Actium, the most famous naval battle of Antiquity

Actium, the most famous naval battle of Antiquity

The paroxysm of the crisis which shakes the Roman Republic finds its culmination on the coast of Epirus, during the battle of actium (September 2, 31 BC) which sees the armies of the Roman West oppose the orders of Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, and of Agrippa, his military genius, to the Eastern armies commanded by Marc Antony and the famous Cleopatra. From this confrontation, nothing less than the Roman Empire was to be born and to bury in the facts the republican regime.

The context of the battle of Actium

The Roman Republic entered a deep crisis in front of the scale of the conquests which always left more powers to the great generals, the imperatores, responsible for defending the Empire of Rome and protecting its interests. Since Marius and his fight against Sylla, the Roman world has been punctuated by cruel civil wars which deeply marked the mentalities of the time, which is reflected in the texts of ancient authors. The victory of Caesar over Pompey may have made people think that the return of peace was possible.

It was without counting on the appetites of the aristocrats, deprived by the immense personality of the dictator for life, of the access to the competition for the power as it had always been the case. Since his disappearance, and the vengeance exercised by his supporters against those commonly known as Republicans, the situation in the Roman world has been tense, in stasis, between two competitors: Octavian, adopted son of Caesar (his nephew by blood) and Marc Antoine, former master of the cavalry and combatant of the dictator. Between them, the Empire is divided since the ousting of Lepidus: to Octavian the West and his heart, Rome, to Marc Antoine the East, Alexandria and the beautiful Cleopatra.

Far from the only melodrama, Antoine's position ultimately serves his young opponent to discredit him in the eyes of the Romans. Indeed, for them, the East and its pleasures are suspect; they can corrupt worthy Latin sobriety. However, when Octave had his rival's will read in public, the people discovered horrified that Antoine, among other things, wanted to be buried in Egypt. After a skilful propaganda, here Octavian holds the legitimate motives of a war to suppress his enemy; his war can only be fair and therefore in accordance with the divine wishes since Antoine wishes to sacrifice Rome for the benefit of the East. He is therefore the defender of the Roman world against the criminal designs of Antony. The break was over. Each opponent had long since furnished his weapons and was ready to face his opponent in a colossal encounter to decide the fate of the entire Mediterranean basin. Cleverly, the adopted son of Julius Caesar declares war on Cleopatra VII. The final explanation between Octave and Antoine will be able to begin.

The shaking of the forces

The first to take the initiative was Antoine. He gathered his troops at Ephesus in the spring of 32 BC. ; they included 75,000 legionaries, 25,000 auxiliary soldiers as well as 12,000 cavalry, not counting the mass of non-combatants, such as the rowers of its gigantic fleet made up of nearly 500 warships and 300 transport. However, 200 of these boats had been provided by Cleopatra who therefore had a real influence in the decisions of her lover. The armada headed for Epirus, to threaten Italy and try to win the decision on its soil. However, the slowness of the expedition meant that it was spotted by ships from the Octavian fleet, which broke the effect of surprise. Antoine settled in the Gulf of Ambracie, an excellent anchorage where he was able to spend the winter sheltered from storms and other inconveniences. However, this position, however favorable it may be, required the establishment of checkpoints to ensure the supply of troops, such as Méthonè, a small Messenian port or the island of Corfu.

Thus established Antoine could appear in a position of strength as much as he put pressure on his enemy and on the Italian peninsula. This was without taking into account the preparation of Octavian who had already assembled between 60,000 and 80,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, as well as nearly 400 ships. His army and especially his fleet were also seasoned since the clash against Sextus Pompey. Octavian's boats were also of a lower tonnage than Antoine's but outweighed them in mobility and speed. All this shows the balance of forces present, although tactical axes are already orienting the armies because of their strengths and weaknesses.

Weaken Antoine

The engagement began gradually. Indeed, Octave, whose fleet was commanded with genius by the famous Agrippa, carried out his action against Antoine's supply lines to paralyze him and put him in a precarious situation. Beyond the racing war, Agrippa also took essential bolts of Antoine's strategic device; Méthonè and Corfu without his really reacting. The initiative had just changed sides and Antoine found himself in a delicate position, besieged in the Ambracic Gulf. At the same time, Octave himself had approached his enemy dangerously, until he landed in the bay of Gomaros, a stone's throw from Antoine's camp, located near the port of Actium. The ground troops of the two rivals awaited the decisive meeting. But tactically good as they were, both sides were nonetheless subject to unpleasant conditions. On Antoine's side, the proximity of the swamps brought a foul smell as well as mosquitoes. The lack of water was also acute and put the army at risk of dysentery and malaria. For Octave, it was the prevailing winds from the sea that swept over his camp and disrupted his ships, always moved by the swell.

While we clashed at sea, where Agrippa demonstrated his talents, Antoine moved his camp to install it as close as possible to that of Octavian; they were therefore very close, on both sides of the city of Nicopolis. Antoine offered a pitched battle several times to his adversary by deploying his army in the open countryside, which Octave refused, no doubt aware of his adversary's superiority. Then Antoine launched his cavalry to turn the opposing device and take it from the rear. There he experienced a bitter failure which led him to return to his old camp, on the other side of the channel.

Inertia gained the upper hand, in which Octave had a clear advantage; his maritime successes under the aegis of Agrippa had placed Antoine in a situation of near blockade, depriving him of his supply lines and forcing him to bring in from all Greece, with large reinforcements of requisitions, food for the troops. But the soldiers were malnourished and the defections of high-ranking officers undermined their morale more and more, like the departure of Domitius Ahenobarbus who soon died of fever in the Octavian camp. It was also becoming evident that the role of Cleopatra ended up dividing the troops who no longer really knew what the goal of their campaign was; to win for Rome or Egypt?

Which solution?

The defections were becoming worrying and on the eve of setting sail, Antoine burned several ships which could no longer find a sufficient crew. Nevertheless, he was determined to regain the initiative and not to let himself be slowly reduced, trapped in the Gulf of Ambracie. He had two solutions left; sacrifice the fleet and retreat to Thrace to find the king of Getae who offered his alliance and thus concentrate on the pitched battle, or force the passage of the Gulf of Ambracia and join the seven legions of reserves left behind. It was the influence of Cleopatra that decided Antoine to try to regain the Orient. The decision is only fatal when it is completed and the Octavian propaganda stigmatizing the Egyptian woman's bad advice only follows ethnic presuppositions deeply rooted at the time and participating in the glorification of Octavian, Roman champion of the war against the disturbances of the East.

We do not know precisely what Antoine wanted to achieve when he set sail; Did he wish to conquer at sea or simply to pass in force and flee towards the East? In any case, he took the gamble of keeping above all the most powerful warships where the competent rowers were better distributed and less vulnerable. The forces brought in by Cleopatra were mostly light ships which were largely destroyed, herself keeping only 60 warships under her own command. Antoine had the sails on board which was not particularly useful in combat during which one relied above all on the mobility offered by the rowers, especially as one of the tactics employed consisted in ramming the enemy ships, which can under- hear a desire to retreat to the East. We are in any case quite far from the Octavian tradition wanting to make Antoine a simple fugitive following the path of Cleopatra in cowardice.

The Battle of Actium

Ready for battle, Antoine probably lined up less than 200 ships with 20,000 marines and nearly 2,000 archers on board. He could count on a small number of powerful boats of Hellenistic tradition, veritable maritime fortresses on which it was however difficult to let any decision rest. Octave had as for him the double of vessels of an overall equivalent tonnage, without he having very large ones. It was therefore two against one that the final battle began. Antoine undoubtedly had in mind to take advantage of the winds what the boarding of the sails implies. He asked his troops not to fight by advancing during the morning of September 2, no doubt to avoid an unfortunate grounding out of the channel.

But Agrippa had known Antoine's will since Dellius' betrayal and, although late, he placed his fleet at the exit of the channel of Actium to trap that of Antoine in a real trap. But Marc-Antoine, far from only rushing through this wall of enemy ships, placed his fleet in order of battle with Cleopatra's squadron at the rear, which was not to be engaged since it was carrying the army's treasure. . Antoine's goal seems to have been to wait for the wind to pick up around noon to face the opponent and go straight south. To do this and to allow Cleopatra's fleet to be evacuated smoothly, he placed his larger ships in the center of his device in a rounded arc towards the enemy, which had to force their way through the middle of Octavian squadrons during that the rest of the ships would progress, while fighting, in a pivot to open Octavian's device from the left, no doubt before landing towards the high seas in the space thus dug.

At noon therefore, the fleets were in place and it was Antoine's left wing, commanded by Sosius, which made the first movement towards Octave. At the same time, Agrippa embarked on a masterful ruse; In favor of the wind which put his position in difficulty since his rowers had to maneuver to maintain their coherence, he simulated a retreat which Publicola wanted to take advantage of, commanding the squadron on the far right of the device and facing him. Octavian did the same in front of Sosius before coming back abruptly towards them and taking advantage of the surprise and the lack of cohesion of the fleets launched in their pursuit. In the center, Arruntius, at the orders of Octavian, kept the center and the enormous ships of Antony in check.

The latter's naval maneuver attempt had been ruined by the unfortunate initiative of Publicola. But this movement had left a void between the fleets engaged in the combat which was immediately taken advantage of by Cleopatra to charge towards the high seas. She passed without hindrance through the combat. Antoine seeing her flight ordered his troops to unhook to follow the queen and go to the East. It is believed that some sixty ships were able to follow suit; those who had not been caught in the Publicola maneuver. It was this failed escape, which had nevertheless enabled nearly 100 boats to be saved, which enabled Octavian's propaganda to turn his enemies into cowards whose flight only showed the lack of war value among the Orientals. , accused of following their passion and not their duty. Antoine is closely associated with this vision by making him the slave of his love for Cleopatra.

However, the fight did not end immediately; Agrippa set fire to a number of ships from the wing commanded by Publicola and it is estimated that in all about forty of Antony's boats were sent to the bottom with nearly 12,000 men including the rowers, the others stranded in the fight. and unable to escape to the open sea remained trapped in the Gulf of Ambracie where they retreated after dark. But the game was not yet over for Octave, who had let his rival and his companion slip away with the army treasure he badly needed, and found himself with the big squadron under Sosius' orders and the army of 'Antoine still to manage.

The diplomatic coup

It was then that all the genius of Octave was able to put into action. He was not a soldier but an excellent politician. He had proven this in his campaign of disinformation against his rival, as well as in his attempts to seduce Antoine's army during the months of inertia in the fighting, attracting him new supporters. The day after the naval battle of Actium and undoubtedly thanks to the links uniting Arruntius to Sosius, he obtained the rallying of the latter, which definitively deprived Antoine of a maritime power.

Octave also sent messages on his clemency to attract the sympathy of the army of his rival who, desperate by the flight of his general, found little comfort in the order relayed by Antoine from the Peloponnese where he had taken refuge, to set out for Asia Minor. At the end of a week and with the assurance of being integrated into the army of Octavian and of receiving land once the service was completed, they changed sides. Antoine had lost everything in a cleverly orchestrated tactical blockage where Agrippa had played a recital militarily and where politically Octave had played even better.

The dramaturgical conclusion of Actium

The civil war was certainly not over yet and there was still some strength left in Antoine, but his opponent had gained an unmeasurable ascendancy. By bringing together the remains of Antoine's fleets and army, Octave has considerable power, dazzling prestige, perfectly relayed by an ever active propaganda. Without there having been a shock as formidable as Pharsalus between Caesar and Pompey, the rivalry between Antony and the adopted son of Caesar had found a final outcome after a rather limited confrontation in relation to the forces gathered in Actium.

The prudence of Antoine, who paralyzed him for a long time, and the genius of Agrippa and Octavian, succeeded in throwing the Roman world into the hands of the second. Marc Antoine and Cleopatra were to play yet another dramatic page in History, but this time, as superb lovers, refusing the humiliation of captivity by committing suicide.

Bibliography

- Paul M. Martin, Antoine et Cléopâtre: The end of a dream. 2002.

- Augustus, master of the world. Actium, September 2, 31 BC. J.-C, by Pierre Cosme. Tallandier, 2014.

- Jean-Michel David, The Roman Republic, from the Second Punic War to the Battle of Actium, Seuil.

The reconstituted battle of Actium (extract from the documentary "Le destin de Rome" by Fabrice Hourlier)


Video: Augustus: First Roman Emperor