The Battle of
Actium was the decisive confrontation of the Final War
of the Roman Republic, a naval engagement between
Octavian and the
combined forces of
Mark Antony and
Cleopatra on 2 September 31 BC, on
Ionian Sea near the promontory of Actium, in the Roman province of
Epirus Vetus in Greece. Octavian's fleet was commanded by Marcus
Vipsanius Agrippa, while Antony's fleet was supported by the power of
Cleopatra of Ptolemaic Egypt.
Octavian's victory enabled him to consolidate his power over Rome and
its dominions. He adopted the title of
Princeps ("first citizen") and
some years later was awarded the title of
Augustus ("revered") by the
Roman Senate. This became the name by which he was known in later
times. As Augustus, he retained the trappings of a restored Republican
leader, but historians generally view this consolidation of power and
the adoption of these honorifics as the end of the
Roman Republic and
the beginning of the Roman Empire.
2.1 Order of battle
4 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Further information: Early life of
Cleopatra VII and Reign of
A Roman bust of the consul and triumvir Mark Antony, Vatican Museums
A reconstructed statue of
Augustus as a younger Octavian, dated ca. 30
The alliance among Octavian,
Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, commonly
known as the Second Triumvirate, was renewed for a five-year term in
38 BC. However, the triumvirate broke down when
Caesarion, the professed son of Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra
VII of Egypt, as a major threat to his power. This
occurred when Mark Antony, the other most influential member of the
triumvirate, abandoned his wife, Octavian's sister Octavia Minor.
Afterwards he moved to Egypt to start a long-term romance with
Cleopatra, becoming the de facto stepfather to Caesarion. Such an
affair was doomed to become a political scandal.
Antony was inevitably perceived by
Octavian and the majority of the
Roman Senate as the leader of a separatist movement that threatened to
break the unity of the Roman Republic.
Ballistae on a Roman ship
Octavian's prestige and, more importantly, the loyalty of his legions
had been initially boosted by Julius Caesar's legacy of 44 BC, by
Octavian was officially adopted as Caesar's only son
and the sole legitimate heir of his enormous wealth. Antony had been
the most important and most successful senior officer in Caesar's army
(magister equitum) and, thanks to his military record, claimed a
substantial share of the political support of Caesar's soldiers and
Octavian and Antony had fought against their common
enemies in the civil war that followed the assassination of Caesar.
After years of loyal cooperation with Octavian, Antony started to act
independently, eventually arousing his rival's suspicion that he was
vying to become sole master of Rome. When he left Octavia Minor and
Alexandria to become Cleopatra's official partner, he led
many Roman politicians to believe that he was trying to become the
unchecked ruler of Egypt and other eastern kingdoms while still
maintaining his command over the many Roman legions in the
East. As a personal challenge to Octavian's prestige,
Antony tried to get
Caesarion accepted as a true heir of Caesar, even
though the legacy did not mention him. Antony and
elevated Caesarion, then 13, to power in 34 BC, giving him the vague
but alarming title of "King of the Kings" (Donations of
Alexandria). Being a son of Caesar, such an entitlement was felt
as a threat to Roman republican traditions. It was
widely believed that Antony had once offered a diadem to
Caesar. Thereafter,
Octavian started a propaganda
war, denouncing Antony as an enemy of Rome, asserting that he was
seeking to establish a personal monarchy over the entire Roman Empire
on behalf of Caesarion, circumventing the Roman Senate.[citation
needed] It was also said that Antony intended to move the capital of
the empire to Alexandria.
Second Triumvirate formally expired on the last day of 33 BC,
Antony wrote to the Senate that he did not wish to be reappointed. He
hoped that he might be regarded by them as their champion against the
ambition of Octavian, whom he presumed would not be willing to abandon
his position in a similar manner. The causes of
mutual dissatisfaction between the two had been accumulating. Antony
Octavian had exceeded his powers in deposing Lepidus,
in taking over the countries held by
Sextus Pompeius and in enlisting
soldiers for himself without sending half to him.
that Antony had no authority to be in Egypt; that his execution of
Sextus Pompeius was illegal; that his treachery to the king of Armenia
disgraced the Roman name; that he had not sent half the proceeds of
the spoils to Rome according to his agreement; and that his connection
Cleopatra and the acknowledgment of
Caesarion as a legitimate son
of Caesar were a degradation of his office and a menace to himself.
During 32 BC one-third of the Senate and both consuls allied with
Antony. The consuls had determined to conceal the extent of Antony's
demands. Gnaeus Ahenobarbus seems to have wished to keep quiet, but
Gaius Sosius on 1 January made an elaborate speech in favor of Antony,
and would have proposed the confirmation of his act had it not been
vetoed by a tribune.
Octavian was not present, but at the next meeting
made a reply of such a nature that both consuls left Rome to join
Antony; Antony, when he heard of it, after publicly divorcing Octavia,
came at once to
Ephesus with Cleopatra, where a vast fleet was
gathered from all parts of the East, of which
Cleopatra furnished a
large proportion. After staying with his allies at Samos, Antony
moved to Athens. His land forces, which had been in Armenia, came down
to the coast of Asia and embarked under L. Canidius Crassus.
Octavian was not behind in his strategic preparations. Military
operations began in 31 BC, when his general Agrippa captured Methone,
a Greek town allied to Antony. However, by the publication of Antony's
will, which had been put into his hands by the traitor
Plancus and by
carefully letting it be known in Rome what preparations were going on
Samos and how entirely Antony was acting as the agent of Cleopatra,
Octavian produced such a violent outburst of feeling that he easily
obtained Antony's deposition from the consulship of 31 BC, for which
Antony had been designated. In addition to the deposition, Octavian
procured a vote for a proclamation of war against Cleopatra—well
understood to mean against Antony, though he was not named. In
doing this the Senate issued a war declaration and deprived Antony of
any legal authority.
Antony meant to anticipate an attack by a descent upon Italy towards
the end of 32 BC, and went as far as Corcyra. However, finding the sea
guarded by a squadron of Octavian's ships, he retired to winter at
Patrae while his fleet for the most part lay in the
Ambracian Gulf and
his land forces encamped near the promontory of Actium, while the
opposite side of the narrow strait into the
Ambracian Gulf was
protected by a tower and troops.
After Octavian's proposals for a conference with Antony had been
scornfully rejected, both sides prepared for the struggle the next
year. The early months passed without notable event, beyond some
successes of Agrippa on the coasts of Greece, meant to divert Antony's
attention. It was not until the latter part of August that troops were
landed in the neighborhood of Antony's camp on the north side of the
strait. Still, Antony could not be tempted out. It took some months
for his full strength to arrive from the various places in which his
allies or his ships had wintered, and during these months not only was
Agrippa continuing his descent upon Greek towns and coasts but in
various cavalry skirmishes
Octavian had so far prevailed, so that
Antony abandoned the north side of the strait and confined his
soldiers to the southern camp.
Cleopatra now earnestly advised that
garrisons should be put into strong towns and that the main fleet
should return to Alexandria. The large contingent furnished by Egypt
gave her advice as much weight as her personal influence over Antony,
and it appears that this movement was agreed to.
Octavian learned of this and debated how to prevent it. At first of a
mind to let Antony sail and then attack him, he was prevailed upon by
Agrippa to give battle. On 1 September he issued an address to his
fleet, preparing them for battle. The next day was wet and the sea was
rough. When the trumpet signal for the start rang out, Antony's fleet
began issuing from the straits and the ships moved into line and
remained quiet. Octavian, after a short hesitation, ordered his
vessels to steer to the right and pass the enemy's ships. For fear of
being surrounded, Antony was forced to give the word to attack.
Order of battle
Order of battle.
The two fleets met outside the Gulf of
Actium (today Preveza) on the
morning of 2 September 31 BC. Antony's fleet numbered 500, of which
230 were large war galleys with towers full of armed men. He led these
through the straits towards the open sea.
Octavian had about 250
warships. His fleet was waiting beyond the straits, led by the
experienced admiral Agrippa, commanding from the left wing of the
Lucius Arruntius the centre and
Marcus Lurius the
right. Titus Statilius Taurus commanded Octavian's armies, and
he observed the battle from shore to the north of the straits. Antony
and Gellius Publicola commanded the right wing of the Antonian fleet,
while Marcus Octavius and Marcus Insteius commanded the center,
with Cleopatra's squadron positioned behind them. Gaius Sosius
launched the initial attack from the left wing of the fleet, while
Antony's chief lieutenant
Publius Canidius Crassus
Publius Canidius Crassus was in command of
the triumvir's land forces.
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It is estimated that Antony had around 140 ships, as opposed to the
260 ships of Octavian's fleet. What Antony lacked in quantity was made
up for in quality (of vessel), as his ships were mainly the standard
Roman warship, quinqueremes with smaller quadriremes, heavier and
wider than Octavian's, making them ideal weapon platforms.
Antony's personal flag ship, like those of his admirals, was a "ten".
An "eight" war galley had around 200 heavy marines, archers and at
least six ballista catapults. Being larger than Octavian's ships,
Antony's war galleys were very difficult to board in close combat and
his troops were able to rain down missiles onto their smaller and
lower opponent's ships. The bows of the galleys were armored with
bronze plates and square-cut timbers, making a successful ramming
attack with similar equipment difficult. The only way to disable such
a ship was to smash its oars, rendering it immobile and, hopefully,
isolated from the rest of its fleet. The main weakness of Antony's
ships was their lack of maneuverability; such a ship, once isolated
from support of its fleet, could be swamped with boarding attacks.
However, many of his ships were undermanned with rowing crews; there
had been a severe malaria outbreak while they were waiting for
Octavian's fleet to arrive.
Octavian's fleet was largely made up of smaller "Liburnian"
vessels. His ships, although smaller, were still manageable in the
heavy surf and could outmaneuver Antony's ships, get in close, attack
the above-deck crew with a shower of arrows and ballista-launched
stones and retreat. Moreover, his crews were better-trained,
professional, well fed and rested. A medium ballista was capable of
penetrating the sides of most warships at close range and had an
effective range of around 200 yards. Most ballista firing was aimed at
the marines on the fighting decks of the ships.
Before the battle one of Antony's generals, Quintus Dellius, had
defected to Octavian, bringing with him Antony's battle plans.
Shortly after midday, Antony was forced to extend his line from the
protection of the shore and finally engage the enemy. Seeing this,
Octavian's fleet put to sea. Antony had hoped to use his biggest ships
to drive back Agrippa's wing on the north end of his line, but
Octavian's entire fleet, aware of this strategy, stayed out of range.
By about noon the fleets were in formation but
Octavian refused to be
drawn out, so Antony was forced to attack. The battle raged all
afternoon without decisive result.
Cleopatra's fleet, in the rear, retreated to the open sea without
engaging. A breeze sprang up in the right direction and the Egyptian
ships were soon hurrying out of sight. Lange argues that Antony
would have been fighting with victory within reach if it were not for
Antony had not observed the signal, and believing that it was mere
panic and all was lost, followed the flying squadron. The contagion
spread fast; everywhere sails were seen unfurling and towers and other
heavy fighting gear going by the board. Some fought on, and it was not
until long after nightfall, when many a ship was blazing from the
firebrands thrown upon them, that the work was done. Making the
best of the situation, Antony burned the ships he could no longer man
while clustering the remainder tightly together. With many oarsmen
dead or unfit to serve, the powerful, head-on ramming tactic for which
the Octaries had been designed was now impossible. Antony transferred
to a smaller vessel with his flag and managed to escape, taking a few
ships with him as an escort to help break through Octavian's lines.
Those left behind were captured or sunk.
A differing account of the battle is argued by J.M. Carter. He
postulates that Antony knew he was surrounded and had nowhere to run.
To try to turn this to his advantage, he gathered his ships around him
in a quasi-horseshoe formation, staying close to the shore for safety.
Then, should Octavian's ships approach his, the sea would push them
into the shore. Antony foresaw that he would not be able to defeat
Octavian's forces, so he and
Cleopatra stayed in the rear of the
formation. Eventually Antony sent the ships on the northern part of
the formation to attack. He had them move out to the north, spreading
out Octavian's ships, which up until this point were tightly arranged.
Gaius Sosius down to the south to spread the remaining ships
out to the south. This left a hole in the middle of Octavian's
formation. Antony seized the opportunity and, with
Cleopatra on her
ship and him on a different ship, sped through the gap and escaped,
abandoning his entire force.
With the end of the battle,
Octavian exerted himself to save the crews
of the burning vessels and had to spend the whole night on board. The
next day, as much of the land army as had not escaped to their own
lands submitted or were followed in their retreat to Macedonia and
forced to surrender, Antony's camp was occupied, bringing an end to
Further information: Death of Cleopatra
A (restructured) Roman statue of
Cleopatra VII wearing a diadem and
'melon' hairstyle similar to coinage portraits, marble, found near the
Tomba di Nerone, Rome along the Via Cassia, Museo
The political consequences were far-reaching. Under cover of darkness
some 19 legions and 12,000 cavalry fled before Antony was able to
Octavian in a land battle. Thus, after Antony lost his fleet,
his army, which had been equal to that of Octavian, deserted. Antony,
though he had not laid down his imperium, was a fugitive and a rebel
without that shadow of a legal position which the presence of the
consuls and senators had given him in the previous year. Some of the
victorious fleet went in pursuit of him; but
Octavian himself visited
Greece and Asia and spent the winter at Samos; though he was obliged
to go for a short time to Brundisium to settle a mutiny and arrange
for assignations of land.
Octavian received a message from
Cleopatra with the present
of a gold crown and throne, offering to abdicate in favor of her sons.
She was allowed to believe that she would be well treated, for
Octavian was anxious to secure her for his triumph. Antony, who had
found himself generally deserted, after vainly attempting to secure
the army stationed near Paraetonium under Pinarius and sending his
eldest son Antyllus with money to
Octavian and an offer to live at
Athens as a private citizen, found himself in the spring attacked on
two sides. C.
Cornelius Gallus was advancing from Paraetonium and
Octavian landed at Pelusium, with the connivance, it was believed, of
Cleopatra. Antony was defeated by Gallus and, returning to Egypt,
advanced on Pelusium.
Despite a victory at
Alexandria on 31 July 30 BC, more of Antony's men
deserted, leaving him with insufficient forces to fight Octavian. A
slight success over Octavian's tired soldiers encouraged him to make a
general attack, in which he was decisively beaten. Failing to escape
on board a ship, he stabbed himself in the stomach upon mistakenly
believing false rumors propagated by
Cleopatra herself claiming that
she had committed suicide. He did not die at once, and when he
found out that
Cleopatra was still alive, he insisted on being taken
to the mausoleum in which she was hiding, and died in her arms. She
was shortly afterwards brought to the palace and vainly attempted to
Octavian to pity.
Cleopatra killed herself on 12 August 30 BC. Most accounts say she put
an end to her life by the bite of an asp conveyed to her in a basket
Caesarion killed later that month, finally
securing his legacy as Caesar's only 'son'.
Octavian's victory at
Actium gave him sole and uncontested control of
"Mare Nostrum" (Our Sea, i.e., the Roman Mediterranean) and he became
Augustus Caesar" and the "first citizen" of Rome. This victory,
consolidating his power over every Roman institution, marked the
transition of Rome from Republic to Empire. Egypt's surrender
following Cleopatra's death marked the final demise of both the
Hellenistic Period and the Ptolemaic Kingdom, turning it into a
Antony and Cleopatra
^ Davis, Paul K. (1999). 100 decisive battles: From ancient times to
the present. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 63.
ISBN 9780195143669. OCLC 45102987.
^ Roller, Duane W. (2010). Cleopatra: A Biography. US: Oxford
University Press. pp. 70–73.
^ David & David 2002, p. 35.
^ Kebric 2005, p. 109.
^ Potter 2009, p. 161.
^ Scullard 2013, p. 150.
^ a b Shuckburgh 1917, pp. 775-779.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Shuckburgh 1917, pp. 780-784.
Dio Cassius 50:31 
^ Shuckburgh 1917, p. 781.
^ a b Plutarch, Antony, 65–66;
^ a b c Velleius Paterculus, History of Rome, ii.85.
^ Plutarch, The Life of Antony, 61
Dio Cassius 50:13 
^ Dio, Roman History 50.32
^ Cassius Dio, Roman History 50.23.1–3
^ Lange, Carsten. "The Battle of Actium: A reconsideration". Cambridge
University Press. Classical Quarterly. Retrieved 28 November
^ Raia & Sebesta 2017.
^ Lippold 1936, pp. 169-171.
^ Curtius 1933, pp. 184 ff. Abb. 3 Taf. 25—27..
^ "Marc Antony and Cleopatra". biography.com. A&E Television
Networks. Retrieved July 4, 2017.
^ Plutarch, Antony, pp. 311-312;
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The Naval Battle of Actium
Cassius Dio, Roman Hist