On this Day: The Last Naval Battle of the Roman Republic

September 2, 31 BC may not exactly mark the end of the Roman Republic, but it does mark the final battle toward the shift from Republic to Empire.

On November 23, 42 BC, a few months after the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Second Triumvirate consisting of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus took power in the Roman Republic.  In fact, some historians mark the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire from that date.  The Triumvirate had a five year term.  And while the first five years seemed to go reasonably well, the Triumvirate was unstable.  Antony hated Octavian.  Lepidus favored Antony but felt overshadowed by both of the others.  Still, all seemed well enough for the Triumvirate to be renewed in 38 BC.  It was then that things began to unravel.

In 36 BC Lepidus raised a large army of 14 legions to help subdue a revolt in Sicily.  Lepidus, believing that Octavian was treating him more like a subordinate than an equal, used his success in Sicily, both in being the first to land troops and capture of several of the main towns to assert that Sicily should be absorbed into his sphere of influence.  After some negotiation he suggested that Octavian could have Sicily and Africa, in return for Lepidus’ old provinces in Spain and Gaul, which provinces should have been his under the Lex Titia which formed the Triumvirate in the first place.

Octavian used this as an opportunity to declare that Lepidus was attempting to seize power and was in rebellion.  To add to that, Lepidus’ own legions deserted him for Octavian.  As a result, Lepidus was stripped of all power save that of the Pontifex Maximus (chief high priest of the college of pontiffs) and sent into exile in Circeii.

With Lepidus out of the way, that left Octavian and Antony with their bitter personal enmity.  Traditionally, one way folk have cemented alliances in history has been via political marriages, and Antony was married to Octavia, Octavian’s sister.  For his part Octavian was married to Antony’s stepdaughter Claudia Pulchra.  However, once Antony moved to Alexandria and openly lived with Cleopatra, siring children with her.

Octavian began a war in Illirium (modern day Croatia, Boznia and Herzegovenia, et al).  Antony, for his part, prepared for a campaign in Parthia.

Antony found himself overextended and defeated in Parthia and relied on Cleopatra to bring him supplies.  He turned his attention from their to Albania where he met with more success.  With Albania conquered, he read out a declaration, known as the Donations of Alexandria, granting territories to Cleopatra’s children.

When the second term of the Triumvirate (although not having been a trio for 3 years) expired in 33 BC, Antony continued to use the title “Triumvir”.  Despite that he wrote to the Senate saying that he did not wish to be reappointed but that he hoped the senate would regard him as their champion against the ambitions of Octavian.

Meanwhile, Antony complained that, among other things, Octavian exceeded his power by deposing Lepidus.  Octavian, in his turn, complained that Antony, among other things, had no business in Egypt.  There’s a lot of he said, he said there.

Octavian obtained a copy of Antony’s will by illegal means.  It revealed that Antony had left substantial legacies to his children by Cleopatra and plans to have his body, after his death, sent to Alexandria for burial.

These various complaints soon erupted into open conflict.  Octavian, by publishing Antony’s will was able to portray him as an agent of Cleopatra and create a violent outburst of feeling against him culminating in a proclamation of war against Cleopatra.

Antony meant to seize the initiative by launching a naval attack on the Italian peninsula but on seeing the approach guarded by a squadron of Octavian’s ships, he retreated to winter in Patrae while most of his fleet waited in the Ambracian Gulf.  He scorned offers made by Octavian for a conference and both sides made ready to do battle the next year.

The first part of the year was mostly jockeying for position, with Octavian having some modest successes on the coasts of Greece that were meant to divert Antony’s attention.  Antony, for his part, refused to be drawn out being busy gathering his forces from the various places they had wintered.

Finally, the two fleets met on September 2, 31 BC.  Antony’s fleet of 140 large war galleys, and another large force of Cleopatra’s ships, sailed out of the gulf to be met by Octavian’s fleet of 260 warships commanded by the experienced admiral Agrippa.  Antony’s smaller numbers were compensated by his possession of many large quinremes and quadriremes.  Their larger size made them difficult to board by men on the smaller Liburnian ships and provided a superior platform to rain down missile fire on Octavian’s ships.  For his part, Octavian’s ships were more maneuverable and able to duck in for a quick attack then retreat to relative safety.  Their crews were also better trained, better fed, and better rested.

Add in that one of Antony’s generals, Quintus Dellius, defected before the battle taking Antony’s battle plans with him and the scene was set.

Octavian, aware of Antony’s plan to attempt to use his biggest ships to drive back Agrippa’s forces on the north end of the line simply used his ships’ greater maneuverability and retreated ahead of Antony in good order.  The battle continued all morning and into the afternoon without decisive result.

Once the battle had moved out into the sea, Cleopatra’s ships, turned to retreat toward Egypt.  A favorable wind came up and soon they were sailing out of sight.

Antony, on seeing this, believed that panic had driven the retreat and that all was lost.  He turned and followed the flying squadron.  As it generally does, particularly when it’s the leader who flees, the panic spread fast.  Some ships tossed their heavy fighting gear overboard in an effort to lighten the vessels to allow them to flee more quickly.  Others fought on but now even more severely outnumbered, they soon succumbed.

Antony, for his part, tried to make the best of a bad situation.  He burned ships he could no longer man to deny them to his enemy.

The Battle of Actium was over.  The war was not…quite.  It would be some months before Octavian’s growing forces finally completed the defeat of Antony’s dwindling ones.  In the end, Antony, believing false rumors that Cleopatra had committed suicide stabbed himself in the stomach.  He did not die at once and, on learning that Cleopatra was still alive had himself taken to where she hid and so died in her arms.  According to the tale, about two weeks later, Cleopatra did take her own life by the bite of an asp.  Some have questioned that tale and suggest that Octavian simply had her assassinated, as he had her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, killed later that month but there is no evidence to support that and it remains but speculation.

With Octavian’s victory at the Battle of Actium, he had undisputed control of the Roman Mediterranean.  And with the later final defeat and deaths of Antony and Cleopatra he was undisputed leader of the institutions of Rome, marking the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.


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