Octavian and Mark Antony

Battle of Actium

Under the skilful command of Agrippa the fast Roman triremes go into the attack. The heavily turreted Egyptian ships are taken by assault and destroyed by the Roman soldiers.

Mark Antony

Mark Antony.


Octavian (later called Augustus).

Battle of Actium

The diagram shows the most dramatic moment of the naval battle of Actium. The Egyptian ships try to find an opening through Octavian's fleet. Sixty of them succeeded in getting away, but the remainder of the fleet was surrounded.

The murder of Julius Caesar and rise of Mark Antony

Julius Caesar died on the ides of March (15 March) in the year 44 BC, killed by twenty-three stabs of the daggers of his enemies. His death had been decided upon by Romans who thought him to be an enemy of republican institutions. These people were convinced that Caesar wanted to become king of Rome and lead the nation into a dictatorship that would have taken away the power of the Senate and ended the election of magistrates.


The murder of Caesar created a difficult situation in Rome, as none of the conspirators had really decided what to do next. There was one man, however, who took advantage of the situation. He was Mark Antony, one of Caesar's lieutenants and a man both strong-minded and cunning. He made a very clever and subtle speech at Caesar's funeral, and this speech achieved the very aim he intended. As he had hoped, the crowd, which included some of Caesar's old soldiers, were stirred by his words, inflamed with a hatred of Caesar's murderers, and spurred into action. The conspirators had to run away to save their lives from the public frenzy.


Thus Mark Antony removed from his path those who could have hindered his plans, and he gained the sympathy of the Roman people. It seemed, therefore, as though he had become the undisputed master of Rome. At this moment, however, a great-nephew of Caesar, Caesar's adopted son and heir, the eighteen-year-old Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus) arrived in Rome from far-away Greece where he had been studying. Octavian came back to Rome determined to seize both power and leadership, and, as Caesar's adopted son, the Romans showed him great sympathy. After a few months of quarrelling and some fighting, Mark Antony came to the conclusion that it was wise to come to an arrangement with Octavian. They then went together to fight Caesar's murderers, who by that time had mustered a strong army. Antony and Octavian utterly defeated their enemies at the two battles of Philippi (Greece).


Division of the Roman Empire

The battle over, they decided to divide up the territory of the Roman Republic and to govern it jointly, but each in his own sphere. Mark Antony took the east, and Octavian governed the western lands, including Italy and Rome.


Octavian became on the whole a just and enlightened leader, and so achieved great popularity. Mark Antony, on the other hand, behaved very differently in the east. First of all he embarked on military expeditions in Asia that went badly. He then settled in Alexandria in Egypt, and there in 37 BC he married Cleopatra, Queen of the Egyptians. In time it seemed as though Antony was forgetting the interests of Rome and putting those of Cleopatra first; indeed, there came a time when, wanting to increase territory of her realm, he made her a present of certain Roman territories; and he demanded from the Roman Senate a recognition of his decisions.


That was too much for Rome. Octavian, backed by the approval of the Roman Senate, decided to break with Antony. War was declared on Cleopatra (and so in Antony also) in the year 32 BC.


Antony and Cleoptra

When Antony learned that the Roman Senate had declared war, he set out to make great military preparations for the fight. He wanted to attack the Roman army and the Roman fleet before Octavian could reach Egypt. He and Cleopatra went to Ephesus with a powerful Egyptian fleet, and in Ephesus Antony started to assemble the troops sent to his aid by allied Asian kings. In a short time he got together an army of 100,000 men, a much larger number than Octavian's. Antony's army seemed so powerful that he was told by some of his officers that if he were to fight his enemy on land victory would be assured.


Antony had decided otherwise, however; he was determined to follow the advice of Cleopatra and engage Octavian in naval battle.


On the second of September, 31 BC, the two armies faced each other encamped on either side of the Gulf of Ambracia (today called Arta) which divided Epirus from Acarnania. Octavian's army was in Epirus, and the soldiers of Mark Antony in Acarnania. Both fleets faced each other over the sea. The fleet of Octavian lay at anchor in the Gulf of Anbracia; and Antony's fleet, partly Egyptian, partly Romans, was lined up near Corcyra (today's Corfu). The morning of that day saw a beginning of a great naval battle near the headland of Actium. Many of Antony's Roman ships soon deserted to Octavian, but his Egyptian ships, heavily turreted, prevailed for a while; they drove back several attacks by Octavian's triremes and then went into the attack in their turn. It seemed as though Cleopatra's plan was giving good results. But the fight went on, and after six hours the position was reversed; it was Octavian's ships which now went into the attack led by the skilful commander Agrippa.


Cleopatra had watched the battle from one of her ships and, despite having thought he fleet was invincible, now realized that defeat was inevitable. She considered whether so surrender herself to Octavian; but she could not face the thought of being led as a prisoner in his triumphal procession. And so she ordered her ships to find their way through the enemy fleet and sail to Egypt with all possible speed. Sixty Egyptian ships and quinquereme of Mark Antony succeeded in getting through, but the rest of Antony's fleet was surrounded.


Nobody noticed the flight of Antony, and the battle raged on into the night until it finally ended with the total destruction of all the Egyptian ships. Antony's few remaining Roman ships, together with his army, finally surrendered.