Augustus: His Life and Work - Rene Francis

The Beginning of Empire

In 33 B.C. the attitude of Antony became a serious menace not only to Octavian, but to Rome also.

As we have shown, Antony had throughout had an idea of invading Parthia and recovering the laurels lost by Crassus. But Cleopatra had gained more and more ascendancy over him, and had always restrained him at the critical moments when he made up his mind for action. In 38 and in 37 B.C. he made up his mind, but changed it; the most he did was to make various alterations concerning the different kings of Syria and Asia Minor, and to offend Roman feeling by presenting Cleopatra with lands in the Roman provinces of Syria and Cilicia. In 36 B.C. he really started, and crossed the Euphrates. He made an alliance with Artavasdes, king of Armenia, and proceeded against the king of Media, who was Artavasdes' enemy, intending himself to march rapidly on Gazaca. He left his lieutenant Oppius with the baggage and two legions at the Median frontier. But Oppius was attacked, and his force cut to pieces. Antony had heard of his danger and had hurried back, but was too late. He returned to Gazaca, but every tiling went against him, and he had to conduct a long and exceedingly difficult retreat; (in which he showed some of his old ability) over the mountains into Syria. He came to the conclusion that Artavasdes had played him false, or had at least been culpably indolent. But he found consolation with Cleopatra and deferred any action until 34 B.C. He then set out on a campaign against Artavasdes, and contrived to induce the latter to come to his camp, where he made him prisoner and deposed him from his kingdom. Artavasdes' son, Artaxes, fled to Parthia, and Antony returned to Alexandria, where he celebrated his rather cheap achievement with a triumph.

The real danger to Rome was not Antony, but Cleopatra. She had caused herself to be proclaimed 'Queen of Kings'; she had insisted on the gift of Syria, Cilicia, Cyprus, Africa, and Cyrenaica to herself and to her sons; and she caused Caesarion to be proclaimed as rightful heir to Caesar, whose natural son he was. Antony was entirely in her hands, and it was through her that he was now a menace to Octavian.

Octavian took up the challenge, and denounced Antony to the Senate as an enemy of Rome.

Antony, on his side, took definite action also. He visited Armenia, then made an alliance with his former enemy the king of Media, then went to Greece with his troops; but he followed his usual custom and stayed at Athens with Cleopatra instead of attacking Italy at once.

Any prospects Antony might have had of a reconciliation either with Octavian or with Rome were entirely destroyed by the discovery and publication of his will, in which he named Cleopatra's sons as his heirs, and also by his divorcing Octavia in favour of Cleopatra. The Senate in 32 B.C. declared war on Cleopatra, and passed a measure depriving Antony of his Eastern command. It was war now, once and for all. And if Antony had acted in 32 B.C., that war might have turned in his favour.

He took up exactly the position best suited for his attack, namely, Actium, where he harboured his fleet and entrenched his legions; the place practically commanded the eastern Italian coast. He had under him sixteen legions and 800 ships, and, more important even than these, all the wealth of Egypt, given as he wanted it by Cleopatra.

To Octavian, on the other hand, money was the great difficulty, as Italy was practically exhausted by the long years of warfare; and Octavian had no such treasury as Egypt on which to draw.

But Antony left Actium and went to Patrae for the winter, thus giving Octavian the time he wanted for the completion of his preparations.

In the spring of 31 B.C. Octavian's fleet was ready. He sent Agrippa with a squadron of fast-sailing vessels to harass the garrison which Antony had stationed on the Peloponnesian coast and to cut off supplies from Egypt and Asia; he himself crossed from Brundisium to the Epirot coast, and was successful in blockading Antony's force; his legions held the northern promontory and were entrenched on the landward side, while his fleet remained at the mouth of the straits that led to the Ambracian Gulf, where lay Antony's ships.

Antony should at least have attempted to decoy Octavian's troops into the Thessalian plains; then, in the open country, his superiority in numbers, and in tactics, would have assured him the victory. This was the advice given him by such Roman officers as he had with him, but he disregarded it. Of all futile courses he chose the most futile: he attempted to invest the position of Octavian's troops.

Agrippa's squadron then appeared on the scene, and the need of retiring became still more urgent. But still Antony would not yield. Cleopatra was against retreat; Antony, moreover, was afraid that a retreat might lose him his fleet and also cause the defection of his Asiatic allies, some of whom were already showing an inclination to desert him.

He took the desperate resolve of cutting his way through his enemy's ships, and began the attempt on the 2nd of September, 31 B.C.

The start was not unsuccessful: Octavian could do little so long as his enemy remained in the narrow straits. But as the wind freshened Antony had to take to the open water to gain sea-room. Still neither side had any very conspicuous advantage, nor was Antony's cause by any means lost.

In the afternoon Cleopatra's Egyptian squadron suddenly set sail and left the scene of action, and Antony followed in his own vessel, giving up all his hopes of victory.

His ships fought on gallantly, but Octavian's strength was too great; moreover, his men were equipped with fire-balls, which worked great destruction. By the next morning nothing was left of Antony's superb fleet save wreckage and plunder. His troops, seeing how hopeless their case was, surrendered and went over bodily to Octavian within a few days. Octavian had won his inheritance.

As usual he set himself with all his tact to the work of recovering her Eastern possessions for Rome—those possessions which, so we may almost say, had so nearly passed into the keeping of Cleopatra. He was, as ever, most skilful and diplomatic, abstaining entirely from vengeance or plunder, respecting, especially in Greece, municipal liberty, and restoring treasures and statues.

Antony had imposed various new kings on different small states: Octavian confirmed these in their position; and he even left unmolested, in Greater Armenia, Artaxes II, the son of Artavasdes, and the ally, almost the vassal, of the king of Parthia.

We must mention here that Phraates, the Parthian king, had been expelled from his kingdom in 33 B.C. by a rival, Tiridates. He had contrived to re-establish himself on the throne by 30 B.C., the year of Octavian's visit to Syria; but he was too weak to oppose Rome, and so preferred to offer alliance and friendship, which were accepted. Octavian, however, took the precaution of leaving Tiridates in Syria, to act as a check against any possible treachery on the part of Parthia.

Octavian still had to deal with Cleopatra: Egypt was too strong to be left alone, and Cleopatra was already forming new schemes of invasion and empire in Spain and Gaul, and even the Far East.

She tried to negotiate with Octavian, hoping to entice him as she had enticed Antony. But Octavian was far too wary. He put her off with vague promises and hopes until he had completely finished his work in Asia, and then he attacked Egypt and took Pelusium, while his lieutenant, Cornelius Gallus (the poet, who afterward incurred his disfavour and was banished), led the legions which had belonged to Antony against Alexandria.

Antony attempted one final fight, but was beaten back. Hearing that Cleopatra had killed herself, he followed the example, and left the mastery of Alexandria to Octavian, his one-time colleague.

Octavian had hoped to capture Cleopatra herself and to lead her as his captive in triumph through the streets of Rome; but she chose an end befitting the last reigning descendant of the kings of Egypt. Her conqueror gave fitting burial to her and her lover in the mausoleum of the Ptolemies, and sent her sons to Rome, where they were put under the charge of Antony's Roman wife, Octavia.

The two daughters of Cleopatra have their place in history: one married Gneius Domitius, from whom was descended Nero, and the other was the wife of Drusus, and thus from her were descended the emperors Gaius and Claudius.

Octavian now formally annexed Egypt as a Roman province, and had the head of Alexander engraved on his ring as the sign of his conquest. He founded a new city in his own honour near Canopus.

The land of the Pharaohs and the Ptolemies was now the treasury of the Emperor of Rome and the granary of the Western world.

Octavian had become supreme over both the East and the West, and his wars were ended, in sign of which, on the 1st of January, 29 B.C., he closed the doors of the temple of Janus, thus signifying that Rome, for the first time for two hundred years, had peace now within all her borders. The Triumvirate was at an end and the Empire had commenced.