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Why did Antony lose the Battle of Actium?

Why did Antony lose the Battle of Actium?

Castro Battle of Actium

After Julius Caeser’s assassination in 44 B.C.E, the Roman Empire fell into civil war until three of the most influential men in Rome, (Octavian, Marc Antony, and Lepidus) formed an alliance known as the Second Triumvirate. 

Marc Antony

The Second Triumvirate would go on to defeat their opposition and seize control of the Roman Empire. Knowing they still had enemies, they decided the best decision was not to split up the empire, but instead that each of them should take up administration of one part of it. 

Octavian, the adopted son and only known heir to Caesar, would govern western Europe while Marc Antony, a renowned general and ally of Caesar, would govern Greece, Asia Minor, and parts of North Africa.

Lepidus, the oldest of three, and a former statesman, would rule the rest of Roman North Africa, while the three of them would share rule of Italy. 


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After receiving governance over the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, Marc Antony’s first order of business was to summon Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, in order to confront her for aiding his enemies in Asia Minor. 

Cleopatra was having an affair with Caesar when he was still alive.

In addition, claimed that her son Caesarian was his rightful heir. In an effort to seduce Marc Antony like she had Caesar, Cleopatra arrived dressed as Venus, the Roman goddess of Love. Her seduction was successful, and the two spent a winter together in 41 B.C.E. 


At this point in time, Marc Antony and Octavian’s relationship was strained at best. And in an effort to ease tensions, Marc Antony married Octavian’s sister Octavia. Unfortunately, their marriage was not a happy one, and in 37 B.C.E, Marc Antony left Octavia for Cleopatra, who had borne him twins in his absence. 

Understandably furious with Marc Antony, Octavian began spreading propaganda that Marc Antony had remarried Cleopatra, something that was illegal in Rome at the time. Antony’s public image would continue to suffer after a disastrous military campaign in Parthia (Part of Modern Day Iran). 

After a successful campaign in Armenia in 34 B.C.E, Marc Antony and Cleopatra held a victory ceremony  in which they gave their children impressive royal titles, and Caesarion the title of King of Kings.

The claim that Caesarion was the true heir of Caesar directly challenged Octavian’s authority, and the titles that the children had received were seen as an effort to bypass the Second Triumvirate for sole rule of the Roman Empire. Octavian thus declared war on Cleopatra and Marc Antony in 31 B.C.E.

Anticipating an attack by Octavian through Italy, Antony moved his troops from the Middle East to the west side of Greece, in the Gulf of Actium. He was also joined by a squadron under Cleopatra’s command. Moreover, a squadron which would be key to determining the balance of the battle. 

Unfortunately for Antony, Octavian moved his troops to the north side of the gulf.

Furthermore, Octavian was able to cut off Antony’s escape to the south.

Octavian forced Antony’s hand. In an attempt to prevent his troops from being surrounded. Antony put out to sea before he was ready and his troops were in battle form. Octavian responded in kind, blocking off Antony’s escape out of the west side of the gulf.

With nowhere to run, Antony’s fleet engaged out of necessity. 

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Marc Antony’s fleet consisted of about 200 ships, of which many were quinqueremes, larger ships made for battle. Octavian’s fleet was larger at about 260 ships, but most were smaller ships. However, Octavian’s smaller ships were much more maneuverable, a critical factor in the battle.

“September 2, 31 BC is the day that will live as testimony to the boldness of one man and his best friend,” said Lindsay Powell, historian of the Roman Empire. “When, next morning, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius (‘Commander Caesar Son of the God’) – AKA Octavian – declared victory his at the Battle of Actium, the upstart challenger effectively decided the destiny of the Roman World. He was its master now.”

In an effort to break out of Octavian’s blockade, Antony attacked Octavian’s left flank, commanded by renowned Admiral Agrippa. Unfortunately for Marc Antony, Octavian’s quicker ships were able to out-maneuver the attack, forcing Marc Antony to retreat. The fighting continued for hours until Cleopatra suddenly assembled her squadron and fled the batitle through a hole in Octavian’s blockade.

What happened next became hotly debated by historians to this day. As there are conflicting accounts of this story. 

What we know is that for whatever reason, after Marc Antony saw that Cleoptra’s fleet was fleeing. Antony gathered a small group of ships and followed her fleet back to Egypt, abandoning his troops. His troops were left demoralized by his departure, and were quickly defeated by Octavian. Octavian would go on to win the war.

So why did Marc Antony lose the Battle of Actium? 

“The military talents of Octavian’s best friend had helped him achieve this decisive victory,” said Lindsay Powell, author of the biography Marcus Agrippa: Right-Hand Man of Caesar Augustus. “In a months-long campaign aggressively attacking the enemy’s supply lines, Marcus Agrippa laid the groundwork for success. By beating his rivals on the day of the set-piece naval battle in the Ionian Sea, he had eliminated the chances of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra ever invading Italy. Octavian would forever-after be grateful to him. Among honors bestowed on Agrippa was a unique sea-blue blue pennant, which would fly on his ship as he sailed around the empire.”
Furthermore, Antony had made a poor choice for a campsite. 

Choosing to set up camp on the southern edge of the gulf allowed Octavian to quickly blockade Antony. Furthermore, this choice of campsite forced Antony into battle. A choice that would haunt Antony. His troops didn’t have the time to make their normal pre-battle preparations.  

Furthermore, Antony’ ship possessed a significant lack of maneuverability. The design was more in line with a barge than a battleship.

Antony’s troops were much less in numbers than Octavian’s. This made the battle difficult to win from the beginning.

However, there would have still been a good chance of prevailing if he hadn’t fled the battle with Cleopatra. 

While it’s possible that Antony had a good reason to flee, historians have not discovered it yet. And the likely explanation seems to be that he simply lost his nerve, and Octavian took advantage. 

“With final victory achieved a year later at Alexandria (August 1, 30 BC), Egypt fell to Octavian. All of its wealth was now his,” said Lindsay Powell. “With its riches, he could pay off the creditors who had financed his war, and crucially, he could reward his troops who had loyally served with him since 44 BC. After that, no one else could challenge him. Victory at Actium made it all possible. With good reason, the Battle of Actium has recently been called the ‘war that made the Roman empire’.”

Octavian would be crowned Emperor Augustus Caesar. This would complete Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire.

Lindsay Powell is a historian and author of Marcus Agrippa: Right-Hand Man of Caesar Augustus (Pen and Sword Books). Follow him on Twitter at @Lindsay_Powell.

Why did Antony lose the Battle of Actium?

Why did Antony lose the Battle of Actium?