The Battle of Actium was an ancient naval war between Octavian’s fleet and the two combined maritime fleets of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII of Egypt. It was the largest and most crucial naval battle in the history of Roman armies. Keep reading about the story of the Battle of Actium, as it will open your eyes to the root of all conflicts, learn about the result of the new beginning for Rome and an end for Ptolemaic Egypt.

Where Was the Battle of Actium?

The Battle of Actium was in the Ionian Sea in Actium, Greece, on September 31 BCE. It was a decisive and inevitable war between three prominent people: Octavian Caesar, who was later known as Augustus, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

– The Start of the Battle

Mark Antony immediately came to Cleopatra and gave his full support when the Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra VII and the Ptolemaic Egypt. Surprisingly, Octavian suspected that this was what Antony exactly planned, and he was right.

At once, the Senate removed all of Antony’s powers, confiscated all of his properties, and labeled him as a traitor. However, half of the Senate, including the consuls, sided with Antony, and they all left for Greece. All of them summoned their armies and prepared for the war.

– The Setting of the War

Mark Antony’s soldiers moved to Greece to prepare for the war with Octavian. The war was decided to happen at sea, and both of them commanded large armies of approximately 200,000 men each. Cleopatra VII and Antony’s ships exceeded the number of Octavian’s fleet.

The powerful alliances of the Roman–Egyptian navy with around 500 ships came in through the Ambracian Gulf. They created a ploy, and it worked for a while.

The original plan was to entice Octavian into Greece before wrecking his fleet in the battle and cutting their supplies, as he and his troops arrived in Greece. On the other hand, Antony’s troops were devastated; his armies were sick, making his ships’ crew and soldiers unfit for the battle.

– Worsening of the Battle

Antony and Cleopatra’s stand in the battle was getting worse. Marcus Agrippa, Octavian’s admiral, and close friend brought his fleet onshore and conquered the bases. Now, all of their forces inland and at sea were in danger of being cut off.

Antony had no option but to send parts of his army to the northern part of Macedonia and abandoned Greece. The rest tried to continue launching the ships, and they attempted to advance on Octavian’s naval barricade.

What Happened at the Battle of Actium?

In the 31 BC Battle of Actium, Octavian succeeded in the war between him and the forces of Roman and Egyptian allies: Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII. However, before Octavian’s Roman forces finally defeated Antony and Cleopatra, these two escaped and abandoned their troops. Then, they immediately fled to Egypt where they eventually ended their lives by committing suicide in 30 BC.

– Mark Antony’s Strategy

From their position in the Ambracian Gulf, Mark Antony moved out his ships into the open sea, where Agrippa, Octavian, and their troops were waiting. The two fleets slowly connected and faced each other, and the battle was about to begin. When everyone was in their positions, soldiers began to fire at the enemy and boarded the opponents’ warship.

When the naval war began, Octavian’s ships started to work around the smaller fleet at Mark Antony’s flanks. During one-on-one battles, Octeres and Quinqueremes were difficult warships to board. The men of Octavian focused on the large warships’ lower parts; they crushed the oars, broke the rudders, and climbed the decks of the warships. A feral battle that lasted for hours occurred on the large warships of Antony.

– Octavian’s Counteract

Agrippa’s invention, the Harpax, became one of the advantages of Octavian’s side during the battle. The Harpax was built with some large ballistae that could launch large grappling hooks at the vessels of the enemy. This powerful weapon managed to strike the flagship of Antony.

Mark Antony left 40 of his own warships, approximately 5,000 men, and 300 ships that were eventually destroyed by Octavian. The battle of Actium resulted in a bloody war and thousands of deaths.

Hours of the ferocious battle took place, and the larger warships of Antony caused a gap in the enemy’s centerline. Meanwhile, Cleopatra’s forces were reserved, and they had been guarding the treasure fleet. Cleopatra used the gap created by Mark Antony’s forces as an opportunity to escape the heavy fighting.

The Escape

An armada entered the gap, and Cleopatra escaped the gulf and then sailed to Egypt. Soon after, Mark Antony followed, leaving his flagship behind; he exchanged the flagship for a vessel that was smaller and faster. The battle of Actium was almost at its end.

Octavian sent his warships in pursuit of his enemies because he realized that they were escaping. Mark Antony’s side was thrown into chaos. They threw weapons, catapults, and unneeded equipment to make their ships lighter and faster.

Both Cleopatra and Mark Antony succeeded in escaping, but Mark Antony lost his reputation of being a Roman general along with his chance of winning the war.

The news of the defeat reached Antony’s army, and most of his forces abandoned him. Cleopatra VII was afraid of being paraded through the streets of Rome as a trophy of war. To spare herself from this unfortunate fate, she committed a scheme to deliver the piece of news that she had decided to kill herself.

Mark Antony believed the rumors of Cleopatra’s death, so he ended his life the same way Cleopatra did. In conclusion, these two prominent allies and adoring lovers both reached the end of their lives by committing suicide.

What Happened After the Battle ?

– In Greece:

Octavian became the ruler of the Roman world. Antony and Cleopatra’s death brought an end to the civil war. In 30 BCE, Octavian arrived in Egypt.

To secure his position, Octavian had ordered Caesarion to be killed, as well as Mark Antony’s oldest son; he spared the lives of Cleopatra’s remaining children with Antony. Despite being his worst enemy, Octavian still gave Mark Antony a funeral. The same tribute was granted to Cleopatra, who seemed to be admired by Octavian. This act of Octavian built an image portraying that he was a benevolent Roman leader.

– In Eygpt:

Egypt, on the contrary, was left without a leader. Three centuries of Ptolemaic rule came to an end. The Mediterranean’s wealthiest region became a province of Rome, whereas the Mediterranean became Rome’s lake.

With the help of Agrippa, after three years of the Battle of Actium, Octavian managed to abolish the Roman Republic. Octavian became the first Roman emperor, and his name was supplemented with “Augustus.”

Roman Egypt became the emperor’s personal possession, and it became a province where the Senate had zero influence. Emperor Augustus had absolute control over Egypt’s resources and continued to boost his influence and reputation as a ruler.

Mark Antony’s Struggle Before the Battle Began

Mark Antony faced a lot of troubles before the Battle of Actium started, which caused great inconvenience to his side. The remaining ships Antony had were only 230 in number, whereas Octavian had 400, putting his side in an unfortunate position.

Antony arrived in Greece with more ships than their enemies, but they entered the Battle of Actium location outnumbered.

Unfortunately, Mark Antony’s fleet suffered from diseases, hunger, and malnutrition. In order to resupply, he needed to take good care of two strategic islands, Corfu to the north and Methoni to the south.

Nevertheless, Agrippa took over a part of Methoni, blocking Mark Antony’s route. The situation led to some of his crews and armies becoming sick and unfit for the battle.

Another problem that they encountered was the type of warships they were using for the naval battle. They used Quinqueremes or the so-called “heavy warships” driven by five banks of oars.

On the other hand, they also used Octeres, several large warships used in the Hellenistic era. Undoubtedly, Antony and his troops were using weak and disadvantaged warships because they were old, slow, and heavy to drive.

Why Did the Battle of Actium Happen?

Distrust, bitterness, conflicts, jealousy, and traitorous acts were the main causes of the battle of Actium. The three ambitious triumvirs of Rome gained unlimited powers to lead and control their territories.

Mark Antony administered the eastern provinces, Octavian managed to lead the western republic, and Lepidus received Africa. Unfortunately, their alliances were not sustained longer because of the envy they felt toward one another. In 36 BCE, Lepidus was removed from power and exiled because of rebellion.

– Interrelations

Meanwhile, the two remaining triumvirs’ alliances were starting to worsen. Mark Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra was not a secret to Octavian, the brother of Octavia, who was Antony’s Roman wife. Worse, Mark Antony left Octavia in Egypt and chose to live in Alexandria with Cleopatra and their children.

In 34 BCE, the entire Rome was shocked, especially Octavian, when Mark Antony announced publicly that he was legitimizing Caesarion as the son of Julius Caesar. Within the same year, Antony gave the title “King of the Kings” to Caesarion. This sudden announcement of Mark Antony threatened Octavian’s political position for he was only an adopted son of Julius Caesar.

Octavian fully understood that a definite son of Julius Caesar could immediately claim the position of being a ruler.

Octavian’s Propaganda Attack

Mark Antony was set into criticism. Octavian openly criticized Mark Antony for being a tyrant who tried to put an end to Roman traditions. He was also criticized for publicly announcing the distributions of land in the Donations of Alexandria.

When Mark Antony divorced Octavia in 32 BCE, he married Cleopatra. Octavian saw this opportunity to expose to the public the illegally obtained Antony’s will (the authenticity of which some scholars argued about).

With all these attacks by Octavian in his propaganda campaign, he demanded the people in charge at the temple of the goddess Vesta to surrender Antony’s will, which was protected by the Vestal Virgins.

– Mark Antony’s Will

In front of the Assembly and Senate, he read Antony’s will. The content of Mark Antony’s will was to declare the legitimacy of Caesarion, name his children with Cleopatra VII as his heirs, and to be buried beside Cleopatra in the eastern city of Alexandria.

Octavian also insisted that Mark Antony was under Cleopatra’s spells, bewitching him and controlling him through some supernatural ways like what she did with Julius Caesar.

With all of these propaganda attacks, Octavian’s plan worked. The Roman people and the Senate blamed Cleopatra for all of Mark Antony’s failures. Now, the conflict was not about the two powerful Romans, but rather between two conflicting countries: Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt.

Within the same year, the Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra VII and Ptolemaic Egypt.

Mark Antony Followed Cleopatra’s Advice

Mark Antony, his wife, and his generals disunited in finalizing Antony’s decision about the naval war. For his generals, Roman generals were more experienced and had greater expertise in land battles. By contrast, Cleopatra insisted that Antony had all the advantages on the water so they should attack by sea. Two opinions were given to Mark Antony that needed intelligent solutions.

Antony’s generals didn’t trust Cleopatra and all her armies. They also realized that Cleopatra was Octavian’s subject for his propaganda. So, as long as she was with them during the battle, Octavian would take advantage of it. The generals advised Mark Antony to send his wife back to Egypt.

Another thing that the generals considered was that if Cleopatra was not present in the battle, many Roman people, Roman armies, and the Roman Senate would give support to their troops and leave Octavian.

Finally, Mark Antony gave his final decision. He agreed with his wife, Cleopatra, to fight the naval battle. At the same time, he followed his generals’ advice to send his wife back home.

Rome After the Battle of Actium

Romans welcomed Augustus as a hero, with all his intelligence and competence, he secured his position as the first Roman emperor.

The first Roman emperor, Augustus, successfully transformed Rome into an empire from being a republic. Throughout his reign, he brought back prosperity and peace to the Roman state and modified every aspect of Roman life.

Augustus passed laws encouraging marital stability and renewal of religious practices. He initiated the taxation and census system. He also expanded the Roman empire. He annexed Egypt, part of Spain’s central Europe, and even lands in the Middle East, such as Judea, in AD 6.

In AD 14, Emperor Augustus died outside Naples, Italy. However, his body was returned to the capital of Rome to give respect to the emperor’s funeral. The Roman Senate proclaimed Emperor Augustus as a Roman god.

Influences

The battle of Actium played an important role in imperial propaganda. This historical battle had a huge impact on the history of Rome and Egypt, and the impact is still widespread until modern times.

Plays, illustrations, and films have been based on this epic battle that occurred centuries ago. The famous English playwright William Shakespeare even highlighted the battle of Actium significance in a historical play, which became well-known soon after.

The Formation of the Triumvirate

The Battle of Actium was the effect of the civil rivalry between Octavian and Mark Antony over 10 years ago, after the assassination of a Roman dictator, Julius Caesar, in 44 BCE. When Julius Caesar died, Rome fell into a civil war involving his three powerful supporters.

To end the belligerency, they formed a political coalition called Second Triumvirate. The triumvirate involved Mark Antony, a powerful Roman general and politician; Octavian, Caesar’s grandnephew and chosen successor; and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a Roman statesman.

– Building Up the Triumvirate

In October 43 BCE, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus met somewhere in Bononia to form a Constitutional Commission or Triumvirate. The political power given to triumvirs was the same as the political power held by the Roman consul. The government’s regular functions would continue; the only purpose of the triumvirs was to restore the stability of the Roman Republic. This would allow these three men to implement laws without the approval of the Roman Senate.

In November 43 BCE, the trio was granted supreme jurisdiction for five years and assigned the very important mission of hunting down Julius’ assassins. They vowed revenge against Julius Caesar’s assassins: Cassius and Brutus. They also aimed to bring back solidity to the new Roman Republic.

The members of the triumvirate accepted the powers and took several measures: the execution of 4,700 opponents; war against Julius Caesar’s murderers; land bills to give farms to Caesar’s veterans; and measures against the Senate, including the appointment of all magistrates.

– The Fall of the Triumvirate

However, because of the ego and pride of the Second Triumvirate members, their political alliances would eventually turn to clash, and only one of them would come out as a Roman emperor. Generally, the Actium battle was the end of Mark Antony and Octavian’s enmity that started after the formation of the Second Triumvirate.

The Enemies of the Triumvirate

– Cicero and Decimus

Cicero was one of the people involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar. He surely believed that Antony was an enemy of the Roman state and that he should also be killed like Julius Caesar. Due to his outspokenness, Cicero became the first casualty of the triumvirate, his hands were cut off, and his head was decapitated and sent to Rome.

Next to Cicero was Decimus, who asked and convinced Julius Caesar to appear at the Temple of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was assassinated. He was captured and beheaded, and his head was sent to Mark Antony.

– Sextus Pompey, Cassius, and Brutus

The triumvirate had so many enemies on the list. However, they intended to focus their attention on Sextus Pompey, Cassius, and Brutus.

Mark Antony met the two traitors Cassius and Brutus in the battle at Philippi in eastern Macedonia. Antony won the battle. Cassius was captured and was beheaded, whereas Brutus escaped but later on committed suicide.

Sextus Pompey, an outlaw under the Lex Pedia, escaped to Sicily and made a pact with the triumvirate. Nonetheless, later on, he was captured and executed.

– Octavian

Octavian was ill during the time of capturing the conspirators at the battle of Phillippi, so he was not involved in the fight. However, the Roman historian Suetonius wrote a different version of the story.

In 37 BCE, Lepidus was out of the renewal of the triumvirate because of his continued failure in leading the battle. He was exiled, and the empire was divided equally between Mark Antony and Octavian. This division of power would shortly be the immediate end of their partnership.

Mark Antony and Octavian

Mark Antony and Octavian became the two dominant powers in Rome, with divisions supporting each of them. Antony wanted to expand Rome’s territory in the east by conquering Parthia. This campaign of Mark Antony was poorly done, and he was defeated in 36 BCE, losing approximately 30,000 men. Antony’s defeats deeply damaged his image.

On the contrary, in 34 BCE, Octavian led multiple sequences of victory and secured the northeastern border of Italy.

Antony once failed in an attempt; the attempt was to conquer Armenia. Another thing that tarnished the reputation of Mark Antony was his repudiation of his wife, Octavia (sister of Octavian), and his marriage with the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.

Mark Antony proclaimed his children with Cleopatra as the rulers of Armenia, Parthia, Cyrenaica, Asia Minor, and Syria—declaring such power over areas where he had no control.

Octavian ended his contact with Mark Antony, who addressed the senate saying he would not approve of the reappointment as someone who was a triumvir. The Second Triumvirate came to an end in 33 BCE.

Conclusion

The Battle of Actium was the grandest and most crucial naval war in the entire history of Rome. Here are some notable points about the naval war:

  • The Battle of Actium was a naval war between Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt.
  • Octavian and Antony’s conflicts a long time ago had relevance to the naval war.
  • Mark Antony and Cleopatra escaped the Battle of Actium.
  • Augustus was the first Roman emperor after he won the Battle of Actium.
  • The influence of the Battle of Actium is still widespread to this day.

It was the birth of the new Roman empire and the end of the two prominent ancient leaders. The Battle of Actium was a battle of three prominent people in ancient history, but the last man left standing was Octavian. He became the first Roman emperor of his time.

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