Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Did Cleopatra really lose the Battle of Actium?

Actium Aftershock
A depiction of the Battle of Actium involving Octavius against Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
A depiction of the Battle of Actium involving Octavius against Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

It's one of the most crucial naval clashes in history, but the Battle of Actium scarcely lasted longer than a day. Flanked from behind by 60 of Cleopatra's Egyptian warships, Antony's fleet of 500 lacked speed. His heavily armored quinqueremes ships, designed with bronze bows to ram into enemy fleets, trudged through the water. Agrippa tried to maneuver his speedier boats around the back of Antony's fleet, causing the lines of combat to break in the middle [source: Davis]. As Octavius' forces advanced, the outcome appeared grim for Antony and Cleopatra. What happened next determined the course of history for the next 400 years.

Cleopatra's fleet raised its sails and pushed through the opening. But it wasn't in pursuit of Octavius; Egypt was retreating. Once Mark Antony noticed that Cleopatra was fleeing, he and 40 other ships turned course to follow. Catching up to her ship, Antony boarded but didn't speak to his Egyptian wife. He realized that the remaining ships and the 5,000 men on them couldn't defend themselves, and the battle was lost. The desolate consul reportedly sat with his head in hands, barely moving for the next three days.

Cleopatra has since been characterized as cunning and ultimately cowardly, but scholars have given her a second chance. It would've been unlikely that a ship heading into combat would hang sails like Cleopatra's, relying on oarsmen instead. Rather, she may have followed premeditated plans to break from the fighting and regroup [source: Burstein]. In that case, Mark Antony's withdrawal was the definitive blunder.

No matter the scapegoat, the defeat at the Battle of Actium reinstated Octavius' command over Rome and spelled doom for Antony and Cleopatra. Knowing a dismal fate loomed, a depressed Antony took solitary refuge in Alexandria, Egypt. Hearing a false rumor that Cleopatra had died, Antony killed himself.

Soon after, Octavius marched into Alexandria and captured Cleopatra. In the face of punishment, on Aug. 12, 31 B.C., Cleopatra and two servants committed suicide. According to Virgil and other contemporary poets, smuggled serpents provided the fatal venom. But the potency and speed of death have suggested poison as the murder weapon [source: Chauveau and Lorton].

With his chief enemies dead, Octavius consolidated his power and renamed himself Augustus Caesar. Victory at the Battle of Actium at once squelched Antony and Cleopatra's flame and sparked the beginning of the Roman Empire. The next 400 years molded the foundation of Western civilization, but today, our more pressing questions surround that fiery couple who dared to unite and pursue imperial dreams.

More to Explore