Actium: Transforming A Republic To An Empire

As we’ve seen in our series “With Spears & Shields,” ancient battles could have far reaching effects for empires, civilizations, and ideologies. We’ve looked at empires or countries fighting each other for territory, glory, revenge, and conquest.

What if a battle was fought between soldiers of the same country? That’s right: civil war. And what if that battle decisively crushed one opposition? What if that battle significantly changed the course of a nation and even its form of government? The stakes were high for Rome and Mediterranean World at Actuim when Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra battled Octavian in the final major battle of Rome’s Republic Days.

Octavian

Octavian & His Military

Octavian – great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. An influential statesman, but an unskilled general, Octavian surrounded himself with good military commanders who could win battlefield victories in his name. Marcus Agrippa commanded Octavian’s fleet.

But perhaps we started too close to the battle action. The Battle of Actium was many years and many feuds in the making.

When Julius Caesar died by assassination in 44 B.C., the leadership of Rome eventually devolved into a triumvirate; Octavian and Marcus Antonius managed to push their third ruling member out and split the Roman territory. Antonius got the eastern half of the Mediterranean holdings and married Octavian’s sister to seal the “bonds of friendship.” (Ha!) Octavian got the western portion and stayed around Rome, working on his plans for the future.

As the history goes, Antonius left his new Roman wife (that made Octavian mad; crying sisters aren’t a good thing!) and headed off to Egypt, giving Octavian fuel to start a propaganda campaign against his rival. By 31 B.C., Octavian took his loyal Roman army and trireme navy and headed east. Antonius was in trouble…and there simply couldn’t be two rulers of a Roman world.

Marcus Antonius

Antonius & Cleopatra and Their Military

Antonius publicly displayed his bad morals, gaining a questionable reputation around Rome. Everyone hoped marriage to Octavian’s sweet sister would help the play boy settle down…it didn’t. While touring and partying in some of his eastern territories, Antonius received an impressive visit from the extremely wealthy and fascinating Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII.

She wasn’t really Egyptian; she was Ptolemaic, meaning her ancestors were Greek and had ruled Egypt since the days of Alexander the Great (323-ish B.C.) Cleopatra dazzled Antonius with promises, money, and (according to legend) her famous beauty. In the end, Antonius decided to take a very-extended vacation in Egypt, married the queen, and had a couple kids.

There were plenty of moral problems in the situation (Antonius was already married!), and in Rome, Octavian used the moral and political scandals to turn the people against his philandering rival. After-all, Antonius married and allied with a foreign queen. What did that say about his loyalty to Rome?

A statue believed to be Cleopatra VII

Antonius and Cleopatra didn’t get to write their side of the story, but they probably intended to rule their eastern territories and might have plotted to conquer Rome and Octavian. Angry letters passed between Rome and Alexandria and in 31 B.C. it was time for battle. Octavian formally declared war against Cleopatra, a foreign queen; clever move, but really just a disguise for Roman Civil War.

The queen and Roman gathered a mixed group of Romans soldiers loyal to Antonius, Egyptian military, warships, and a vast amount of money and headed north, eventually anchoring and encamping near Actium, Greece, in the Ionian Sea.

The Battle of Actium

Unfortunately for the rogue Roman and his queen, Octavian and Agrippa (the admiral) got to Actium first and seized the best anchoring and encampments. And then both sides sat and stared at each other for a few months, neither willing to battle.

Desertion and disease plagued the Egyptian/Roman camp. Struggling, they impressed unskilled laborers to row their war galleys. Finally, on September 2, 31 B.C., Cleopatra and Antonius made their move.

Hoping to use the winds to their advantage, Antonius and Cleopatra divided their fleet into four squadrons and sailed out, keeping close to the shore. Agrippa saw their strategy, maneuvered his ships, and engaged the “foreign” left squadron, battling Antonius directly. The right wing engaged, leaving a clear gap in the center and an escape route for Cleopatra’s squadron. As Cleopatra left, Antonius went after her, leaving his fleet to fight and surrender on their own.

Battle of Actium (By Future Perfect at Sunrise, on the basis of work by User:Lencer and User:Leo2004 – translated from File:Schlacht bei Actium.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5505254)

Both armies watched from their onshore camps. With the queen and Roman rival gone, Octavian offered generous terms to Antonius’s soldiers and seamen. When they surrendered, they would be treated as Roman soldiers…and incorporated into Octavian’s army.

Historians wonder if Cleopatra and Antonius planned to escape or if their plans went awry during the fight. Records reveal that their ships carried sails into battle; that’s not typical – unless planning a quick get-away. While we can debate if Cleopatra was really pretty, it’s clear that she was a smart schemer; Antonius may not have been sharp witted (he attended a lot of drunken parties and made some questionable life choices.) So…did they plan a brilliant escape…did Antonius forget the original plans…did Agrippa halt their original scheme…or did Cleopatra deviate from the original plan and abandon Antonius to save herself? We just don’t know. Because in the following months, Antonius and Cleopatra were defeated in Egypt, and both committed suicide.

Surrounded By Good Commanders

With too many “unknowns” surrounding Antonius and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, it’s probably best to focus on Octavian. That leader made a wise decision. Knowing his limitations (not a good military general), he entrusted his navy to his good friend and faithful ally, Agrippa.

Agrippa fulfilled trust and expectations at Actium by arriving at the location first and securing the better position. Additionally, he handled the Octavian Roman fleet well, countering the enemy’s moves.

Roman Trireme
(By No machine-readable author provided. Mathiasrex assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1347775)

Historical Conclusion

With his rival dead and the foreign queen well-out of the way too, Octavian returned to Rome and proclaimed his version of the story. Wicked, deceitful queen destroyed and traitorous Roman perished. Octavian ruled Rome. Alone.

In the coming years, Octavian would take the official title “Augustus Caesar” and become the emperor of Rome. He played carefully, pretended to be a wonderful, honored citizen, and ingrained empire into the government of Rome.

The Battle of Actium has its mysteries, but its outcome is unmistakable. Octavian’s victory boosted his prestige, defeated his rival, and allowed him to skillfully and officially twist the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. The civil wars launched by Julius Caesar’s death ended at Actium, leaving his heir to reinvent power and Roman rule.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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