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Battlefield: Actium

Julian Humphrys explains how the Battle of Actium, off the Greek coast, led both to the end of the Roman Republic and to the suicides of history’s most famous lovers…

Downfall of Antony and Cleopatra

Antony’s campaign to become sole ruler of Rome was crumbling. By the summer of 31 BC, his fleet was trapped in the Ambracian Gulf, on the west coast of Greece, by the ships of his enemy, Octavian. He was chronically short of men, and the spot where his army was camped was a mosquito-infested marsh near Actium, on the south shore of the gulf. Their every move was being watched by Octavian’s men from the high ground on the opposite shore. Supplies were running out, malaria and dysentery were decimating his army, and the oarsmen who powered his ships were starting to desert. Antony had to make a move, and soon – if he didn’t, before long he’d have no forces with which to fight.

SMOKE ON THE WATER Octavian’s men rain down fire on Antony’s withering fleet

The Battle of Actium was the climax of 13 years of civil wars. Sparked by the assassination of Julius Caesar, they had torn the Roman world apart. Caesar’s heir, Octavian, and his former right-hand man, Antony, had been two-thirds of the triumvirate, which, in 42 BC, brought down Caesar’s murderers. But once that common enemy had been tackled, their fragile alliance began to fracture and the two became bitter enemies.

Octavian’s power base was in the western part of the Roman territories, while Antony controlled the eastern part – with the aid of his lover, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. at relationship gave Antony access to the riches of Egypt but it also scandalised Rome, a situation exacerbated by the fact that Antony had abandoned his Roman wife – who, significantly, was also Octavian’s sister. Octavian’s propaganda machine was soon hard at work, portraying the struggle not as one between him and Antony but as a war between virtuous Rome and decadent Egypt.

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The May 2015 issue of History Revealed