Battle of Actium

Summary

The Battle of Actium (2 September 31 BC) was a naval confrontation between Octavian on one side and Mark Antony and Cleopatra”s navy on the other, which took place at Actium, just outside the present-day city of Preveza. The naval battle was a consequence of the civil war between Gaius Octavian and Marcus Antonius, who, after Caesar”s assassination, claimed power in the vast state of Rome. It ended with the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra and their flight.

The most important date for the Roman Empire, especially for Latin historians, is September 2, 31 BC, the day of the Battle of Actium, which decided the fate of the supreme leadership of the Roman state. Actio is the outermost cape of Acarnania, at the entrance to the Amvrakikos Gulf, opposite Preveza, from which it is only 725 metres away. The rivals were on one side Gaius Octavius, later Emperor Augustus, or Octavian, and on the other Marcus Antonius, Octavian”s son-in-law (he had married Octavia, Octavian”s sister) and the Queen of Egypt Cleopatra VII. Gaius Octavian persuaded the Senate to attack Marc Antony, accusing him of having formed a love affair and alliance with Cleopatra and of intending to hand over Roman land to the Egyptians.

We have plenty of historical material on the naval battle of Aktion and Nicopolis, but unfortunately no eyewitnesses. Plutarch, Dion Cassius, Strabo, Gaius Suetonius, Gaius Pliny the Elder, the traveller Pausanias, the Apostle Paul in his letter to Titus, Virgil, Philip of Thessalonica, Origen and Procopius, among others, wrote about it.

The name Cleopatra etymologically comes from the ancient words kleos (= glory) and father and refers to seven (7) queens of Egypt. The last of these is Cleopatra VII (Cleopatra Philopator, January 69 BC – August 12, 30 BC). Cleopatra VII was co-governor of Ancient Egypt with her father Ptolemy IV and later with her brothers and simultaneous husbands, Ptolemy IX and Ptolemy IV. She later became the supreme monarch of Egypt, and formed an alliance with Gaius Julius Caesar, who secured the throne for her. She became romantically involved with Julius Caesar and they had a child, Caesarion. After Julius Caesar”s assassination in 44 BC, she became involved with Mark Antony, whom she fell in love with and married according to Egyptian etiquette. They had three children (Cleopatra Selene II, Alexander Helios, Ptolemy Philadelphus). Her unions with her brothers did not result in child births. Besides, their relations were not particularly good.

The reign of Cleopatra VII marks the end of the Hellenistic and the beginning of the Roman period in the eastern Mediterranean. She was the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, as her son Caesarion reigned in name only, before being executed by order of Octavian after the tragedy of the Battle of Actium. The remaining three children, orphaned after her suicide, were pardoned by Octavian, taken to Rome and raised by Octavia, widow of Mark Antony.

The line-up of the opponents” ships at the Battle of Actium has been excellently described by Plutarch, and archaeologists have provided us with detailed plans of the battle with full details, but the archaeologists” plans do not resemble all the details.

The Octavian side

Gaius Octavius sailed from Brindisiun (Brindisiun, now Brindisi) with a strong naval and military force. Under the command of the able admiral (general) Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, 400 warships with 75,000 foot soldiers and 12,000 horsemen sailed to the port of Komaros (present-day Mythica). A marble bust of Agrippa is currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Nicopolis. The bust was accidentally found by Ioannis Nousia, the keeper of the Nicopolis Museum, in an adjacent field.

It is estimated that Gaius Octavius arrived in Preveza a month earlier than the naval battle of Aktion and fortified his headquarters on a hill about 100 metres high, north of the community of Smirtoula (Nikopolis), where the Augustus Monument was discovered. Apart from Agrippa, Gaius Octavius was accompanied by his generals Lucius Arruntius, Marcus Lurius and Marcus Octavius. Octavius” fleet was deployed west of Pantokrator Preveza. In particular, Marcus Octavius, Marcus Uepsanius (Marcus Uepsanius), Lucius Arrontius and Octavius were deployed off the Ionian Sea, parallel to the opposing dispositions. South of the maritime area of Actium, Marcus Lurian was deployed with his ships, while T. Statilius was at the head of Octavian”s camp on the hill of Smyrtula.

The side of Mark Antony and Cleopatra

Mark Antony and Cleopatra arrived late in the area, and hastily fortified a camp at Aktion, near the present NATO airfield, and a smaller advanced outpost on the peninsula of Preveza. They had 480 warships, 60,000 foot soldiers and 12,000 cavalry. Antony”s ships, most of Egyptian construction, were large and powerful, armed with towers, stone throwing engines (catapults) and coracles (huge iron grabs). But this also made them cumbersome.

His fleet was reinforced by 60 Egyptian ships of Cleopatra. It is said that Cleopatra took part in the Battle of the Sea with her royal flagship, the “Antonia”, with all the jewels and treasures, according to Egyptian tradition. But while Antony”s material superiority was obvious, much of his fleet was effectively useless because despite desperate efforts to recruit crews, the number of rowers was insufficient. Antony”s position was already difficult, but it was made worse because after a blockade of General Agrippa he was deprived of drinking water.

Mark Antony had Marcus Insteius, Gaius Sosius, and Claudius Kaelius at the head of his naval forces, and Publius Canidius Crassus on land. In addition to these there were Egyptian military and naval officers. Mark Antony and Cleopatra were deployed in the near sea area of the Strait of Preveza, from Pantokrator to the area of the present-day airport of Aktion, east of Octavian”s line-up of ships. Marc Antony was lined up to the north, Marcus Instius to the centre, and Gaius Sosius with Claudius Caelius to the south. During the Battle of the Battleship a movement of overwatch was made by Antony by sailing ships within the Amvrakikos Gulf off the peninsula of Lascara. Publius Canidius Crassus was in charge of Antony”s camp at Aktion.

Administration

There are no historical records and it is unknown where these huge military forces on either side (159,000 people) were fed and watered. The most likely version of water supply is the many springs in the area and the then clear Luros River (then called the Haradros River) which flowed into the Michalitsi River, very close to the headquarters of Octavius. It is also known that in 168 BC the Roman Aemilius Paulus (Aemilius Paulus) had attacked Epirus and the surrounding cities, which he destroyed, and captured 150,000 hostages who were taken as slaves to southern Italy. However, many inhabitants of the cities destroyed by Aemilius Paulus escaped by fleeing to the mountains and later returned and reoccupied the cities. Anactorion and Berenice are two of these cities that were re-inhabited and apparently populated during the period of the Battle of Actium. This gives us an explanation for the issue of feeding the thousands of soldiers. Apart from this there were and still are around Anaktorion and Aktion many small lakes with drinking water.

“Nikon” and “Eutyches”

In Plutarch (“Parallel Lives: The Life of Mark Antony”) there is also the following characteristic passage: during Octavian”s encampment on the hill of Smyrtula in Preveza, a farmer -apparently a resident of the neighbouring city of Verenice- passed close to the future Emperor Octavian who asked him “what is your name?”. “Nikon” replied the farmer. “And the donkey?” “Eutychus.” These answers were considered a good omen for Gaius Octavian and after the fortunate conclusion of the Battle of the Battleship with victory and in their honor, he ordered two bronze statues of “Nikon” (farmer) and “Eutychius” (donkey) to be made and placed on pedestals in the Augustus Monument. It is certain that there were these brass statues, but they were later taken to Constantinople and placed in the city stadium, where they were destroyed during the “Stasis of Nika”.

The truth is that Mark Antony”s wish was to have a land battle and not a naval battle. After all, all preparations on both sides were aimed at a land battle. But there was a dispute between Mark Antony”s staff and Cleopatra”s Egyptian generals on the subject, and finally it was decided to fight at sea.

The naval battle was late to start due to apnea. It seems to have started at 12.00 noon on 2 September 31 BC with a north-westerly wind and continued until late afternoon. The collision took place in the centre of the line-up, outside the Strait of Preveza, opposite and just north of the Aktio Airport. Agrippa”s small and agile ships (Latin liburnae and Greek liburnae) began to ram one after another the lumbering ships of Mark Antony. Recent local investigations by the American aerial archaeologist William Murray have shown that naval catapults firing stone balls of about 20-30 cm in diameter were clearly used. Some of these have been photographed on the seabed, as well as a possible part of a ship.

During the naval battle the rammed ships were fired upon, torched, or captured. While the naval battle of Actium was progressing, most of Mark Antony”s ground army defected and surrendered to Agrippa. Cleopatra, observing the developments unconcerned, panicked and withdrew from the battlefield, escaping through an opening in the rival ships, leaving Antony helpless and wounded. Panic ensued and eventually Mark Antony fled with the remnants of his fleet, following Cleopatra.

The losses of the battle, according to Plutarch, seem to have been fifty ships of Antony and 5,000 men killed (many of whom drowned). Many ships were captured by Agrippa but several surrendered to the fire after having been stripped of their bronze pistons. It is certain that at least 50 pistons were removed, of which 36 were placed in the Augustus Monument and the rest were sent to Rome. Octavian had won and became the ruler of the Roman Empire.

Finally, after four years, in 27 BC, Octavian was proclaimed in Rome as the first Princeps of the Roman Empire and adopted the title Augustus (Augustus). In commemoration of his victory he built at Actium a larger and grander Temple of Apollo of Actium, and established that every five years (from the year 28 BC) the Actia, games with the same solemnity as the Olympia, Isthmia, Pythia and Nemea, should be held. He also organized games at the sanctuary of Artemis of Limnati, which was located on the border of Messinia and Laconia, in honor of the Spartans who fought on his side. These struggles continued during Roman times.

Octavian also built a new city, Nicopolis (Nicopolis, Nikopolis), to commemorate his victory, opposite Aktion, about eight kilometres from Preveza. Nicopolis” admirable public buildings are the Roman Odeon (700 seats), the three Baths (Public Baths), the Octavian Theatre (2000 seats), the Roman Aqueduct of Nicopolis (50 km long) with its Nymphaeum, the Roman Stadium, the Gymnasium, the Roman Walls, etc. Nikopolis became an important centre of Roman and Byzantine Greece before it was deserted in the 13th century, when the inhabitants of the city moved to the fields and the newly founded Preveza, whose location provided more protection from raids. But the main work of Augustus Octavian is the so-called ”Monument of Augustus” a temple dedicated to the gods Mars and Poseidon, on the hill of Smyrtula Preveza, built exactly on the site of his headquarters.

Cleopatra escaped with her fleet through a gap in the enemy ships” layout, arrived in Alexandria and falsely informed her people that they had supposedly won the naval battle. Mark Antony returned from Actium to Egypt slightly wounded, with a portion of his army (the rest had defected). After a period of months Augustus landed in another area of Egypt and headed for Alexandria.

In one view, Antony went out into the desert and “fought” unsuccessfully with Octavian. Another view says that his army surrendered or defected to Octavian. Marc Antony was badly wounded and returned to Cleopatra”s palace, carried in a chariot. According to one version, he died within a few hours of bleeding, while another version says that he committed suicide with his sword on learning that Cleopatra had died.

According to an eyewitness, Olympus, he was carried close to her and died in her arms. Cleopatra escaped her 17-year-old son Caesarion in time, but eventually the boy was captured and executed along with his teacher, on Octavian”s orders. It is said that in giving the order Octavian said “Too many Caesars”. Octavian invaded Alexandria and began negotiations with Cleopatra. At some point they “agreed” to bring Cleopatra to Rome and declare allegiance to the Roman Empire but that her son Caesarion should remain on the Egyptian throne, which Octavian did not accept. Thus, Cleopatra, under the pretext of preparing an Egyptian funeral for Antony, on August 12, 30 BC, locked herself in a room in her palace and, according to tradition, committed suicide by a cobra sting to the chest. So did her two loyal servants. According to another view, the suicide was committed with a poison.

The Romans broke down the door with a battering ram and seeing Cleopatra”s corpse, Augustus said “You have won Cleopatra”. Antony”s other three children were pardoned by Octavian and taken to Rome where they were raised by Octavia, Octavian”s sister and now Antony”s widow. The girl, Cleopatra Selene, grew up normally and married King Juba II of Mauretania with whom she had two children. There is no information about the other two children of Cleopatra and Antony.

The escape of Cleopatra

The classical view of historians, based on Plutarch”s descriptions, is that Cleopatra escaped by breaking through the cordon between Lucius Arundios and Marcus Lourios. That is to say, she escaped through a gap in the arrangement of the ships. According to another, purely oral view, not accepted by the majority of archaeologists, Cleopatra”s Egyptian generals had an escape plan which was successfully executed. According to this second view, her ships were assembled at the bay of Agios Nikolaos in Aetoloakarnania. From there, through a channel (groove) of 5 meters in diameter (which still exists today, under the name Cleopatra”s Canal) which they had previously dug and camouflaged with trees, they entered the shallow marshy lake Vulkaria. From there they towed the boats into the marshy area which connects Lake Voulkaria with Ormos Palairou in Aitoloakarnania. From there the ships escaped towards Egypt, passing between the islands of Meganisi and Kalamos, neighbouring Lefkada.

Archaeologists do not adopt this view of Cleopatra”s escape and claim that the Cleopatra Canal is “later”, and has nothing to do with that historical period. The title “Cleopatra”s Canal” is completely arbitrary historically. According to a German archaeologist, who stated that he carried out a soil excavation in the year 2000, he found that the canal is later, around 1000 AD.

This version of Cleopatra”s escape through the later “Cleopatra”s Channel” is unlikely, because the distance between the southern shore of Lake Voulkaria and the Bay of Palaeros is about 8 km and not always of marshy area. Such terrain is not at all suitable for sailing or even for towing heavy ships with ropes.

Archaeologists and historians already knew from Dion Cassius (51.1.3) that “Octavian erected a Monument which he decorated with the bronze pistons of the captured ships, in the place where he had camped”. Strabo (7.7.6) also mentions the hill of Smyrtula as the ”sacred hill of Apollo”. About a hundred years ago, about 1,500 metres north of Nikopolis, on a slope below the hills of the present-day community of Nikopolis (Smyrtoula), the crypt of the Altar – or Monument – of Augustus was found, which was built dedicated to the gods Ares and Poseidon. The Monument was excavated in 1911 by Alexandros Philadelfeas. During the Second World War, unfortunately, the Italian troops looted the site, either for the purpose of building fortifications on the hill, or for the purpose of antiquities. In addition to this, many sanding operations carried out in the area resulted in the entire Monument being submerged. Recently, in the years 1995-2007, with the funding of European programs such as Interreg II, the IV” Ephorate of Antiquities of Ioannina under the supervision of Professor Dr. Zachos carried out excavation, restoration and documentation works at the August Monument.

The Monument of Augustus was a building 62 m long and 45 m wide, where Augustus had given the order to place, in specially carved “cases”, 36 real acroptera (pistons) of various sizes from ships of Cleopatra and Antony. These pistons have been stolen or removed later to mint coins or make other metal objects, during the reign of Theodosius. According to ancient sources, the decoration of monuments with ship pistons after a victorious naval battle was an old Roman custom. The most famous monument of this kind was the Forum in Ancient Rome known as the Rostra (piston). This monument, which had been restored many times and moved from its original position, bore two parallel rows of piston columns.

In addition to the Monument of Augustus which had 36 pistons, there are ancient sources that mention that pistons from the Battle of Actium were placed by Augustus in front of the Temple of Julius Caesar in Rome (Rostra Aedis Divi Julii). It should be noted that only one metal piston from an ancient warship has been found worldwide, in the coastal town of Athlit, Israel (Archaeology Magazine 2000, and William Murray, 2004) and is currently kept in the Haifa Museum in Israel. This piston fits neatly into one of the holes in the Augustus Monument. According to William Murray, it must have been built in Cyprus around the 2nd century BC and it seems that the exact same type of ship and piston was being built at the time of the Battle of Actium.

In 1995, the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ioannina under the archaeology professor Dr. Konstantinos Zahos began excavations at the Augustus Monument, with important findings. In 2001, in the upper end of the Monument, a monolithic semi-circular marble pedestal was found, which bears an archaistic relief of ten heroes and gods of the Greek pantheon and a crown of alternating lotus and anthem flowers. Among the figures on the semi-circular surface are Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, accompanied by three Graces, Hercules, and Athena. The existence of a second such pedestal is speculated (Con. Zachos, 2001). The find is considered very important, it is almost certainly the pedestal of the statue of Nicon, and the discovery was published in Greek and foreign archaeology journals. This pedestal is already being preserved and will be exhibited in the New Archaeological Museum of Nicopolis.

During the restoration works of the Augustus Monument, the Zachos team found a metal piston residue of about 50 kg which was carefully removed and is kept to be exhibited at the New Archaeological Museum of Nicopolis. A marble head of a statue of Octavian was also found.

Several fragments of a huge votive inscription in Latin have also been found in the Augustus Monument. After years of research the inscription was finally assembled and today the text reads as follows: “Vacat Imp. Caesar Divi Juli f Victoriam Consecutus Bello Quod Pro Republica Gessit In Hac Regione Consul Quintum Imperator Septimum Pace Parta Terra Marique Neptuno et Marti Castra ex Quibus Ad Hostem Insequendum Egressus Est Navalibus Spoliis Exornata Consacravit Vacat”. Translation: ”The Emperor General Caesar, son of the divine Julius, after the victorious outcome of the war which he waged for the republic in this region, when he was consul for the fifth time and general for the seventh, after the establishment of peace on land and sea, dedicated to Neptune and Mars the camp from which he attacked the enemy, which is now adorned with the spoils of ships”.

Also, apart from the Latin inscription and the marble pedestal of Nicos, in the Monument of Augustus, the archaeological excavation in the last ten years has revealed hundreds of fragments, of which so far the most important is a set of five marble fragments of a relief plate of the frieze of the altar 282cm long with illustrations. Archaeological research at the site continues.

Sources

  1. Ναυμαχία του Ακτίου
  2. Battle of Actium