I first learned about the Battle of Actium when I was a child, watching the Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor classic, Cleopatra. I learned that apparently Mark Antony lost a naval battle to Octavian in September, 31 BC and then he and his lover, Cleopatra, killed themselves rather than be captured by Roddy McDowell (Octavian)-a humiliating fate indeed. Over time, as my knowledge of history improved, I learned a few more salient points. Octavian would go on to become the first Roman emperor, better known as Augustus, ushering in the era of Pax Romana, an era of Roman domination in Europe that would last for the better part of three centuries. I’ve always loved the term Pax Romana, literally “Roman Peace.” It’s a subtle piece of verbiage, indicating that this particular flavor of peace differed from any other-unique because all of Rome’s enemies had been annihilated.
It was not until recent study did I begin to understand just how much of a watershed the Battle of Actium really was. It is a cross-road at which the ancient world can truly be said to have come to an end. Only five hundred or so years before the Battle of Actium there were at least eight different powers that at one time or another vied for supremacy. Only one would emerge victorious-the Romans, whose final victory at Actium was the culmination of centuries of cataclysmic war between the ancient powers.
History ceases to be a colorful interplay of diverse nations after the Battle of Actium. Rome would rule a vast beaurocratic empire that would crumble away into fragments conquered by hostile tribes who would never recreate the grand cultures and empires of ancient Persia, Egypt or Greece. Even after the 1000 years of oblivion during the Dark Ages, European nations would never capture the imagination so vividly as they did when men like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Vercingetorix or Mark Antony walked the earth.
The Last Pharaoh – The 26th Egyptian Dynasty was the last family of native Egyptians to rule Egypt. After defeating the Assyrians and capturing Babylon, the Persians, under Cyrus set their sights on Egypt, the last independent Middle Eastern nation. Cyrus’ unfortunately did not live to see the conquest of Egypt, but his son Cambyses II did in 525 BC. The Persians conquered Egypt not long before they set their sights on Greece. After the Battles of Marathon in 490 BC and ten years later at Salamis, the Persian aura of invincibility was no more, however and European powers looked ambitiously on the vast lands of Asia. The Greeks, instead of pursuing the Persians, fought amongst themselves until Philip II of Macedon conquered Greece outright. His son, Alexander, launched an unprecedented campaign of conquest that brought all of the land from Greece to India, including Egypt, under his control. Alexander died in 323 BC, however, and his family and generals tore his empire into a number of fragments, each of which would eventually be conquered by the Romans. The longest lived of these fragments was the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt.
Ptolemy I was a childhood friend of Alexander, one of his bodyguards and his most trusted general. After Alexander’s death he brought the body back to Alexandria where he ruled Egypt as governor. He managed to survive the assaults of rival generals and Alexander’s kin and set himself up as the King of Egypt. He built the famed Library of Alexandria, which was a collection of ancient knowledge housed in one building and along with the famed Pharos lighthouse, was one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Much like the Persians before him, Ptolemy, in order to maintain an aura of legitimacy styled himself Pharaoh. The Ptolemaic Kings were Greeks, however, and ruled from Alexandria, not Thebes or Memphis. They did adapt an outward show of Egyptian custom but they also installed Greeks in all offices of power throughout Egypt and treated Greeks as a privileged class. Each male heir was named Ptolemy in turn and each daughter was named Cleopatra or Berenice. In order to maintain pure blood the Ptolemys frequently married within their own family and thus after several generations, they were highly inbred.
Cleopatra VII was the daughter of Ptolemy XII and sister of Ptolemy XIII and XIV. She married her two brothers, as per tradition, but produced no heirs. She did, however, give Julius Caesar his only biological son, Caesarion. He refused to legitimize the child, however, and named Octavian, his great nephew, heir in his will. Caesar, enraged that Ptolemy XIII had murdered Pompey, in pursuit of whom he had come to Alexandria, he had the young king drowned and set up Cleopatra as ruler with her much younger brother, Ptolemy XIV.
The events depicted on the “Caesarion” episode of the HBO series Rome are surprisingly accurate. Pompey was, indeed, killed by a former officer, and his head was presented to Caesar by Ptolemy. Caesar did mediate the dispute between Cleopatra and Ptolemy by endorsing Cleopatra as queen. She was also presented to the Roman general rolled up in a carpet. I doubt, though, that she was impregnated not by Caesar but a Roman soldier!
When Caesar was killed on the Ides of March 44 BC, Cleopatra found her strongest support was gone. Caesarion was ignored in Caesar’s will and was actually a target of Octavian’s hostility as a potential rival to Caesar’s inheritance. Eager to cement an alliance with another powerful Roman, Cleopatra became Mark Antony’s lover, bearing the triumvir three children. Antony married Cleopatra in an Egyptian wedding and proceeded to most of the Eastern Empire to his wife and children. He also legitimized Caesarion as Caesar’s heir. These events were the pretext for Octavian’s declaration of war and the Battle of Actium.
The battle itself was fought on September 2nd 31 BC. Antony had moored his ships in the Greek harbor of Actium. He was the victim of bad luck and poor generalship. His misfortune came in the form of disease, which did not allow him to field as many ships as he intended. His poor generalship was the choice to fight a sea battle when he was far more experienced on land. His undermanned and outmaneuvered fleet was destroyed by Marcus Agrippa, Octavian’s brilliant general and admiral. Antony made his escape to Egypt but both he and Cleopatra eventually killed themselves.
Octavian had Caesarion put to death instantly but bestowed the rest of the children with on sister, Antony’s former wife, Octavia. Rome fully annexed Egypt and the Roman Emperor became the ruler of Egypt, but not it’s Pharaoh. The history of the Pharaohs, a history that spanned three millennia, was over. Octavian brought back many trophies of his victory and to this day, Rome is adorned with obelisks from Egypt with Roman pedestals that commemorate the taking and erection of the Egyptian trophy in honor of Octavian’s victory.
The fall of Egypt to Roman hands also marked the end of Alexander’s Empire. Greece had long ago fallen into Roman hands, as had the territories of the Middle East but Ptolemaic Egypt long endured due to its physical separation from the rest of Europe and its large exports of grain that were quite valuable to Rome. Thus, in the death of Cleopatra, came the end to both the Egyptian throne and the conquests of Alexander the Great.
The End of the Roman Republic – Alexander the Great, had he lived, was considering a western invasion of either Africa or Rome. Had he chosen Rome, he almost certainly would have triumphed over the Republic and history would be dramatically different. Rome was founded in the 8th century BC by Romulus and Remus. Rome was a kingdom for two hundred years, until Marcus Junius Brutus’ ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus chased the last Etruscan King, Tarquin, out of the city and founded the Roman Republic in 510 BC.
The Roman Republic was not an immediate hit on the international scene. There were many other tribes in Italy that vied with the Romans for dominance. Notable among these are the Latins and the Sabines. Eventually, however, Rome managed to consolidate its power in Italy. Rome did face periodic invasion, as when the Gauls sacked Rome in 390 BC. The Romans were forced to reorganize their military and build considerable defensive walls around the city. They did, however, manage at last to attain total supremacy over Italy.
The Romans sought to expand their influence into the Mediterranean via Sicily, which was at that time in Carthaginian hands. The Carthaginians, descendents of the Phoenicians and based in North Africa were the dominant commercial and military power of the Mediterranean. Roman Expansion led Rome into inevitable conflict with Carthage.
The first Punic War was a dispute over Sicily in 264 BC and ended with a Roman victory that gave to Rome Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. The second war was fought in Spain, Italy and Africa. The Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Spain and led his army through Gaul, over the Alps and into Italy. Hannibal won almost every encounter with the Romans and nearly took the city but lost so many men on the journey that he eventually retreated to Africa where he was defeated at the Battle of Zama. The Third Punic War was fought as Rome grew anxious at Carthage rebuilding its empire. The Romans completely destroyed the city in 146 BC and sold its population into slavery. Thus ended opposition to Rome in the Western Mediterranean.
While Rome grew powerful, the Greeks and Persians were occupied with one another. Cassander, the son of Antipater, one of Alexander’s generals, seized control of Greece and for the next two hundred years Greece and Macedonia would be at odds with one another, fighting destructive wars as Rome grew stronger. Greece backed Carthage in the Second Punic War and thus Rome began to occupy Greek territory. With the destruction of Carthage, so too was Greece occupied.
With total dominance in the Mediterranean the Romans set their sights on Gaul. The Romans never forgot or forgave the sacking of the city in 390 BC. In 58 BC Caesar, after a contentious stint as Consul, left to preside over Gaul as proconsul, leaving the triumvirs Crassus and Pompey to rule Rome. Caesar proceeded to systematically subdue all resistance to Roman rule in Gaul. Caesar allied with some tribes against others, dividing the Gauls in this way. In 52 BC the Gauls mounted their only serious threat to Roman rule under the leadership of Vercingetorix, an Avernii chieftain. Vercingetorix knew that he could not defeat Caesar in pitched battle so he denied Caesar battle and burnt the surrounding countryside in an attempt to starve the Romans. Caesar was defeated at the Battle of Gergovia but managed to bottle up the Gauls at Alesia. After Vercingetorix surrendered, Roman rule in Gaul, and indeed in Europe, was supreme.
The end of the Roman republic basically came from the lack of enemies and the influx of money into the nation. Without external threats and with so much wealth to be had, Roman politicians began to fight amongst themselves in a series of destructive wars. Powerful men like Sulla emerged to quell rebellions and the Senate began to lose its power. After Sulla the first triumvirate emerged with unlimited power over Rome. After Crassus was killed by the Parthians at Carrhae, however, the conservative Roman senators wooed Pompey away from Caesar and attempted to prosecute Caesar as an enemy of Rome. Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC and defeated Pompey in a series of Civil Wars, becoming de facto emperor.
At this point in history, all European political power has been concentrated into Roman hands and thus Caesar, as dictator was the most powerful man in the world. There was still opposition in the senate, however, and Rome continued to function as a republic, but when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, the Liberatores signed the death warrant of the Roman Republic. The wars against the Liberatores wiped out any conservative resistance in the Senate to Caesar’s party. Many people date the creation of the second triumvirate in 43 BC to be the moment when the Republic really ceased to exist as Octavian and Antony did not fight over the restoration of the Republic but merely who would be in control of the Empire.
Thus the Battle of Actium marked the final consolidation of Roman as well as European, Asian and African power into the hands of one man. While the smoking ruin of Antony’s fleet may have been the immediate casualty, the death of several dominant civilizations had paved the way for Roman hegemony over Europe. Consider that in 500 years the Assyrians, Egyptians, Macedonians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Persians and Gauls had first cannibalized each other and then were in turn consumed by the Roman Republic that would finally consolidate its unimaginable power in the hands of Octavian Caesar Augustus. What countless men fought and died to create and conquer would be the play thing of irresponsible monsters like Caligula, Nero and Domitian. True democracy and republicanism would not return on a large scale in the world until the advent of the United States. The Roman juggernaut would become so powerful and beaurocratic, in fact, that upon its dissolution, the people of Europe would spend 1000 years in ceaseless war before they could figure out how to rule themselves again. There are so few moments in history that so clearly define a transition in the course of human events. The Battle Actium is one such lynch pin in history.