Octavian’s War against Antony (33–30 B.C.E.)
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Mark Antony and Cleopatra vs.
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Egypt
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Possession and control of
OUTCOME: Antony and Cleopatra were defeated; Octavian
conquered Egypt and subsequently, as Caesar Augustus,
was the first emperor of the Roman Empire.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:
Antony and Cleopatra’s forces, 40,000; Octavian’s forces,
CASUALTIES: At Actium, 5,000 of Antony’s men died.
TREATIES: Egyptian capitulation and tribute, 30 B.C.E.
After the assassination of Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.E.) in
44 B.C.E., two of his cohorts, his second-in-command Marcus
Aemilius Lepidus (d. c. 13 B.C.E.) and his right-hand
man Marcus Antonius (c. 83–30 B.C.E. [“Mark Antony” to
the English-speaking, Shakespeare-reading world]) formed
the Second Triumvirate with Caesar’s nephew and adopted
heir, 18-year-old Gaius Octavius (63 B.C.E.–14 C.E.; called
Octavian by English scholars and soon to be known
throughout the world and for eternity as Rome’s first and
greatest emperor, Augustus Caesar. Though the three,
with good reason, hardly trusted one another, they managed
to coexist until 36 B.C.E., when Lepidus—resentful of
the growing domination of the triumvirate by Octavian
and Antony—attacked Octavius in Sicily, only to lose his
army to the younger man and find himself placed under
lifelong armed guard.
Meanwhile, Antony—having taken Rome’s Eastern
Empire as his share of the Triumvirate’s division of
power—was refused aid by Octavian in the further execution
of the ongoing ROMAN-PARTHIAN WAR (55–38 B.C.E.)
So, instead, Antony turned to Julius Caesar’s former lover,
Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.E.), queen of Egypt. Thus began one
of the great sexual-political-military liaisons of history, a
heated affair hardly affected by the fact that in 40 B.C.E.,
when Antony returned to Rome to patch up matters with
Octavian, he entered into a politically necessary marriage
with Octavian’s sister, Octavia (69–11 B.C.E.). The speed
with which Antony returned to Egypt and the openness of
his infidelity with Cleopatra affronted not only his official
wife but enraged her powerful brother. Octavian was soon
joined in his anger by the whole of Rome itself when news
spread that Antony was turning over liberal patches of the
Eastern Empire to Cleopatra and her children, three of
them in fact sired by Mark Antony.
Pushed by Octavian, the Roman Senate declared war
on Antony and Egypt. Antony was portrayed throughout
Rome as a traitor, and Octavian was thereby able to persuade
all of Italy and the western Roman provinces to
withdraw allegiance from Antony and swear loyalty to
himself. Officially, Antony was stripped of all Roman titles
and honors, and the Senate declared war on Cleopatra,
which was also war against Antony.
Together, Antony and Cleopatra assembled an army
and a fleet, which sailed to Greece during 32–31 B.C.E. to
wait out the winter. In the spring, Octavian and his lieutenant,
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63–12 B.C.E.), crossed
the Adriatic with a force of comparable size to that of
Antony. On September 2, 31, the Battle of Actium was
fought on the Ionian coast of Greece. While Agrippa
blockaded Antony’s fleet, Octavian cut off the overland
supply routes of his army. Antony then ordered a retreat
and took his chances running the naval blockade. Most of
the ships, together with the troops they held, were sunk or
surrendered. Antony and Cleopatra made it successfully
through the blockade, however, and managed to regroup.
In 30, when Octavian invaded Egypt, Antony was at first
able to mount a creditable defense, pushing the Romans
back before they reached Alexandria. However, Antony’s
army soon deserted to the enemy, leading both Antony
and Cleopatra to commit suicide.
Octavian looted the treasures of Ptolemaic Egypt and
forced the Egyptians to pay a heavy tribute. With the conquest
of Egypt, Octavian was the preeminent leader of the
known world. As Caesar Augustus, he became the first
emperor of the Roman Empire.
See also OCTAVIAN’S WAR AGAINST POMPEY; ROMAN
CIVIL WAR (49–44 B.C.E.); ROMAN CIVIL WAR (43–31
Further reading: Anthony Everitt, Cicero: The Life and
Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (New York: Random
House, 2002); A. H. Jones, Augustus (New York: W. W.
Norton, 1970); E. S. Schuckburgh, Augustus Caesar (New
York: Barnes and Noble, 1995).