The Battle of Actium was a deciding battle in the fate of the Roman Empire over the next few centuries; it was a battle that helped forge one of the biggest Empires the world has ever known. The problem with the Battle of Actium is that while it was pivotal and important many do not know anything about it.
The battle occurred on the 2nd September in the year 31 BC between Octavian and the joint forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII. The battle was one born out of greed as all those involved were in an alliance called the Second Triumvirate to govern the Roman Republic, but the alliance broke down and battle broke out to take sole control of the republic.
Prior to the Battle of Actium
The Second Triumvirate was forged through a five yearly term of agreement, the last of which was renewed in 38 BC. Octavian over time had become suspicious of his fellow Second Triumvirate rulers as he felt they were infringing in his power, this started when his brother in law Mark Antony left his wife, Octavian’s sister.
After the split with Octavian’s Sister Mark Antony moved to Egypt and struck up a relationship with Cleopatra VII, after this he started to act alone and not involve Octavian in decisions. This move seemed to back the thoughts Octavian was already having and cause more rifts.
By 33 BC when the five year term finished Mark Antony made it clear he didn’t want to be party to a renewal, but this was a ruse in which he wanted sole power. Octavian was trying to form a stronghold on his power and this played in to Mark Antony’s hands as Mark Antony said Octavian was moving out of the remit of his powers.
Initially the governing body’s backed Mark Antony, a move that saw Cleopatra and Mark Antony amass both land and sea forces to depose Octavian. During this same period Octavian had been increasing his armed forces too, it seemed battle was imminent and no one was going to be able to stop it.
Battle of Actium
When the battle occurred it was a mix of land and sea battles. Initially Octavian enclosed Mark Antonys ships by putting his 250 warships in a crescent formation blocking their path, this happened in 32 BC so Mark Antony retired back for the winter months.
In late 32 BC Octavian asked for a formal meeting with Mark Antony which was declined. After this not much happened in early 31 BC but in the second half of the year changed things.
On the 1st September Mark Antony had his ships form a line in the Straits of the Ambrucian Sea. While this was happening Octavian placed his ships in the Ionian Sea. This was before Octavian told his ships to sale right past Mark Antonys ships forcing the hand of Antony so he had no choice but o engage.
Mark Antony had roughly twice as many as Octavian’s force of 250 ships so must have thought that winning was inevitable. The problem with the ships of Mark Antony is that many of his ships were under strength due to illnesses such as malaria striking down many of the ships compliment.
On top of this one of Mark Antony’s generals had actually changed sides before the battle started and given Octavian the battle plans while Cleopatra had given a signal of retreat and her ships left the battlefield (Cleopatra did remain). This signal was not seen by Mark Antony.
In the early hours of the 2nd September battle commenced, it started with both fleets of ships meeting in the Gulf of Actium. The first to engage in battle was Gaius Sosius, a commander of the left flank of Mark Antony’s fleet.
Mark Antony had his north fleet engage in battle too, this saw the tightly knit fleet of Octavian become loose with large gaps appear in the line.
The battles were fierce and it was clear the Octavian was going to win because everything was stacked in his favour so as the battle ensued and Mark Antony could see ship after ship fall from his fleet.
With a large gap appear in the Octavian line Mark Antony and Cleopatra quickly escaped with their ship to remove them from the carnage of the battlefield. The battlefield continued to rage but ended up with Mark Antony having his fleet routed without him on the battlefield.
The battle finished as a resounding victory for Octavian who lost around 2,500 men while Mark Antony lost over 200 ships and over 5,000 killed.
After losing the battle Mark Antony went on to commit suicide.
After the battle Octavian became the first emperor of the Roman Empire and paved the way for the beginning of one of history’s largest Empires.