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The Battle of Actium, 31 BCE

Situated just north of Peloponnesus, Actium lies at the entrance to the Gulf of Ambracia in Greece. It was here that for the better part of 31 BCE Marc Antony had positioned an army in preparation to fight Octavian who had encamped at a strong position across the Gulf’s entrance at Mikhalitzi. [1] Octavian was no match when compared to the military genius of Antony, yet at Actium he held the strategic advantage by assembling a larger navy and controlling the sea routes required by Antony to break out of Greece and continue the war. Thus, regardless of Antony’s superior land abilities, a sea battle was of strategic importance, ‘our fortune lies upon this jump’ (3.5.5). [2]

During the 1st century BCE, sea battles were fought in a similar way to land battles on hips which had various levels of oar decks with a fighting platform atop. [3] While seen as expensive, cumbersome and often regarded as ineffective in battle, navies were absolutely necessary for any army to embark upon expeditions, receive supplies and maintain communications. Antony burnt his spare ships just before the Actium battle not in a foolhardy act, but as a precaution that if he should fail, spare ships would not fall into Octavian’s hands. [4]

As a veteran field commander, Antony faced better odds with land forces but chose the sea battle in the hope that removing Octavian’s fleet might ease the naval blockade around his army while also denying Octavian naval support and supply lines. Antony also discounted a land battle because he knew it could not lift the naval blockade. The final option, retreat into Greece, would force the burning of his entire fleet and gravely demoralize his army. [5]

On September 2nd, Antony’s fleet left harbour and arranged for battle under favourable winds. Comprised of some 230 vessels, Antony took control of the right wing with two other squadrons adjacent on his left and Cleopatra’s 60 ships in reserve. [6] The battle began well for Antony, yet at the crucial moment Cleopatra’s squadron hoisted sail and passed through the melee in flight, whereupon Antony pursued her. While Shakespeare and Plutrach contended that this was the action of a love struck man, it is possible that Antony fully expected Cleopatra to flee and that he had always intended to escape with her if she did so.

Besieged at Actium, Antony required an escape. He sent instruction to Canidius Crassus, commander of his Army, to march into Macedonia and join him in Asia after the battle. [7] Further, Antony brought sails with him into battle, something rarely done in naval warfare at that time. Sails were heavy, cumbersome and useless in battle. Though Antony stated that this measure was taken in order to pursue Octavian if he ran, it is more likely the sails were to provide Antony a means of escape. [8] Finally, there is the composition of Cleopatra’s squadron of 60 ships. They were mostly of merchant ships, not military vessels, and held on board not only the Queen but a large treasury. Having little military value these vessels were rather prepared for flight and, being positioned in reserve, needed only to wait until Antony’s three squadrons provided passage to the open sea by engaging Octavian’s fleet.

Perception is the key to understanding the battle of Actium. To Shakespeare and chroniclers whom he relied upon for accounts, love struck Antony threw away all to pursue his lover. [9] Yet, in accordance with the well-disciplined military mind of Antony, there is plausible cause to believe circumstances at Actium played out exactly as Antony wished.

Gregory Sheridan


1. The only natural weakness of Octavian’s camp was the location of two vulnerable fresh water supplies. While Antony attempted to deny Octavian these sources throughout the summer he was ultimately unsuccessful. Return to text

2. A ‘jump’ is defined as a hazard in this case. Arden Antony and Cleopatra, p. 126. Return to text

3. Roman ships are identified by the number rowing platforms upon them. The smallest had one or two, the larger ones had upwards of six. Thus the ships were known as twos (or biremes), threes (triremes), fours, etc. with the stated number of rowing platforms above the water but below the fighting platform. The sixes and larger held enormous crews, a huge expense, and were slow to manoeuvre. This meant they were fewer in number than the smaller ships. Antony’s fleet contained more fours and above but Octavian’s larger fleet of smaller but more manoeuvrable vessels had the advantage. (III.VII.37), Carter, p. 215. Return to text

4. Carter, p. 215. Return to text

5. Antony was well aware that he was a great land battle commander and he did attempt to offer battle when the situation favoured his forces. If Octavian was defeated on land his army would withdraw and his fleet would not find safe harbour close to Actium, thus lifting the siege against Antony in order to find harbour for his vessels and shelter from storms. However, when Octavian refused battle there was little Antony could do to force the situation. Throughout the summer both sides strategically avoided battle while attempting to strengthen their position. By late summer Octavian’s fleet increasingly threatened Antony’s lines of naval supply and a naval action became paramount to Antony’s cause. Carter, pp. 208-209, 213-214. Return to text

6. Plutarch, pp. 777-778. Appian states Antony had 500 ‘warlike’ ships at Actium. Historians often believe Plutarch over Appian. Appian, p. 384. Return to text

7. Carter states these instructions were given the morning before the battle. Carter, p. 216. Plutarch believed Antony sent instructions to Crassus after the sea battle. Plutarch, p. 778. Return to text

8. Plutarch, p. 777, Carter p. 216. Return to text

9. Plutarch, p. 777. Return to text


Appian of Alexandia. An Avncient Hiftorie and exquifite Chronicle of the Romanes Warres, both Ciuile and Foren (London: Henrie Bynniman, 1578)

Carter, John M., The Battle of Actium: The Rise & Triumph of Augustus Caesar (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1970)

Plutarch. Plutarch: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Englished by Sir Thomas North anno 1579, 6 Vols. (London: 1579, 1676)

Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra, Arden Series 3 edition edited by John Wilders (London: Thomas Nelson & Son, 1995)



General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
The Wife as Property in Othello