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Mark Antony’s Roman Navy: Clash at Actium & the Ionian Sea

Military History

Mark Antony’s Roman Navy: Clash at Actium & the Ionian Sea

Having gambled all for love, Mark Antony sent his warships into the Ionian Sea for one last toss of the dice at Actium.

Having gambled all for love, Mark Antony sent his warships into the Ionian Sea for one last toss of the dice at Actium.

by Joesph Horodyski

Julius Caesar’s assassination on the ides of March, 44 bc left Rome without a clear and decisive leader. Having just endured a brutal civil war that ended with Caesar’s ascension to dictator, the empire seemed headed for yet another period of internal turmoil. Caesar’s right-hand man and loyal lieutenant Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), 39, quickly moved to take over Caesar’s mantle, and with it the leadership of many of the dead emperor’s military legions. As the individual chiefly responsible for hunting down and punishing those involved in Caesar’s murder, Antony proved himself relentless in the pursuit. Besides bringing justice to Caesar’s killers, it was a convenient way of removing possible rivals for power.

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One rival, however, was beyond the immediate reach of Antony’s vengeance. Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian), the adopted 18-year-old son of the late emperor, was named in Caesar’s will as his legal heir. Widely considered weak, timid, vacillating, and inexperienced, Octavian was actually a cunning and shrewd judge of character. He was determined to inherit his father’s position and all the power associated with it. Notified of Caesar’s death while in the Roman city of Brundisium, Octavian moved immediately to identify himself with his father’s image and thus lend any subsequent actions at least a veneer of legitimacy. He took the name “Caesar” as his own, a practice by which all subsequent emperors were also to be known. The very name had a tremendous emotional pull and meaning for the masses, and the boy underwent his first major transformation—from unknown teenager to newly crowned Caesar. Many of the troops present at Brundisium joined his cause, and as he embarked for Rome to claim the throne, his retinue began to grow in size, swelled by many veterans of Caesar’s campaigns who had resettled in the Italian colonies. By mid-April, less than a month after Caesar’s assassination, Octavian was nearing the outskirts of Rome.

Octavian and Antony on a Collision Course

Antony at first paid little attention to the threat. He dispatched no official deputations to meet the new Caesar and gauge his intentions. Preoccupied with securing the original Caesar’s powerful provinces for himself, Antony dismissed the youth’s arrival as having little relevance to the overall course of Roman politics. When Octavian finally entered Rome in late April, Antony unwisely continued to ignore him. Octavian kept his temper in check and arranged a meeting. When he showed up for his audience with Antony in the gardens of Pompey on the Oppian Hill, Octavian was pointedly kept waiting. The ensuing meeting did not go well, and the two parted on shaky terms. Antony subsequently moved to block Octavian’s adoption from being officially recognized and to prevent him from holding public office. Octavian, meanwhile, curried favor with the masses, and tensions between the two men quickly rose. Despite occasional public reconciliations, it was obvious to everyone in Rome that the two men were on a collision course.

Both men jockeyed for position and advantage. Antony openly accused Octavian of plotting against him, while the youth attempted, through his own agents, to undermine the loyalty of the army that Antony was bringing to Italy from Macedonia. While Antony was in Brundisium attempting to secure the loyalty of the army there, Octavian showed his daring once again. Despite the risk of being branded a public enemy, he toured Caesar’s old colonies of Campania and raised a private army of perhaps 10,000 men from among Caesar’s veterans. It was a powerful demonstration of the political magic that the name Caesar possessed and the intense personal loyalty it still commanded.

Octavian Assumes Command

Antony returned to Rome intending to denounce Octavian to the Senate when news reached him that two of his five legions in Macedonia had defected to Octavian. Fearing the worst, he took the remainder of his force and hastened to restore the situation. Open warfare threatened to break out between the two factions. The great politician and orator Cicero, in the last official act of his career, openly identified Antony as the greater threat to Roman freedom and began to champion Octavian’s cause. As a result, on January 1, 43 BC, Octavian’s illegal assumption of command was essentially legitimized with a grant of praetorian power from the Senate.

After gaining the Senate’s support and not wishing, perhaps, to plunge Rome into yet another civil war, Octavian began seeking a reconciliation with Antony, even to the point of securing the repeal of Senatorial decrees declaring Antony a public enemy of Rome.

After gaining the Senate’s support and not wishing, perhaps, to plunge Rome into yet another civil war, Octavian began seeking a reconciliation with Antony, even to the point of securing the repeal of Senatorial decrees declaring Antony a public enemy of Rome. In November 43 BC, Octavian met with his rival on an island in a river near Bononia. Two days of difficult negotiations produced an agreement whereby Antony and Octavian, together with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a well respected yet elderly general and occasional supporter of Antony’s, would form a Triumvirate of consuls (or Caesarians) that would run the nation for a period of five years, until December 31, 38 BC. The three men agreed to divide the westernmost provinces of the empire among themselves, with Octavian being allocated the seemingly minor provinces of Sardinia, Sicily, and North Africa, while Antony retained Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Judea, and Asia Minor, and Lepidus received Spain and Gaul. This Second Triumvirate, as it was known, in effect formed a military junta whose decisions were henceforth to be made without reference to the wishes of the Senate or any other political organ of the state.

The awkward and hastily decided “rule by committee” soon turned into something of a disaster. Individually, Octavian and Antony continued attempting to persuade influential senators and generals to join their respective sides. They united long enough to put down an armed rebellion in the east that was led by Julius Caesar’s chief assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. At the two battles of Philippi, Macedonia, in October, 42 BC, the Triumvirate bested the assassins, each of whom took his own life to avoid being captured. Eventually, Lepidus grew restive and attempted to seize Sicily by force. His troops mutinied and he was forcibly retired by Octavian, spending the remaining 23 years of his life in luxurious captivity in Rome. This essentially left the younger man in complete control of all the western provinces, while Antony controlled those in the east. In an attempt to bind the two competing parties together by marriage, Antony divorced his first wife, Fulvia, and married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. An uneasy truce continued, with an agreement between the new brothers-in-law to extend their partnership for another five years.

Returning to Egypt

After helping to put down Lepidus’s rebellion, Antony returned to Egypt and began living openly with the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, daughter of Ptolemy XI. Cleopatra, now 30, had years before managed to seduce Julius Caesar into an uneasy alliance that spared her country from the brunt of Roman occupation and brought Caesar an illegitimate son, Caesarion, whom many in Rome saw as a threat to the legitimate line of succession. Antony swiftly fell prey to the charms of Egyptian life and married Cleopatra, while neglecting to divorce Octavia, his Roman wife, whose marriage was not actually dissolved until 35 BC. This act was greatly resented by Roman citizens and helped to erode much of Antony’s remaining support among the masses and in the Senate, which now feared that Antony would put Caesar’s bastard son on the throne under his regency and make Cleopatra empress of Rome.

This article is from the August 2005 issue of Military Heritage Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.

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