The Battle of Actium After Julius Caesar was assassinated on the ides of March, there was an immense power struggle in the Roman Empire. Two men came out on top, and each was to rule half of the empire. Octavian ruled Rome and the Eastern Empire, while Marc Antony ruled the Western empire which included Egypt. Both men wanted control over the entire empire, but they also both knew that they couldn't openly do battle. However, Marc Antony made some tragic mistakes that led to open warfare.
It was rumored that Marc Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra were having an affair. Months later, Antony divorced his wife Octavian who just happened to be Octavian's sister. This not only spurred the wrath of Octavian but also the Roman people. Whether or not by truthful means or propaganda, Octavian also extracted the will of Marc Antony, which left his son by Cleopatra, Caesarian, heir to his half of the empire.
This put the Roman people in an uproar. Responding to the newly born anger in the Roman people, Octavian declared a "justum bellum" or just war against the foreign queen Cleopatra and all who side with her, which conveniently included Antony. He also did this to avoid calling it a civil war, for the Roman people were leery about killing their fellow citizens.
The war was very calm that year with only a few skirmishes. When winter came, Antony set up his winter quarters on the promontory of Actium and kept his ships offshore. His navy consisted of about 400 very large ships. Each ship had 8 to 10 banks of oars and was as tall as a 5 or 6 story building. The ships were also equipped with heavy catapults which were used for long range attacks.
When spring came, Octavian sent his fleet to meet Antony at his winter quarters. Octavian's fleet consisted of 400 small ships each equipped with iron rams. These ships had two or three oar banks and were extremely fast and maneuverable. Agrippa, the most decorated admiral of the time, commanded Octavian's fleet while he led his ground troops.
On land Octavian cut off Antony's supply lines and communication lines. He moved his army across the Ionian Sea and occupied the Epirate coast which was located north of Actium. By doing this he could intercept all supplies and messages to Antony.
Finally, on September 2, 31 B.C.., Octavian gave Agrippa the go-ahead to engage in battle. Agrippa aligned his ships into 3 formations, and Antony seeing this did the same. Cleopatra's small fleet was stationed behind Antony's and was to fill in the gaps in the formation. The two fleets met each other and the battle soon commenced.
Octavian's small ships rammed into the sides of Antony's larger ships than retreated. They made sure to avoid either melee combat or enemy archers and catapults. The battle raged and was mostly uneventful until noon when the wind shifted. Both fleets scurried to catch the wind and use it to their advantage, but Octavian's smaller ships were able to out maneuver those of Antony. Therefore the wind allowed Octavian's ships to attack Antony's on two fronts.
Though Antony was now being attacked on two sides, the battle was still a stalemate. Upon seeing this, Octavian decided to use fire in the battle. At first he didn't wish to use it because he wanted to loot the ships for money, but now he saw it necessary. The fire was lethally affective and engulfed the large ships quickly. This also led to the deaths of many of Antony's men. They met their end in several ways. They either leapt from the flames into the water, and the weight of their armor drowned them; or their armor was heated up in the flames and their skin melted away; or lastly they died from smoke inhalation. Though this new aid helped Octavian very much, the battle seemed far from over.
Next, for an unknown reason, Cleopatra began to retreat. She broke through Octavian's front line and sailed away towards Egypt. Antony immediately followed her and abandoned his troops, which meant they were left without a leader. Soon after this, Antony's center and left divisions surrendered in the traditional fashion of raising their oars. By the end of the battle, 300 of Antony's ships were burnt or sunk.
After the battle, Octavian built 300 shrines to various gods and goddesses throughout Rome. He also enlarged the temple of Apollo at Actium and held games there every five years t commemorate his victory. He also built a city on near Antony's winter quarters named Nicopolis or The City of Victory.
The battle seems cut and dry but there was more behind Antony's defeat than just bad tactics. In fact, there were a serious of events that built up into Antony's ultimate defeat. Before when the war was just declared, Antony's Roman officers wanted to retreat from Actium and fight a land battle. Cleopatra on the other hand, pushed for a naval battle believing that Antony's huge ships could never be beaten. Antony also kept his sails on board. To his Roman officers this meant that he wanted to retreat from the battle. Usually, sails were jettisoned before battle to make ships lighter. This lead to three squadrons of Antony's to not engage in battle. For these reasons, Antony lost the battle of Actium.