Historical story

Battle of Actium (2 September -31)

Last updated:2022-07-25

The Battle of Actium is a naval battle which took place off the promontory of Actium at the southern tip of the Gulf of Ambrace (northwestern Greece), on September 2, 31 BC. It opposed the Roman fleet of Octavian (future Augustus), commanded by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and the Egyptian-Roman fleet commanded by Marc Antoine and Cleopatra. The outcome of the battle remained undecided until the Queen of Egypt ordered the withdrawal of her fleet on which was stored the treasure of the two lovers. Marc Antony followed her, but most of her ships were soon captured and destroyed. The Roman-Egyptian army had to surrender to Octavian, who thus established an undisputed supremacy over the Roman world.

The context of the Battle of Actium

The Roman Republic entered into a deep crisis in the face of the scale of the conquests which left ever more powers to the great generals, the imperatores, responsible for defending the Empire from Rome and to protect its interests. Since Marius and his fight against Sylla, the Roman world has been punctuated by cruel civil wars which deeply marked the mentalities of the time, which is reflected in the texts of ancient authors. Caesar's victory over Pompey may have made a return to peace seem possible.

It was without counting on the appetites of the aristocrats, deprived by the immense personality of the dictator for life, of access to competition for power as had always been the case. Since his disappearance, and the revenge exercised by his supporters against those commonly called the Republicans, the situation in the Roman world has been tense, in stasis, between two competitors:Octavian, Caesar's adopted son (his nephew by blood) and Marc Antoine, former master of the cavalry and combat companion of the dictator. Between them, the Empire has been divided since the ousting of Lepidus:to Octave the West and his heart, Rome, to Marc Antoine the East, Alexandria and the beautiful Cleopatra.

Far from mere melodrama, Antony's position ultimately serves his young opponent to discredit him in the eyes of the Romans . Indeed, for these, the Orient and its pleasures are suspect; they can corrupt dignified Latin sobriety. However, when Octave has his rival's will read in public, the people are horrified to discover that Antoine wishes, among other things, to be buried in Egypt. After skilful propaganda, here Octave has the legitimate reasons for a war to suppress his enemy; his war can only be just and therefore in accordance with the divine will since Antoine wishes to sacrifice Rome for the benefit of the East. He is therefore the defender of the Roman world against the criminal designs of Antony.

The break was consumed. Each opponent had long since polished his weapons and was ready to face his adversary in a colossal encounter to decide the fate of the entire Mediterranean basin. Cleverly, the adopted son of Julius Caesar declares war on Cleopatra VII. The final explanation between Octave and Antoine can begin.

The shaking of forces

The first to take the initiative was Antoine. He assembled his troops at Ephesus in the spring of 32 BC. AD; they included 75,000 legionnaires, 25,000 auxiliary soldiers as well as 12,000 cavalry, without counting the mass of non-combatants, such as the rowers of his gigantic fleet composed of nearly 500 warships and 300 transport ships. However, 200 of these boats had been provided by Cleopatra who therefore had a real influence in the decisions of her lover. The armada headed for Epirus, to threaten Italy and try to win the decision on its soil. Nevertheless, the slowness of the expedition meant that it was spotted by ships from Octave's fleet, which broke the element of surprise. Antoine settled in the Gulf of Ambracia, an excellent anchorage where he could spend the winter sheltered from storms and other inconveniences. However, this position, however favorable it may be, required the establishment of checkpoints aimed at ensuring the supply of the troops, such as Methonè, a small Messinian port or the island of Corfu.

Thus established Antoine could appear in a position of strength especially as he put pressure on his enemy and on the Italian peninsula. This was without taking into account the preparation of Octave who had already gathered between 60,000 and 80,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, as well as nearly 400 ships. His army and especially his fleet were also hardened since the confrontation against Sextus Pompey. Octave's boats were also of lower tonnage than Antoine's but outweighed them in mobility and speed. All this shows the balance of forces present, although tactical axes already orient the armies by their strengths and weaknesses.

Weaken Antoine

Engagement began gradually. Indeed, Octave, whose fleet was commanded with genius by the famous Agrippa, took action against Antoine's supply lines to paralyze him and put him in a precarious situation. Beyond the war of race, Agrippa also took essential bolts of the strategic device of Antoine; Methonè and Corfu without his really reacting. The initiative had just changed sides and Antoine found himself in a delicate position, besieged in the Ambracic Gulf. At the same time, Octavian himself had come dangerously close to his enemy, even landing in the bay of Gomaros not far from Antony's camp, located near the port of Actium.

The ground troops of the two rivals were waiting for the decisive encounter. But as well situated tactically as they were, both sides were nonetheless subject to unpleasant conditions. On Antoine's side, the proximity of the swamps brought a fetid smell as well as mosquitoes. The lack of water was also glaring and exposed the army to dysentery and malaria. For Octave, it was the prevailing winds coming from the sea that swept his camp and disrupted his ships, always moved by the swell.

While we were fighting on the sea, where Agrippa was demonstrating his skills, Antoine moved his camp to install it as close as possible to that of Octave; they were therefore very close, on either side of the city of Nicopolis. Antoine several times offered pitched battle to his adversary by deploying his army in the open countryside, which Octave refused, no doubt aware of his adversary's superiority. So Antoine launched his cavalry to turn the opposing device and take it from behind. He experienced a bitter failure there which pushed him to return to his old camp, on the other side of the channel.

Inertia took over, in which Octave had a clear advantage; his maritime successes under the aegis of Agrippa had placed Antoine in a situation of quasi blockade, depriving him of his supply lines and obliging him to bring in from all over Greece, with great reinforcement of requisitions, the food of the troops. But the soldiers were malnourished and the defections of high ranking officers undermined their morale more and more, such as the departure of Domitius Ahenobarbus who soon died of fever in the Octavian camp. It was also becoming clear that the role of Cleopatra finished dividing the troops who no longer really knew what the goal of their campaign was; win for Rome or Egypt?

What solution?

Defections were becoming worrying and on the eve of setting sail, Antoine burned several ships that could no longer find a sufficient crew. Nevertheless, he was determined to regain the initiative and not to let himself be gently reduced, trapped in the Gulf of Ambracia. He had two options left; sacrifice the fleet and retreat to Thrace to find the king of the Getae who offered his alliance and thus concentrate on the pitched battle, or force the passage of the Gulf of Ambracia and join the seven legions of reserves left behind. It was Cleopatra's influence that decided Antony to attempt to return to the East. The only disastrous thing about the decision was its completion, and the Octavian propaganda stigmatizing the Egyptian woman's bad advice merely followed ethnic presuppositions that were deeply rooted at the time and participated in the glorification of Octavian, Roman champion in the war against the disturbances of the East.

We don't know exactly what Antoine wanted to achieve when he set sail; did he wish to conquer at sea or simply to force through and flee to the East? In any case, he took the gamble of keeping above all the most powerful warships where the competent rowers were better distributed and less vulnerable. The forces brought by Cleopatra represented mainly light ships which were largely destroyed, she herself retaining only 60 warships under her own command. Antoine had the sails on board, which was not particularly useful in combat during which we relied above all on the mobility offered by the rowers, especially since one of the tactics used consisted in ramming the enemy ships, which can be understated. hear a desire to retreat to the East. We are in any case quite far from the Octavian tradition wanting to make Antoine a simple fugitive following the furrow of Cleopatra in cowardice.

The Battle of Actium

Close to battle, Antoine probably lined up less than 200 ships with 20,000 marines on board and nearly of 2000 archers. He could count on a small number of powerful boats of Hellenistic tradition, true maritime fortresses on which it was however difficult to let any decision rest. Octave had twice as many vessels of a globally equivalent tonnage, without possessing very large ones. It was therefore two against one that the final battle began. Antoine probably had in mind to take advantage of the winds, which is what boarding the sails implies. He asked his troops not to fight while advancing during the morning of September 2, probably to avoid an unfortunate stranding at the exit of the channel.

But Agrippa knew Antony's will from the betrayal of Dellius and, albeit belatedly, he placed his fleet at the exit of the Actium channel to trap Antony's. in a real trap. But Marc-Antoine, far from just rushing through this wall of enemy ships, placed his fleet in battle order with Cleopatra's squadron at the rear, which should not have been engaged since it was transporting the treasure of the army. .

Antoine's goal seems to have been to wait for the wind to pick up around noon to face the opponent and head straight south. To do this and to allow Cleopatra's fleet to be evacuated smoothly, he placed in the center of his device in a domed arc of a circle towards the enemy his largest ships which had to force their way through the middle of Octave's squadrons during that the rest of the ships would progress, while fighting, pivoting to open Octave's device from the left, no doubt before dropping out to sea in the space thus created.

At noon, therefore, the fleets were in place and it was Antony's left wing, commanded by Sosius, which made the first move towards Octave. At the same time, Agrippa began a masterful ruse; taking advantage of the wind which put his position in difficulty since his rowers had to maneuver to maintain their coherence, he simulated a retreat which Publicola wanted to take advantage of commanding the squadron on the far right of the device and facing him. Octave did the same in front of Sosius before returning brutally towards them and taking advantage of the surprise and the lack of cohesion of the fleets launched in pursuit. In the center, Arruntius, at the orders of Octavian, held the center and Antony's huge ships at bay.

The latter's naval pivot maneuver attempt had just been ruined by the ill-fated initiative of Publicola. But this movement had left a gap between the fleets engaged in combat which was immediately taken advantage of by Cleopatra to rush towards the high seas. She passed without incident through the fighting. Antoine, seeing her fleeing, ordered his troops to drop out to follow the queen and head east. It is thought that about sixty ships were able to follow suit; those who had not been caught in the maneuver of Publicola.

It was this failed escape, which nevertheless saved nearly 100 boats, that allowed Octave's propaganda to turn his enemies into cowards whose escape only showed the absence of warrior value among the Orientals, accused of following their passion and not their duty. Antoine is closely associated with this vision by making him the slave of his love for Cleopatra.

However, the fight did not end immediately; Agrippa burned a number of ships from the wing commanded by Publicola and it is estimated that in all about forty Antony's boats were sent to the bottom with nearly 12,000 men counting the rowers, the others, blocked in the fight and having been unable to escape to sea, they remained trapped in the Gulf of Ambracia where they retreated after dark. But the game was not yet over for Octave, who had let his rival and his companion slip away with the army treasure he badly needed, and found himself with the large squadron under the orders of Sosius and the army of 'Antoine still to manage.

The diplomatic coup

It was then that all of Octave's genius could be put into action. He was not a soldier but an excellent politician. He had proven it in his disinformation campaign against his rival, as well as in his attempts to seduce Antony's army during the months of inertia in the fighting, attracting new supporters to him. From the day after the naval battle of Actium and no doubt thanks to the links uniting Arruntius to Sosius, he obtained the rallying of the latter, which definitively deprived Antony of a maritime power.

Octave also sent messages about his clemency to win him the sympathy of his rival's army which, in despair at the escape of its general, found little support. comfort in the order relayed from Antony from the Peloponnese where he had taken refuge, to set out towards Asia Minor. After a week and with the assurance of being integrated into Octave's army and of receiving lands once the service had been completed, they changed sides. Antoine had lost everything in a skillfully orchestrated tactical blockage where militarily Agrippa had played a recital and where politically Octave had played even better.

The dramatic conclusion of Actium

The civil war was certainly not yet over and Antoine still had some strength left, but his adversary had gained an unstoppable ascendancy. By uniting the remnants of Antony's fleet and army, Octave had considerable power and dazzling prestige, perfectly relayed by an ever-active propaganda. Without there having been a clash as formidable as Pharsalus between Caesar and Pompey, the rivalry between Antony and Caesar's adopted son had found an irrevocable resolution after a rather limited confrontation in relation to the forces gathered at Actium. /P>

Antony's prudence, which paralyzed him for many months, and the genius of Agrippa and Octavian, finally threw the Roman world into the hands of the second. Marc Antony and Cleopatra were going to play yet another dramatic page in history, but this time, as superb lovers, refusing the humiliation of captivity by committing suicide.


- Paul M. Martin, Antony and Cleopatra:The End of a Dream. 2002.

- Augustus, master of the world. Actium, September 2, 31 BC. AD, by Pierre Cosme. Tallandier, 2014.

- Jean-Michel David, The Roman Republic, from the Second Punic War to the Battle of Actium, Seuil.