In this year of the two thousandth anniversary of the death of Augustus, exhibitions and publications are pouring in. Augustus as first emperor of the Roman Empire struck the imagination. He was not, however, in the best position to reach this place. The Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC. J. - C. definitively gives it the advantage over its competitors and the victory. However, was this battle so decisive? It is to this question that Pierre Cosme, professor of ancient history at the University of Rouen and specialist in Roman military history, tries to answer in his new book Augustus, master of the world, Actium, September 2, 31 BC. J.-C published by Tallandier editions following many other military history books, some of which have been listed by Histoire pour Tous.
A clear analysis of the issues, the players and the forces involved
The first chapter of the book draws a portrait of the decade preceding the battle between Octave and Marc Antoine. From the establishment of the Second Triumvirate to the conquest of the Parthian Empire and the fight against Sextus Pompey, a full understanding of events is necessary to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each side. This panorama avoids the teleological narrative which would inevitably lead to the victory of Octavian. The author manages to transcribe the uncertainty of this period: Octave was not certain of winning. The political game preceding the rupture is not absent from the book. The second chapter dwells on the different crescents between the two triumvirs leading to the final rupture. The following chapters dwell on the strengths and motivations of each side and their objectives in this conflict are very well explained. The author shows that the two triumvirs had similar difficulties: Marc Antoine by granting himself the East inherits provinces which have growing economic difficulties following the conflicts of the last decades while Octave by setting up a heavy taxation must to face the troubles which it succeeds in containing thanks to clever political maneuvers. Each of the two camps mobilizes both its military and political forces and tries to win the battle in Rome. Very quickly, part of the debate revolved around the role of Cleopatra with Marc Antoine. A number of supporters of the latter understood early on that it was an important political problem handled by Octavian. The author recalls that Paul Veyne, who is very skeptical about the use of the term propaganda in Antiquity, accepts it in this specific case. Wasn't war declared against her and not against Marc-Antoine?
Cleopatra, political stake and key to the Orient
The book sheds light on the relationship between Marc Antoine and Cléopâtre from another angle. If the love story between the two protagonists has caused much ink to flow, the author dispenses with it and analyzes their relationship from a geopolitical point of view. Cleopatra appears to be essential for Marc Antoine: although the Pthalian kingdom is not the only kingdom allied to the triumvir, it provides it with important means to mint the currency and its importance increases following the failure of the Parthian campaign. de 36. Cleopatra also provides 200 ships and has the means to build a considerable fleet following the cession by Marc Antoine of territories allowing him to stock up on wood or offering him port sites. The conquest of Egypt had already been envisaged a few decades before, but this did not take place because it was feared that some could derive substantial benefits from the management or the conquest of the future province (fear which after the conquest endures and is at the origin of the special status of Egypt managed by a prefect of equestrian origin appointed by the emperor). As long as the Lagid kingdom was weak, there was no need to intervene. However, the situation changes with Cleopatra's policy of restoring the Lagid power thanks to the support of Marc-Antoine. However, the considerable influence of the Queen of Egypt on Marc Antoine that historians have attributed to her is a legacy of the smear campaign organized by Octave and his supporters. Many elements show that a large part of the senators (the majority according to Plutarch) and certain knights were not completely fooled. On the other hand, the advantages of a conquest are numerous for Octavian: definitively eliminating a threat and providing considerable resources which could interest the whole of Roman society.
A decisive battle
The second part of the work is devoted to the military operations of the two belligerents. The strategies used are placed in their context. Marc Antoine's strategy of luring Octavian out of Italy and avoiding a direct clash between legions is not new and has already been unsuccessfully tested in previous civil wars. However, the triumvir has an added advantage: Egypt's support gives it a strategic depth that its predecessors lacked. He could succeed where Pompey, Brutus and Cassius had failed. But Agrippa, the faithful admiral of Octavian, detects the weaknesses of the enemy and turns the situation around. By taking the initiative, setting up a blockade and avoiding direct combat, time is on their side. Defections in the opposing camp continued throughout the conflict. The final clash will take place at sea at Actium. The author shows clearly what are the ins and outs of Marc-Antoine's actions. The escape of Actium is not an act whispered by the perfidious Egyptian but the last chance for the eastern camp to get out. But the morale of the troops is weaker and weaker which weakens the conceived plan. The defection of Quintus Dellius marks the end of Marc-Antoine's hopes by revealing the plan to the enemy. The story of the battle is clear and measured. The author relates the flight of Cleopatra while wondering if she was doing so out of opportunism or if she was already in the battle plan. He questions the perception of the actors who may have had difficulty knowing the outcome of the battle at the time. The last chapter dwells on the aftermath of the battle until the advent of the principate.
The author therefore offers us a synthetic, clear and precise work on the battle of Actium. By refusing the teleological approach, he greatly develops the strategy and the objectives of the vanquished by showing that they were not unrealistic. The final anecdote illustrates well the expectation and the uncertainty that reigned in Italy as to the outcome of the conflict. Yet what would have happened if Octave had not won this battle? For the author, this would not have changed the face of the world because the senators were ready to rally one or the other of the two camps (Antonians took part in the functioning of the principate). The book Augustus, master of the world, Actium, September 2, 31 BC. J.-C therefore allows part of the veil that surrounds this battle to be lifted and will delight all readers eager to learn more. For the more impatient, they can also consult the article on our site on this battle.
Augustus, master of the world. Actium, September 2, 31 BC. J.-C, by Pierre Cosme. Edtions Tallandier, March 2014.