Actium, 31 BC: the beginning of the end for Mark Antony and Cleopatra

Military historian Julian Humphrys explains what happened at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and why this naval clash off the Greek coast presaged both the end of the Roman Republic and the deaths of one history’s most famous couples

Mural of the battle of Actium from 1600

Mark Antony’s campaign to become sole ruler of Rome was crumbling. By the summer of 31 BC, his fleet was trapped in the Ambracian Gulf, on the west coast of Greece, by the ships of his enemy Octavian.

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He was chronically short of men, and the spot where his army was camped was a mosquito-infested marsh near Actium, on the south shore of the gulf. Their every move was being watched by Octavian’s men from the high ground on the opposite shore. Supplies were running out, malaria and dysentery were decimating his army, and the oarsmen who powered his ships were starting to desert. Antony had to make a move, and soon – if he didn’t, before long he’d have no forces with which to fight.

The Battle of Actium was the climax of 13 years of civil wars. Sparked by the assassination of Julius Caesar, they had torn the Roman world apart. Julius Caesar’s heir, Octavian, and his former right-hand man, Antony, had been two-thirds of the triumvirate, which, in 42 BC, brought down Caesar’s murderers. But once that common enemy had been tackled, their fragile alliance began to fracture and the two became bitter enemies.

Octavian’s power base was in the western part of the Roman territories, while Antony controlled the eastern part – with the aid of his lover, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. That relationship gave Antony access to the riches of Egypt but it also scandalised Rome, a situation exacerbated by the fact that Antony had abandoned his Roman wife – who, significantly, was also Octavian’s sister. Octavian’s propaganda machine was soon hard at work, portraying the struggle not as one between him and Antony but as a war between virtuous Rome and decadent Egypt.

What happened at the Battle of Actium?

Who | Octavian and Agrippa (400 ship) versus Mark Antony and Cleopatra (500 ships, reduced to 230)

When | 2 September 31 BC

Where | Ionian Sea near Actium, off the west coast of Greece

Why | Antony and Cleopatra were attempting to break through Octavian’s naval blockade

Outcome | Victory for Octavian. Antony and Cleopatra escaped with their treasure but lost most of their ships

In 32 BC, Antony and Cleopatra relocated their forces to the Ambracian Gulf. With a powerful navy numbering some 500 ships, they probably hoped to lure Octavian and his forces into Greece, before destroying his fleet in a pitched battle, thus cutting his supply lines. If so, the ploy worked. Octavian crossed into Greece with a large army. Disastrously for Antony, however, sickness ravaged his forces. Much of his land army was unfit for battle, and he could muster crews for barely half his fleet. Meanwhile, Octavian’s loyal general Marcus Agrippa led his own fleet along the coast, capturing key bases. Soon it was Antony and Cleopatra who found themselves cut off  near Actium.

Antony made a foray to outflank Octavian’s army by marching round the Ambracian Gulf, but his efforts came to nothing. He was left with no choice but to abandon Greece, loading up his treasure, embarking as many of his soldiers onto his ships as he could and attempting to break through Octavian’s naval blockade.

He would then, he hoped, pick up the prevailing wind, sail round the Peloponnese and make for Egypt. Ordering the rest of his army north to Macedonia, Antony readied his fleet – burning many ships for which he no longer had crews – and waited for the weather, which had been stormy for some days, to improve.

On 2 September his chance came. At about noon, he moved his ships out of the gulf and into the open sea – where Octavian and Agrippa waited for them, backing up to give themselves enough room to manoeuvre.

Who fought at the Battle of Actium?

Gaius Julius Octavius (Octavian)

Julius Caesar’s great-nephew, named by Caesar as his adopted son and heir; later known as Augustus. The two couldn’t have been more different: Caesar was bold, impetuous and an inspiring leader, whereas Octavian was careful, methodical and an effective delegator. Festina Lente (‘Make haste slowly’) was his motto. He was no great general, but his old friend Marcus Agrippa was an able soldier, and commanded his forces.

Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony)

A key supporter of Julius Caesar, he helped the great general in his conquest of Gaul. Antony was a born soldier but a rather naive politician. There’s no doubt he fell under Cleopatra’s spell, but his romantic interest in the Queen was probably heightened by her great wealth and the resources available to her.

Cleopatra VII

A member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greek origin who had ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years, Cleopatra infamously had love affairs with both Julius Caesar and then Antony. Indeed, she bore them both children. Though Octavian’s PR machine portrayed her as a decadent oriental seductress and the implacable enemy of Rome, Cleopatra’s main priority was to ensure the survival of her dynasty and the independence of Egypt.

What was Antony and Cleopatra’s plan?

As the sweating oarsmen below decks hauled away, the two fleets began to close in on each other. Up on deck, archers drew their bows and those manning the ballistae (huge crossbows) stood ready to shoot; waiting soldiers gripped their weapons and offered silent prayers that they might not become the victims of enemy missiles.

The ships’ prows were fitted with rams, but by this era ramming was a comparatively rare occurrence. Instead, helmsmen tried to manoeuvre their vessels into an advantageous position while soldiers rained arrows, javelins and ballista bolts into the ranks of their enemies, while waiting for an opportunity to board the opponent’s vessels.

Antony was drastically outnumbered. His fleet, reduced by his own hand, now numbered 230 ships compared with Octavian’s 400. True, many of his vessels were quinqueremes, formidable warships powered by hundreds of oarsmen and sporting high wooden towers packed with archers. But such ships were slow, and Octavian’s advantage in numbers soon began to tell. As the navies clashed and hand-to-hand fighting surged across the decks, some of Octavian’s ships began to work their way around the flanks of Antony’s smaller fleet. To counter this, and to avoid being completely encircled, Antony’s own ships edged sideways as well – creating a gap in the very centre of the line of battle.

One account says that, when Mark Antony's men ran out of water to put out the fires, they tried to smother the flames with the bodies of their dead comrades

Cleopatra made her move. The galleys under her command had been waiting in reserve, guarding transport ships laden with treasure. Now, she ordered them to hoist their sails and make straight for the gap, quickly escaping from the gulf and getting clean away. Antony followed in hot pursuit. Abandoning his flagship for a smaller, lighter craft, he sailed after his lover, followed by a handful of galleys that escaped the fighting.

Octavian’s ships gave chase, and the men on Antony’s fleeing vessels frantically tried to make them lighter and faster. Towers, catapults, weapons and nonessential equipment were all hastily dumped into the sea; anything that might slow them down was thrown overboard in a desperate bid to enable the ships to outrun their pursuers.

Who won the Battle of Actium?

Eventually, Octavian’s fleet gave up the chase. Their leader would later claim that Cleopatra had sailed off in a panic, and that Antony had abandoned his comrades in order to slavishly follow his lover. In fact, it seems far more likely that this had been a pre-planned gambit, employed to rescue Antony’s treasure and escape with as many ships as possible.

Antony’s wealth was safe – but most of his fleet, left behind at the gulf, had been abandoned to its fate. Anxious to preserve these ships and their crews for his own use, Octavian sailed from vessel to vessel, shouting that Antony had fled and pointing out the futility of further resistance. Not all of Antony’s crews were convinced.

As Octavian’s men approached, expecting to board the defeated ships and accept their surrender, they found themselves driven back by a barrage of missiles.

Unwilling to risk their lives now that the victory had been won, Octavian’s men resorted to incineration. They circled Antony’s doomed ships, bombarding them with flaming javelins and burning arrows. Fanned by a stiff breeze, fires quickly spread through the wooden vessels – but even then, with their ships ablaze, some of Antony’s men refused to surrender.

One account says that, when they ran out of water to put out the fires, they tried to smother the flames with the bodies of their dead comrades. But at when the weather took a turn for the worse and, faced with the risk of capsizing and drowning as well as burning alive, the survivors finally gave up the fight. Antony’s mighty fleet had been all but destroyed.

What happened after the Actium?

When news of the battle reached Antony’s eastern allies, most of them abandoned him, while the army he’d sent to Macedonia also defected. He retreated with some 60 ships to the fragile safety of Alexandria in Egypt. But the following summer, Octavian invaded. Deserted by his allies and his surviving troops, Antony committed suicide. Egypt was swallowed up by Octavian’s empire and, unwilling to face the humiliation of being paraded through Rome in Octavian’s triumphal procession, Cleopatra also killed herself.

Octavian, now undisputed master of the Roman world, introduced a series of reforms that gave him control over all aspects of government. Abolishing the old republic, he declared himself emperor for life. Taking the name Augustus, which means lofty or serene, he ruled for over 40 years, until his death in AD 14.

Julian Humphrys is a historian and development officer at the Battlefields Trust

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This content first appeared in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed