Octavian Sells The War

Octavian, who fought Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium

It is usually good form for a commander to explain a war to his men before lobbing the first spear. Back in 31 BC, Octavian asked his troops to take a knee and described to them—in one of the longest rants in military history—why Mark Antony and Cleopatra deserved to die.

Rome had seen its share of triumvirates, legal or otherwise, which were never the healthiest of political solutions. In 38 BC, this republic was ruled by Octavian, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Mark Antony. They divided their realm like hyenas over a carcass; it was inevitable that each man would fight for every scrap. After the defeat of Sextus Pompey, Lepidus was banished by Octavian for trying to commandeer some of his legions. When Antony complained about the sacking and the sharing of war loot, Octavian accused his other partner of grabbing territory for himself and aligning with Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

Octavian and Antony were technically family, and this family was complicated. Antony had married Octavian’s sister and Octavian had married Antony’s stepdaughter. But Antony discarded his marriage for a lively affair with Cleopatra. (He sired children with his girlfriend-queen, who had also conceived a son with her first beau, Julius Caesar.) Living comfortably in Egypt at the time of this political spat, Antony was unable to personally deflect Octavian’s barrage of propaganda. Both launched a publicity campaign with envoys and messages between Rome and Alexandria while privately gearing up for war.

The political tripod shattered when the public learned of Mark Antony’s military buildup on the Greek island of Samos. Octavian got what he wanted:  the chance to destroy his associate and take Rome in the process. The interlude between political jarring and combat is similar to all the saddening confusion before every civil conflict. Yet before shots were fired, both commanders took the time to warrant their actions to their troops. Octavian was pressed with validating both his campaign and his eligibility as the future leader of Rome. Were he to prevail, the loyalty of an army was critical for control. Thus, Octavian spoke to his men:

I did not declare war upon him at all. He, however, has looked haughtily and disdainfully upon my efforts, and will neither be pardoned though we would fain pardon him, nor be pitied though we try to pity him. He is either heedless or mad—for, indeed, I have heard and believed that he has been bewitched by that accursed woman—and therefore pays no heed to our generosity or kindness, but being a slave to that woman, he undertakes the war and its self-chosen dangers on her behalf against us and against his country. In view of all this, what is left to us but the duty of fighting him, together with Cleopatra, and repelling him?

Roman citizens and soldiers may have feared Antony seizing Rome for his Egyptian mistress, and this sort of propaganda fueled Octavian’s campaign. Mark Antony, meanwhile, had to convince his men with all the qualifications that a presidential candidate would display before the public:

…. you yourselves are the kind of soldiers that could win even without a good leader, and that I am the kind of leader that could prevail even with poor soldiers.  For I am at that age when men are at their very prime, both in body and in mind, and are hampered neither by the rashness of youth nor by the slackness of old age, but are their strongest, because they occupy the mean between these two extremes. Moreover, I have the advantage of such natural gifts and of such a training that I can with the greatest ease make the right decision in every case and give it utterance … For from boyhood down to the present moment I have continually trained myself in these matters; I have been ruled much and have ruled much, and thereby I have learned, on the one hand, all the tasks of whatever kind the leader must impose, and, on the other, all the duties of whatever kind the subordinate must obediently perform. I have known fear, I have known confidence; thereby I have schooled myself, through the one, not to be afraid of anything too readily, and, through the other, not to venture on any hazard too heedlessly. I have known good fortune, I have known failure; consequently I am able to avoid both despair and excess of pride.

Both speeches went on for some time. The land-sea Battle of Actium was itself a ferocious, Salamis-style demolition derby which Mark Antony was unable to win. Cleopatra withdrew her naval forces and Antony was forced to fight his way to safety. Succeeding battles decimated Antony’s forces and ruined his chances of beating Octavian. Mark Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC with all the mishap tragedy of Romeo and Juliet—granting Octavian an uncontested claim to the Roman Empire.


Podcast, “The Battle of Actium” by the History Network

Web page, Roman History by Cassius Dio

Wikipedia article, “Battle of Actium”


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