Ambition and Selfishness at Actium

First, a quick status report.  I’ve finished Boatworthy et al., and I’m on to the second and final general history of Rome that I’ll be reading before taking on Gibbon: Michael Grant’s “History of Rome”.  Final verdict on Boatworthy?  It was a very good overview, solid, and apparently objective.  I think it serves as a decent reference but by the same token, I won’t be recalling quotations from it in twenty years’ time.  Grant’s work certainly has a more engaging writing style and a bit of subjective spark and wonder to it, though it appears to be based on less thorough cross-referencing of all available sources.  Today I finally ordered my copy of Gibbon, Womersley’s edition in 3 volumes published by Lane.  So hopefully within the next month or so I’ll be reading (and blogging on) Gibbon himself!

Now for the thought of the day (or the month, the way my blogging has been going-hope to remedy that soon).


Watch out for these two


One of the things that I love about ancient history is the opportunity to gain insights into different mindsets, worldviews, attitudes, etc.-To see the differences (and commonalities) in how the ancients thought about life, themselves, each other, and the world.  Sometimes these mindsets, triangulated with what can be understood about the different circumstances of the time, are fairly understandable.  Sometimes they are downright baffling-and scary.

The Battle of Actium took place in 31 B.C.  It was the denoument of the conflict between Mark Antony and Octavian (aka Augustus) in the civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.  It marked the essential end of that civil war, and the start of Octavian’s reign as the first Roman emperor (though he never called himself by that title)-And the end of the 7-century-old Roman Republic.  How’s that for momentous?  Antony had combined forces with Cleopatra and their forces were concentrated at Actium, on the West coast of Greece.  Antony had actually been married to Octavian’s sister and jilted her for Cleopatra, big soap opera, lots of political intrigue, blah blah blah.  Look it up on Wikipedia if you want to know the details.  Basically these guys’ lives were all intimately intertwined and they were playing an enormously high-stakes game for control of the huge Roman Empire, acted out through ever-shifting alliances among the Senate and other power structures in Rome, and with massive military forces.

So here’s what happened.  Antony and Cleopatra, with their fleet and army, were holed up at Actium, being gradually, in skirmishes over a period of months, hemmed in more and more by Octavian.  Ultimately they decided to take their fleet back to Egypt to regroup and presumably re-engage with Octavian at a later date.  Octavian learned of this and moved his fleet in place to surround that of Antony and Cleopatra, which had to pass through narrow straits from the Gulf of Actium to reach the open sea.  Hundreds of ships on either side faced each other in two parallel arcs, and a raging battle ensued.  Although I’m oversimplifying somewhat, and not all accounts of the battle agree, it seems that Antony and Cleopatra, seeing themselves surrounded and with no hope of victory, had their ships on either side execute feinting maneuvers to draw Octavian’s fleet in two opposite directions, leaving a small gap in the center through which he and Cleopatra, on different ships, escaped, sailing onward to Egypt and leaving behind their fleet and army to utter devastation by Octavian.

What kind of person do you have to be to set yourself up as a would-be ruler of a vast empire,  assemble thousands of people around you, ready to die for your cause, and then desert them in a moment of danger?  What I can’t wrap my mind around is the contrast between the connectedness of this pair of undoubtedly charismatic, strong, public figures to the ones they led, and the personal, private selfishness of their escape.  The willingness to use an entire fleet of ships, with thousands of sailors upon it, as a decoy to effect their own escape, to be sacrificed for their personal benefit, is breathtaking.  I do not think I have ever heard of a more colossal act of personal selfishness.

What happened next is not susprising.  Antony’s remaining army largely fell apart due to widespread desertion.  Antony and Cleopatra’s own relationship  dissolved amid each one’s (unsuccessful) machinations to re-insert themselves into Octavian’s good graces and secure their individual safety.  Defeated by setback after setback, they each committed suicide, within two weeks of each other, less than a year after the fateful battle of Actium.


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