Battle of Actium in 31 BC: Causes, Importance, & Frequently Asked Questions

The Battle of Actium, which took place in 31 BC, was a pivotal naval confrontation between the forces of Octavian (later known as Augustus) and the combined might of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII of Egypt. The outcome of this battle had profound implications for the Roman world.

World History Edu takes a detailed look at the causes and importance of the battle:

Summary of the causes

Anachronistic baroque painting of the battle of Actium by Flemish painter Laureys a Castro, 1672

After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Rome was plunged into a series of civil wars. The most prominent figures to emerge from these conflicts were Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and heir; Mark Antony, Caesar’s close ally and a renowned general; and Lepidus. Together, they formed the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC and divided the Roman territories among themselves.

In what historians like to refer to as the Liberators’ Civil War, the political alliance of Antony and Octavian even fought against and defeated the politicians that had a hand in the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

Over time, tensions grew because the young Octavian had started to suspect his political ally’s true intentions. Antony is said to have started making major decisions without consulting Octavian. Perhaps, the final straw came when Antony allied himself with Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII, both romantically and politically.

Image: A bust of Augustus as a younger Octavian, dated ca. 30 BC. Capitoline Museums, Rome

By divorcing his wife Octavia Minor, who was Octavian’s sister, Antony did not have any interest in continuing the political and personal alliance with Octavia.

By 32 BC, Antony-Cleopatra’s relationship and Antony’s actions in the East, including the perceived favoring of Egypt over Rome, were viewed with a great deal of suspicion and used as propaganda by Octavian to paint Antony as a traitor to the Roman cause.

Following Antony’s departure to Egypt to become sort of Caesarion’s stepfather, Octavian managed to convince majority of the Senate to see Antony as siding with Cleopatra to not only destabilize Rome but to also bring Rome under his control. Anthony and the Egyptian queen desired nothing more than to establish Caesarion (Cleopatra and Julius Caesar’s son) as the true heir of Caesar. This explains why Caesarion was bestowed upon the title “King of the Kings” in 34 BC.

A Roman bust of Mark Antony

The political and personal rift between Octavian and Antony grew, leading to a declaration of war, not directly against Antony, but against Cleopatra, the foreign queen who was seen as corrupting him.

Antony – who had served as Julius Caesar’s highest ranked lieutenant (i.e. magister equitum – Master of the Horse) – had significantly more share of Caesar’s army and support of the veterans. On the other hand, Octavian had the loyalty of his legions. Being the sole legitimate heir of Caesar, Octavian benefited politically from the legacy of the deceased Roman dictator.

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How Mark Antony’s alleged will caused a huge uproar in Rome

As a part of this power struggle, Octavian’s general Agrippa in 32 BC captured Methone, which was a town allied to Antony. This was a clear show of aggression and a sign that full-blown conflict was inevitable.

Antony’s will, obtained by Lucius Munatius Plancus and shared with Octavian, revealed details that were politically damaging to Antony, particularly concerning his relationships and commitments to Cleopatra and her children. By making the details of this will public, Octavian aimed to turn Roman public opinion against Antony.

Octavian also highlighted the military preparations Antony was making in Samos in partnership with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. This played into the narrative that Antony was not acting in Rome’s best interest but was rather being influenced or even controlled by Cleopatra.

With public sentiment against Antony due to these revelations and the narrative Octavian had built, it was easy for Octavian to have Antony removed from the consulship of 31 BC, a position Antony had been designated for. This was a significant blow to Antony’s political power and prestige in Rome.

Antony and Cleopatra (1883) by Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicting Mark Antony’s meeting with Cleopatra in 41 BC.

Events of the battle

Octavian cleverly targeted Cleopatra with the declaration of war, rather than Antony directly. By doing this, he framed the conflict as one of Rome against a foreign threat (Cleopatra) rather than a civil war. However, everyone understood that a war against Cleopatra was essentially a war against Antony.

With the Senate’s declaration of war, Antony was stripped of any remaining legal authority. This left him in a position where he was effectively an enemy of the state.

The battle began with Antony’s fleet sailing out of the Ambracian Gulf, possibly intending to break free from the blockade set by Agrippa and escape to open sea.

Agrippa used the superior maneuverability of his ships to great advantage, flanking Antony’s fleet and causing damage.

During the battle, Cleopatra’s squadron, with her treasure ships, broke through the lines and fled, likely sensing the impending defeat. Antony, seeing this, abandoned the battle to follow her, a move that demoralized his remaining forces.

With their commander gone and facing Agrippa’s tactics, the remainder of Antony’s fleet was defeated.

Aftermath of Actium

The loss at Actium severely weakened Antony and Cleopatra. They fled back to Egypt.

Octavian pursued them, and in 30 BC (at the Battle of Alexandria), both Antony and Cleopatra met tragic ends, with Antony falling on his sword and Cleopatra reportedly committing suicide by the bite of an asp. The Egyptian ruler died on August 12, 30 BC. Her death in effect brought an end to the Ptolemaic dynasty that had ruled Egypt for almost three centuries. Egypt thus became a Roman province – Roman Egypt.

It must be noted a significant portion of Antony’s forces fled before engaging in battle with Octavian. This spoke to a number of potential issues. There could have been problems of morale, loyalty, or confidence in leadership. Troops might desert or flee if they believe they are on the losing side, if they lack faith in their commanders, or if they are not well-supplied or paid.

Without the support of his forces, Antony would be in a vulnerable position, reducing his chances of success against Octavian. The Death of Mark Antony by Thomas Watson, 1780

Importance of the battle

Location of Actium

The battle led to the complete defeat of the combined forces of Mark Antony, one of Rome’s top military leaders, and Cleopatra, the influential and wealthy queen of Egypt. Their loss meant the end of their political and military challenge to Octavian.

Here’s a detailed overview of its importance:

End of the Roman Republic

Combined with the Battle of Alexandria a year later (in August 30 BC), The Battle of Actium can be seen as the final nail in the coffin of the Roman Republic.

With Octavian’s victory, the power struggles that had plagued the late Republic were essentially settled, paving the way for Octavian to consolidate power and transform the Roman state from a republic to an empire, with himself as the first Emperor, taking the title “Augustus” in 27 BC. Prior to that he had been given the title princeps senatus, which means “first man or head of the senate”. His full and official title was thus Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, with Divi filius meaning “son of the deified one”.

Rome’s annexation of Egypt

With Antony and Cleopatra’s subsequent deaths after the battle, Egypt, an ancient and wealthy kingdom, became a Roman province. This allowed Octavian (Augustus) to control the vast wealth of Egypt, particularly the grain supply, which was crucial for feeding the city of Rome.

Pax Romana

Following the battle, Augustus used his victory as a significant piece of propaganda, emphasizing how he saved Rome from the perceived threat of Eastern influence and decadence that Antony and Cleopatra represented.

The victory at Actium and the subsequent consolidation of power by Augustus marked the beginning of the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace and stability throughout the Mediterranean world that would last for over two centuries. This era was characterized by significant architectural, cultural, and literary achievements.

Did you know…?

While at Samos, an island in the Aegean Sea, before the final showdown at the Battle of Alexandria in 30 BC, Octavian received a proposal from Cleopatra. She sent a gold crown and throne to the young Roman general, offering to abdicate in favor of her sons. The Egyptian queen’s position at the time had become very precarious. The outreach to Octavian was a political maneuver, aiming to secure a safer future for her progeny in case Antony’s position was undermined.

City of Victory

Following his victory, Octavian (later known as Augustus) wanted to memorialize his victory at the War of Actium. As a result, he founded the city of Nicopolis. The name “Nicopolis” is derived from Greek words, with “Niko” meaning “victory” and “polis” meaning “city”. Hence, the name of the city translates to “City of Victory”, reflecting the significance of Octavian’s triumph at Actium.

Nicopolis was strategically located on the southernmost promontory of Epirus, opposite the site of the Battle of Actium, at the entrance of the Ambracian Gulf. By founding the city near the site of his victory, Octavian ensured that the legacy of the battle and its importance would be remembered.

From the captured ships of Antony, Octavian ordered the construction of bronze monument at the site where he made camp just before the Battle of Actium.

Answers to Popular Questions about the Battle of Actium

With Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat, Octavian became the uncontested ruler of Rome, marking the beginning of the Roman Empire and his eventual ascendancy as its first emperor, Augustus. Image: Augustus as Roman pharaoh in an Egyptian-style depiction, a stone carving of the Kalabsha Temple in Nubia

When and where did the battle occur?

The battle took place on September 2, 31 BC near the promontory of Actium in western Greece. Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet was large and heavily armed, while Octavian’s fleet, commanded by his general and close friend Marcus Agrippa, was smaller but more maneuverable.

Why did Mark Antony prefer a naval battle?

Antony’s decision to fight at sea, rather than on land where he had a stronger base, has been a subject of historical debate. One possibility is that he hoped a naval victory would break Octavian’s control of the sea routes and open a way to Italy.

What was the size of their armies?

Mark Antony had about 500 ships and a ground force of around 65,000 infantry. This highlights his significant naval strength, with a substantial fleet that included many larger, heavily-armed warships. He set up his base at Actium, a location on the western coast of Greece. This became the primary site of the forthcoming naval battle.

Octavian had fewer ships, about 400 in total, but a larger land force of 75,000 infantry. This indicates Octavian’s emphasis on a balanced approach between naval and land forces. The young Roman general approached from the north and took control of important locations like Patrae and Corinth. Both cities are strategically positioned in the Peloponnese, with Corinth in particular being a vital link between mainland Greece and the Peloponnesian peninsula.

Octavian’s occupation of Corinth played a crucial role. Given Corinth’s location, it allowed Octavian, especially with the assistance of his key general Marcus Agrippa, to cut off Antony’s communications and supply routes to Egypt in the south. Egypt, ruled by Cleopatra, was Antony’s key ally and a major source of supplies and reinforcements.

Antony and Cleopatra commanded a large fleet, with many heavy quinqueremes (types of large ancient warships), and were backed by a sizable land force stationed on the coast.. Image: The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

What were some of the tactics used in the battle?

The tactics and strategies employed during the battle had lasting implications for naval warfare.

Octavian’s admiral, Agrippa, effectively utilized smaller and more maneuverable ships, demonstrating the importance of agility and strategy over sheer size and firepower in naval conflicts.

Before the main battle, Agrippa had been applying pressure on Antony’s fleet, cutting off supply routes and ensuring that Antony’s ships were confined to the Gulf of Actium. This tactic made it challenging for Antony’s larger fleet to maneuver effectively and limited their access to fresh supplies.

One of the innovations that Agrippa’s fleet utilized was a type of grappling hook called the “harpax.” When fired from a ballista, this device would latch onto enemy ships, preventing them from breaking away. Octavian’s swifter ships would then close in and board the enemy vessels, turning the naval battle into a series of hand-to-hand combat scenarios where the Roman legions excelled.

Antony’s fleet consisted of larger, heavily armed warships known as quinqueremes and even bigger vessels. These ships had significant firepower and were designed to break through enemy formations with their heavy rams.

Cleopatra’s fleet, which was held in reserve behind Antony’s main line, saw an opening in Octavian’s formation and decided to retreat through it. This move has been a subject of debate among historians. Some argue it was a pre-planned escape route, while others believe it was a spontaneous decision. Antony, seeing Cleopatra’s ships leaving, made the fateful choice to follow her, abandoning his fleet.

Who were some of the leading commanders in the battle?

The main players in this battle were two powerful political and military coalitions, and each side had notable commanders:

Octavian’s Side:

  • Octavian (later known as Augustus): While he was the chief political and military figure on his side, Octavian was not primarily known for his direct military prowess or tactics. Instead, he relied on key commanders to oversee the actual combat.
  • Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa: Arguably the most skilled and trusted of Octavian’s military commanders, Agrippa was the primary architect behind the naval tactics and strategies that led to Octavian’s victory at Actium. He was instrumental in several of Octavian’s military successes and is often credited as the main reason for Octavian’s victory at Actium due to his naval expertise.

Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s Side:

  • Mark Antony: A seasoned military commander with a storied career, Antony was one of the leading generals under Julius Caesar and had vast experience in both land and naval warfare. However, some decisions he made during the Battle of Actium, including retreating following Cleopatra’s exit, have been subjects of debate among historians.
  • Cleopatra VII: The last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra provided significant financial and naval support to Antony’s forces. While she was present at the battle with her own fleet, her direct role in the command structure of the battle is not entirely clear. Her decision to leave the battle with her fleet had a significant impact on the outcome and Antony’s subsequent decisions.
  • Gaius Sosius: He was one of Antony’s key supporters and had been appointed as one of the consuls in Rome before he joined Antony in the East. He played a role in the battle as one of Antony’s admirals.

Why did some of Antony’s commanders and units defect to Octavian’s side?

The morale and loyalty of Antony’s forces were questionable. Octavian and Agrippa capitalized on this by spreading rumors and employing propaganda, painting Antony as a traitor to Rome due to his relationship with Cleopatra, an “Eastern” queen. The defection of several of Antony’s commanders and units during the battle can, in part, be attributed to this successful psychological warfare.

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