On September 2, 31 B.C., off the coast of Greece near the unremarkable city of Actium, two fleets met in battle. As many as six hundred oared warships—perhaps even more—maneuvered, trying to drive the rams on the prows of their own vessels against enemy hulls hard enough to rupture the timbers and make them sink. Each ship was powered by the physical effort of hundreds of rowers, densely packed on rowing benches, the sweat of those above dripping onto the ones below, and all of them surrounded by the stench of so much humanity. Added together, the crews of the rival fleets may have numbered some two hundred thousand, as rowers, marines fighting on deck, or the specialists who steered and operated each ship. Before the day was out thousands were dead, struck by missiles from bow or catapult, hacked down by blade in fierce boarding actions, burned alive when in the latter stages the victors pressed their advantage by setting fire to enemy vessels, or drowned in the sea.

The Duke of Wellington doubted the possibility of a truly accurate reconstruction of any battle.

The Duke of Wellington doubted the possibility of a truly accurate reconstruction of any battle, comparing it to a ball, where no one saw all the things that happened or fully remembered or understood “the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.” The Iron Duke’s battlefields were places of powder-smoke and noise. At Actium there was plenty of noise, but once the squadrons of ships attacked and mingled, no man would ever have been able to see much beyond the galleys close by, that is, assuming that he was on deck. Rowers saw next to nothing, hearing only the sounds and wondering whether at any moment their own ship would be rammed and sunk or set on fire by missiles. Contrary to those powerful images of Charlton Heston and his comrades in the film version of Ben-Hur, they were neither slaves nor chained to their benches, but, even so, escaping a doomed vessel was a risky business.

The reality of such a sea battle is very hard for us to imagine, but Barry Strauss’s The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium brings us as close to understanding what happened as we are ever likely to get.1 As in some of his earlier books, such as Salamis (2004) and The Death of Caesar (2015), Strauss not only analyzes in detail what happened but also places it all firmly in the context of what happened before and after, of the key players and their personalities, and of the political and cultural environment of the times.

Publishers like grand titles and are fond of claiming that a story has been hidden, left untold, or perhaps deliberately suppressed, or that an event or person played a critical role in history, but in this case there is some justice in the title. The victor on the day—although, as Strauss points out, not the true architect of the victory—was the man who would later become Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Describing Augustus as “emperor” is a modern convention, as he called himself princeps—first citizen or first magistrate of the state—and boasted that he had restored the commonwealth (which is a better translation of the Latin res publica than the more obvious “republic”). Certainly, he created a system of governance that endured for centuries and gave Italy and the empire internal peace and, in time, levels of prosperity and population growth unsurpassed until the modern era. He also made elections of marginal importance, created a Senate no longer meaningfully independent, and was to all intents a military dictator in all save name, if one who on the whole ruled well and for the greater good. Perhaps the greatest thing he did in the eyes of men like Virgil, Horace, and Propertius was to bring an end to generations of civil war. Whatever their true feelings towards Augustus, the Romans were sincerely relieved that they would no longer fight each other or have their farms confiscated to reward the partisans of rival warlords—better a single unchallenged warlord than the chaos that had gone on for so long. That Augustus was a clever politician made the pill a good deal less bitter. Under Augustus, the commonwealth or state and the wider empire came to function well, as they had not done in living memory.

Augustus died peacefully in his own bed and did not interest Shakespeare sufficiently to warrant a play of his own.

We cannot say what would have happened if the war had gone the other way, whether at Actium itself or in battles that never happened. Strauss shows convincingly that Antony’s campaign had been lost before the battle, in six months of operations along the coast, beginning when Augustan squadrons surprised and captured Methone, Antony’s main supply base. This was the first in a succession of blows that systematically undermined the capacity of the Antonian fleet and army to wage war. Antony may have won a single small victory, although as Strauss notes the sources are unclear and details obscured, but that was it. He never regained the initiative and never even appears to have had a clear plan of how to turn the campaign around and win. Actium completed a victory already won. Antony and his ally and lover Cleopatra lost the battle and the war, although it would be almost a year before they took their own lives. Antony was fifty-three, Augustus in his early thirties, and one of the reasons for the latter’s subsequent success was that he lived to a ripe old age, holding supreme power for the next forty-five years, whereas it is unlikely that Antony would have had so much time to shape any new regime.

Augustus died peacefully in his own bed and did not interest Shakespeare sufficiently to warrant a play of his own, unlike Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra, whose violent ends make for such good theater. Antony and Cleopatra was one of his last plays and is remarkably faithful to Plutarch’s early second-century A.D. life of Antony, notably in such rarely performed scenes as those dealing with the victory of Antony’s lieutenant Ventidius over the Parthians. Defeat, failure, and death make better stories than success, especially gradual success achieved over many years. Augustus experimented and adapted, learning from his mistakes, winning over public opinion. This took patience and subtlety, neither of which were virtues Antony displayed at any time in his life. Nor did Antony show commitment to particular ideals or aims during his career beyond the pursuit of power and glory, which he considered his right as a member of a distinguished senatorial family. There is little to guide us as to what he might have done had he prevailed, and what survives is muddied by the weight of propaganda meant to damn his name in the buildup to the war. Augustus won and Antony lost, and the Principate—the rule of emperors—began and proved highly successful, and indeed profoundly influential, in the development of Western culture. That meant that Actium marked a major turning point in history, and it was certainly celebrated by Augustus in monuments and art near the spot and in Rome, even if it is less famous in our modern world.

The idea of the decisive battle as a turning point in history used to be fashionable. Sir Edward Creasey’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World was first published in 1851 and had been republished no fewer than thirty-eight times by 1894, making it a Victorian best-seller comparable to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, released eight years later. Whatever their other merits, both works reassured Victorians that their world was the product of ages of competition, with success going to the species or nations best able to adapt and innovate, thereby defeating all rivals. That was a comforting message for Britons when their empire was flourishing as never before, and also to the wider English-speaking world beginning to ride high—Saratoga was one of the fifteen battles. Actium was not included, although Augustus featured as the loser—albeit a distant one—in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D., where three of his legions were wiped out by Germanic tribesmen, and Roman conquests up to the River Elbe were forever lost. Times change, but popular culture is still drawn to the idea of a decisive event, especially a battle, for conflict and victory won against the odds make for good narrative. In recent years Hollywood has given us Midway (2019) and Dunkirk (2017)—the latter admittedly about a retreat (and, as Churchill said, “wars are not won by evacuations”), but the message was that those weeks rescued the manpower to reform an army and united the nation. Russian and Chinese studios regularly churn out even more heroic tales of moments that turned the tide, especially in the Second World War.

In contrast to this popular belief that a battle can change the course of history, and therefore that the decisions and actions of those involved are significant, academic history has long gone in other directions. Biography tends to be seen as not entirely respectable, narrative history as intellectually simplistic, while military history, at least when it comes to warfare itself and the details of battles, is dismissed as of no real importance at all. For decades articles about military subjects have been rare in the pages of the main academic journals for ancient history, and ones dealing with the details of battle are almost unknown. Some of this is understandable, based on a sense that earlier generations of scholars had already established as many of the details of the main conflicts from the Greek and Roman period as was possible to do with the sources available. Even more it has to do with distaste for the subject, admittedly often a grim one, and the very human instinct to assume that a topic we find uninteresting cannot possibly be that important. Given the frequency of warfare in Greek and Roman history, however, it is surprising how rarely it appears even as a minor concern in so much scholarly debate about the ancient world.

The War That Made the Roman Empire is therefore, in many respects, a traditional, even old-fashioned, history book—and all the better for that. Whatever else they do, historians should be able to examine the past and try to understand what happened, why it happened, and with what consequences. Ideally, they should be able to explain what they have learned in as clear a way as possible. One of the odder academic tendencies is to make prose as difficult to understand and as dull as possible. A cynic might speculate that impenetrable prose is the best means of defense for many a cherished theory. There are honorable exceptions, and Barry Strauss is one of them, for he is both a first-rate scholar who knows and understands his subject thoroughly and a fluent communicator. Those with an existing interest will find much to engross and challenge them in this book, but anyone sufficiently intrigued to pick it up will be able to enjoy it. The War That Made the Roman Empire is an easy, fast-paced read—as those who have already encountered Strauss’s work will expect—and at the same time packed with information.

Proverbially, winners write the history, and Augustus was a master of shaping a story to fit his needs.

Little about the classical world is certain, some two thousand years later, since so few sources have survived, and many of those were written well after the event. Proverbially, winners write the history, and Augustus was a master of shaping a story to fit his needs. Throughout the book, Strauss displays yet another of the great virtues of a historian, namely the honesty to admit what is just about certain and how far other pieces of information may be trusted. He has a strong sense of the practical, is logical in his arguments, and allows for the views of others and wider trends in interpreting the ancient world. The very nature of the subject means that not everyone will agree with all of his interpretations, but they are always plausible and well argued, even when it is possible to suggest equally reasonable alternatives. Personally, I doubt that there was any chance of a recovery after Antony and Cleopatra escaped from Actium with their treasury, abandoning all their army and most of their fleet, but that does not mean that I can prove the case.

Another admirable feature of the book is the interest in the individuals involved in the story as human beings. Augustus is one, mostly referred to as Octavian in the book, and the difficulty in knowing just what to call the man gives some idea of this wily political chameleon. At the time he was called Caesar, but that too readily leads to confusion with his great-uncle Julius Caesar, hence the preference of some for calling him Octavian. As important was Agrippa, his right-hand man, at least when it came to practical tasks, who seemed able to turn his hand to leading an army, commanding a fleet, and repairing the sewers and water supply of Rome with equal energy and skill. Augustus’s sister and Antony’s third wife, Octavia, also plays a role often overshadowed by others but still important.

Antony does not come out too well because in the end he lost the war after making so little real effort to win it.

Antony does not come out too well because in the end he lost the war after making so little real effort to win it. He is also always in the shadow of Cleopatra, who hijacks Plutarch’s life of Antony simply because she is more interesting. I have kept her until the end because she could as easily have taken over this review. In a world of men, she was one of the few women to play such a big and public role. She was clearly highly intelligent, witty, charismatic, and attractive, even if we do not really know what she looked like, something that makes a nonsense of the recent controversy over a projected film about her life starring Gal Gadot. The latter surely has the star quality of the real Cleopatra, who always stood out from those around her, and that is what really matters.

Cleopatra had presence and knew how to put on a show, but it is harder to say whether or not she was a gifted politician, let alone to judge how well she understood warfare. Although Egypt built ships for Antony and supplied funds and food for his army and navy, this was still a war between Romans, even if Augustus declared war on Cleopatra, allowing everyone to pretend that he was not fighting fellow Romans led by his brother-in-law. Cleopatra accompanied Antony to Greece, whether to ensure she was not sacrificed in any negotiated settlement or in the belief that she could advise and influence him better in person. Yet if they had crossed to Italy, the presence of so conspicuous a foreign ally would have been a serious embarrassment to Antony’s cause. Once again, this brings us to question what Antony and Cleopatra had planned, since it never came to pass. They lost, and by the summer of 30 B.C. Cleopatra had decided Antony was a liability and cut him loose. She lived on, negotiating with Augustus until she realized that he would not give her a satisfactory deal. Only then did she take her own life. Her “infinite variety” and the larger-than-life nature of the other characters in this story ensure that the events remain fascinating, often mysterious, and a fitting theme for nonfiction and fiction alike. The War That Made the Roman Empire is a splendid account of those dramatic events and people who may not have been all that nice but were certainly never dull.

  1.   The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium, by Barry Strauss; Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $30.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 8, on page 77
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