The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium

Written by Barry Strauss
Review by Ben Bergonzi

Actium, fought on September 2nd in 31 BC, is surely one of the most decisive battles in history, but until I read this book I had little idea of how it came about that two naval fleets, one commanded jointly by Antony and Cleopatra, the other by Octavian Caesar (later to become the Emperor Augustus) met in the Adriatic Sea. Strauss expertly describes the build-up to war, taking us back through the series of civil wars that had ravaged the Roman Empire since the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Coupled with the clarity of the narrative and the descriptions of ships and weaponry, Strauss provides gripping insight into the complex relationships between these three protagonists (Antony and Octavian had in fact been brothers-in-law) and their contrasting characters – Antony a charismatic general, impulsive, romantic, neglectful of detail; Cleopatra prepared to use all means at her disposal to prosper in a man’s world, to maintain control over Egypt’s treasures and to preserve the interests of her children; Octavian a ruthlessly pragmatic leader, dedicated to setting himself up as a new kind of absolute head of state.

Had Antony’s focus been anything like as sharp as his adversary’s, he and Cleopatra could have won the battle—Egypt was then the wealthiest country in the world—and continued their joint reign from Alexandria. The Roman Empire as we know it would never have happened, because if Cleopatra had lived, Egypt’s precipitate loss of independence would never have occurred either. This is narrative history of the most enjoyable kind, and highly recommended.