Actium, Battle of

From New World Encyclopedia

Battle of Actium
Part of The Final war of the Roman Republic
The Battle of Actium, by Lorenzo A. Castro, painted 1672.
The battle of Actium, by Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672.
Date September 2, 31 B.C.E.
Location Ionian sea, near the Roman colony of Actium, Greece
Result Decisive Octavian victory
Octavian's supporters and forces Ptolemaic Egypt,
Marc Antony's supporters
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa Mark Antony
400 warships, mostly small liburnian vessels and Hexeres with 16,000 Legionary Marines and 3,000 archers. 230 warships, mostly quinqueremes with some larger Deceres, 30/50 Transports and 60 Egyptian warships. 2,000 Archers and 20,000 Legionary Marines.
Unknown Almost all of Antony's fleet

The Battle of Actium was the decisive engagement in the Roman civil war between the forces supporting Octavian and those supporting Mark Antony. It was fought on September 2, 31 B.C.E., on the Ionian Sea near the Roman colony of Actium in Greece (near the modern-day city of Preveza). Octavian's fleet was commanded by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Antony's fleet was supported by the fleet of his lover, Cleopatra VII, queen of Ptolemaic Egypt. The victory of Octavian's fleet enabled him to consolidate his power over Rome and its domains, leading to his adoption of the title of Princeps ("first citizen") and accepting the title of Augustus from the Senate. As Augustus Caesar, he would preserve the trappings of a restored Republic, but many historians view his consolidation of power and the adoption of his honorifics flowing from his victory at Actium as the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.


The Second Triumvirate broke up due to the serious threat that Octavian felt from Caesarion, the son of Cleopatra and Caesar. Octavian's base of power was his link with Caesar through adoption, which granted him much-needed popularity and the loyalty of the legions. To see this convenient situation threatened after Antony declared that Caesarion was the legitimate heir to Julius Caesar, a propaganda war between the allies began, ending the second triumvirate on the last day of 33 B.C.E. Finally the Senate deprived Antony of his power and declared war against Cleopatra. A third of the Senate and both of the consuls joined Antony's side and in 31 B.C.E., the war started when Octavian's talented general Agrippa captured the Greek city and naval port of Methone which was loyal to Antony. Mark Antony was an excellent soldier, but his lack of experience in naval engagements was to be his downfall.

The battle

The two fleets met outside the Gulf of Actium, on the morning of September 2, 31 B.C.E., with Mark Antony leading 220 warships through the straits toward the open sea. There he met the fleet of Octavian, led by Admiral Agrippa, arranged to block his exit in an arc from the south. Mark Antony's warships were mostly massive quinqueremes, huge galleys with massive rams that could weigh up to three tons. The bows of the galleys were armored with bronze plates and square-cut timbers making it difficult to successfully ram them with similar equipment. Unfortunately for Antony, many of his ships were undermanned because of a severe malaria that had struck his forces while he was waiting for Octavian's fleet to arrive. Many oarsmen had died even before the battle began thus making them unable to execute the tactics for which they were designed—powerful, head-on collisions. Also the morale of his troops had weakened due to the cutting of supply lines. Antony had burned those ships he could no longer man and clustered the rest tightly together.

Octavian's fleet was mostly smaller fully manned Liburnian vessels, armed with better trained and fresher crews. His ships were also lighter and could protect themselves by outmaneuvering the quinqueremes in Roman naval battle, where one objective was to ram the enemy ship and at the same time kill the above deck crew with a shower of arrows and catapult-launched stones large enough to decapitate a man. Before the naval battle Mark Antony's general known as Delius defected to Octavian and brought with him Mark Antony’s battle plans. Antony had hoped to use his biggest ships to drive back Agrippa's wing on the north end of his line, but Octavian's entire fleet stayed carefully out of range. Shortly after mid-day, Antony was forced to extend his line out from the protection of the shore, and then finally engage the enemy.

Seeing that the battle was going against Antony, Cleopatra's fleet retreated to open sea without firing a shot. Mark Antony retreated to a smaller vessel with his flag and managed to escape the battle, taking a few ships with him as an escort to help break through Octavian's lines. Those that he left behind, however, were not so fortunate: Octavian's fleet captured or sank all of them.

Another theory about the battle suggests that Antony knew he was surrounded and had no where to run. Antony gathered his ships around him in a quasi-horseshoe formation, staying close to the shore for safety. If Octavian's ships tried to approach Antony's, the Sea would push them into the shore. Antony may have known that he wouldn't be able to defeat Octavian's forces, so he and Cleopatra stayed in the rear of the formation. Eventually, Antony sent the ships on the northern part of the formation to attack. He had them move out to the north, spreading out Octavian's ships which up until now were tightly arranged. He sent Gaius Sosius down to the south to spread the remaining ships out to the south. This left a hole in the middle of Octavian's formation. Antony seized the opportunity and with Cleopatra on her ship and him on a different ship, sped through the gap and escaped, abandoning his entire force.


Ballistae on a Roman ship.

The political consequences of this sea battle were far-reaching. As a result of the loss of his fleet, Mark Antony's army, which had begun as equal to that of Octavian's, deserted in large numbers. Antony lost some 19 infantry legions and 12,000 cavalry under cover of darkness before he had any chance to engage Octavian on land. Despite a victory at Alexandria on July 31, 30 B.C.E., more of Mark Antony's armies eventually deserted him, leaving him without a competent force to fight Octavian. Rather than surrender to Octavian, Mark Antony committed suicide.

Cleopatra then attempted to negotiate her surrender with Octavian. Failing to secure favorable terms, Cleopatra also committed suicide, on August 12, 30 B.C.E. She allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp that was reportedly hidden for her in a basket of figs.

Thus, Octavian's victory at the Battle of Actium resulted in him securing sole, uncontested control of Roman domains around the Mediterranean as "first citizen" of Rome. This victory enabled him to consolidate his power over every institution of Roman administration as Augustus Caesar, marking the transition of Rome from Republic to Empire. The final surrender of Egypt and the death of Cleopatra also mark, for many historians, the final demise of the Hellenistic Age as well as the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

To commemorate his victory over Antony, Augustus established the Roman festival Actia. Augustus also set up a monument overlooking the site, which incorporated the bronze rams taken from the defeated ships. The surviving sockets in the stonework are physical evidence of the size of these rams. [1]


  1. The Institute for the visualization of history, Evidence. Retrieved July 26, 2018.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brooks, Polly Schoyer. Cleopatra: Goddess of Egypt, Enemy of Rome. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995. ISBN 978-0060236083
  • Califf, David J. Battle of Actium. Great battles through the ages. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004. ISBN 978-0791074404
  • Everitt, Anthony. Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor. New York, Random House, 2006. ISBN 978-1400061280
  • Military Heritage published a feature about the Battle of Actium, involving Mark Antony, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus aka. Octavian (Julius Caesar's 18-year old adopted son and heir), and Cleopatra of Egypt (Joseph M. Horodyski, Military Heritage, 7(1) (August 2005): 58–63, 78. ISSN 1524-8666
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved June 15, 2023.


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