Historian delves into the battle that shaped the Roman Empire

In the popular telling, the future of the Roman Empire was decided in a single day – Sept. 2, 31 B.C. – at the Battle of Actium. But the real story is more complicated and even more engrossing, according to historian Barry Strauss, the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Actium was not just a battle. It wasn’t simply a one-day affair that decided the fate of empire,” he said. “Rather, it was the culmination of a campaign that had seen active fighting for six months and military and political preparations stretching back years.”

In his new book, “The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium,” to be published March 22 by Simon & Schuster, Strauss sweeps away the mythology that has surrounded this crucial moment in the history of Ancient Rome, and in its place he offers a more accurate, nuanced narrative of the conflict and the fascinating personalities at its core.

Strauss spoke with the Chronicle about the book.

Question: The three key figures at the center of your book are Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian. How would you characterize their personalities and the dynamics between them?

Answer: Antony and Cleopatra were lovers, but in some ways Cleopatra was more of a soulmate to Octavian. She and Octavian were both strategists as well as Machiavellian manipulators. They were both ruthless and driven and willing to do almost anything to achieve their goals: in Cleopatra’s case, preserving her kingdom’s independence while enlarging its power; in Octavian’s case, winning control of the whole Roman Empire as his great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar had done. Antony was a talented diplomat and general but he was outclassed. He was neither as coldblooded nor intelligent as Octavian or Cleopatra.

Q: In your introduction, you describe the Battle of Actium as a struggle for the heart of the Roman Empire. How so?

A: The empire always represented a balance between the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East. If Antony and Cleopatra had won, the pendulum would have swung eastward. Alexandria would have become a second capital, rivaling Rome, just as Constantinople ultimately did centuries later. Europe would have become less Latin and more Greek. We might be speaking a Greek-based rather than a Latin-based language today.

Q: Were there any lesser known persons who emerged from your research and changed your understanding of the historical narrative?

A: There were three people in particular. Octavia had the unenviable position of being the sister of Octavian and the wife of Mark Antony. She is usually portrayed as someone caught between affection for her brother and loyalty to her husband: Antony’s obedient, long-suffering and ultimately jilted wife. In fact, she was an active political player and one who guarded her brother’s interests more than her husband’s.

Agrippa was Octavian’s indispensable commander, who won not only the Battle of Actium but the six-month naval campaign that preceded it. Agrippa executed the bold capture of the enemy’s main supply base at Methone in southwestern Greece, cutting off Antony and Cleopatra’s supplies from the East. Without them, they had to scramble to feed their men.

The third person, Bogud, was the exiled king of what is now Morocco (Mauretania). This deposed African monarch was in charge of the defense of Methone. He was an experienced soldier and had helped Julius Caesar win a crucial battle in Spain in 45 B.C. But, perhaps because he let Agrippa surprise him, he failed to save Methone. He was killed in the fighting.

Q: Much of this history has been shaped by myth. When you dug deeper, what was the story you found? 

A: Myth has it that Cleopatra betrayed Antony at Actium and fled in the midst of the battle, leaving him in the lurch. In fact, the two of them agreed on a plan beforehand. They thought there was an outside chance that they could win by defeating the enemy fleet at the start of the battle. Once it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, Cleopatra carried out her assigned role: to lead an orderly but rapid breakout from Actium by as many ships as possibly could get away.

Another myth is that Octavian won the battle by deploying light and nimble vessels against the lumbering behemoths in the enemy’s navy. In fact, the two fleets were similar. Both consisted of medium-sized galleys. It was Octavian’s propaganda that misrepresented the enemy’s fleet. The point was to portray Antony and Cleopatra as Eastern despots, grandiose and overweening, against the agile and rational Westerners in Octavian’s navy.

Q: What about this war – and the conflict between Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian – still speaks to us today?

A: Actium might have been the first postmodern war. Like warfare today, Actium was a war of misinformation and fake news. Octavian turned a hostile situation into open conflict. His struggle was with Antony, but he knew that Romans would refuse to join a civil war. So he declared war on Cleopatra instead, knowing that she was unpopular as a foreigner, a monarch and a powerful woman. He falsely portrayed Antony as Cleopatra’s love slave and he faked Antony’s last will and testament to make it seem that Antony preferred Egypt to Rome. For his part, Antony falsely claimed that Octavian was of low-class and of African origin, thereby deploying biased and racist tropes.

Actium offers a master class on how to win a war. Antony and Cleopatra started the war with more money and better technology. Their warships had reinforced prows, giving them an advantage in ramming. But Octavian had the winning hand because he was bolder, more willing to take risks, and more experienced. Antony was counting on Octavian to make mistakes in the run-up to the Battle of Actium, but Octavian behaved flawlessly. Antony waited to fight Octavian’s forces, but Octavian made war on Antony’s strategy by cutting off Antony’s supplies. As a result, Antony’s men were tired, hungry and disease-ridden and so in no shape to fight a battle.

Last but not least, Actium speaks to us because of Cleopatra. Not only was she a rare female admiral, but she is one of the most intriguing and memorable women in history.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Book cover: The War that Made the Roman Empire