Armenia and lost further support in Rome by repudiating his wife Octavia, marrying Cleopatra, and declaring Caesarion “King of Kings”. He also appointed his children by Cleopatra rulers of Syria, Asia Minor, Cyrenaica, Armenia, and Parthia – exercising a power he did not even have over most of those regions. Octavian broke contact with Antony who wrote to the Senate that he would not accept reappointment as a triumvir and the Second Triumvirate ended in 33 BCE.
Octavian’s War of Words
Octavian could not declare war on Antony outright because Antony still had significant support in Rome. He was informed that Antony had placed his will in the care of the Vestal Virgins and appeared at the temple of Vesta demanding it. The Vestal Virgins refused to hand it over but admitted that, if he wanted to take it, they could do little to stop him. Octavian took the will and read it to the Senate and then the people’s Assembly.
The will (which many historians have argued was actually a forgery) made clear Antony’s intentions to leave his vast land holdings – real or imagined – to his children by Cleopatra and also elevated Caesarion’s standing by emphasizing he was the son of the great Julius Caesar. Octavian manipulated the situation to focus the people’s imagination on Cleopatra who was portrayed as an evil seductress of two of Rome’s greatest generals. The people were given to understand that, if Antony were allowed to gain power, he would surrender Rome to Cleopatra and move the seat of Roman power to Alexandria. Scholar J.F.C. Fuller, citing historian M.P. Charlesworth, describes the effects of Octavian’s war of words:
Then against Cleopatra was launched one of the most terrible outbursts of hatred in history. No accusation was too vile to be hurled against her and the charges then made have echoed through the world ever since and have sometimes been naively taken for facts. This accursed Egyptian was a sorceress who had bewitched Antony with drugs, a wanton who sold herself to his pleasures for power; this one and that one had been her paramours; Caesar’s alleged son was the bastard of an unknown father. She was a worshipper of beast-gods, a queen of eunuchs as foul as herself, a drunkard and a harlot; later she was to be called a poisoner, a traitor, and a coward. This propaganda was extremely effective. (219)
Octavian turned the tide of public opinion against Antony through Cleopatra without directly charging Antony with any crime or misdeeds at all. The Senate deprived Antony of his powers as triumvir and consul, citing national security since he was clearly under Cleopatra’s spell, and avoided offending any of his supporters by declaring war on Cleopatra while elevating Octavian as the would-be savior of the realm. Octavian’s plan worked better than he could have imagined since all war proceedings were directed at Cleopatra and, indirectly, it was suggested that this was done to save Antony from her clutches. Octavian knew Antony would not leave Cleopatra and certainly knew he would never accept a subordinate position in Octavian’s Rome; he would condemn himself in defending Cleopatra and so make himself an enemy of the state.
Prelude to the Battle
Antony and Cleopatra mobilized their army and readied their fleet at Ephesus (in modern Turkey), wintering there 33-32 BCE. Cleopatra agreed to keep the army fed with supplies from Egypt and contributed substantially to the war chest with 20,000 talents. Antony’s officers understood Octavian’s strategy and urged Antony to distance himself from Cleopatra by sending her back to Egypt and entering into negotiations with Octavian, but Antony refused.
He moved his command post to Samos in Greece and had his army and fleet transported to Athens, where he and Cleopatra joined them in spring 32 BCE. He was again urged to separate from Cleopatra, but he refused. As Fuller notes, “by now [distancing himself from Cleopatra] was clearly impossible, for without her moral and financial support he could no longer hope to wage the war” (220). From Athens, Antony and Cleopatra’s forces moved north and were at Actium on the Ionian Sea by August 32 BCE. Fuller describes Antony’s forces:
The army consisted of nineteen legions, in all from 60,000 to 63,000 men, excluding the light-armed, which probably numbered 10,000 men, as well as perhaps 12,000 horse; and the fleet totaled eight squadrons, each of sixty ships, including one squadron of Cleopatra’s, led by her flagship Antonia. (220)
The army wintered at Actium 32-31 BCE with supplies brought up from Egypt through a heavily guarded transport route running up the Peloponnesian coast through Methone and Leucas. Octavian, meanwhile, had mobilized his forces of 80,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry, 3000 archers, and over 400 ships. His fleet was made up of light-weight, maneuverable Liburnian vessels, usually used for patrols or commerce, equipped with rams on the prow and catapults for deploying a device known as the harpax, a wooden harpoon encased in iron with one hook at one end and a rope at the other attached to a windlass which was shot into an enemy ship and then the rope cranked tightly, drawing the opponent’s ship closer to be boarded. Agrippa commanded the fleet while Octavian would oversee the army.
Agrippa surprised Antony and Cleopatra by appearing in early 31 BCE, while their armies were still in winter quarters, and seizing Methone, cutting off supplies and seizing ships and men. Octavian, meanwhile, positioned his land forces five miles to the north of Actium and fortified his camp. Agrippa moved along the coast and took Leucas, cutting off all supplies to Antony’s forces from Egypt and again seizing ships and crews. Antony and Cleopatra were now between Octavian on land and Agrippa at sea and had to act or starve. Their plan seems to have been to deploy the fleet to fight and win but, failing that, to break through Agrippa’s line of ships and make a run for Egypt. To this end, they ordered sails to be kept on ships at the ready and also put the war chests on the fastest of Cleopatra’s transports.
The Battle of Actium
On September 2, 31 BCE, Antony and Cleopatra moved their fleet into the Ionian Sea with the strategy that the wind, coming across seaward toward Agrippa’s ships, would turn them toward the south away from their fortified camp which Antony’s land forces could then attack since it would be left without support from the fleet. Octavian, however, had heard reports from deserters from Antony’s army that Antony and Cleopatra had no intention of fighting and hoped to break through the line and escape to Egypt. Agrippa, therefore, deployed the fleet for either eventuality – though he knew a pursuit of ships at full sail would be futile – and his position, in three formations, negated Antony’s hope that the wind would significantly help his cause.
Around noon, with both fleets facing each other on the sea, the wind came forcefully across, and Antony launched his ships toward Agrippa’s, hoping to turn his left flank and break the line. Agrippa’s smaller and faster Liburnians outmaneuvered Antony’s large and slow-moving quinqueremes, the heaviest Roman warships, and Agrippa’s use of the harpax quickly sank 15 of Antony’s ships. Antony’s flagship was struck and grappled by a harpax with resultant hand-to-hand fighting. Agrippa’s ships rammed the larger quinqueremes repeatedly, sinking or at least neutralizing them, while Antony’s ships basically turned into static floating fortresses hurling stones and firing arrows but unable to stop the attacks of the smaller vessels whose rams tore through their oars and pierced their hulls.
At some point, three of Antony’s squadrons abandoned the fight and turned back toward Actium and two others surrendered shortly afterwards. Antony signaled to Cleopatra to make a run with the Antonia and the war chests, and Cleopatra with her fleet broke off from the engagement and hoisted sails for the open sea. Historian Cassius Dio describes the battle after Cleopatra’s departure:
[Octavian’s] men damaged the lower parts of the ships all around, crushed the oars, snapped off the rudders, and climbed on the decks, seized hold of some of the foe and pulled them down, pushed off others, fought yet with others…and Antony’s men pushed their assailants back with boathooks, cut them down with axes, hurled down upon them stones and heavy missiles made ready for just this purpose, drove back those who tried to climb up, and fought with those who came within reach. An eye-witness of what took place might have compared it to walled towns or else islands, many in number and close together, being besieged by the sea. (L.33)
Antony’s flagship was deeply enmeshed in a tangle of others and held fast by the harpax so he escaped to another and, with 40 ships, sailed after Cleopatra, boarding the Antonia when he came up alongside. He is said to have been so broken by the defeat that he could not face Cleopatra. He sent word back to Canidius Crassus to withdraw the land forces, pulling back into Asia, and await further orders there. Agrippa’s fleet held their positions at sea throughout the night of 2 September and accepted the surrender of Antony’s remaining ships the next morning, most of which were so badly damaged they were set on fire, and the crews were absorbed by Agrippa’s forces.
Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra planned their next move. Realizing she could not hold Alexandria against Octavian, she suggested they leave for Spain, where they could lay hold of the silver mines and raise a new army. Antony was so completely demoralized by his defeat, however, that he did not even respond to word from Canidius Crassus asking what should be done with the legions in Asia and all he seems to have done is drink.
Octavian arrived outside of Alexandria in July of 30 BCE, and this immediate threat roused Antony from his depression. He mobilized his forces and struck at Octavian’s advance forces, winning the day. By the morning of 1 August 30 BCE, however, most of his troops had deserted, recognizing that they were fighting for the losing side. Later that day, upon hearing that Cleopatra was dead, Antony stabbed himself, asking to be brought to wherever her body was being kept. The rumor was false, however, and Antony lived only long enough to die in Cleopatra’s arms in the citadel where she had taken refuge. Octavian then entered the city where he presented Cleopatra with his terms which she had no choice but to accept. She asked for and was granted time to put her affairs in order. Rather than be taken by Octavian to Rome as a prize in a Roman triumph, Cleopatra killed herself on 30 August 30 BCE.
Octavian granted the wishes of Antony and Cleopatra that they be buried together and then ordered the execution of Caesarion. Cleopatra’s three children with Antony – Ptolemy, Cleopatra Selene II, and Alexander – were taken to Rome where they marched in the procession of Octavian’s triumph behind an effigy of their mother positioned resting on a couch in Egyptian luxury. They were later raised by Antony’s first wife, Octavia.
Octavian was hailed as the savior of Rome and enhanced his reputation by personally taking charge of Egypt and its grain supply to feed the Romans. In order to appeal to Cleopatra’s former subjects, he accepted the rites, honors, and title of a Ptolemaic pharaoh even though he had no interest in any of these. In January of 27 BCE, mindful of how dangerous it had been for his great-uncle Julius to appear too ambitious, he declared that the crisis to Rome had passed and humbly resigned his powers only to have the Senate restore them along with the title Augustus ("illustrious one"). Octavian gratefully accepted this gesture, becoming Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman Empire.