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Battle of Actium

(2 September 31 BCE)

Civil war still ongoing after death Gaius Julius Caesar was extremely devastating for the Roman state. United forces of three triumvirates: Mark Aemilius Lepidus, Mark Antony and Augustus destroyed the Republican army: Brutus and Gaius Cassius in the battle of Philippi.

In the empire, only the triumvirates were distributing the main cards. However, as it turned out, three ambitious husbands could not manage one state organism together. Mark Lepidus was the first to lose his influence. Deprived of the army in 36 BCE, the fight for the highest insignia no longer counted. There are only two left on the battlefield: Octavian Augustus and Mark Antony. Another civil war, which actually broke out in 33 BC, was inevitable. Looking for a rapid solution to the war on the Roman throne, Antonius and Octavian Augustus tried various solutions to the dispute. Antony offered Caesar’s foster son the battle of one in one, in turn, Augustus presented the place for the battle of the big battle, which, however, was rejected.

With time, the young general came up with the idea of attacking the naval base of Antonius and the Cleopatra located at Cape Action. Having a significant numerical advantage, he attacked the year 31 BC making it impossible for Antonius to flee to Egypt and forcing him to fight.


Seen from space Ambrakian Bay where the battle had place.

Octavian forces included nearly 400 warships, 20, 000 naval infantry and 40, 000 heavy-armed infantry. The fleet of Octavius was mostly lightweight units – liburna – which were much less effective than the triangular and quadruple-rowed Antonius. However, Augusta’s lightships were very agile and fast, which made it easier to command and form arrays. In addition, they were much easier to squeeze and squeeze between the mighty three and four-row Antonius.

The forces of Antonius and Cleopatra are 230 warships, including the fleet of 60 combat units of Cleopatra, 20, 000 infantry, 2000 archers and 19 legions on land. Theoretically, Mark Antony had a staggering 100, 000 soldiers on land, but it is worth noting that they were located all over the east, from Greece to Egypt, so probably there were about 40, 000 infantrymen ready for the Battle of Action.

Realizing the advantage of Octavian on land, Antonius at the instigation of Cleopatra decided to bet on sea war, counting on the strength of his fleet. His plan was quite simple, he wanted to use his strongest part of the fleet to hit the middle and break through the enemy line. Then, sailing to Egypt, he would gather his legions scattered all over the east and deliver a battle of the war to Octavius on his territory.

The Plutarch of Cheronea reports that one of Antonio’s centurions opposed the idea of fighting at sea. The soldier was supposed to address the commander with such words:

Chief, why do you despise these wounds and this sword, and place your hopes in the unfortunate tree? Let the Egyptians and the Phoenicians fight at sea, give us a change, on which we are accustomed to keep our place and die or conquer the enemy.

Plutarch from Cheronea, Antony, 64


In the morning of September 2, 31 BC, both armies set themselves up in a chic, preparing for the greatest sea battle of antiquity. Octavian’s fleet was set up in the west, obstructing the escape route. The young general took command of the right-wing, while the left-wing surrendered to the excellent Admiral Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. In the centre commanded Arantius.

Antony with Lucius Gellius Publicola commanded his right-wing, the centre entrusted to Marcus Octavian and Marcus Insteius, left flank admiral Celius. Behind the front line, there was a fleet of 60 units of Cleopatra, on which all the wealth of the queen was located. It was to break through enemy lines after Antonius’ attack.

Situational plan of the Battle of Action and its course.

The battle began at 12 o’clock. Antonius moved with his right-wing, hoping that Celsius would drag Caesar’s son into battle, which would cause a breakthrough in the enemy lines. However, Octavians retreated and luring Celius into the open waters. Soon all lines started the fight. Admiral Octavian gave his liburna the order to avoid close contact with the larger cruisers of Antonius. Instead, light units were to encircle two or three larger enemy units each.

Despite the efforts of Octavian’s much more numerous but weaker fleet, a breakthrough appeared in the centre of his array, which was immediately used by Cleopatra. At the head of 60 Egyptian vessels, it set off in this direction, breaking through to the open sea. Antonius also decided to escape. He jumped from his cruiser to a smaller unit and following Cleopatra he set off to Egypt. The rest of Antonius’ fleet also tried to escape from the battle, which only 80 ships managed to do, the rest were surrounded. Some of the other ships fiercely defended themselves, but finally, those decided to surrender and vow obedience to Octavian. The naval battle ended at 4 pm.

On land, commander the army of Antonius, Caninius Crassus, besieged by Octavian legions, commanded by Titus Titus Statilius Taurus, escaped under the cover of night. Legions of Antonius, without command, decided to join the army, which gave Octavian a total victory in the region.


The great victory of the young general was not only complimented by the capture of Cleopatra and Antonius, so he decided to go to Egypt as soon as possible and finally defeat his rival. His unexpected arrival at Alexandria in summer, led by a strong army, completely surprised Antonius. Seeing no chance of victory with the legions of Octavius, the legionaries of Antonius deserted and turned to the side of the young leader.

Mark Antony, seeing no chance for victory, committed suicide, and later Cleopatra did the same. After many years, the octave finally ended the civil war, which had “torn” Rome for years. He himself was proclaimed princeps by the Senate, won the title of August and took control of Egypt and all its wealth. For the gold of Egypt, he could pay his soldiers the outstanding pay and grant a bonus, for which he gained great popularity. His long reign was supposed to bring Rome a time of calm and administrative reforms, which significantly improved the country.

Monument to the victory under Action; Lion Harbour.


  • Jaczynowska Maria, Dzieje Imperium Romanum, Warszawa 1995
  • Kosiarz Edmund, Bitwy morskie, Warszawa 1994
  • Murawski Andrzej, Akcjum 31 p.n.e., Warszawa 2003

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