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  • James Houser

September 2, 31 BC - The Battle of Actium

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 2, 31 BC. Julius Caesar is dead, but his legacy remains. After years of pretending to get along, Caesar’s favorite general Mark Antony and his adopted son Octavian have finally fallen out and are about to throw down. The place: Actium. The weapons: two vast naval fleets of around 400 ships apiece. The stakes: dominion over what we can now finally call the Roman Empire. The Republic breathes its last.

Gaius Julius Caesar had become Rome’s strongman, the greatest general in its history, its unchallenged ruler and Dictator. He had won victories in France, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Asia, and Africa. He had crushed the power of the Senate, conquered Gaul, and beaten everyone who faced him openly. He was compared to something like a god. And then, just like that, he was dead. On the Ides of March – March 15, 44 BC – a cadre of Senators assassinated Caesar at a meeting in the Theater of Pompey. As the eyes of his old nemesis looked on, the most powerful man in Rome bled to death before his assassins.

The assassins had hoped Caesar’s death would restore the old Republic, restore the place of the Senate and end the primacy of military dictators. Unfortunately for them, things were already too far gone for that. At the agitation of Caesar’s general and protégé, Marcus Antonius (aka Mark Antony), the anti-Caesar faction was chased out of the capital. These exiled Senators scattered to the winds and began to raise armies. Antony, popular with the army and with a strong slice of senatorial support, marched out to confront them, leaving the way open for his chief challenger to emerge.

Gaius Octavius was only 19 years old in 44 BC, son of Caesar’s niece Livia. Caesar had seen great promise in the young man from an early age, and always kept a close eye on him. Upon Caesar’s death, to everyone’s enormous surprise (not least Octavian’s), Caesar named the young man his adoptive son, heir and successor. In accordance with Roman naming traditions, this meant that he took his adoptive father’s name – Gaius Julius Caesar. So yes, he had the exact same name as his murdered great-uncle, and under normal circumstances his common name would just be “Caesar”, but to keep things from getting massively confusing most called him “Caesar Octavianus.” So Octavian it is.

Octavian’s first clash with Antony came when he checked Caesar’s accounts and found a lot of money missing – money Antony had helpfully borrowed to use for his armies. Nevertheless, after some more initial skirmishes, Octavian began building his own power base by banking on the Caesar name and his adoptive father’s old clients and veterans. Antony saw little to fear in Octavian – a judgment he would later come to regret – and roped the newbie into an alliance with an older general and Rome’s chief priest, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. These three men formed the Second Triumvirate (the old First Triumvirate had been the Caesar, Pompey, Crassus alliance that had dissolved into the recent Civil War.)

While this political system once again locked Rome down, Octavian and Antony both wanted revenge on Caesar’s assassins. Raising their armies, the uneasy alliance of Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus cornered the assassins Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC. The Second Triumvirate was victorious there after two battles, in one of which Octavian had to be saved from defeat by Antony. With Caesar’s assassins defeated, the Roman Republic can be safely considered dead, dead, dead. The last voices *for* Senatorial power and *against* the military dictatorships that had come to dominate Rome were now gone.

Lepidus was then kicked off to govern North Africa, in the hopes that he would fade away quietly, and…that’s pretty much what happened. So that left Octavian and Antony, mutually victorious over their mentor and adoptive father’s assassins, staring coldly at each other. Antony had the greater political support and a great deal more military experience than his young rival, but Octavian had financial backing, the devotion of Caesar’s veteran soldiers, and the support of Rome’s masses, who had adored Caesar and now adored his virtuous, seemingly perfect son.

The two men really could not have been more different. Octavian, in his early 20s, was serene, ambitious, humorless, and outwardly virtuous. He almost seemed naïve. In reality, even at a young age Octavian was one of the most ruthless and cunning politicians of history, a man who would not hesitate to exterminate his enemies. He was perhaps the original evil genius, the master manipulator. Antony, in contrast, was a vigorous, charismatic, brave, lecherous and vain man, a partier and a romancer. Antony was a soldier’s general, a fearless battlefield commander who gave rein to his passions. That, ultimately, would be his undoing. Their reputations were solidified by their favorite Gods: Octavian modelled himself on Apollo, while Antony was a big fan of, um, Dionysius (the god of wine).

To patch up their fragile partnership, Octavian arranged Antony’s marriage to his sister Octavia (the Romans were not very creative with their names). This was a master move, his poor sister aside: Octavian knew exactly what Antony was like, and so he had a ready-made reason to get publicly upset when Antony inevitably dumped his wife and shacked up with some hussy. In addition, Octavian persuaded Antony to take a post governing Rome’s eastern provinces. These were the richest provinces of the Empire, and presented opportunities for further military glory against the Persians or the Thracians, so Antony leaped at the chance. Again, a smart move by Octavian: it got Antony far away from the levers of political power, while Octavian won the Senate to his side and built up a loyal army.

Antony, just as Octavian expected, went wandering around the east and shacked up with another woman. She was not, however, some hussy: she was Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, a political genius in her own right and one of the most famous women in history. Cleopatra had once been Julius Caesar’s lover, and now become Antony’s. She saw in this alliance a way to preserve Egyptian independence by becoming a trusted ally of Rome. Sadly, she picked the wrong man – but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Cleopatra also came with an additional quirk: her and Caesar’s illegitimate son, Caesarion, now all of five years old.

Soon Antony and Cleopatra’s affair became too blatant to ignore. They got married (while Antony was still married to Octavia, and multiple wives is NOT a Roman thing) and got busy making children. Antony granted large landholdings to Cleopatra and her kids, and also putzed around a bit in unsuccessful campaigns against Persia in 36 BC. Antony’s disasters in Persia and his scandalous lifestyle caused him major setbacks. Octavian had been predictably furious that Antony had dishonored his sister and was giving away Roman land to his common-law wife and their “bastards,” and made sure he put on a good public show of just how coldly furious he was. Soon the rumor mill, Octavian’s manipulation, and Antony’s unforced errors had turned Antony’s name to mud in Rome itself.

Octavian had been busy stamping out a bunch of smaller rebellions and also a major one in Sicily. There, Sextus Pompey – the son of Caesar’s old rival – had been causing a stir with pirate raids and generally being a nuisance. It had taken Octavian multiple naval campaigns to defeat Sextus Pompey, but in the process he gained two things: a powerful navy and a great admiral, his childhood friend Marcus Agrippa. After Lepidus (remember him) failed to take over Sicily himself, Octavian had him sent to a quiet farm out in Gaul. Having built himself a military reputation, gotten his political ducks in a row, removed any rivals, and let Antony run around making a fool of himself for a decade, Octavian just waited for the opportunity to strike.

Opportunity struck in 34 BC, when Antony revealed just how native he had gone. In Cleopatra’s capital of Alexandria, he announced the gift of most of Rome’s eastern provinces to his and Cleopatra’s children, and critically declared Caesarion as Caesar’s legitimate son and heir. This was a direct challenge to Octavian’s political position, and the Second Triumvirate was over. Octavian responded by having Antony’s will read aloud on the Senate floor, which – as many suspected – would cede the whole Roman East to Cleopatra if Antony died. This was the final straw. In 32 BC, the Roman Senate stripped Antony of his titles and declared war on Cleopatra. A third of the Senate fled to join Antony and Cleopatra in Greece. A century of Roman political strife was about to come to its final, inevitable climax.

Antony marched an army of almost 100,000 into Greece over the winter of 32 to 31 BC, seemingly preparing for an invasion of Italy. In reality, he was probably just preparing for an attack by Octavian, but Octavian’s propaganda (because he was a brilliant propagandist) played up invasion fears to gin up recruitment and money. Antony was accompanied by a fleet of about 480 ships, large seagoing galleys that he stationed near his army at Actium on the west coast of Greece. Antony’s real concern was his supply line, which stretched by sea back to Egypt, long and exposed.

Octavian crossed from Italy into Greece in early 31 BC with an army of similar size, and his admiral Agrippa’s fleet of about 500 ships – though Agrippa’s were smaller on average than the hulking five-level quinqueremes of Antony’s fleet. The larger size of Antony’s ships meant that the traditional ramming style of galley warfare would go badly against Octavian’s fleet, but that the lighter ships would be more maneuverable and harder to chase down.

Octavian and Antony camped their armies facing each other across a narrow straight near Actium. While they spent the summer staring at each other in stalemate, Agrippa took Octavian’s fleet south to raid Antony’s supply line. The faster, lighter ships of Octavian’s navy were excellent raiding vessels, and soon Antony’s gigantic army perched on the craggy slopes of coastal Greece was beginning to starve. As their supplies dwindled, Octavian’s strategy became clear: he was going to force Antony to risk battle rather than risk battle himself. Antony found himself forced into a decision: he would engage in a naval battle. Hopefully, his larger ships would defeat Octavian’s navy in a head-on fight; if not, they should be able to break out and sail for Egypt, and the army could break out and join them.

By the day of battle, September 2, 31 BC, the two fleets were about equal in number. Octavian deployed across the straits of Actium in three divisions side by side, with Agrippa commanding the left division and Octavian himself commanding the center. Antony mirrored his opponent’s deployment, with Cleopatra in command of the 60-ship reserve behind the lines. It must have been an awesome sight, almost 1000 galleys rocking on the Mediterranean swells squaring up for battle. With the average crew of a quinquereme numbering about 400 men, that is a total of something approaching 350,000 seamen and marines heading to battle in the wine-dark sea. It was monumental, colossal, unbelievable: a fitting arena for the final battle for the Roman Empire.

The battle was difficult for both sides. Antony’s massive vessels could not be rammed, but were too slow to do much ramming themselves. Octavian’s ships could not afford to close with the massive quinqueremes, since they carried a number of soldiers casting javelins and throwing arrows from above. The two sides jockeyed for position for most of the day, with Antony unable and Octavian unwilling to come to grips. The salt water splashed over thousands of men fighting for their lives, as the two decade-long rivals – two heirs to Caesar – gazed at each other from the towers of their flagships. They knew it had to end today.

Finally, Agrippa led his left-wing squadron out to try and peel around Antony’s flank. Antony pushed his flank out to try and meet him, and as the two sides sparred further out from the main battle, Octavian spied a gap forming in Antony’s lines. He launched his galleys into the breach and drove Antony’s fleet into disarray.

This is where Antony’s bad decisions really came back to bite him. With his undying devotion and love for Cleopatra, he believed she could do no wrong; therefore, giving her command of the fleet’s reserve was a splendid idea. There have been great war women: Joan of Arc, Nzinga of the Ndongo, Mathilda of Tuscany, Boudicca. Cleopatra was…not a warrior woman. When she saw the battle going against them, she ordered her reserve to flee. Had she instead plugged the hole, the day might have been saved. Instead, she took her ships through the gap and made a break for Egypt. Antony, seeing her flee…followed her. “Baby come back!” This is why you don’t let couples command.

By the end of the day, Antony’s remaining fleet was exhausted, leaderless, and had just seen their commander chase his wife off into the distance. The onset of a storm that would toss their larger boats and their spent crews decided the deal, and the remaining fleet of almost 350 ships began to surrender to Octavian. Once Antony’s army, left behind and isolated in Greece, realized what had happened, its commander tried to fight his way out. The troops looked at each other, shook their heads, and defected to Octavian.

News of Octavian’s victory at Actium spread quickly, and soon all of Antony’s loyal clients and local governors were falling over themselves to defect to his side. The following summer, 30 BC, Octavian led an army into Egypt, with most of the local garrisons surrendering or fleeing. Antony put up a brief fight at Alexandria, but was too badly outnumbered. Soon he committed suicide, Alexandria fell, and Cleopatra was captured. When she failed to convince (read: seduce) Octavian into preserving Egypt’s independence, and learned that she would be the caged centerpiece of his triumphal return to Rome, she killed herself as well – allegedly by holding a poisonous snake to her breast.

Octavian, of course, had one more loose end to tie up. He had Caesar and Cleopatra’s illegitimate son Caesarion hunted down and killed. No one would live to dispute the title of Caesar’s heir – not even his adoptive brother. Jesus, dude. Couldn’t you have put him on a nice farm or something?

Either way, Octavian’s only serious opposition was gone. He was the unchallenged ruler of Rome, so supreme that no one even dreamed of assassinating him. He restored the outward façade of the Republic, going through the motions of preserving old Roman law and custom. In reality, the First Citizen (or “Princeps”) was the first Roman Emperor, and he now ruled from Gaul and Spain and Morocco in the west to Syria, Egypt and Armenia in the east. In 27 BC, the Roman Senate officially granted him the name “Augustus”, meaning “majestic” and it is this name by which Octavian would be known to history – Augustus Caesar.

Augustus Caesar’s 44-year reign initiated an era of peace and prosperity for the Roman Empire, and despite his ruthless and murderous rise to power, his rule was efficient, gentle, and modest, despite his vast power and domination over the whole known world. He ruled so long and so well that when he died, almost no one lived who remembered the Republic, and would not have known how to go back even if they wanted to. Was it worth the bloodshed, the murder, the loss of freedom, the manipulation, the betrayal? That’s not a question for me to answer. All I know is that this dude was bad enough that we still have a month named after him.

The Republic is dead. Long Live the Empire.

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