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Actium, Battle of

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History

Wayne P. Hughes

Actium, Battle of 

The Battle of Actium, fought on September 2 in 31 b.c.e., is remembered for its famous commanders, for ending a complicated and expensive civil war, and for its enduring consequences to Rome. The campaign leading to the battle is a classic example of the influence of sea power worthy of, and indeed mentioned by, the American naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914). The battle itself illustrates the tactics in the long era of galley warfare that are well but inconsistently described in ancient sources.

The Campaign

In the summer of 33 b.c.e. Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) brought his substantial army of sixteen legions to Ephesus on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, inviting Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, to join him with munitions, money, and her fleet. As his relations with Cleopatra waxed and those with Rome waned, he contemplated a descent on Italy and soon moved his forces to Greece. Rome, badly needing the wealth of the east, feared a break by Antony or even dominance by its eastern provinces centered in Cleopatra’s Alexandria. A climax was coming. But during 32 b.c.e. neither of the opponents, Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus) nor Antony, was ready to move against the other. In Rome, Octavian had to lobby for support and the isolation of his former compatriot Antony. In Antony’s army many of his best soldiers were Roman who did not want to fight Romans, and he needed to persuade them their destiny lay with him.

By the winter of 32–31 b.c.e., Antony was preparing to invade Italy and march to Rome. Accompanied by Cleopatra, he established a camp on the west coast of Greece. According to Plutarch, their forces numbered five hundred galleys and one hundred thousand soldiers plus cavalry. The army was spread along the coast, but most of the fleet was positioned well forward in the Gulf of Ambracia (Arta). During the winter, however, the fleet lost perhaps a third of its crews to disease. Meanwhile Octavian, now with the full yet reluctant backing of the Roman Senate, assembled perhaps eighty thousand soldiers and 250 galleys in the heel of Italy. Early in March 31 b.c.e., his fleet, superbly trained by his military commander, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, began to attack and seize the bases Antony had established to safeguard his supplies from Asia Minor and Egypt. While Antony’s attention was drawn southward to his line of communications, Octavian crossed from Italy and assembled his army north of the Gulf of Ambracia in the hope of destroying Antony’s unready, unprotected fleet. Antony hastened up from Patras and, aided by some deception, arrived just in time to establish his army near Actium, a promontory on the south entrance to the gulf. Octavian soon arrived to establish his own army about eight kilometers (five miles) north of the narrow strait and instituted a siege by land and a blockade by sea.

Mark Antony, a superb general, tried to force a battle of armies, but Octavian and Agrippa were well entrenched and circumspectly avoided it. As spring stretched into summer, Antony and Cleopatra found they could break neither the siege nor the naval blockade. With the enemy fleet bottled up, Agrippa was free to further destroy Antony’s sea communications. By attacking from Leucas to Patras to Corinth, he imposed on the eastern army an ever more tenuous land-line of supply. Meanwhile the low plain near Actium proved as unhealthy for the Antony’s army in the summer as it had for the eastern fleet in the previous winter.

Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra could withdraw their army eastward but not without exposing their fleet to destruction with dreadful consequences. Roman historians say Cleopatra urged a sea battle so that she might escape in the process, but this is too facile and Cleopatra too easy to blame. In fact a sea battle was probably Antony’s only choice. Though undermanned, his vessels were larger and stronger than Octavian’s and superbly built. They were, however, less maneuverable and barely ready for action, for Agrippa had designed Rome’s ships well, trained the crews assiduously, and fine-tuned his fleet’s skills in the course of tearing up Antony’s line of supply.

The Battle

The historian William Rodgers, drawing from sources of the period, makes a detailed argument that the battle fleet of Antony and Cleopatra had been reduced from 500 to around 180 galleys to face Octavian’s 250. We know that because he could not man all his ships, Antony had destroyed many of them in the harbor. Antony intended to bring his fleet out on August 29, but a storm delayed him until September 2. Octavian and Agrippa were well warned by a general who a few days earlier had brought his soldiers out and switched sides. Antony arrayed his fleet, bows out and close to the coastline, inviting the western fleet to attack where it could not exploit its maneuverability. Agrippa did not take the bait, however, and waited for the enemy to come to him. Sometime in midmorning Antony’s left wing became impatient and moved forward. The Roman right pretended to retreat, and Antony’s galleys moved away from the coast, whereupon the Roman fleet could use its maneuverability to concentrate two or three smaller galleys selectively on single enemy ships.

Nevertheless, historians say the battle was closely fought and undecided when, around two in the afternoon, Cleopatra’s sixty galleys, purportedly held in tactical reserve, abruptly hoisted sail, charged through the western fleet, and stood out to sea. Almost at once Antony set off after her, accompanied by a modest number of his galleys that were able to dump their fighting towers and bend on sails. Roman legend says his was the irrational act of a lovesick man, but more likely it was according to a plan of escape that perhaps was prematurely forced on him by Cleopatra while victory was still possible. If that is so, his plan to take his fleet with him failed because most of it was too closely engaged to escape. Indeed, the eastern fleet seems not to have known until later what had happened. In late afternoon the survivors were able to row back past Actium and into the gulf.

But the matter was settled. Mark Antony knew it, for it is said that for three days he sat inconsolably and alone on the bow of Cleopatra’s flagship. Although Antony got word to his army commander, one Canidius, to conduct a fighting retreat, that once-formidable eastern army disintegrated, some surrendering and others simply walking away. Most of the fleet was also lost—Plutarch says three hundred galleys, which might be true if one counts the ships Antony burned before the battle for lack of crews.

Roman historians gleefully blamed the defeat on Cleopatra for running away. A wiser conjecture of later historians is that Antony lost because he had alternative objectives, which of necessity he could reveal to only a few combatants. His fleet would fight to win, but when it appeared that they could not, then they would save themselves by sailing away together on the reliable afternoon breeze out of the north. In support of this opinion, we know the eastern galleys had not left their sails ashore, which was common practice in preparation for battle under oars. But an ambiguous combat objective is always a chancy thing, and in the event it took too much coordination to succeed.


The Battle of Actium brought an end to the confusion and civil war that had plagued the Roman world before and after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 b.c.e. After Cleopatra and Mark Antony fled the battle scene with their army and navy destroyed, Octavian first returned to Rome to consolidate his now unchallengeable power. A year later he pursued Antony and Cleopatra to Egypt, where, unable to negotiate honorable terms of survival, both committed suicide, Queen Cleopatra famously by the bite of an asp. Employing patience and skillful leadership, Octavian brought stability and prosperity to Rome. Eight years after Actium, Octavian felt secure enough to declare himself Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

In a culture riddled with brutality and venality, Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian each exhibited vast talent accompanied by overweening hubris. Antony and Octavian had been frequent collaborators, and one may imagine their fatal confrontation at Actium was not without personal regret. Antony had his well-deserved admirers, who shared his fear of autocratic rule by Octavian and the end of the Roman Republic. Cleopatra was the archetypal female leader whose charms, firmness, wealth, and administrative skills might have made Alexandria the center of Roman civilization. Octavian ended a civil war that threatened to bankrupt Rome and reduce the republic to chaos. As Caesar Augustus, he is esteemed for transforming an oligarchy into an empire that was efficiently managed and more beneficial to Roman citizens than were the last days of the republic. Still, one may point to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as the personality whose military prowess and loyalty were the example to emulate, though his memory is largely lost among the more extravagant heroes of those times.

[See also Ancient Navies, subentry on Rome; and Tactics.]


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                  Wayne P. Hughes Jr.