In September 31 BC, one of the most critical military campaigns in history reached its climax in a sea battle off the coast of Actium, Greece. The main players were, on one side, the famous lovers Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and on the other, Octavian and his right-hand-man Agrippa. Octavian would be victorious and go on to claim the title of emperor of Rome. But the person who would emerge from this battle with the most famous name was and remains the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. In his new book THE WAR THAT MADE THE ROMAN EMPIRE, bestselling historian Barry Strauss writes about why the historical record branded Cleopatra as the weak link in this battle, and why that was untrue—in fact, her daring was what allowed her and Antony to live to fight another day.
As the wind picked up off Actium, any earlier haze disappeared from the sky. The sea breeze rose steadily, bringing relief to the hot September afternoon. The breeze started at a right angle to the shore. The surface of the water began to ripple. Then, as the wind intensified, and because of the rotation of the Earth, it shifted direction from west to northwest. Waves deepened, and the first hints of whitecaps appeared in the steel-blue sea. Locked in action, the two lines of warships might have seemed indifferent to marine or atmospheric conditions, but, in fact, they had been carefully following the wind all day—and probably no one more so than Cleopatra.
As the wind picked up slowly, a gap widened increasingly in the center of Antony’s line. It appears that he had planned this. He certainly had placed his most experienced admirals at either end of the line, as did the enemy. He might have expected that the fighting would be less intense in the center, thereby leaving an opening— just the place for a breakout. Cleopatra was the one to exploit it.
The queen waited for just the right moment, when it became clear that the two fleets were locked in battle. At that point, the fighting was too intense for the enemy to break off in pursuit. So, Cleopatra made her move. Her own squadron of sixty ships was held in reserve in the rear of Antony’s armada. She ordered her ships to move. Their instructions were to row through the gap between the right wing and the center. Next, Cleopatra commanded her ship captains to raise their sails to catch the wind. “She called to the winds and let the swelling sails out more and more,” as Virgil puts it. The time was between two and three in the afternoon, or so a plausible estimate has it.
Cleopatra’s flagship, the Antonias, was no doubt splendid. The Ptolemies were not ones to spare expense on a royal vessel. Think of the barge on which Cleopatra had rowed upriver in Tarsus to meet Antony ten years earlier. When one source on Actium says that she signaled the breakout maneuver by raising the purple sail on her golden ship, it might not be an exaggeration. Purple was the color of royalty, and the ship might well have had gilded decorations.
In any event, it was a bold move. Prior to battle, the council of war had decided on a breakout strategy, and Cleopatra was executing it in an exemplary manner. The sources agree that she led the breakout. Indeed, she might have deserved a medal for leading her squadron to safety. Still, some of the ancient authors pour scorn on her. Flavius Josephus, writing a little more than a century after the battle, is the first to criticize her, asserting flatly that Cleopatra deserted Antony. But, then, the Jewish historian always criticizes Cleopatra, as he was a partisan of her rival King Herod. Cassius Dio, writing more than a century after Josephus, agrees. He says that she lost her nerve and fled, behaving— says Dio, in a combination of sexism and racism— just like a woman and an Egyptian.
Shakespeare follows the hostile tradition, having one of Antony’s men say:
Yon ribrauded nag of Egypt,
Whom leprosy o’ertake!— i’ the midst o’ the fight,
When vantage like a pair of twins appear’d,
Both as the same, or rather ours the elder, The breese upon her, like a cow in June, Hoists sails and flies.
In fact, Antony’s fleet was fighting a losing battle, and he knew it. Cleopatra wasn’t “a cow in June” but rather a fox escaping from the hounds on a New Year’s Day fox hunt.
Yet the flower of Roman manhood in the enemy fleet did nothing did to stop Cleopatra. Why? Plutarch says that they were too amazed to do anything. He has a point. Romans were, in fact, generally sexist bigots. Most probably never imagined that a Greco-Egyptian squadron could have pulled off such a daring move, especially not when it was commanded by a woman. Having spent a lifetime being underestimated by men, Cleopatra knew how to take advantage of their mistake.
In any case, Cleopatra and her commanders executed their maneuver with speed and agility. The enemy admiral opposite her was Arruntius, who was in charge of the center of Octavian’s fleet. In the thick of the fighting, Arruntius would have found it hard to get his ships to break off in time to pursue, especially if he lacked resolution or experience. He might have been surprised by Cleopatra’s action, and surprise is a force multiplier.
Antony, however, was not surprised, and he soon followed Cleopatra. Again, this was probably according to plan, but that doesn’t stop some of the ancient sources from saying otherwise. Josephus implies that by treacherously deserting Antony, the queen forced him to follow. The upshot was that Antony lost both his army and his empire.
Velleius Paterculus, by contrast, puts the blame squarely on Antony who made his own choice, the writer says, to accompany the queen instead of his own men. Rather than punish deserters from his army, as he should have, Antony deserted his army. Plutarch has it both ways. After writing that Antony was moved not by the reasoning of a commander or a man or even of himself, the Greek historian concludes that it was as if Antony’s soul belonged to the body of the woman he loved. As soon as he saw Cleopatra’s ship sailing off, Antony fled, abandoning and ultimately betraying the men who were fighting and dying for him. Cassius Dio, on the other hand, gives Antony a break. He says that when Antony saw Cleopatra’s squadron fleeing, he blamed it not on the queen but on her men’s fear that they had been defeated. And so, he decided to follow. In short, says Dio, Antony was moved by a rational calculation and not by a lover’s passion.
Contrary to romance, Antony, like Cleopatra, moved with a precision and decisiveness that suggests a prearranged plan. His flagship was a big ship, possibly a ten, and too heavy for a quick escape. He transferred to a five, which was a compromise choice: though not the fastest of ships, it was heavy enough to fight off an enemy attack. When he reached Cleopatra, she recognized him and raised a signal; he approached her ship and was taken on board.
Predictably, enemy propaganda put out a tale to make Antony’s well-executed escape look ridiculous. The story went that Antony had been forced to abandon his flagship and board Cleopatra’s vessel only because his ship had become immobilized by a fish known as the echeneïs, or “ship detainer,” which could become entangled in the rudder cables. Echeneïs are a type of remora, a fish that attaches itself to sharks and ships. By a happy accident, a common name for the fish in English gives away the propaganda game against Antony: “sucker fish.”
Granted that Antony and Cleopatra fled according to a pre-arranged plan, why did the two of them take an Egyptian squadron rather than a Roman one? Was Cleopatra pushing Antony around? Hardly. Antony trusted the Roman squadrons more than the Egyptians to do the actual fighting. Better to keep the Egyptians in reserve, from which position they could lead the retreat if necessary. Besides, their destination was Egypt, which would welcome Egyptian warships more warmly than Roman ones. Most important, Cleopatra had the treasure on her ships, and she did not trust anyone but her own men. Hence, the flight of the Egyptian ships made good sense.
Many if not most of Antony’s ships tried to follow him. In order to lighten their loads and escape more rapidly, they raised their sails and threw their towers into the sea. Yet most of them were unable to make it to safety. We don’t know how many of his ships broke out. Estimates range as high as forty and as low as “a few.” Somewhere between ten and twenty escapees is a reasonable guess. Add them to the sixty ships in Cleopatra’s squadron, and the total is seventy to eighty warships that managed to break out of Actium.
Antony and Cleopatra began the battle with 230 warships, which means that about one-third escaped. That was not a bad total. Naval history has known more successful breakouts, although not without losses, but Antony and Cleopatra’s achievement was nonetheless considerable, given that they were outnumbered, hungry, ill, and beset with tricky winds. True enough, it is a monument to mismanagement that they found themselves in this situation in the first place. Yet had they not planned and executed the battle as well as they did, they might have escaped with fewer ships or with none at all. Assuming that a few more ships stationed around the Peloponnese or the Greek islands joined the escapees, Antony and Cleopatra arguably left Greece with, at most, about ninety warships.
As they headed south from the battle zone on the lusty breeze, they weren’t quite free. Some liburnians, the fastest warships in Octavian and Agrippa’s fleet, chased the escapees. Antony ordered his ship to turn and face them. That scared off all of the pursuers except one Eurycles of Sparta. Earlier that spring, probably soon after the fall of Methone, Eurycles had defected from Antony to Octavian. Now he was proving his value to his new patron by chasing Octavian’s rival.
Eurycles brandished a spear on deck and aimed it threateningly at Antony. When Antony asked him to identify himself, he replied proudly that he was Eurycles, son of Lachares, and thanks to “the fortune of Caesar,” he was there to avenge his father’s death. A prominent man in Sparta, Lachares had been beheaded by Antony on a charge of piracy. So spoke Eurycles—or at least that is what he claimed later. His little comedy doesn’t bear up, however. Eurycles’s story of avenging his murdered father, Lachares, sounds suspiciously like Octavian’s story of avenging his murdered (adoptive) father, Julius Caesar. Eurycles might have invented his speech and threatening behavior in a later report to the victor of Actium.
Although Eurycles did not harm Antony, he did ram another flagship that had escaped—possibly from Antony’s center squadron—and captured both it and another ship carrying some of the royal equipment. With this one last set of trophies, the pursuit of Antony and Cleopatra came to an end.
Copyright ©2022 by Barry Strauss. From THE WAR THAT MADE THE ROMAN EMPIRE: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium by Barry S. Strauss, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.