The Battle of Actium: The Death of Ptolemaic Egypt

The Battle of Actium was a naval battle in the last war of the Roman Republic. It led to the end of Ptolemaic Egypt and the birth of the Roman Empire.

Oct 2, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
battle of actium ptolemaic egypt painting
The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC, Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672, via Royal Museums Greenwich

 

The Battle of Actium (31 BCE) was the culmination of a decade-long rivalry between the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, Octavian, and Caesar’s favorite general, Mark Antony. It was the inevitable escalation of a cold war, which started following Antony’s departure to Egypt to join his lover Cleopatra. Denouncing his rival as the enemy of Rome and the republican traditions, Octavian declared war on Ptolemaic Egypt and the conflict led to a naval confrontation. Led by Admiral Agrippa, the Roman navy smashed the joint Roman-Egyptian fleet, thus bringing the struggle to a close. The Battle of Actium marked a seismic shift in the history of the Ancient Mediterranean. Ptolemaic Egypt, which could trace its origins to the famous conqueror, Alexander the Great, ceased to exist, becoming one of the Roman provinces. Rome, too, went through a significant change; a few years after Actium, Octavian, the victor of the battle, became the first Roman Emperor: Augustus.

 

Prelude to the Battle of Actium 

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The Meeting of Anthony and Cleopatra, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885, via Sotheby’s

 

Following the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate. This political alliance aimed to avenge Caesar’s murder and bring back stability to the fledgling Roman Republic. To achieve this, all three men gained almost unlimited powers, dividing the Roman territory between themselves. Unsurprisingly, the alliance of three ambitious men, envious of each other, was doomed to fail. In 36 BCE, under the pretext of potential usurpation and rebellion, Octavian removed Lepidus from power, sending him into exile.

 

The alliance between the two remaining triumvirs, Octavian and Mark Antony, gradually worsened. Despite being married to Octavia, Octavian’s sister, Antony lived in Alexandria, not hiding his relationship with Cleopatra, the queen of Ptolemaic Egypt. He did not stop there. In 34 BCE, Mark Antony shocked Rome by openly legitimizing Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, as the son of Caesar. In the same year, Caesarion was given the title of the “King of the Kings.” As Caesar only adopted Octavian, the legitimization of Caesar’s biological son threatened his political position.

 

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Silver coin showing the portraits of Antony and Cleopatra, ca. 36 BCE, via The British Museum, London

 

Antony’s infatuation with Cleopatra could be interpreted as a way to establish a privileged relationship between Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt, a region rich in resources and a key provider of wheat. Octavian, however, started a propaganda campaign, publicly denouncing Mark Antony as an oriental despot seeking to abolish the Roman republican traditions. It did not help that Antony publicly announced the distribution of the Roman lands under his control to Cleopatra and her children. Unsurprisingly, the Donations of Alexandria found united opposition in the Senate. Yet, Rome was not willing to declare the war. We should not forget that Mark Antony, Caesar’s favorite commander, enjoyed considerable support in the Senate and the army. The last thing Rome needed was another civil war.

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Then in 32 BCE, Mark Antony divorced Octavia and married Cleopatra. Octavian saw the opportunity and grabbed it. He illegally obtained Antony’s will, exposing it to the Roman public. In the will (which could be a forgery), Antony promised further Roman possessions to Cleopatra’s children and demanded to be buried in Alexandria after his death. As a cunning politician, Octavian blamed Cleopatra, not Antony. The incoming conflict would be not between the two Romans but between virtuous Rome and decadent Ptolemaic Egypt. It was a clever choice. The same year, the outraged Senate declared war on Cleopatra and Ptolemaic Egypt.

 

The Drums of War

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Marble portrait of emperor Augustus, 27 BCE-14 CE, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

 

Octavian knew well that Mark Antony would come to Cleopatra’s aid. That was exactly what happened. When the declaration of war was handed to Cleopatra, Antony gave full support to his queen. Immediately, the Senate stripped Antony of all his powers, confiscating his property and labeling him a renegade and a traitor. However, almost half of the Senate, including both consuls, sided with Antony and left for Greece. Both sides summoned their armies, preparing for an inevitable battle.

 

Antony moved his troops into Greece, preparing for a battle with Octavian. But while both men commanded large armies (roughly 200 000 men each), the war would not be decided on land but at sea. There, the ships of Mark Antony and Cleopatra outnumbered Octavian’s fleet.

 

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Bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, 25-24 BCE, via Louvre Museum, Paris

 

The powerful Egyptian-Roman navy numbering around 500 ships arrived in the Ambracian Gulf, dropping anchor near the promontory of Actium. The plan was to lure Octavian into Greece before destroying his fleet in a pitched battle and cutting his supply lines. At first, the ploy worked. Octavian arrived in Greece with his troops. Yet, a sickness ravaged his army, making both his soldiers and ship crews unfit for battle.

 

To make matters worse, while Antony’s troops suffered in their winter camp, Octavian’s close friend and admiral, Marcus Agrippa, led his own fleet along the coast, capturing key bases. From predators, Antony and Cleopatra turned into prey. Both their land and naval forces were in danger of being cut off. Antony had no choice but to abandon Greece, sending parts of his army northwards to Macedonia. The rest embarked on ships and attempted to break through Octavian’s naval blockade. The stage was set for the Battle of Actium.

 

The Battle of Actium

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Order of battle at Actium, via vox.com

 

The chance for a breakthrough finally came on September the 2nd, 31 BCE. At around mid-day, Antony moved his ships out of the gulf and into the open sea. There, Octavian and Agrippa waited for the enemy fleet. While sweating oarsmen below decks hauled away, the two fleets began closing in on each other. On deck, archers drew their bows, and soldiers manning ballistae waited for an order to unleash their deadly projectiles. Next to them, other soldiers were doing their last weapon checkups, preparing for the imminent boarding of enemy vessels. Although all ships were fitted with rams, by this time, ramming was a relatively rare occurrence. More often, vessels maneuvered next to each other. Once in position, soldiers opened fire at the enemy and boarded the hostile warship.

 

Having arrived in Greece with more ships, Mark Antony entered the Battle of Actium outnumbered. Before the battle, Antony had to burn many of his warships since a deadly disease had decimated his crews. Now he had 230 vessels against Octavian’s 400. Besides the odds, Antony had another problem. Most of his vessels were quinqueremes, heavy warships propelled by five banks of oars. Their large size made them ideal weapon platforms with high wooden towers packed with archers. He also had several octeres, some of the largest warships of the Hellenistic era (which incidentally saw their last use at the Battle of Actium). While those ships were undoubtedly powerful and deadly, they were much slower and less agile than Octavian’s smaller ships. In addition, Octavian knew Antony’s plans due to the defection of one of his generals prior to the battle.

 

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The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC, Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672, via Royal Museums Greenwich

 

When the naval battle started, some of Octavian’s ships began working their way around the flanks of Antony’s smaller and less maneuverable fleet. Large quinqueremes and octeres (eight bank rowing galleys) were difficult to board in a one-on-one battle. But if isolated, they could be swarmed. Octavian’s men aimed for the lower parts of those large warships, crushing oars, breaking rudders, and climbing on their decks where ferocious combat ensued. According to the historian Cassius Dio, an eyewitness compared those tangled ships to “walled towns or else islands, many in number and close together, being besieged by the sea.”

 

The Roman fleet was also in possession of Agrippa’s recent invention—the harpax—a large ship-mounted ballista that could launch multi-pronged grappling hooks at enemy vessels, winching them alongside for boarding. Antony’s own massive flagship was struck and grappled by this powerful weapon, with Octavian’s soldiers encountering little resistance from its crew.

 

Escape and Death

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Roman bireme at the battle of Actium, relief from the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste, last third of the 1st century BCE, Vatican Museums, Vatican City, via Wikimedia Commons

 

After hours of heavy fighting, Antony’s larger ships were able to punch a gap in the center of the enemy line. Cleopatra, whose warships had been waiting in reserve guarding the treasure fleet, exploited the opportunity. The small armada moved through the gap, escaping the gulf and setting sail for Egypt. Antony soon followed, abandoning his flagship, which he exchanged for a smaller and faster vessel. Sixty ships would reach Alexandria. The Battle of Actium was almost over.

 

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Bronze ram (rostrum) of the Roman warship, via The Australian National Maritime Museum, Canberra

 

Realizing that the enemy was running away, Octavian’s warships were sent to pursuit. By now, Antony’s navy was in chaos. Trying to make their ships lighter and faster, the crews threw towers, catapults, weapons, and all non-essential equipment into the sea. One would expect that remainders of Antony’s fleet, losing their commander, would put down weapons and surrender. That was not the case. While part of the fleet surrendered the next morning, some of the crew continued to offer resistance, going down with their ships. Most of the surviving ships were so badly damaged that they could not move, so they were burned on the spot.

 

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Death of Cleopatra, Juan Luna, 1881, via Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

While both Antony and Cleopatra managed to escape, the Battle of Actium was a triumph for Octavian. He won not only the battle. He won the war. When news of the defeat reached Antony’s eastern allies, most of them abandoned him. The army sent to Macedonia also defected. In 30 BCE, Octavian landed in Egypt. Deserted by all, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra soon followed, choosing to take her own life instead of becoming a spoil of war in Octavian’s triumph.

 

The Aftermath of the Battle of Actium: One Empire Falls, Another Rises

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Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century CE, via Musei Vaticani, Rome

 

The defeat of Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet at the Battle of Actium and their subsequent deaths effectively ended the civil war, leaving Octavian the sole ruler of the Roman world. To further secure his position, Octavian had Caesarion killed while he spared all of Cleopatra’s children with Antony, except for Antony’s oldest son. Although he was his worst enemy, Octavian gave Mark Antony a state funeral in Rome. The same honor was granted to Cleopatra, who, despite his propaganda, Octavian seems to have admired. On the other hand, such an act of clemency further solidified the public image of Octavian as a benevolent leader.

 

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Gold aureus of Augustus, 10 – 19 BCE, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The death of Cleopatra left Egypt leaderless, bringing three centuries of Ptolemaic rule to an abrupt end. The wealthiest region in the Mediterranean was now a province of the Roman state, while the Mediterranean itself became a Roman lake. Three years following the victory in the Battle of Actium, Octavian, with Agrippa’s help, abolished the Roman Republic, becoming the first Roman EmperorAugustus. Roman Egypt was now the emperor’s private possession, the only province in which the Senate had no influence. The total control over Egypt and its immense resources, especially grain, further bolstered Augustus’ power and influence. Thus, the Battle of Actium became an integral part of the story, a prologue to the epic known as the Roman Empire.



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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.