Aftermath and Alexandria
The rest of the story is told in our sources as romance and tragedy (Dio, 51.1-18; Plutarch, Life of Antony). The moral purposes of the telling defeat the historical credibility. But it was obvious from soon after Actium that Antony and Cleopatra were lost.
Some of Antony’s troops had attempted to march overland to rejoin Antony’s cause. They were trapped and surrendered. Reduced in the number of troops and with his naval force considerably depleted, Antony could not remain in Greece. He needed to retreat.
The trouble with civil wars is that loyalties can be flexible. Few people had much reason to prefer Antony over Octavian. There was no ideological difference between the two (despite attempts at the time and later to make this a war about the nature of Rome). The priority of most was to survive the war. The defeat at Actium made calculations much easier. Unless Antony could raise soldiers and ships very, very fast, Octavian would win. The safest course for Antonian supporters was to defect, and they did.
By 30 BC, Antony and Cleopatra were trapped in Egypt. They were faced with overwhelming force. Their defeat was inevitable. Antony did well in the first skirmishes outside Alexandria but faced with near certain death, the fleet defected.
Antony killed himself almost immediately. Cleopatra tried to negotiate. Perhaps she negotiated for her children. It seems unlikely that she though she could retain Egypt. In any case, she had prepared the means to kill herself.
Briefly, Octavian took custody of her. But by means mysterious, possibly by snake, the symbol of Isis, Cleopatra killed herself. Although the sources tell us that she dressed herself as queen to be seen in death, nearly every modern work of art takes the opportunity to make the connection between sex and death and show a near naked dead Cleopatra.
Cleopatra has ever since be used to spin tales of morality and immorality, sex and royalty being potent ideas.
Civil war or War against a Barbarian?
After major victories, Roman generals celebrated triumphs. But triumphs were not celebrated in civil wars. One list of triumphs (fasti triumphales Barberini) records that for 13th August, 29 BC Caesar celebrated his triumph over the Dalmatians. On 15th August, 29 BC Caesar celebrated a triumph over Egypt. There was no triumph for Actium. There was, undoubtedly, a procession on 14th, a celebration that was like a triumph, but not a triumph (Dio, 51.24). There was an effort to decrease the role of Antony and increase that of Cleopatra, but the war was Roman army against Roman army; Roman general against Roman general.
The rule was kept. Octavian ackowledged that Actium was a civil war. The invasion of Egypt was, though, treated as a foreign war.
Actium clearly decided the fate of the Roman world in the sense that it confirmed that Octavian, to be become Augustus, was the sole ruler of that world. Octavian-Augustus was to found a dynasty of emperors and emperors were to rule Rome for the next five hundred years. Yet, it raises certain issues about historical developments.
- If Actium had not been fought, how would Roman history have developed?
- If Antony and Cleopatra had won at Actium, would Roman history have been very different?
- Is there a sequence of events that we can imagine that would lead either to a restoration of Republican rule or to a very different form of monarchic rule over the subsequent centuries?
It is perfectly possible to conclude that Actium changed very little in the long-term trajectory of Roman politics.
Such a conclusion is not very dramatic. Writers and politicians like key moments when the history of the world seems in the balance. They don’t really like slow structural changes in the way the world works. Much later, when Germanicus visited Actium on his way to Egypt, he mused at the site of the famous battle, when futures hung in the balance. Yet, he was descended. Yet, he was married to Augustus’ granddaughter, descended from the marriage of Augustus’ sister (Octavia) and from Mark Antony (family tree). He was on both sides of the war. Here is the key historical question:
- Is history governed by chance events of by long-term changes in political ideologies and economic and social relations?
If we think the latter, then Republican governance as represented in the golden age of the Republic was dead long before the battle of Actium and irrelevantly from it.
But since the time of Actium, people have wanted the battle to mean something more. In his Res Gestae (25) Augustus claims that ‘the whole of Italy’ (tota Italia) freely took an oath of allegiance to him in the war of Actium. That claim to speak for the ‘whole of Italy’ against Antony can be turned into a claim of ideological difference. It can be turned into a claim that this was Rome and Rome’s traditions in opposition to Cleopatra. Cleopatra and Antony might be made into what political leaders sometimes think of as an existential threat, something that threatens the very existence of a society.
Existential threats are a great way of whipping up a frenzy. You can say that Jews who have lived amongst you for generations or foreigners immigrating into your country pose an existential threat to your way of life. It often requires magical thinking, endowing people with enormous powers which are secret. We might think of it as a grand witch hunt on a societal scale.
Or we might think of it as rubbish.
In the passions of a civil war, it probably suited many to think of their enemies as an existential threat. The Romans had done this a lot over the previous century, seeing other Romans as being about to overthrow the state and thus justifying extreme violence being applied and the revocation of their citizenship privileges. And if we think about it again, it is a political move we are familiar with. If you identify a group who you think threatens your societal freedoms, be it Jews, Moslems, Blacks, Hindus, gays, communists, Christians, the mentally infirm, then you can justify removing their freedoms in order to protect the greater good.
Did Antony and Cleopatra really pose an existential threat to Rome? Did a majority of those in Rome in 31 BC believe that they did?
The answer to the second question can never be known. But we can guess that it suited people to talk up the ‘threat’ posed by Antony and Cleopatra. Certainly, they celebrated victory as if Rome had been saved.
Personally, it seems to me that there was very little ideological difference between the two sides at Actium. If Antony had won, Alexandria would likely have been more prominent in the arrangements of power in the new Roman Empire, but Rome was queen of the Mediterranean and any new monarch would need to be based there and not in Egypt. Rome’s pre-eminence was never seriously threatened.
With the last civil war for nearly a century, Octavian became sole ruler of Rome’s Empire. He was not the first victor after civil war. But with already a decade’s experience of being a shared rule of Rome, his position was markedly more powerful than that of a Sulla or a Marius or even a Caesar. The real question was how that power could be consolidated and what Octavian would do next.