Rivalry, power-plays, one of the world’s most legendary love affairs . . . Add a decisive naval battle into that mix, and you’ve got history in overdrive: a crucial turning point in the saga of ancient Rome—and the sea fight that determined its destiny.
The game-of-thrones struggle that culminated in the Battle of Actium, fought off western Greece in the Ionian Sea on 2 September 31 BC, had begun 13 years earlier, in the city of Rome, where senators gathered on 15 March 44 BC and put the daggers to Julius Caesar. The assassination of the dictator led to a power vacuum, and politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. By the 30s BC, the main contenders for the coveted Caesarean mantle had come down to two men: Mark Antony—a relative, ally, and former general of Caesar’s; and Octavian—the great-nephew and adopted son of Caesar. Antony ruled in the East, Octavian in the West.
Both Antony and Octavian had their ties to Caesar—and they also had ties to one another: Antony was married to Octavian’s sister. But Antony also happened to have a torrid thing going with that celebrated temptress of antiquity (a former lover of Caesar’s, actually): Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.
When Antony went so far as to divorce Octavian’s sister in favor of the femme fatale of the Nile, suffice it to say that this did not go over too swimmingly with his erstwhile brother-in-law Octavian.
Things heated up from there: Antony declared that Cleopatra’s son, allegedly sired by Caesar himself back in the day, was the true heir apparent to Roman rule—and that Alexandria, Egypt, henceforth would be the Roman capital. Such a brazen pronouncement riled the public back home, the Senate swore their allegiance to Octavian, and Octavian went to war.
By the summer of 31 BC, he had Antony and Cleopatra trapped on the Greek coast at Actium. Octavian’s fleet had Antony’s 500-ship navy bottled up in the harbor, with its supply lines cut off from Egypt. With Antony’s forces pinned, Octavian was able to ferry troops across the Adriatic to make a go at Antony by land.
As food shortages and disease debilitated his soldiers and sailors, and as chunks of his army started to desert and go over to Octavian’s side, Antony realized the noose was tightening, and he and Cleopatra made plans for a breakout by sea. On the morning of 2 September, after being stalled by several days of foul weather, they made for the open water, Antony in the vanguard with his towering war galleys, Cleopatra bringing up the rear with a squadron of treasure-laden transport ships. Octavian’s fleet was arrayed and ready.
Antony’s quinqeremes were fearsome platforms for catapults, archers, and spearmen; Octavian’s smaller galleys were more maneuverable, faster, nimbler, propelled by skilled rowers who could get in close, smash away the enemy’s banks of oars, then get back out with alacrity. The fighting first erupted on the flanks, the rival fleets grappling in close-quarters combat, Octavian’s ships trying to circle and contain Antony’s ships to keep them from escaping. For each one of Antony’s behemoth ships, Plutarch recounted, there would be four of Octavian’s, “pressing them with spears, javelins, poles, and several inventions of fire, which they flung among them, Antony’s men using catapults also, to pour down missiles from wooden towers.” As the fighting pulled ships toward the flanks, a gap began to open in the center of the line. Cleopatra seized the moment.
Shooting the gap with her treasure ships in train, she made a run for it. Antony spied her fleeing—and abandoned the fight (and his fighters) to chase after her.
As Roman historian Velleius Paterculus recorded, “Antony chose to be the companion of the fleeing queen rather than of his fighting soldiers, and the commander whose duty it would have been to deal severely with deserters, now became a deserter from his own army. Even without their chief, his men long continued to fight bravely, and despairing of victory, they fought to the death.” Death followed for the doomed lovers as well. The world was closing in on them, and by the following year, they both had committed suicide.
They were not alone in having come to their sad end. For as the timbers of Antony’s destroyed fleet scattered across the waves of the Ionian Sea, it marked the demise of the Roman Republic, and the birth of the Roman Empire.
And as for the victor of Actium, Octavian? The world soon would know him as Caesar Augustus—the first Emperor of Rome.
John M. Carter, The Battle of Actium: The Rise & Triumph of Augustus Caesar (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1970).
Valleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, Frederick W. Shipley, transl. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924), 227–33.
Plutarch, “The Life of Antony,” in Plutarch’s Lives, John Dryden, transl. (New York: Modern Library, 1969), 1139–43.
VADM William Ledyard Rogers, USN (Ret.), Greek and Roman Naval Warfare (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1937, 1964), 517–38.