Review by Diana Bentley.
Few episodes in antiquity are more gripping than the epic struggle for political supremacy and survival between Octavian, heir of Julius Caesar; his rival, politician and general Mark Antony; and Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt. In his latest book, Barry Strauss, Professor of History and Classics at Cornell University, focuses on the Battle of Actium, the climactic maritime encounter of 31 BC that sealed the fate of Mark Antony and his lover and political ally, Cleopatra, and prompted a critical juncture in the history of Rome.
Strauss, an expert in ancient military history, surveys this pivotal chapter in Roman history, beginning at 44 BC and the assassination of Julius Caesar and ending with the final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in Alexandria and Octavian’s effective attainment of supreme power in 27 BC. The cost to both sides in blood and resources over this period was high and the scale of the drama extraordinary: at the Battle of Actium over 600 ships and nearly 200,000 men were involved.
Strauss’s examination of the motives and actions of the key players is absorbing. Much of our view of them has been shaped by Roman propaganda and Strauss keenly assesses the sources – chief among them Plutarch and Cassius Dio. Did Cleopatra really abruptly decide to flee the battle at Actium, prompting a startled Antony to hastily follow? Strauss makes a good case that this retreat was probably a prearranged plan. Was Cleopatra’s suicide such a surprise to Octavian, or was this part of an understanding reached that suited them both?
The relative strengths and shortcomings of those involved, too, make compelling reading. Although Antony possessed the charisma and drive to marshal vast resources, he lacked the skill and decisiveness to use them effectively – certainly at Actium. Octavian, an outstanding, crafty strategist, well understood his own limitations and left the command of military contests to the extraordinarily gifted Marcus Agrippa. Portrayed by her Roman rivals as a wily temptress who corrupted Antony, Cleopatra was in fact a woman of high intelligence who boldly fought to secure her country’s independence and her children’s legacy. All of them, however, matched each other in sheer ruthlessness. Their quick despatch of political adversaries and those who disappointed them, including Octavian’s murder of Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, and Antony’s young son, is chilling to read.
By 27BC, with Actium well behind him, Octavian was back in Rome, Egypt was under Roman control, and he had received the title Augustus. A new era in Roman history commenced. The colossal characters, high stakes, triumph, and tragedy involved make the clash between Octavian, Antony, and Cleopatra almost unsurpassed in drama. Little wonder that it captured Shakespeare’s attention. Strauss’s mastery of the material and his skill as a narrator provides us with a richly informative and riveting account of it all.
The War that Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium, Barry Strauss, Simon & Schuster, Hardback, £25, ISBN 978-1982116675.