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The Battle of Actium

Updated on December 22, 2011

The Battle of Actium was a crucial naval battle between Mark Antony and Octavian, who at the time of the battle ruled the Roman world, Antony in the east and Octavian in the west. By the battle of Actium, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) won the mastery of the Roman world. It took place on September 2, 31 B.C., in the Ionian Sea, off Actium. Actium is a promontory of Acarnania on the west coast of Greece, at the entrance to the Ambracian Gulf.

Antony advanced his army in September to Actium, where he established winter quarters on the flat, sandy headland. His fleet of 400 large vessels was anchored offshore. It included one squadron that belonged to Cleopatra, queen of Egypt and Antony's paramour. Octavian had moved his army across the Ionian Sea and occupied a position on the Epirote coast, just north of Actium.

Agrippa, who commanded Octavian's fleet of about 400 small but capable ships, cut off Antony's supply communications to the south. Antony's forces were besieged on two sides by the enemy and weakened by many desertions. Acting largely under Cleopatra's influence, he rejected proposals to withdraw his army into Macedonia and decided on a naval battle.

Antony deployed his fleet in three formations to face Octavian's fleet, also in three formations. Cleopatra's squadron was to the rear of Antony's forces, supposedly supporting them. When the wind shifted, both sides attempted an outer flanking movement. In the fighting that followed, Octavian's smaller ships were able to outmaneuver Antony's cumbersome fleet. Antony's center and left backwatered, and portions of his immediate command raised their oars in a token of surrender. Left with no alternative but flight, Cleopatra's squadron broke through the front ranks and sailed for Egypt. Antony followed, leaving the rest of his command to its fate. Octavian captured about 300 ships, many of which he burned. A week later Antony's land army surrendered.

In commemoration of his triumph, Octavian enlarged the temple of Apollo at Actium, which dated from the 5th century B.C., and there dedicated his newly won war trophies. He instituted games (held every five years) at Actium and built Nicopolis ("City of Victory") on the site of his army's camp near present-day Preveza.


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