Fall of the Roman Republic 78-31 BC

- Syllabus Content - Assessment - Past Questions - Glossary of Terms - Glossary of People - Maps -

Rivalry and Civil War between Mark Antony and Octavian: role of Cleopatra VII; Battle of Actium

Past HSC question: 2008
Why did Mark Antony lose the Civil War against Octavian?

Past HSC question: 2004
Assess the achievements and impact of Octavian during this period.
  • What were the “Donations of Alexandria”?
  • Explain the impact of Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra and of his ‘triumph’
  • Describe the battle of Actium?
  • What were the results of this battle?

At the official end of the Triumvirate in 33 BC, Octavian had full control of the west. A propaganda war broke out between Octavian and Antony.

In 32, following an attack by Octavian on Antony in the senate, the supporters of Antony (including the two consuls C. Sosius and Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus) fled Rome to the east. Antony formally divorced Octavia.

War came about when Octavian publically read of Antony’s will: “It acknowledged Caesarion, provided for Antony’s own children by Cleopatra, and ordered that he should be buried at Cleopatra’s side... the report could now be spread that Antony hoped to transfer the capital to Alexandria.” (Scullard p.174) War was declared on Cleopatra.

Italy and the western provinces pledged their allegiance to Octavian against his private enemies. This became the basis of his authority for the next few years.

The Battle of Actium 31 BC
Antony had a superior fleet to Octavian’s, but Agrippa was able to cut off Antony’s supplies. Weakened by hunger and desertion, Antony risked all on a naval battle to break the blockade. Cleopatra’s ships sailed off, which left the main fleet in disarray and the battle was lost. Antony followed Cleopatra and they returned to Alexandria.

Scullard’s account of Actium
“His (Octavian’s) army managed to occupy a position just north of Actium, while his fleet, commanded by Agrippa, captured Leucas, Patrae and Corinth and thus cut Antony off from the Peloponnese and began to interfere with his supplies by sea. When Antony failed to dislodge Octavian’s army, he abandoned land operations, and his situation quickly deteriorated: he was short of supplies, desertions increased, and his men became restless. Rejecting a suggestion that he should return to Macedonia and fight by land, he followed Cleopatra’s advice to use the fleet. His real purpose is not clear: probably he hoped to fight a full-scale action, with the secondary plan of trying to break through to Egypt if this failed. Others believe that he was merely trying to escape from the blockade. However that may be, on 2 September Antony drew up his fleet off Actium in three squadrons, facing to sea westwards, with Cleopatra’s squadron behind nearer the shore. On his right wing Antony tried to turn Agrippa’s squadron opposite him, but at this point for some reason his centre and left wing began to retire. Antony was thus forced to signal to Cleopatra, who had the war-chest aboard, to escape. He broke off the engagement and managed to join her with forty ships. As they sailed off to Egypt, the rest of his fleet was captured or surrendered. A week later his land forces also capitulated. Octavian was undisputed master of the Roman world after an engagement which, as far as the actual fighting went, was something of an anticlimax in view of the vast forces assembled on each side.
H.H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero, p.176-7

Syme on the Battle of Actium
“The course, character and duration of the battle itself is all a mystery - and a topic of controversy. There may have been little fighting and comparatively few casualties. A large part of the fleet of Antonius either refused battle or after defeat was forced back into harbour.”
R. Syme, The Roman Revolution, p.297

Octavian was now the sole commander of the Roman world!