5 – Battle of Actium (31 BC)
You could say it was a battle 13 years in the making and it is undoubtedly one that changed the entire course of history. After Actium, the Ptolemaic dynasty ended and the Roman Empire was born from the ashes of the Republic. The assassination of Caesar in 44 BC triggered a series of events that culminated in one of the most important naval affairs of all time.
Octavian was named as the heir in Caesar’s will, and he formed the Second Triumvirate with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Mark Antony. Their goal was to find Caesar’s assassins and things ran smoothly between them at the beginning; it took them a couple of years to track down and defeat Cassius and Brutus at the Battle of Philipi in 42 BC. The trio divided their spoils; Lepidus governed Africa, Antony took the east including Egypt while Octavian led Rome.
Antony was an exceptional general but partied as hard as he worked. In Egypt, he found that Cleopatra was his ideal companion as she drank, gambled and played practical jokes with him among other things. Antony was married to Octavia, the sister of Octavian and the new leader of Rome was unhappy with Antony’s conduct. Antony had three children with Cleopatra and divorced his wife in 33 BC. Octavian already disliked his rival, and this episode gave him an additional excuse to persuade the Senate to declare war on Cleopatra; he knew Antony would become involved.
The duo met on September 2, 31 BC at the Gulf of Actium off the coast of Greece. Antony’s fleet consisted of heavy quinqueremes which were ideal for ramming enemy ships. However, an outbreak of malaria devastated his crew, so the ships didn’t have enough sailors to operate them efficiently. Octavian had smaller, faster ships with a full complement of healthy men. Antony received a terrible below when one of his trusted generals, Quintus Dellius, betrayed him by joining Octavian and revealing Antony’s battle plans.
Octavian’s fleet was expertly commanded by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and drew Antony’s fleet into the open sea. The speed and mobility of Octavian’s ships soon overwhelmed his opponent and once it became apparent that the battle was lost, Cleopatra and 60 ships left the battle and sailed into the distance. Antony followed with 40 of his ships and left behind over 200 ships which were destroyed by Octavian; an estimated 5,000 of Antony’s men died.
Antony’s army deserted him soon after Actium, and, finding himself in a hopeless situation, he committed suicide on August 1, 30 BC. Cleopatra followed suit 11 days later. As well as ending the Ptolemaic dynasty and establishing Octavian as the first Emperor of Rome, Actium was the beginning of three centuries of Roman naval dominance over the Mediterranean waters and beyond.