In 31 B.C., the fate of Rome depended upon the results of a naval clash. It was not a comfortable situation for the Romans; after all, the Roman military system was a fundamentally land-based one. Indeed, some of Rome’s most striking naval victories, those of the First Punic War, swung upon the Romans’ discovery of a way to fight a battle at sea with tactics that made use of Roman infantry skill. As the era of the Civil Wars drew to a close, however, one of the combatants was Cleopatra of Egypt. A Hellenistic ruler with great wealth, but weak manpower, she naturally sought to seize the advantage through an overwhelming naval force. When at last this fleet engaged with the more agile fleet built by Marcus Agrippa, the course of Roman history was decided in a single day.
The entire Mediterranean world was at stake. The death of Julius Caesar had caused a new eruption of civil wars, first one that pit Caesar’s partisans, notably Octavian and Antony, against his murderers, followed by a struggle between the victorious Octavian and Antony over how to divide the spoils. For a time, the latter conflict had remained covert, and it seemed wise to adopt a power-sharing arrangement that left Octavian in control of the west, and Antony of the east. Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra, at once personal and political, raised the specter of an Eastern Mediterranean united under the couple. Even so, it was not as easy as he would later pretend for Octavian to unify Roman opinion against his erstwhile ally.
When battle was joined, it was again in Greece, as had happened in earlier Civil Wars. Antony was gathering his forces at Actium, threatening a massive invasion of Italy. Octavian and Marcus Agrippa were faster, however, and brought their own forces to the area before Antony was even capable of mustering an active defense. By bluff alone Antony staved off the threat of a direct attack on his still-undermanned ships, but in the time that he bought with his ruse, Marcus Agrippa was able to position his own fleet in such a way that threatened Antony’s supplies and hemmed in his prospects for maneuver. At last, on September 2, Antony attempted to break through Agrippa’s blockade.
Antony and Cleopatra had certain advantages. They had very large, powerful ships, including massive quinqueremes that could have splintered Agrippa’s ships if they succeeded in a ramming attack. Agrippa, however, had built a fleet that seemed ideal in averting precisely that threat. His fleet was built upon the liburnae, small, light galleys that could easily outmaneuver Antony’s behemoths, and there were far more of them. Sometimes as many as four liburnae sailed rings around one of Antony’s quinqueremes, managing to stay away from the powerful ram at the prow of Antony’s vessels and peppering its crew and marines with arrows.
It was a battle of attrition, and consequently slow, more like the constriction of an anaconda than the bite of an asp. It was, however, supremely effective. As the day wore on, Agrippa’s fleet smashed some three hundred vessels of Antony’s force. Cleopatra gave up hope, and when the winds changed, she set sail for Egypt with her escorts and treasure; this spurred Antony on to make a similar escape, and he managed to slip through Agrippa’s cordon. Of the remainder of the Antonine forces, huge numbers surrendered.
In immediate terms, the decision at Actium meant that the war was Octavian’s to win on his own timetable. If Antony had hoped that by living to fight another day, he could turn about the momentum of the war, he was grievously mistaken. His wealth was depleted, much of his side of the Roman world was already in Octavian’s hands, and his Roman supporters were doubly disillusioned, both by defeat and by their perception of Antony’s dependence on Cleopatra. He had little with which to mount a defense when Octavian arrived in Egypt the following year, and so both Antony and Cleopatra chose instead to die by their own hands.
Geopolitically, this guaranteed that the Roman world would be united for several hundred years. The Mediterranean basin would be a comparatively placid body of water ensuring trade and reliable communications, rather than a battleground for two warring factions. It brought the last independent kingdom of the Mediterranean, Egypt, into the Roman Empire, and with it came the fabled wealth of Egypt, above all enormous agricultural surpluses from its famous Nile flooding. For the city of Rome itself, already an imperial capital in all but name, and one that had grown far beyond the capacity of its countryside to feed it, this was a remarkable boon.
In the political sphere, it meant that decades of crippling civil wars had finally come to an end, and Rome could at last begin the process of rebuilding. This construction came hand in hand with the restructuring of the Roman constitution, something that became necessary, if not inevitable, long before. After all, the Republic was structured largely on the governance of a city, but it was being used to govern a constantly expanding empire. Transformation had already occurred; Rome was simply waiting for its institutions to catch up. Octavian’s victory meant that it was his vision that would redefine those institutions. As the Emperor Augustus, he laid the foundations for a system that would endure in the west for five hundred years; in the east, it would linger in modified form for a further thousand. Under the aegis of Emperor Augustus, Rome would build up its strength and prosperity to new heights.
The Pax Romana that resulted deserves a few additional words. There was still conflict in Rome’s future, but Rome was to enjoy about a century of respite before it was wracked with domestic conflict. There would continue to be fighting along the peripheries of the Empire – war in Britain, in Germany, in the Balkans, and along the Persian frontier – but in the core of the Empire, peace reigned, and with it came the predictability that is so key to economic growth and even a certain measure of individual happiness.
Perhaps the most remarkable facet of this development, however, lies in the redefinition of the word “core” in this context. Under the Republic, the core was the city of Rome itself, or if the Senate felt generous, the province of Latium or maybe even the Italian peninsula. Under the Pax Romana, the entire urbanized part of the Empire became the core. People all across the Empire had the opportunity to become citizens under the Empire, and many availed themselves of that opportunity. City-dwellers in Spain and Egypt, in Asia Minor and in Gaul, enjoyed a similar level of protection and comparable opportunities to those who lived in Italy. And indeed, until the near exhaustion of the fifth century A.D., the Roman Emperors were as committed to protecting their people in Spain, Egypt, Asia Minor and Gaul as they were the people in Italy.
All of this became possible as a result of the Battle of Actium, a battle in which a bold warrior and his fabulously wealthy lover were outmaneuvered by a wily politician and his visionary general. Actium was not merely a major turning point in Roman history; it was truly a notable turning point in Western Civilization.
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