Did Cleopatra really lose the Battle of Actium?

Cleopatra has been portrayed by historians as both cunning and cowardly.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the spring of 2009, Egyptian archaeologists announced that they might be on the verge of solving millenniums-old mysteries about one of history's greatest -- and most tragic -- romances. They're hoping that one of three potential dig sites around Alexandria, Egypt, will reveal the final resting places of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII [source: BBC].

Immortalized by Shakespeare and idealized in film, the drama and intrigue between the influential Roman consul and the Egyptian queen reads like a perfectly crafted screenplay. More than 2,000 years after they committed suicide, scholars and experts still yearn to know the finest details behind the fascinating plot points. Was Cleopatra a stunning beauty? Why did Mark Antony fall so completely for her? Did she truly die from the stinging bite of an asp?

The Greek historian and biographer Plutarch shed some light on the dynamics behind the steamy liaison in his piece "Life of Mark Antony." He confirms that Cleopatra was attractive, cunning and spoke multiple languages with ease. Before she and Mark Antony became involved, Cleopatra secretly pled to Julius Caesar for assistance reclaiming the Egyptian throne from her brother, Ptolemy. To meet him undetected, a servant transported Cleopatra inside a roll of carpet that she tumbled out of for a memorable entrance. Later, she alleged that her first son, Caesarion, was Caesar's rightful heir, although the Roman leader never confirmed his paternity.

Following Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C., Cleopatra jockeyed once again for a union with Rome. This time, Mark Antony was the broker. After all, she'd survived four siblings for the Egyptian crown and believed an alliance could secure her sovereignty. Despite being married, Antony quickly took up with Cleopatra in Egypt, and the queen bore three children by him. At one point while vacationing in Greece, Antony publicly declared that he and his royal mistress were the embodiment of Dionysus and Aphrodite. Back home in Rome, such blatant infidelity and comingling with a potential enemy angered the ruling class. Antony and Cleopatra didn't mind. By leveraging his authority in Rome and flexing Egypt's muscle, the pair planned to build an empire.

But as Robert Burns wrote, the best-laid plans often go awry. In the end, the fate of Antony and Cleopatra's relationship, as well as that of the Western world, boiled down to a brief naval skirmish off the coast of Greece. The Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. pitted Octavius, Julius Caesar's heir, against the calculating couple in an ill-fated power play for the control of Rome.

Background to the Battle of Actium

Octavius battled with Mark Antony for command of Rome.
Octavius battled with Mark Antony for command of Rome.
©iStockphoto/ROMAOSLO

After Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., Antony and Octavius began vying for the top spot in Rome. Although Caesar named Octavius as his rightful heir, Antony considered him too inexperienced. Militarily speaking, Antony had more notches in his belt and wielded greater influence over the Roman Senate. But in a spirit of coalition, Antony, Octavius and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate in 43 B.C. to share command of Rome. But just like the original Triumvirate, comprised of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, collapsed, the second incarnation didn't fare well.

A couple of years later, in 41 B.C., Antony and Cleopatra met for the first time as adults (he met her briefly when she was a child) in Tarsus [source: Porter]. Intending to confront her about possibly aiding one of Julius Caesar's assassins, the encounter would kindle romance instead. Married to his third wife, Fulvia, Antony had a reputation for wanton ways with women. Contemporary historians described tawdry parties and orgies that he attended even after his consuming passion for Cleopatra ignited.

Following Fulvia's sudden death, Octavius arranged a political marriage between Antony and his sister, Octavia, in 40 B.C. Soon thereafter, Antony began to strike out independently from the Second Triumvirate as the flames between Cleopatra and him burned brighter. Without bothering to divorce Octavia, Antony and Cleopatra wed in 37 B.C., which vexed Octavius and severed the tenuous alliance between the two men [source: Porter]. Tensions peaked when Antony gathered a military force with Egypt to invade the eastern empire of Parthia (modern-day Iran) in a blatant effort to expand his political reach.

In response, Octavius launched a full-scale campaign against Mark Antony in the Roman Senate. When Antony drafted a loyal consul to speak out on his behalf, Octavius beat him to the punch by producing what he claimed to be Mark Antony's will. Reading it before the Senate, the document outlined Antony's plans to bequeath significant property to Cleopatra and her children and to be buried beside the queen in Alexandria. That alone convinced a majority of the senators, fearing the cunning queen's potential land grab, to side with Octavius.

War was on the horizon. Octavius readied the Roman legions with the brilliant general Agrippa at his side. To the south, Antony and Cleopatra joined forces on the Grecian coast for the impending fight. On Sept. 2, 31 B.C., hundreds of ships met in the Ionian Sea as the Battle of Actium commenced.

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.

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Sources

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