Was the Battle of Actium Lost for Cleopatra and Mark Antony Before It Even Started?
The Battle of Actium proved to be a catastrophic blow to the hopes and dreams of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony. With unwavering confidence, the renowned duo had nurtured the belief that they were adequately equipped to confront the forces commanded by Octavian. However, their convictions were ultimately shattered as reality proved them wrong.
‘The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra’ (1885) by Lawrence Alma Tadema. (Public domain)
Surprising Defeat with Numerical Advantage at the Battle of Actium
According to certain researchers, the Roman forces in the Battle of Actium comprised 250 galleys, 16,000 infantry, and 3,000 archers. In contrast, Cleopatra and Antony reportedly commanded 290 galleys, 50 transports, 20,000 infantry, and 2,000 archers. At first glance, it is indeed astonishing that with such numerical superiority, Cleopatra and Antony's forces ended up on the losing side.
Meanwhile, according to Plutarch, the famous couple’s army was even more impressive. He claimed that their forces consisted of no less than 500 ships, 100,000 legionaries and armed infantry, along with 12,000 cavalrymen.
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In addition, Cleopatra and Antony received support from several allies, including Bocchus of Libria, Tarcondemus of Upper Cilicia, Philadelphos of Paphalagonia, Sadalas of Thrace, Mithridates of Commagene, and Archelaos of Cappadocia. Plutarch suggested that in comparison, Octavian arrived at the battlefield with a mere 250 ships, 80,000 infantry and 12,000 mounted troops.
Alternative accounts indicate that Antony and Cleopatra's naval forces numbered around 230 vessels, accompanied by 50,000 sailors and 115,000 soldiers, while Octavian ventured eastward with approximately 100 ships and 120,000 soldiers. Prior to the commencement of the Battle of Actium, Octavian is also believed to have received reinforcement from his trusted confidant, Agrippa, who joined him with an additional 300 war galleys.
Map of the Battle of Actium. (Future Perfect at Sunrise / CC BY SA 3.0)
As the two armies converged on the Ionian Sea near the Actium peninsula, Cleopatra was struck by the formidable size of Octavian's forces. Despite her apparent readiness, she couldn't shake off her concerns about the loyalty and cohesion of her diverse army, comprising soldiers from various nations who might not have shared a strong allegiance to their leader.
Furthermore, the pivotal role played by one of Antony's generals, Quintus Dellius, before the battle potentially contributed to their defeat. For Dellius famously defected to Octavian, divulging all of Antony's battle plans to the future Roman emperor.
This unexpected betrayal dealt a severe blow to Antony and Cleopatra's strategic advantage. Despite Antony's considerable wealth of battlefield experience, it proved insufficient to overcome Octavian's army, who benefitted from robust counsel and support from trusted advisers.
Naumachia Battle of Actium engraving. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY NC SA 2.0)
A Conflict that Changed the World – The Battle of Actium
The encounter marked the onset of Cleopatra and Antony's downfall. Antony was the first to surrender, succumbing to extreme anxiety and a profound loss of purpose. The available accounts of the conflict depict a narrative resembling a soap opera rather than a gathering of resolute leaders. As an illustration, Plutarch's writings described the events of the Battle of Actium in such a manner.
“Anthony made it clear to all the world that he was swayed neither by the sentiments of a commander nor of a brave man, nor even by his own, but as someone in pleasantry said that the soul of the lover dwells in another's body, he was dragged along by the woman as if he had become incorporate with her and must go where she did. For no sooner did he see her ship sailing off than he forgot everything else, betrayed and ran away from those who were fighting and dying in his cause, got into a five-oared galley, where Alexas the Syrian and Scellius were his only companions, and hastened after the woman who had already ruined him and would make his ruin still more complete. Cleopatra recognized him and raised a signal on her ship; so Anthony came up and was taken on board, but he never saw nor was seen by her. Instead, he went forward alone to the prow and sat down by himself in silence, holding his head in both hands.”
The Battle of Actium witnessed the destruction or capture of no less than 200 ships belonging to Cleopatra and Antony's forces. The loss of life among their soldiers amounted to around 5,000, while the Roman forces suffered comparatively fewer casualties, reducing their losses by 50%.
The extensive preparations for this naval encounter drained Egypt's resources, leaving the treasury completely depleted. Consequently, the couple found themselves trapped, their once-resplendent abode, the magnificent white palace of Alexandria, becoming a confining haven.
Representational image of relief commemorating the Battle of Actium discovered in Avellino, Italy. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Secrets About the Battle of Actium Revealed on a Victory Monument
In March 2019, an exciting revelation emerged from researchers, shedding light on a longstanding belief concerning the Battle of Actium. Situated near Nicopolis in Greece, a victory monument unveiled intriguing evidence indicating that some of Cleopatra and Mark Antony's naval vessels were unusually large in comparison to Octavian's ships. Scholars believe that Octavian’s smaller and quicker vessels would have given him a significant advantage.
The evidence materialized through a meticulous examination of 35 niches explicitly designed to accommodate bronze battering rams, which were originally seized as war trophies from Antony and Cleopatra's fleet. These niches, varying in shape and size, provide fascinating insights. As The Independent reported, it was revealed that “some of Antony and Cleopatra’s warships were up to 40 meters long [31.23 ft].”
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This crucial discovery not only confirmed suspicions about the existence of sizable ships but also highlights the formidable nature of the duo's naval power, enabling historians to glean a more comprehensive understanding of Octavian's strategic maneuvers during the Battle of Actium. The finding underscores the significance of ship size and weaponry in shaping the dynamics of historical battles.
It elucidates how the combination of larger vessels and powerful battering rams wielded by Antony and Cleopatra's forces could have impacted Octavian's tactics and influenced the ultimate outcome of the conflict. Such insights into the naval strengths and weaknesses of the opposing factions contribute to a deeper appreciation of the strategies employed by ancient military leaders and the critical role played by technology and naval superiority in determining the course of history.
‘The Death of Cleopatra’ by Juan Luna. (Public domain)
The Aftereffects of the Battle of Actium
The world of Cleopatra and Mark Antony crumbled within a year of the fateful Battle of Actium. Tragedy struck with the murder of Ptolemy Caesar, the crown prince, and Antony, burdened by despair, chose to take his own life. Cleopatra, desiring to preserve Antony's memory for eternity, had him mummified before eventually joining him in the realm beyond. The kingdom of Egypt, once governed by its illustrious queen, was reduced to a mere Roman province, destined to endure for centuries to come.
The ancient civilization, once an indomitable force, would never reclaim its former glory. The arrival of the Arab Bedouins marked a turning point, casting a long shadow over the once resplendent land. Egypt, a land once teeming with awe-inspiring grandeur, now existed as a mere vestige of its illustrious past.
The Battle of Actium held immense significance in the ancient world. The downfall of the royal couple from Alexandria provided a golden opportunity for the Roman Empire to extend its dominion. Octavian, seizing the moment, capitalized on this chance and, a year later, emerged triumphant in his final confrontation with the last queen of Egypt, in the very heart of Alexandria. On September 2, 31 BC, Octavian Augustus effectively brought an end to a civilization that had thrived for a remarkable span of at least 4,000 years.
Over time, Cleopatra has transcended the bounds of history to become an enduring icon of popular culture. The Battle of Actium became immortalized as the dramatic downfall of a queen, while also casting a light on Octavian Augustus and his darker side. However, one could argue that Cleopatra and Antony ultimately fell victim to their own hubris and strategic shortcomings.
The Battle of Actium not only reshaped the geopolitical landscape of the ancient world but also provided profound lessons on the perils of overconfidence and the impact of strategic prowess. Cleopatra and Antony, once revered as powerful rulers, found themselves ensnared in a web of their own making, forever etching their tragic tale into the tapestry of history.
Top image: The Battle of Actium took place on the 2nd September 31 BC. Painting by Laureys a Castro in 1672. Source: Public domain
Fletcher, J. 2012. Cleopatra the Great. The Woman Behind The Legend. Harper Perennial.
Krawczuk, A, 1969. Kleopatra.
Krawczuk, A. 1964. Oktawian August.
Tyldesley, J. 2010. Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt. Basic Books.