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Review: Barry Strauss’s “The War That Made the Roman Empire”

(Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville)

“Barry Strauss, America’s foremost popular classicist, brings the story of Actium to life in ways that rival and surpass Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra…”

“High on a hill astride a peninsula lying between the sea and wide and marshy gulf, in a seldom-visited corner of western Greece, stand the ruins of one of history’s most important but least acknowledged war memorials.” It is easy to forget war memorials scattered across the Mediterranean basin. After all, the ruins of cities, memorials, and ships dot the body of water sometimes called “the sea at the center of the world.” But this ruined war memorial is deserving of our attention, for our civilization is the direct descendant of the event it commemorated: the Battle of Actium.

In 31 B.C., over 600 ships built of wood and bronze and over 200,000 soldiers gathered on the western slopes and waters of Greece to contest for the future of Rome and the Western world. On one side was Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, and his entourage, which included the faithful Agrippa. On the other side was Mark Antony, one of Julius Caesar’s faithful lieutenants made famous by Shakespeare, and the most famous woman of antiquity, Cleopatra. Actium was one of the decisive battles on which the “hinge of history” would turn.

Barry Strauss, America’s foremost popular classicist, brings the story of Actium to life in ways that rival and surpass Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The Battle of Actium, despite its ruined monument, is worth remembering. The cultural memory of Rome, its empire, and its gifts—good and bad—to the broader Western world still flicker its light. Two millennia later, most of us still vaguely know something about this battle.

The descent toward Actium was the culmination of a long period of republican decline which erupted in civil war, the murder of Julius Caesar, the defeat of the Optimate armies of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi (sublimely re-imagined even if wholly inaccurately in HBO’s Rome), and the power struggle between spirited and politicking souls. Eternal names are involved in this struggle: Octavian (Augustus) Caesar, his sister Octavia, Antony, and Cleopatra.

The Battle of Actium, again, was a hinge upon which history turned. We forget that prior to Rome, the nexus of “Western” civilization was found in the eastern Mediterranean basin. Greece is closer to Asia than the British Isles, France, or Scandinavia. Greek colonies under Alexander the Great stretched out as far as the Indus River valley in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. Greek script came from Phoenicia. Alexandria stood as the intellectual and cultural capital of the world, even as Roman and Egyptian warships battled each other off the coast of Greece. Alexandria would also be the intellectual capital of the nascent religion of a Nazarene messiah and a center for diaspora Judaism, which would remake Judaism and Christianity. In 31 B.C., on the eve of the Battle of Actium, Alexandria and the broader east, including Jerusalem, was the gem of civilization and the heart of the Roman imperium. The infamous Rome of marble columns and gigantic buildings that we see today had yet been built. Its builder was the man who won the Battle of Actium and took inspiration to remake Rome in the image of the great eastern cities that now fell under his dominion.

As Strauss recounts, the battle for supremacy of the Roman Empire seemed lopsided at first. Antony controlled the richer provinces, had a multiethnic and multicultural alliance of kings, queens, soldiers, and sailors which included Moors, Celts, Egyptians, Armenians, Greeks, and Romans, had a seemingly endless supply of money—though it was debased and inflated to pay for his massive army and navy—and command of the seas with a larger and more powerful navy. Octavian, and his trusted lieutenant Agrippa, by contrast, had a smaller treasury and smaller army but a few far more important things going for them: Latin-Roman propaganda and a spirit of daring.

Part of the war between Octavian and Antony was media manipulation or what we call today “fake news.” Both hurled insults and jabs at each other through their entourage of writers and intellectual networks skilled in the art of what we would consider propaganda. Both utilized coinage, poetry, and pamphlets to wage a war of information to strengthen their respective positions. However, Antony’s divorce of Octavia and alliance with Cleopatra made him an easy target for Octavian’s Romanist policies. Octavian presented himself as a defender of Roman matrimonial honor (against Antony’s supposed betrayal and humiliation of Octavia), a traditional guardian of masculine Roman virtues (against Antony’s supposed corrupted effeminacy), and the sole protector of Roman interests (against Antony’s supposed intent to make Egypt, read: Cleopatra, the new hub of Roman imperium). This command of Roman honor against eastern infidelity and enslavement allowed Octavian to rally Roman Italy to his cause.

While we remember Octavian, Antony, and Cleopatra, the real unsung hero of the Actium War was Agrippa. It was not long ago that Agrippa was a household name in Western consciousness. The steadfast and loyal partisan of Octavian-cum-Augustus, Agrippa was one of the most successful Roman soldiers in history. Strauss describes Agrippa in the language of the now lost virtue of the loyal aide: “he was the rare conqueror who didn’t mind becoming a sort of water commissioner (aedile) for Rome, or later, an urban planner, architect, ambassador and both indispensable associate and son-in-law to Rome’s first emperor. Agrippa was versatile, brilliant, and pragmatic.” A victor on land and a victor at sea, Agrippa’s daring and innovative campaign against Antony in the months leading up to Actium changed the dynamics of the war. His cunning naval campaign disrupting Antony and Cleopatra’s supply lines and bold attack on Methone, garrisoned by a Moorish ally, forced Antony and Cleopatra on the defensive from which they never recovered. The showdown was now set.

The subsequent Battle of Actium was one of the most famous in antiquity and Western culture and literature. Virgil, Shakespeare, and Hollywood all have their imaginative depictions. Virgil includes the battle in his epic The Aeneid as he describes the shield of Aeneas as he roars into battle to slay Turnus:

“There is the story of Italy,

Rome in all her triumphs.

And here in the heart

of the shield: the bronze ships, the Battle of Actium,

you could see it all, the world drawn up for war,

Leucata Headland seething, the breakers molten gold.

On one flank, Caesar Augustus leading Italy into battle,

the Senate and people too, the gods of hearth and home

and the great gods themselves…

And opposing them comes Antony leading on

the riches of the Orient, troops of every stripe—

victory over the nations of the Dawn and blood-red shores

and in his retinue, Egypt, all the might of the East

and Bactra, the end of the earth, and trailing

in his wake, that outrage, that Egyptian wife!”

From the pen of Virgil to Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Antony declares on the eve of battle:

“Set we our squadrons on yond side o’ the hill,

In eye of Caesar’s battle; from which place

We may the number of the ships behold,

And so proceed accordingly.”

In the 1963 film Cleopatra, the grandest spectacle of the battle, Richard Burton’s Antony drinks wine as ballista arrows and flames engulf the air and cries out when his Egyptian lieutenant jubilantly declares they’ve struck Octavian’s ship, “We’ve got him. Collision course, we’ll ram him, board, and destroy him.” Antony dons his armor and sword and boards Octavian’s ship only to discover he has been deceived. A flustered Antony, seeing that all is now lost, abandons ship while his lieutenant cries out, “The dying are calling for you, the living need your help. You can’t leave them!”
What our artistic and cultural inheritance portrays at the climax of Actium is the traditional pro-Octavian story of the official Roman histories. Even the Jewish historian, Josephus, upon his defection to Rome during the Jewish Wars, presents the Battle of Actium as a pitched engagement for the domination of the Roman World in which Octavian forces emerged victorious. More recent historians, skeptical of the Octavian narrative, have argued that an intelligent commander like Antony would not have risked his now dwindling position in such a critical battle. It made more sense, with disease and desertion spreading through his ranks, to opt for a breakout strategy and try to salvage what he still had. This is the view, unglamorous and unromantic as it may be, that Strauss takes. Yet we cannot know for sure what Antony’s plan was.

We may never know how the battle truly unfolded. What did happen, though, was Antony and Cleopatra sailed back to Egypt as losers. Octavian and Agrippa’s navy subsequently mopped up the resistance of Antony’s fleet and land forces in the hours and days that followed. The victors then pursued the “doting mallard” (in the words of Shakespeare) back to Egypt where the famous endgame of a double suicide played out and entered the immortal memory of a sacred and erotic love stamped out by the darkness of politics and empire.

“For neither the first or last time in history, the side with more money and better technology opted for the wrong strategy. Having done so, they failed also to execute their chosen strategy correctly. And so, they lost the war.” From masters of the east to paupers on the run, that is what happened to Antony and Cleopatra after Actium. Their original advantage in men and material, squandered after several months of skirmishes and daring raids by Agrippa, led to their reversal of fortune at Actium.

Although Antony and Cleopatra escaped back to Egypt to rally their supporters one last time, it was already too late. The pursuing hounds of Octavian, Agrippa, and the Roman Empire were now biting at their heels. Although still nominally a republic, even before the Battle of Actium, the republic had been transformed into the autocratic imperium of Octavian. Then, in the aftermath of the great sea battle, the Roman Republic under the stewardship of Octavian was a de facto empire under his grip and vision.

So, with Octavian and Agrippa now in Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra committed the most famous double suicide in history. The end came quickly. More bad luck hit the starstruck lovers. First, Cleopatra’s new fleet intending to escape to India was burned by her Arab rivals. Second, Roman soldiers and officers once loyal to Antony abandoned him—even turning into warriors against him. Third, the unbreakable love of Antony and Cleopatra romanticized by our cultural arts fractured; both were maneuvering to deal with Octavian diplomatically, and Cleopatra was “[l]ess than loyal as a lover—it appears that she sacrificed Antony.” Nothing worked.

With the end approaching, Antony and Cleopatra died. Octavian emerged as the victor. The great city of marble that we see today in Rome is the city that the newly crowned Augustus Caesar built—modeled after Alexandria, the great jewel of the east. The suicide of Cleopatra won the renown of poets then as now. Although Strauss presents a less romanticized portrait of Antony and Cleopatra at war with Octavian for the future of Roman Empire, his work is a great accomplishment, bringing the complexity of the final days of the Roman republic and its transformation to empire to as wide an audience as possible.

“The war between Antony and Octavian involved diplomacy, information warfare—from propaganda to what we now call fake news—economic and financial competition, as well as of all the human emotions: love, hate, and jealousy not least among them.” Two millennia later, it is human emotion and pathology that still draw us to the story of the demise of Antony and Cleopatra and the rise of Octavian, who became Augustus Caesar after the victory.

The death of Cleopatra still reverberates in a world stripped of the passion and largesse of antiquity. We do not get the ending as we watched in Cleopatra, but that ending still tantalizes Strauss’s readers: “Was this well done of your lady?” “Extremely well, befitting the last of so many noble rulers.” The war that made the Roman Empire had so many a “noble rulers,” who make our own rulers look pale and stale by comparison, for who really thinks President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or President Emmanuel Macron are remotely analogous to Julius Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, Mark Antony, Octavian, Agrippa, Octavia, and Cleopatra? Barry Strauss brings those “many noble rulers” to life in 300 pages of a gripping and tantalizing, even if de-mystifying, history of those men and women whose actions shaped the world we inhabit two millennia later.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

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