There have been a lot of battles throughout history, and whether they were the result of petty arguments, disagreements, or other – more meaningful – aggravations, they all have one thing in common: they affected the subsequent area, people, and timeline thereafter in some way. The scale on which those butterfly effects rippled through time varies, however; sometimes considerably so. A random border dispute – even between major armies – might not change the strategic or political landscape that greatly, and while one of the casualties may have gone on to change the world in some respects, generally speaking this type of engagement doesn’t change much outside of the immediate geographical area and timeframe. And then sometimes battles affect a much greater arena; perhaps entire royal families come and go, or countries disappear into the sands of time. And sometimes the outcome of a battle affects everything, everywhere, and is felt for hundreds – or thousands – of years.
Actium is such a battle.
This is the time of Caesar; the same fellow who found himself on the senate floor in a pool of his own blood, and a bunch of mates surrounding him, holding daggers, and wearing guilty-looking expressions. The problem was that Caesar was actually a pretty popular fellow with the lower classes of Rome, and you can’t just bump-off someone like that without repercussions. Which perfectly played into the political machinations of Mark Anthony as he used the power of the mob to oust the assassins and put them to flight, thus ushering in his own power move, right?
There was a catch: Caesar had named his grandnephew – and recently adopted son – Gaius Octavius as his sole heir. And you know what you get when you are Caesar’s son and heir to everything? A fat wad of cash the size of a Kardashian posterior, that’s what. Octavian instantly became one of the wealthiest citizens in the Republic, inherited the loyalty of the Roman populace, and – despite being a mere 18 years of age – he proved to have considerable political skills. Anthony was going to have to put his schemes to take Rome for himself on hold; he and Octavian combined forces, tucked a handsome army into their knapsacks, and headed east to kick the living cack out of Brutus and Cassius Longinus as a righteous “Caesar was our friend, you tools!”
And here is where we shall pause, because you can imagine Anthony and Octavius – staring at each other and surrounded by bodies – would probably say to each other: “now what?”
And this would be a fair question indeed. Anthony was a powerful man and was not without considerable support. Octavius had political clout, smarts, was the son of Caesar. And he was pimp. Did we mention the money already?
There was another bloke, too, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. This poor guy gets forgotten about a lot, but as a close ally to Caesar, he had moved quickly when learning of his death, and had helped maintain a degree of order. Oddly, perhaps, when ordered by the senate to clip Anthony upside the head when Anthony was misbehaving in Northern Italy, Lepidus instead ended up joining forces with him. It might have had something to do with the fact that half of Lepidus’ legions marched over to Anthony when the two sides met each other, but who knows?
The point is that by the time Octavius and Anthony were bro-fisting their alliance, Lepidus was also kinda hanging around and somehow ended up being part of the cool-kids pack (but in that “oh, it’s you. Who invited you?” kinda way).
When Anthony and Octavius were curb-stomping Brutus and Longinus at Philippi, Lepidus was left home at Rome to look after the kids. We could say that they trusted him to get no crazy ideas. We could also say that he lacked the political clout to be a threat, which – in turn – could also mean that Anthony and Octavius didn’t trust the other to either head off with a large army, or be left back in Rome alone.
But think about this for a moment: You’ve got two powerful guys (+ some other bloke), basically now shuffling their feet in the middle of the world’s largest empire: who the heck was going to take the reins and run this thing?
They decided on: all three of them.
On the 26th of November, 43 BC, the Second Triumvirate was born; an official and legally establish institution, with overwhelming power in the Roman senate. Basically – in a nutshell – they parceled out the entire empire into “spheres of influence” and each of them was now a mini-dictator.
Octavian – who started calling himself “son of the divinity,” cos: why not? – took the West. Anthony got the East. Lepidus … um … Lepidus got some sand on the other side of the Med. And a palm tree.
From this point onwards it was the Octavian and Anthony show.
There would be joint decisions, responsibility, cash would be divided up equally, and no one was meant to start amassing wealth or armies disproportionate to the other two person. Octavian arranged for his sister – Octavia – to marry Anthony as a symbol of the renewed alliance, and peace, good reason, and prosperity spread across the lands like a shipping container full of white doves.
Pfft, yeah RIGHT.
You see, the problem with an arrangement such as “let’s split up the empire between the three two of us and rule equally,” is that it requires the honesty and co-operation between humans. And humans are douches, man, they really are; full of petty little rivalries, greed, and unfettered ambition.
Cracks started to appear when Mr. “Spare-Wheel” himself started to make a land grab and issued demands for more land. There had been problems with a certain Sextus Pompey pirating the crap out of coastal town and Rome grain shipments, and while it had been Octavian’s buddy and best bro, Agrippa, who got all of the glory for bringing this cur to heel, it had actually been Lepidus who had raised an army of 14 legions, a huge fleet, and had been the first to land at Sicily to deal with the problem. As far as Lepidus was concerned, he was the MAN.
So when Octavian and Anthony basically treated him like some optional bolt-on component, he got a might miffed. Sicily was his, he went on to argue, and all of his former lands should also be returned to him!
Octavian accused him of attempting to usurp power, stripped him of all titles, and banished him to Circeii, a town and comune in the province of Latina, in the Lazio region of central Italy. Which goes to show that you really should be grateful for what you have, when you’d just been given a slice of the Roman freaking Empire to rule over.
So now there was really only two left, but that wedge that was between them … let’s just see how deeply they could drive that thing.
Well, for starts, Anthony decided that his home turf was going to be Alexandria, over in Egypt. Okay, I can get that; a nice little place, good weather, good food, and a fine view, amirite, gentlemen?
Enter the scene, one Cleopatra VII of Egypt.
Now little Cleo here was a bit of a minx. Cleo had already bedded Caesar some years prior, and – reportedly – had a son to him, called Caesarion. When Anthony came along, she wasted no time in wooing him as well, and before you know it the two of them are making all sorts of noises in every room of the Alexandrian palace; in no time at all Anthony’s children are dropping out of Cleopatra like she was auditioning as an extra on an episode of Jersey Shore.
But he was married. To Octavian’s sister.
Can you hear that wedge getting well and truly rammed into the cracks of the Triumvirate, yet? No? Not a problem, because we’re not done here.
Anthony decided that he was going to kick in the faces of neighboring Armenia and would acquire their turf – as you do if you have some armies hanging around doing nothing – and, when victorious, immediately set about minting coins to commemorate the victory, created a mimic of a Roman parade through Alexandria, and started handing out newly conquered territories to his children. Read: Cleopatra’s children.
This was all kinds of a problem. Not only was Anthony going “native” – in and of itself something to be held with derision back at home – not only was he cheating on Octavian’s sister, not only was he conquering territory with Roman soldiers and then parceling out the land to non-Romans, but he was then celebrating this using Roman parades.
The once highly supported Anthony started to lose fans back home real fast.
Not that he really gave a shit; Anthony’s head – both of them – was well and truly elsewhere. He was seen in public wearing the iconography of Egyptian gods, coins were minted with the likenesses of him and Cleopatra, and Caesarion – now effectively Anthony’s stepson – was given the very bold title of “King of Kings.”
Rumors started to spread that Anthony intended to move the capital to Alexandria, and – regardless of whether this was true or not – the writing was clearly on the wall: Anthony was reshaping the destiny of Rome to be under an Egyptian dynasty; he’d gone rogue.
Even after all of this, Anthony was not without his supporters, and it was only once Octavian produced – miraculously – Anthony’s very own Will & Testament, that things really went sour. In this will Anthony gave vast swathes of land to his children, promises of inheritance, and left instructions to be buried at Alexandria. Now, whether this will was legitimate or not is a whole other question (and one is reminded that Octavian was a wily politician), but it had the desired effect: war was declared on Cleopatra, and through her: Anthony.
Anthony – with copious help from his little lady friend – raised a massive army and fleet, and took himself to the seaside town of Actium, where his handsome ships bobbed up and down reassuringly in the Ambracian Gulf. 20,000 men, 2,000 archers, 50 transport ships, and 290 of the largest-assed quinqueremes were at his disposal. And, as icing on the cake, Cleopatra was with him, so: daily nookie!
But months started to drift by as Octavian watched on from a safe position, and while each week and month brought more reinforcements for Anthony’s army, Octavian and his number one man – Agrippa – were left to raid whatever Anthony-friendly port they wanted, and – ultimately – time was on their side, not his. Illness started to sweep through Anthony’s camp, and – through Cleopatra’s urging – it was decided that the troops would be garrisoned in nearby strong fortifications and the fleet itself would head back to Alexandria; battle would come at a later date.
Fortunately for Octavian, before the battle was joined, one of Anthony’s generals – Quintus Dellius – defected, and with that defection came the enemy fleet battle plans; Anthony intended to lure the main fleet in close so that the currents and winds would take them precariously close to Actium’s shoreline, and would then smash through Agrippa’a left flank with his largest ships.
Agrippa urged for Octavian to meet him head-on as he attempted to escape the gulf, and Octavian agreed; the two of them concocting a plan to stay at arm’s length, forcing Anthony to come to them and give battle.
It was September 2nd and the seas were rough. As Anthony’s fleet headed out, with Cleopatra and her gold-tipped oared floating palace tucked in safely behind. He was facing a smaller fleet than his own, and his ships were towering 250 ton quinquereme’s: armored, with rams that could render anything they hit to matchwood, and towers bursting with archers capable of tearing any nearby enemy crew to shreds. His fleet was a MONSTER.
What he faced was not only fewer in numbers, but Octavian’s galleys under Agrippa were generally smaller, so much so that they’d struggle to make ramming actions effective against the much bigger opponents.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Anthony; he had some problems. Firstly, the illness that had plagued his camp had left him short on men and not all of his “battle tanks” were going to be able to work at top efficiency. Worse, with the incredible size of his ships came a ponderous speed and agility, especially compared to what Agrippa was punting around in, and Agrippa’s men were the better, fresher, sailors. Undermanned, slower, and with inferior crews, Anthony was going to have a problem bringing his main weapon to bear: the ram.
Battle was joined, but it became a slugfest; smaller, quicker ships darted among the bigger ones, hurling missiles and fire onto the decks of the larger ships, and then darting away before heavy rams could tear them open. It was a land battle on the water, and the carnage dragged on all day.
Cleopatra – pacing up and down on her royal barge – could barely contain her angst and stress. At an opportune moment as Agrippa’s line started to open up, she finally broke and ordered for her contingent of sixty ships to break for open waters; Cleopatra and her escort started to stream past the carnage in an obvious dash for freedom. Anthony saw this – of course – exclaimed “Screw that woman! We have a fight on!” and he turned to his men, a fiery aura of charisma engulfing him, and he exclaimed “Let loose the bears riding sharks!”
*screeeeeeech* *record skip*
Orrrrrr, actually what happened, is that Anthony saw Cleo bucking it, thought “oh shit, that’s my broad!” and he jumped into a smaller ship and pursued after her. With forty ships in tow. That’s 100 ships in all fleeing for the high seas.
Yeah, with the battle still raging on.
He finally caught up with the royal barge, boarded, and threw into a rage. But not the sort of rage that caused anyone to break up here or anything, oh no; the two of them were probably rolling around in silk cushions before they were out of sight of the entire fleet falling into disarray behind them.
Anthony’s fleet – with their commander running and utter demoralized – were destroyed; hulls were burning on the water and shoreline alike, so much so that Octavian recorded that the sky was lit up for the entire night.
Anthony and Cleopatra returned to Alexandria and a hero’s welcome (nope, I’m not kidding), and they paraded through the streets as if victory had been theirs. The real result would catch them up, however.
Now, I’ve read at least one account that records this as a tactical victory for Anthony, and if “escape with my own ass and get busy with the missus” was his goal, then as sure as hell he succeeded. But for the life of me I’m having a hard time with the reality of him utterly losing everything in his pursuit of Cleopatra: 5,000 of his men were killed, 200 ships were sunk or captured, and his southern camp – with NINETEEN legions and 12,000 cavalry -was forced to capitulate or ran off into the darkness; and now he was a fugitive, a rebel, and had no legal position other than “idiot.”
Cleopatra – ever the snake in the grass – sent a gift of a golden crown and throne to Octavian, as he wintered to the north, in exchange for her abdication (in preference for her son, of course). Anthony also sent money and offered to live as a private citizen in Athens; but at this point the whole thing is just wretchedly pitiful. Cornelius Gallus – loyal to Octavian – started to advance in from Paraetonium, Octavian himself landed at Pelusium, and Anthony was forced into a fighting withdrawal as more and more men deserted him.
Eventually he was decisively beaten, and – believing Cleopatra to have been captured – he chose to stab himself. Suicide, yo, it’s the new “I QUIT!”
And Cleo, upon hearing the news and knowing that nothing good was going to come next, committed suicide with the bite of an asp snake to her bossom. (So bloody melodramatic!)
Anthony and Cleopatra were no more.
Octavian’s victory here at Actium gave him sole, uncontested control over the Mediterranean and his power consolidated over every Roman institution. With this era marking the transition of Rome from Republic to Empire, he renamed himself “Augustus Caesar.”
While over in Egypt, Cleopatra’s death marked the final demise of both the Hellenistic Period and the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
Now … imagine what would have occurred if Anthony and Cleopatra had been victorious at Actium, moved the Roman capital to Alexandria, and started wholesale Egyptian influence and religion across the empire. Maybe they would have been assassinated, maybe the lineage of Cleopatra to Caesarion would have been prevented … but on the other hand …
As it turned out, Octavian executed Caesarion, annexed Egypt into the Roman Empire, and used Cleopatra’s treasure to pay off his veterans. Augustus became the first and arguably most successful of all Roman emperors, and ruled a peaceful, prosperous, and expanding Roman Empire until his death in 14 AD at the ripe old age of 75.