Alternate history: what if Antony and Cleopatra had won the battle of Actium?

Professor Catharine Edwards tells Jonny Wilkes why the famous lovers had little guarantee of rescuing the Roman Republic – even if they had emerged victorious against Octavian’s navy

Antony and Cleopatra meet for the first time

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes talks to Catherine Edwards about what victory for Antony and Cleopatra over Octavian – the future emperor Augustus – in 31 BC would have meant for ancient Rome…

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Within four years of his victory in the naval battle of Actium, Octavian, the most powerful man in Rome, had taken the name Augustus and begun his reign as the first emperor. The beginning of the end of the Roman Republic had been signalled when Octavian’s former-ally-turned-rival Mark Antony and his lover, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, fled that clash of fleets on 2 September 31 BC in the Ionian Sea near Actium. If they had stayed, could the Republic have been saved?

“Antony and Cleopatra might certainly have won. They had more ships at their disposal and were aided by allied leaders,” says Catharine Edwards, professor of classics and ancient history at Birkbeck, University of London. But a lot would have had to go differently. “Octavian had outmanoeuvred them with a blockade, cutting off their supply route from Egypt.”

Lack of provisions led to disease and desertions sweeping through Antony’s camp, so he could muster crews for around 230 ships, only half his estimated fleet. A key deserter was a general, Quintus Dellius, who defected to Octavian and took Antony’s battle plans with him. Antony had hoped to gain the advantage by striking first; now he had a smaller force and the enemy would be anticipating his every move.

Even if some or all of these factors had gone Antony and Cleopatra’s way, winning at Actium was unlikely to have been enough. While Antony held domain in the Roman Republic’s eastern provinces – including the client kingdom of Egypt – he had to win back his reputation in Rome itself, which was firmly under Octavian’s control. Edwards says: “Antony and Cleopatra conferred various eastern territories as well as grand titles on Cleopatra’s children. This was readily presented by Octavian as an outrageous misuse of Antony’s power.”

In context: why did Octavian go to war with Antony and Cleopatra?

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Rome descended into civil war.

Three of the Republic’s most powerful men – Caesar’s adopted son and heir Octavian and statesmen Mark Antony and Lepidus – formed a fragile alliance to bring stability, but this Second Triumvirate failed to work together and instead divided up the land among themselves. By 31 BC, the Triumvirate had collapsed and Octavian had gone to war with Antony and his lover Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.

Their fleets clashed on 2 September 31 BC in the battle of Actium, off the coast of western Greece, which ended with Cleopatra fleeing with her 60 ships before being followed by Antony, leaving his ships to be decisively defeated.

Octavian pursued the lovers to Alexandria, where they both took their own lives the following year. The victorious Octavian then secured his place as the master of the Roman world and soon became the first emperor, taking on the name Augustus.

Changing loyaties

Octavian was, as Edwards puts it, “tremendously skilled as a manipulator of opinion” and had launched a propaganda campaign to discredit Antony, who had been one of his partners in the Second Triumvirate.

He even had a document he claimed to be Antony’s will publicly read in Rome, in which Antony allegedly named his children with Cleopatra as his heirs rather than those he had with his wife Octavia (Octavian’s sister). “This was taken as evidence that Antony was under the thumb of the queen of Egypt and was no longer committed to Rome,” says Edwards. “Octavian, by contrast, made a point of advertising his own traditional Roman family.”

Antony could still have won back many in Rome with victory at Actium, though. He had already secured the support of legions formerly led by Julius Caesar – assassinated a little over a decade earlier – and, says Edwards, Octavian was hard pressed to raise the funds for this war. A strong naval victory for Antony and Cleopatra could have been followed by securing commitment to their cause from some of Octavian’s forces, “who might have switched sides if they thought they had a better chance of rewards.”

Perhaps the main problem for Antony and Cleopatra was that Octavian was not actually present at the battle, and his 400 or so ships were commanded by an experienced admiral named Agrippa. So even if Antony and Cleopatra somehow won at Actium, Octavian would have lived to fight another day, still likely with the support of Rome.

“It’s quite possible that civil war would just have dragged on,” says Edwards. Octavian had a big advantage in that he had consolidated control over Italy during the time of the Second Triumvirate, while Antony’s power base was in the east. While that did give Antony access to significant resources, especially land forces and money, in the eyes of many in Rome he was a traitor. Perhaps his best chance after Actium would have been to keep Octavian out of the eastern provinces, where he could have built his own influence with Cleopatra. In essence, the Roman Republic would have been divided in two.

A fragile state

But, as Edwards claims, “Antony surely could not have remained in control for long without winning over hearts and minds back in Rome.” That would have been a daunting prospect, but not implausible. “It is worth remembering that it was Antony who roused the people of Rome against Caesar’s assassins in 44 BC and ensured the implementation of a number of popular measures initiated by Caesar,” says Edwards. “Whether he would have had success with the Senate is a different question.”

So if Antony and Cleopatra had been able to launch their fleet at the battle of Actium with no issues with provisions, disease and desertions; and they had committed to all-out victory rather than engineering a hole in Octavian’s line for them to flee; and Antony had then courted support in Rome successfully – after all that, they still faced an angry Octavian seeking revenge and a protracted civil war. “Provided Octavian survived, I think he would eventually have been victorious one way or another,” says Edwards. “He was a master strategist, always ready to adapt.”

And even if Antony and Cleopatra had emerged decisively victorious, the Republic might not have survived anyway. Edwards says: “Many would argue that the Roman republican system was fundamentally unsuited to the government of a geographically extensive empire. The senate was a deeply conservative institution, resistant to radical change, and failed to set up a centralised system.” That is what Octavian – or Augustus – would address as the Republic turned into the Roman empire.

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_
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This content first appeared in the June 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed