Was the Battle of Actium Lost for Cleopatra and Mark Antony Before It Even Started?
The Battle of Actium was a catastrophe for the hopes and dreams of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony . The famous couple believed that they are well-prepared to fight with the army led by Octavian, but they were wrong.
Varied Numbers of Troops
According to some researchers, the Roman forces for this battle included 250 galleys, 16,000 infantry, and 3,000 archers. On the other hand, Cleopatra and Antony are said to have had 290 galleys, 50 transports, 20,000 infantry, and 2,000 archers. With these numbers, it is surprising at first glance that Cleopatra and Antony’s forces lost the battle.
‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (1885) by Lawrence Alma Tadema. ( Public Domain )
Plutarch wrote that the famous couple’s army was even bigger. He claimed that their army was no less than 500 ships, 100,000 legionaries and armed infantry, and 12,000 cavalrymen strong. They were supported by allies as well, including: Bocchus of Libria, Tarcondemus of Upper Cilicia, Philadelphos of Paphalagonia, Sadalas of Thrace, Mithridates of Commagene, and Archelaos of Cappadocia. Plutarch suggested that Octavian arrived at the battlefield with just 250 ships, 80,000 infantry, and 12,000 mounted troops.
Different sources say that Antony and Cleopatra’s navy consisted of 230 vessels, 50,000 sailors, and 115,000 soldiers. At the same time, Octavian sailed to the east with 100 ships and 120,00 soldiers. Before the battle of Actium started, Octavian’s trusted man, Agrippa, joined him with 300 war galleys.
Statue of Augustus as a younger Octavian. (c. 30 BC) ( Public Domain )
When the two armies met on the Ionian Sea near the Actium peninsula, the size of Octavian’s army terrified Cleopatra. Although she seemed to be well-prepared, it worried her that her army based on many different nations did not feel strongly aligned to its leader.
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Moreover, the battle may have been lost due to a decision made by one of Antony's generals, Quintus Dellius, before the battle. He defected to Octavian and brought all of Antony's battle plans to the future Roman emperor . This provided an unforeseen setback to Antony and Cleopatra’s strategies. Even the impressive amount of battle experience Antony held was not enough to defeat the leader of Octavian’s army, who was supported by strong advisers as well.
Map of the Battle of Actium. ( Future Perfect at Sunrise/CC BY SA 3.0 )
A Battle that Changed the World
The battle became the beginning of the end for Cleopatra and Antony. Mark Antony gave up first. He became very anxious and lost his will to live. All of the existing descriptions of the battle show the story more like a soap opera than a meeting of serious rulers. For example, Plutarch wrote:
''… 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.''
During the battle, at least 200 of Cleopatra and Antony’s ships were sunk or were captured. Up to 5,000 of their soldiers were killed, but the Roman forces lost 50% less people in the battle. The preparation for this meeting on the sea consumed most of Egypt’s resources and the treasury was empty. The couple, who used to live in the beautiful white palace of Alexandria, were trapped.
Secrets Revealed on a Victory Monument
In March 2019, researchers revealed that they had found some evidence for a long held belief about the battle of Actium. A victory monument overlooking the Actium battle site near Nicopolis in Greece suggests some of Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s ships were unusually large compared to Octavian’s ships. And scholars believe that Octavian’s smaller and quicker vessels would have given him a significant advantage.
The information was obtained by examining a series of 35 niches created for bronze battering rams taken as war trophies from Antony and Cleopatra’s ships and set in front of Octavian’s victory monument. The niches are different shapes and sizes and it seems, as The Independent reports “some of Antony and Cleopatra’s warships were up to 40 metres long.” Finding evidence for the existence of large ships and powerful battering rams of the duo’s fleet helps historians gain a better understanding of Octavian’s tactics at the battle of Actium.
Naumachia Battle of Actium engraving. (Mary Harrsch/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
The After Effects of the Battle of Actium
Returning to the past, in less than a year after the battle, Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s world collapsed. The crown prince, Ptolemy Caesar , was murdered and Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra mummified him and soon after she joined him in the afterlife. The kingdom of the last queen of Egypt became a Roman province for the next centuries.
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The ancient civilization never had its power returned. With the arrival of the Arab Bedouins in Egypt, the impressive land was only a shadow of its magnificent past .
The Battle of Actium was very important in ancient times. The couple from Alexandria’s downfall provided the opportunity to expand the Roman Empire’s power. Octavian did not waste this chance, and a year later he finally defeated the last queen of Egypt in Alexandria. On September 2, 31 BC, Octavian Augustus ended the history of a civilization which had existed for at least 4,000 years.
‘The Death of Cleopatra ’ (1881) by Juan Luna. ( Public Domain )
As time went by, Cleopatra became a pop culture icon, and the battle of Actium was presented as the fall of the queen, but also as a moment when Octavian Augustus showed his dark side. However, it could also be said that Cleopatra and Antony became the victims of their own cockiness and lack of strategic skills.
Top Image: ‘The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC’ (1672) By Laureys a Castro. Source: Public Domain
Aleksander Krawczuk, Kleopatra, 1969.
Aleksander Krawczuk, Oktawian August , 1964.
Joyce Tyldesley, Cleopatra. Last Queen of Egypt , 2008.
Joann Fletcher, Cleopatra the Great. The Woman Behind The Legend , 2008.