The War that Made the Roman Empire: Anthony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium
© 2022 Bary Strauss
Rome, at the death of Julius Caesar, was no stranger to internal war. A functioning, healthy republic had long vanished, torn in pieces by the rivaling ambition of men like Sulla and Marius. Caesar was part of that destructive tradition, having sparred with Pompey, and for his part in corrupting the Republic into a dictatorship he was justly killed. In the aftermath, another pair of men took up arms against the other – but this time, the conflict would end in a lasting, if not eternal, peace. In The War that Made the Roman Empire, author Barry Strauss invites readers to consider the political manipulations and military campaigns that followed when two of Caesar’s own, his nephew Octavian and the late dictator’s longtime lieutenant Mark Anthony, rivaled for power.
How did a young man with so little experience as Octavian overcome a seasoned and often victorious military leader like Mark Anthony, who had the resources of wealthy Egypt at his disposal, and the political cunning of Cleopatra herself, the wife of one Caesar and the mother of another, who seemed destined to become the Queen of a Mediterranean empire? Strauss suggests that while a relative stranger to the arena of military operations, Octavian’s political instincts allowed him to turn Cleopatra’s alliance with Mark Anthony into a liability; this, coupled with Anthony’s own indecisiveness on the battlefield, led to total triumph for the young Caesar, and death for Anthony, Cleopatra, and little Caesarion – the last of the Pharaohs. Octavian carefully presented his war not as a political struggle against Mark Anthony, but a war against a foreign power – namely, Egypt, whose decadent queen had aspirations for further aggrandizing herself through usurpation Rome. Perhaps more importantly, however, was Octavian’s ready use of Marcus Agrippa, one of Caesar’s veterans who would be to Octavian more valuable than a right hand. Agrippa was equally accomplished on land and sea, and forced Mark Anthony to pay dearly for every misstep.
The decisive battle was fought off the western shores of Greece, but the story would not end until Octavian had arrived in Alexandria, confronting the royal couple who pretended at being deities. Strauss suggests that the Roman Empire was born there, in Alexander’s city on the Nile delta. The War that Made the Roman Empire succeeds both as story and history; as story, it could scarcely fail to keep a reader’s attention, given the towering personalities here and the stakes of their context. The political wrangling was a little wearisome, but the careful analysis of the battle was far more compelling. Strauss’s careful use of multiple sources to figure out the truth as best he can – readily admitting when things are too cloudy, or too reliant on a biased source like Octavian’s own memoir – and presenting multiple possibilities when there’s no clear idea of the truth. We know nothing of how Octavian and Agrippa took the city of Menthone in Anthony’s rear, for instance, a pivotal strike that interrupted the logical flow from Egypt and forced Anthony’s army into starvation; we only know that the city was taken. Strauss details several possible strategies Agrippa and Octavian might have pursued. This is as comprehensive a look at one of the pivotal battles of western history as can be imagined, and recommends itself to students of Roman history.