Battle of Actium Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Actium established the Roman Empire by ending the lengthy Roman civil wars with the victory of Augustus over Marc Antony and Cleopatra.

Summary of Event

In the decade following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 b.c.e., a political struggle developed between Marc Antony and Augustus. Alternately rivals for power and reluctant allies, they became bitter enemies after Antony in 34 b.c.e. openly attached himself to Cleopatra VII, thus repudiating his legal wife, who was Augustus’s sister. In Italy, Augustus’s supporters excoriated Antony for his liaison with Cleopatra and published a purported will of Antony deposited with the Vestal Virgins by which Antony donated eastern territories to Cleopatra and her children. In 32 b.c.e., the two consuls and three hundred senators went east to join Antony, thus terminating negotiations between him and Augustus. Antony, Marc Augustus Cleopatra VII Agrippa, Marcus Vipsanius

Antony had recruited a heterogeneous army, variously estimated from forty thousand to a hundred thousand men, and Augustus raised an Italian force almost as large. Battle strategy eventually depended on navies, with Augustus’s admiral Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa the most experienced commander at sea. Antony’s fleet, perhaps at first slightly greater in size, was composed of larger, slower ships, some of his “sea castles” having eight or ten banks of oars.

In the mid-winter of 31 b.c.e., Agrippa sailed from Italy across the Ionian Sea and, after establishing Epirus as his base, began seizing important strong points along the Greek coast. At about the same time, Antony had moved his forces forward to block Agrippa’s eastward advance. Antony’s fleet was stationed in the Gulf of Ambracia (now Arta) with the army occupying a fortified camp on the nearby sandy promontory of Actium, one of the two peninsulas that pointed toward each other across the mouth of the gulf. Augustus, arriving with the remainder of his forces, seized Corinth and other strategic inland positions, then occupied the northern peninsula of the gulf. Through skillful use of his cavalry, he severed Antony’s communications with the interior, and when the fleet under Agrippa sealed the Gulf of Ambracia, Antony’s forces were effectively blockaded. Soon, they began to suffer from hunger and disease. Significant desertions and lowered morale now impelled Antony to act.

In a council held in Antony’s camp on September 1, 31 b.c.e., his officers were divided over strategy. A Roman faction advocated retreat by land; Cleopatra with some supporters favored a naval attack or an escape to Egypt. Although Antony’s enigmatic aims and actions are variously reported by later historians, it seems less likely that Antony wanted a showdown by naval action than that he hoped to break out of the blockade in order to fight later in a more favorable situation. Any ships he may have burned were probably unusable. All records agree that he left some of his troops ashore to retreat by an inland route and that he kept aboard his ships the masts and sails, which were ordinarily jettisoned before action, in order to allow his fleet either to escape if the battle went against it or else pursue its defeated enemy.

The following day’s battle was a chaotic imbroglio, shrouded from modern view in conflicting accounts. Antony’s ships advanced through the narrow exit from the gulf, aligned so as to take advantage of an expected shift in the wind at midday. The Caesarian fleet blocked their passage. One squadron of sixty ships under Cleopatra was placed in the rear, carrying the treasure chest that undoubtedly belonged to her more than to Antony. After several hours of tense inactivity, one wing of Antony’s fleet was drawn into conflict, forcing Antony to commit the remainder of his forces. His soldiers aboard the large ships hurled missiles and shot arrows into Augustus’s smaller vessels, which attempted to ram or surround and capture their clumsy opponents.

Suddenly, at the height of the conflict, when a breeze rose from the northwest, Cleopatra’s reserve squadron hoisted purple sails and moved through the battle line, in evident flight southward. Although Antony’s flagship was entrapped, he transferred to a smaller ship and with a small portion of his fleet followed Cleopatra. The historian Plutarch vividly portrays the gloom of defeat on the escaping ships.

Abandoned by their leader, the remnants of Antony’s fleet backed into the gulf. More than five thousand men had been killed or drowned. Augustus and Agrippa made little attempt to pursue Antony; instead, they kept their ships at sea to bottle up the enemy and thus prevented further escape. Within about a week, the ships and soldiers left behind by Antony surrendered. Augustus claimed to have captured three hundred vessels.

Significance

The Battle of Actium remains one that is difficult to reconstruct and even more difficult to understand. The conflicting accounts of the battle can be interpreted either as evidence of Antony’s determination to fight a serious, climactic naval battle with Augustus or as an attempt to break Augustus’s blockade in order to return to Egypt. Once there, Antony and Cleopatra could have reinforced their army, resupplied their navy, and either seized the initiative or waited for Augustus to attack them at their strongest point.

The Battle of Actium.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Scholars who favor the decisive battle theory generally suggest that Antony attempted to turn one flank of Augustus’s fleet, but that Agrippa, a solider with a first-class military mind, skillfully countered the thrust with his smaller, more maneuverable ships. As the battle unfolded, Antony’s fleet began to retire in some disorder, while a gap opened in Augustus’s line. Seeing the battle was going against Antony, Cleopatra fled through this gap with her ships and Antony followed.

Those who support the breakout hypothesis read the same evidence, generally the accounts of the ancient historians Plutarch and Dio Cassius, in their favor. According to this view, Antony realized that his outnumbered and blockaded fleet had no real chance of defeating Augustus and Agrippa. Therefore, he feigned an attack at one point of the line in order to open the gap through which his key units—including the ships carrying his war chest—could escape.

Whatever theory is accepted, the Battle of Actium was a decisive engagement, with profound and lasting impact on Roman and world history. Antony and Cleopatra returned to Egypt, where some final desperate expedients were contemplated but not effectively carried out. The next year, Augustus came to Egypt, where he met little resistance and precipitated the romanticized suicides of both Antony and Cleopatra. The civil wars and the Republic were at an end, for Augustus was now the undisputed ruler of the Mediterranean world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Peter. Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. The political, social, and cultural undercurrents that pitted the Latin west against the Greek east during the final phases of the Roman Civil War are admirably expounded, clearly revealing the divergence of the Roman and Alexandrian worldviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gurval, Robert Alan. Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. An examination of the Battle of Actium and how it is portrayed in literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, William M., and Photios M. Petsas. Octavian’s Campsite Memorial for the Actian War. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1989. Although this volume has archaeology as its main focus, it does provide an interesting and insightful review of the battle itself and its consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, G. W. “Actium.” The Journal of Roman Studies 27 (1937): 153-164. Accepts the traditional historical version of the battle that holds that Antony was attempting an escape, rather than a pitched battle, at Actium.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodgers, William. Greek and Roman Naval Warfare: A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis to Actium. Annapolis, Md.: U.S. Naval Institute, 1964. The volume as a whole places the battle within the general context of ancient naval warfare, while the specific sections on Actium are detailed and informative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tarn, W. W. “The Battle of Actium.” The Journal of Roman Studies 21 (1931): 173-199. Takes the view that Antony planned to fight a decisive battle at Actium but was betrayed by disloyal or disheartened elements within his own forces. Tarn explains Cleopatra’s “flight” as a valiant but failed attempt to bolster Antony’s battle line.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa; Marc Antony; Augustus; Cleopatra VII. Actium, Battle of (31 b.c.e.)

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