The strange battle of Actium ended decades of Roman civil war and resulted in the rise of the first Roman Emperor. In earnest, Antony's seemingly irrational battle tactics destroyed him, his armies, and his famed wife, Cleopatra. Although, conjecture over Antony's reasons for abandoning the battle and chasing Cleopatra's ship has been debated by historians, poets, and movie writers for centuries.
After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC Rome had no clear leader. Mark Antony, otherwise known as Marcus Antonius, took over Caesar's papers and many of his legions, but Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus was named as an heir in Caesar's will, also Octavianus possessed the ever-important name "Caesar". The two men formed the Second Triumvirate with Marcus Aemilus Lepidus, an older and well-respected General because neither Antony nor Octavianus had a clear claim to leadership through a majority of support.
Individually, Octavianus and Antony continued to persuade senators and generals to join their side. Eventually, Lepidus was assigned an unimportant role in Africa and attempted to seize Sicily by force. Despite the effort, his troops mutinied, and he was forcibly retired by Octavianus. The mutiny left Octavianus with control of the Western provinces and Antony with control of those in the East. Antony married Octavianus' sister, Octavia, and an uneasy truce began.
Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII began their fateful relationship after he took over the Western provinces. During this period, he began to live openly with Cleopatra and eventually married her although he did not immediately divorce Octavia, his Roman wife which was resented by the Roman people and helped erode much of Antony's support with the public and the Senate. Octavianus capitalized on the situation by reading a supposed copy of Antony's will which gave much of his control to Cleopatra's children. Regardless of the authenticity of the will, the propaganda worked, and the Senate declared war on Cleopatra and by proxy on Antony as well
Prior to the battle of Actium, Mark Antony took his and Cleopatra's fleet into the Gulf of Ambracia located on the west coast of Greece. In order to guard the entrance to the Gulf Antony used towers on land and a row of ships in the water. Octavianus set up camp on the Northernmost shore of the Gulf across from the Actium promontory. Over the next few months, the two commanders stalemated. Interestingly, a few battles were fought up and down the coast - the most decisive of which was by Agrippa1 who cut off Antony's lines of communication further down the coast.
During this time disunity increased between Antony, his generals, and his wife. Although Antony's generals did not trust either Cleopatra or her armies. Furthermore, they also realized that if she were present, she would act as fuel for Octavianus' propaganda. However, they also argued that if Cleopatra went home many of the Roman senate, the Roman people, and the Roman army would quit their support of Octavianus. In addition, the Roman generals were much more comfortable and experienced with land battles while Cleopatra insisted that Antony had the advantage on the water and should attack by sea. Furthermore, she apparently did not trust her control over Antony unless she was present and thus refused to leave. Finally, Mark Antony agreed to take Cleopatra's advice, fight the naval battle, and take his generals' advice and send Cleopatra home. In earnest, it is a matter of debate exactly when Cleopatra and her ships which made up many of the fleet were to leave, and whether Antony planned to go with them is a matter of debate to this day.
On September 2nd of 31 BC Antony moved out to meet Octavianus. Antony's fleet consisted of massive quinqueremes with bronze plates, while Octavianus' fleet was smaller Liburnian vessels. The quinqueremes had the advantage of height from which to shoot or attack and the advantage of the plates which protected them from ramming while Liburnian ships were much more maneuverable. During this period, the primary nature of Roman naval battles was to maneuver into position to ram the opponent and thus sink their ship. Although since the quinqueremes could not maneuver quickly enough to ram the faster Liburnian ships and the Liburnians could not do much damage even if they did ram the plated quinqueremes the battle progressed more as a land battle than a standard sea battle.
Antony's ships rowed out in two wings where Octavianus' ships were gathered at the entrance to the Gulf. Antony tried to flank Octavianus' right, but the sudden move threw his own center into confusion. When Octavianus' center took advantage of the confusion the fighting grew heavy. All day the unusual battle progressed with the land tactics of arrows and spears being fired back and forth without much chance of tangible gain. Late in the afternoon, Cleopatra and her squadron of sixty ships suddenly raised their sails and raced away from the center of the battle to the open ocean.
Antony's reaction has baffled historians for ages. When he saw Cleopatra leaving, Antony immediately left his command ship and followed her with forty of his own ships following. While some scholars have attributed Antony's rash departure to being caught off guard when his lover decided to leave him others have argued that Antony and Cleopatra had always secretly planned for him to steal away with her once her ships had the opportunity to break free. Although, what is certain is that a quarter of Antony's fleet left without warning in the middle of the battle leaving the remainder of his fleet to their doom. By the end of the day, the Antonian forces had lost 5000 lives and 300 ships. Octavianus no longer had an enemy capable of contending with him on the sea. A week later when all hope of Antony's return was lost, Antony's land forces surrendered as well.
After a year, as Octavianus' troops closed in on him, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra was captured by Octavianus but rather than face the certain humiliation of being paraded through the streets of Rome she had a servant smuggle an asp into her quarters and committed suicide. In less than three years after the battle, Octavianus, now called Augustus Caesar, declared himself emperor.
1.) One of Octavianus' Generals
"Actium: Rome's Fate In the Balance" by Barry Porter: Military History Magazine, Aug. 1997
"The Life and Times of Cleopatra" by Arthur Weigall, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1924
[Edited by Hannah Holbert, 2023]