Historians broadly contemplate the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE to be the decisive occasion that led to Octavian defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The couple dedicated suicide—Antony by stabbing himself within the abdomen, and Cleopatra by the chew of an asp (or, alternatively, by another poison). Octavian subsequently turned the Roman Emperor Augustus, thereby ushering within the Pax Romana, a 200-year interval of peace and prosperity that lasted till 180 CE.
Barry Strauss, a historian at Cornell College, argues that the true pivotal second within the battle occurred some six months earlier than as a part of a strategic marketing campaign to chop off the availability strains for Antony and Cleopatra’s forces. Strauss makes his case in his new ebook, The War that Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium, re-creating the battle intimately, in addition to what he maintains was the turning level of the warfare six months earlier than.
It is a significantly dramatic historic interval that impressed two separate historic performs by William Shakespeare. Roman normal and statesman Julius Caesar was famously stabbed to dying on the Curia of Pompey on the ides of March in 44 BCE. The senators who killed him thought assassination was the one solution to protect the republic, however the homicide finally led to the republic’s collapse. The next yr, Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, fashioned the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.
Alas, the Second Triumvirate proved to be extremely unstable, due largely to the bitter rivalry between Octavian and Antony. Octavian efficiently pushed Lepidus into exile in 36 BCE, claiming the latter’s provinces for himself. In the meantime, Antony married Caesar’s former lover, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, and sought to dominate Rome from there. Civil warfare inevitably broke out (the third and final of the Roman Republic), with the younger and comparatively inexperienced Octavian on one aspect and Antony and Cleopatra (supported by 40 p.c of the Roman Senate) on the opposite.
On paper, Antony and Cleopatra appeared assured to win the warfare, given their mixed assets and expertise with army methods and campaigns. But Octavian finally prevailed. Based on Strauss, it was Octavian’s reliance on Roman Normal Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who efficiently waged a naval marketing campaign to chop off provide strains to Antony’s military, giving Octavian the higher hand. That marketing campaign included the seizure of the town of Methone, a strategically important port in an obscure nook of southern Greece.
“Actium was an incredible battle, but it surely didn’t stand alone,” Strauss writes in his introduction. “It was the climax of a six-month marketing campaign of engagements on land and sea. Nor had been the entire operations army. The warfare between Antony and Octavian concerned diplomacy, data warfare—from propaganda to what we now name pretend information—financial and monetary competitors, in addition to the entire human feelings: love, hate, and jealousy, not least amongst them.”
Ars spoke with Strauss to be taught extra.
Ars Technica: You concentrate on historical army historical past, however you appear to have a specific fascination for this second in Roman historical past—and particularly this specific battle. Why is that?
Barry Strauss: I used to be extremely fortunate after I was a graduate scholar. I received to spend a yr in Greece with the American Faculty of Classical Research in Athens. Within the fall of 1978, I used to be taken to Nicopolis by the college. Among the many college students, there have been two individuals who devoted their lives to learning the positioning there, Konstantinos Zachos, a Greek archeologist who excavated the positioning of Augustus’ victory monument, and Invoice Murray, a naval archaeologist and naval historian, who measured the dimensions of the rams on the positioning. They each received me actually within the topic early on. As for Julius Caesar and Octavian, I might executed a army historical past of Caesar. So this battle was sort of the lacking hyperlink between Caesar and Octavian. And naturally, there’s Cleopatra, who’s simply completely irresistible.
Ars Technica: Literature, significantly Shakespeare’s performs, has coloured our notion of many of those figures. One cause is that the supply materials is notoriously scant. How do you discover good dependable sources, particularly in instances the place it’s important to reconstruct what occurred primarily based on just a few strains of textual content right here and there?
Barry Strauss: That is one of many essential issues that we as historical historians do. We’ve got to learn towards the grain, and now we have an adversarial relationship with the sources. So to start with, now we have to ask, “The place is every creator coming from?” to get a way of what his biases is likely to be. Then we collect an enormous quantity of fabric in order that we will fill within the blanks.
Lots of that materials is archaeological. A good quantity of it’s primarily based on what I’d name reconstruction or some data of how the ocean works, of how boats work, of how warfare works. That enables us to slender issues down. Generally, actually, now we have to go for aggressive plausibility. We won’t all the time say, “Nicely, we’re positive this has occurred,” however we will say, “We contemplate this the likeliest reconstruction.” However it’s robust. It is actually tough stuff.