Battle of Actium (31 BCE) was a decisive battle in the civil war between Octavian and Antonius and the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra who supported him.
The civil war that continued after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE was extremely devastating for the Roman state. The united forces of the three triumvirs: Mark Lepidus, Mark Antony and Octavian August destroyed the Republican army: Mark Brutus and Gaius Cassius in the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE
In the empire, only the triumvirs dealt with the main cards. As it turned out, however, three ambitious men could not rule one state body together. Marcus Lepidus was the first to lose his influence. In 36 BCE, Octavian won over to his side the army of Lepidus, who was deprived of all influence and who lost all office except the position of the high priest (Pontifex Maximus). There are only two triumvirs left on the stage.
At that time, in the east, Mark Antony waged an unsuccessful war with the Parthians. The unsuccessful struggles in the east were fully compensated by the successes of Octavian, who conquered Panonia in 35 BCE and successfully completed the mission in Dalmatia the following year. In addition, Antony married (according to Egyptian custom) the queen of Egypt Cleopatra VII and divorced Octavian’s sister, Octavia, which was widely criticized in Rome. From then on, the triumvirs broke off contact with each other and began to pursue an increasingly aggressive policy.
Octavian, having great influence in Rome, persuaded the Vestals to give him Antony’s will, which showed that he bequeathed some eastern provinces to his and Cleopatra’s children, including Caesarion, son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. In addition, the Senate at the end of 32 BCE officially deprived Antony of consular power and declared war on the Cleopatra regime. These facts led to another civil war.
Mark Antony tried to take the initiative into his own hands, wanting to invade Italy, but at the end of 32 BCE, Agrippa’s large fleet in the Mediterranean Sea forced him to abandon the plan. He withdrew for the winter to the Greek city of Patrae, and his fleet docked in the Ambracian Bay. Then Octavian came out with the initiative of a peaceful settlement of the conflict and organizing a conference, which Antony, however, strongly rejected.
The following months of 31 BCE passed without major events or direct clashes. Marcus Agrippa – Octavian’s friend and commander – led smaller raids on Greek ports, and Octavian landed with his army north of Antony’s camp. Antony waited for the support of his other Mediterranean units, but under the influence of Cleopatra, he decided to withdraw his main forces to Egypt and put the remaining troops in strongly fortified centres.
Hearing about these plans, August decided to block the way for Antony and Cleopatra at the exit from the Gulf.
Octavian’s forces consisted of about 400 warships, 20,000 marines and 40,000 heavy infantry. Naval fleet Octavian was mostly light units – liburna, which were much less effective than three-row and four-row ships Antony. However, August’s lightships were very manoeuvrable and fast, which made it easier to command and form lines. In addition, in a huge crush, it was much easier for them to manoeuvre and squeeze between the huge three- and four-row of Antony.
Antony and Cleopatra’s forces are around 170 large turreted warships and 60 Cleopatra units. About 20,000 soldiers, 2,000 archers and 19 legions on land were embarked on the ships. In theory, Mark Antony had a staggering 100,000 troops on land, but it is worth noting that they were spread all over the east, from Greece to Egypt, so there were probably about 40,000-foot soldiers ready for the Battle of Actium.
Antony’s plan was relatively simple, he wanted to use his strongest part of the fleet to hit the centre and break through the enemy line. Then, having sailed to Egypt, he would have gathered his legions scattered throughout the east and given Octavian a major battle in his territory.
Plutarch of Chaeronea reports that one of Antony’s centurions opposed the idea of naval combat. The soldier was to address the commander with these words:
Imperator, why dost thou distrust these wounds and this sword and put thy hopes in miserable logs of wood? Let Egyptians and Phoenicians do their fighting at sea, but give us land, on which we are accustomed to stand and either conquer our enemies or die.
– Plutarch from Cheronea, Antony, 64
Before the battle, Quintus Dellius deserted from Antony’s camp, who handed over the battle plans to Octavian.
On the morning of September 2, 31 BCE, the two armies lined up ahead of each other in preparation for the greatest naval battle of antiquity. Octavian’s fleet was positioned to the west, blocking the escape route. The young general took command of the right wing, while the left-wing was surrendered to the perfect admiral Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Arruncius commanded the centre.
Antony and Gallius Publola commanded his right wing, entrusted the centre to Marcus Octavius and Marcus Insteius, and the left flank to admiral Gaius Sosius. Behind the front lines was a fleet of 60 Cleopatra units that contained all the queen’s wealth. It was supposed to break through enemy lines after Antony’s attack.
Neither side was eager to attack and merely watched each other. After a long waiting time, Octavian gave the order to pass the enemy ships on the right, which Antony took as an attempt to encircle him and decided to attack.
The battle began at 12 o’clock. Antony moved with his right wing, hoping that Celius would draw his son Caesar into the fight, which would breach enemy lines. However, Octavian withdrew and lured Celius into the open waters. Soon all the lines started fighting. Agrippa ordered his liburna to avoid close contact with Antony’s larger ships. Instead, light units were to circle around two or three larger enemy units, cover the decks of enemy units with a cloud of arrows and ballistae, and retreat to a safe distance. It should also be noted that Octavian’s fleet was much better trained and more rested than Antony’s crew.
Despite the efforts of Octavian’s much larger, though weaker, fleet, a breach appeared in the centre of his ranks, which Cleopatra immediately took advantage of. At the head of 60 Egyptian units, she moved in this direction, breaking into the open sea. Antony also decided to flee, believing Cleopatra was fleeing the battlefield in panic. He jumped from his ship to a smaller vessel and, following Cleopatra, set off for Egypt. The rest of Antony’s fleet also tried to get out of the fight, which only 80 ships managed to do, the rest were surrounded. Some of the remaining ships fiercely defended themselves, but in the end, decided to surrender and vow to obey Octavian. The sea battle ended at 4 p.m., however, Octavian’s army was engaged in rescuing survivors from burning ships of the enemy army.
On land, the commander of Antony’s army, Canidius Crassus, besieged by Octavian’s legions led by Titus Statylius Taurus, escaped under cover of night. Antony’s legions deprived of command decided to join the young general’s army, ensuring Octavian a complete victory in the region.
The great victory of the young general was not only completed with the capture of Cleopatra and Antony, so he decided to go to Egypt as soon as possible and finally defeat his rival. His unexpected arrival at Alexandria in the summer at the head of a strong army took Antony by surprise. Seeing no chances of victory with Octavian’s legions, Antony’s legionaries deserted and went to the side of the young leader.
Mark Antony, seeing no chance of winning, committed suicide, and Cleopatra did the same later. Octavian, after many years, finally ended the civil war that had “torn” Rome for years. He himself was proclaimed princeps by the Senate, gained the title of Augustus, and took control of Egypt and all its wealth, establishing it as a Roman province. For the gold of Egypt, he could pay his soldiers’ overdue wages and award him a bonus, for which he gained great popularity. His long rule was to bring Rome a time of peace and administrative reforms that greatly improved the state.