Battle of Actium
The Battle of Actium in 31 BCE ended the civil wars of the late Roman Republic and allowed Octavian (later Augustus) to establish the Roman Empire. On March 15, 44 BCE, in Rome, assassins stabbed to death Julius Caesar shortly after he had extended his dictatorship to life. Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius), turned the Senate against the murderers, who then fled for their lives. Encouraged by Cicero, the Senate rallied against Antony’s effort to succeed Caesar, and its forces defeated him in pitched battle in 43.
Antony, however, had allied himself with the 20-year-old Octavian, who had been adopted in his great-uncle Caesar’s will as his principal heir and probably also as his son. They formed a partnership to “reform the state” and avenge Caesar’s murder. Among some 2,000 executed were 300 senators and Cicero. Antony and Octavian also defeated the republican forces in the Battle of Philippi in Macedonia in 42, after which both Brutus and Cassius, two of the principal conspirators in the death of Caesar, committed suicide.
Octavian and Antony then battled to see who would hold power. Octavian controlled Italy and the western provinces, while Antony’s strength was in the eastern provinces. Antony ignored his wife Octavia (Octavian’s sister) and withdrew into Egypt with a large army. While there he fell in love with the beautiful Queen Cleopatra, which allowed Octavian to portray Antony as sacrificing Roman interests to those of Egypt. Octavian also induced the Senate to declare war on Cleopatra.
Gathering their forces in Antioch, in 32 Antony and Cleopatra brought some 500 ships (including transports) and a large land force to northwestern Greece, apparently planning an invasion of Italy. Octavian was fortunate in having as his naval commander Marcus Vispanius Agrippa, probably the greatest naval tactician of the era. In a series of actions, Agrippa secured important coastal bases in Greece and used these to disrupt Antony’s sea routes of supply and communication.
Antony stationed his forces at Actium, just south of the entrance to the Gulf of Ambracia in Epirus. Octavian then transferred his army from Italy to north of Actium and, during the summer of 31, established both a naval blockade and a land blockade of Antony’s forces. Antony lost so many men to desertion and disease that he could not fully man his ships. Apparently the resulting sea battle was more an effort to extricate his forces than an attempt to secure a victory.
The battle occurred on September 2. Octavian, without his detached light squadrons, had at his disposal perhaps 200 ships, while Antony had perhaps 170. Each commander added legionnaires to bolster the ship crews and thus may have shipped as many as 60,000 or more men. As evidence that Antony’s chief goal was escape, however, his crews did not stow their masts and sails on shore but instead kept them on board their galleys so that they might take advantage of the usual later daily breeze and outrun their opponents’ galleys powered only by oars. Given that Antony’s larger ships were quite fast under sail, this plan appeared to be a wise one. Agrippa’s smaller ships, however, enjoyed a speed advantage under oars, and their attacks prevented Antony from fully implementing his plan. Agrippa also made effective use of a new harpoonlike weapon, the harpax. It had a hook at one end and a line attached to the other. Projected by a catapult against an enemy vessel, it was used to draw the ship close so that it could be boarded.
The principal fighting occurred on the northern flank. Antony initially had the upper hand, but his crews in the center and left wing had been sapped by propaganda attacking Cleopatra, and they fell back or failed to fight with much enthusiasm. Antony signaled to Cleopatra to escape and then tried to get to the open sea. When his own vessel was secured with a harpax, he escaped to another ship and broke free with a few of his ships to join Cleopatra. In the end, only Cleopatra’s Egyptian squadron of 60 vessels made a clean breakthrough under sail, followed by the few ships led by Antony. Most of Antony’s fleet surrendered, as did his land force a short time later. Octavian subsequently ordered the construction of Nicopolis (“Victory City”) on the site of his former headquarters.
Antony never recovered from Actium. Octavian invaded Egypt in July 30. Although Antony initially repulsed Octavian’s forces before Alexandria, Antony was misinformed that Cleopatra had killed herself and stabbed himself, only to die a lingering death in Cleopatra’s presence. Cleopatra held out hope that she might beguile Octavian as she had done with both Caesar and Antony. He was not interested, however. When it became obvious that he intended to exhibit her in a trium phant procession through Rome, Cleopatra too committed suicide, at age 39, by means of a snake smuggled to her in a basket of figs.
Octavian now controlled the immense wealth of Egypt as well as being master of the entire Mediterranean. He secured the Roman eastern provinces largely by confirming Antony’s appointments there and returned to Rome to declare the civil wars at an end. In October 27 the Senate proclaimed him augustus princeps (“revered first citizen”).
Adcock, Frank Ezra. The Roman Art of War under the Republic. 1940; reprint, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960.
Carter, John M. The Battle of Actium: The Rise and Triumph of Augustus Caesar. London: Hamilton, 1970.
Gurval, Robert Alan. Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Morrison, J. S. Greek and Roman Oared Warships. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1996.
Starr, Chester G. The Roman Imperial Navy, 31 B.C.–A.D. 324. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960.