The Battle of Actium: Birth of an Empire

Antony Flees the Scene

It was a short battle given the high stakes. Antony was at a disadvantage from the start because his heavy quinqueremes were built for ramming and lacked maneuverability. Also, his ships were undermanned because a significant proportion of his men succumbed to a malaria outbreak when they were penned in at Ambracia. In contrast, Octavian’s men were fresh and healthy, and the fast and light ships were perfect for an open sea battle.

To add to Antony’s woes, one of his generals, Quintus Dellius, defected to Octavian with his former leader’s battle plans before the conflict. After midday, Antony had to engage in battle and hoped to drive back the enemy. However, Octavian stayed out of range, so his enemy had to attack. The battle raged on for a couple of hours without any major developments. Meanwhile, Cleopatra’s fleet remained in the rear and did not fight. As soon as a breeze blew in the right direction, the Egyptian ships took advantage and sailed away from the battle.

Antony believed it was a sign of panic and followed Cleopatra’s 60 ships with 40 of his own. His fleet quickly fell apart without its leader and in the belief that all was lost. Antony left behind an estimated 300 ships and around 5,000 men. Octavian’s fleet quickly gained control and annihilated the enemy.

Some historians suggest that Antony knew he was surrounded with nowhere to go. As a result, he tried to keep his heavy ships close to the shore in the knowledge that if Octavian’s ships approached, Antony’s fleet would be pushed towards the sand where they would presumably disembark and flee. He did this because he didn’t believe his fleet was strong enough to defeat the enemy. Antony spread out his ships to weaken Octavian’s center. Eventually, his enemy’s middle was vulnerable enough to penetrate, and Antony seized the opportunity by sailing through it with Cleopatra.

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After the Battle of Actium, Antony’s legionnaires surrendered, so there was no chance of him winning the war. Octavian chased his enemies to Egypt, and although he lost the Battle of Alexandria in July 30 BC, it was not enough to prevent more of Antony’s men deserting. Although he no longer had enough of an army to beat Octavian, Antony made the mistake of launching a major attack to try and end the conflict.

It was a complete failure, and Octavian took the city of Alexandria in August. Antony was falsely informed that Cleopatra was dead, so he committed suicide. As he lay on the floor in the throes of death, a messenger arrived to tell him that his lover was alive. Antony apparently died in her arms, and after a failed attempt to seduce Octavian, Cleopatra also committed suicide by apparently allowing a poisonous asp to bite her. Octavian executed Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son, added Egypt to the Roman territories and became Emperor Augustus in 27 BC.