The War that Made the West: Barry Strauss on the Battle of Actium
“History really does have engines. It really does have these moments when everything is at stake. And even a single battle can have ripples that go on for centuries or millennia.”
WHY THE CLASSICS?
Welcome to the Ides of March; Julius Caesar was assassinated 2,066 years ago today. As any reader of Shakespeare knows, the controversy over Caesar’s killing has lived on ever since. In the years following his death, Rome suffered more of the civil war and violence that had preceded his rein. First his assassins, Brutus and Cassius, were defeated by Caesar’s partisans. Then his supporters turned on each other, with Mark Antony and Cleopatra taking one side and his adopted son, Octavian, the other. In a new book, The War that Made the Roman Empire, the Cornell professor and best-selling author Barry Strauss argues that the most consequential event of the era was the Battle of Actium, when Octavian—who would become world famous as Caesar Augustus—finally beat his rivals, took power, and created both the Roman Empire and the Pax Romana. The stakes at Actium were enormous: would the world’s future lie in the East or the West? What system of government would predominate? And would Rome remain a backwater or become the world’s capital? Actium ended a time of terrible violence and chaos, ushered in a Golden Age of peace, prosperity, and cultural flourishing, and opened the way for a more ecumenical society. Yet is also put to death the ideals of the Roman Republic, paved the way for the creation of a monarchical state, and began the eclipse of Greek and Eastern cultures. In our conversation, Strauss explained all of this and more, detailing why he sees Actium as one of the most important moments in Western history.
Octavian Report: Why was the Battle of Actium so important?
Barry Strauss: Well, if the war had gone the other way and if Antony and Cleopatra had won, the Roman Empire would have turned eastward centuries before it actually did. Alexandria would have become a second capital, and Greek culture and language would have become infinitely more important in the empire.
You have to remember that before Octavian won the war and became Emperor Augustus, Rome was something of a backwater. Octavian’s victory turned Rome, not just into a city of marble, but also into a great cultural capital—and that might not have happened otherwise. Had the battle of Actium gone the other way, there might not have been an Aeneid, there might not have been a Livy, and Latin literature might not have developed the grandeur that it did.
OR: How would our lives be different now?
Strauss: We might well be speaking a language with a Greek base instead of a Latin one. The religious basis of the West might look a lot different, more like the Orthodox world than the world that we know.
OR: One of the things that’s so interesting about your book is all the big personalities involved. Let’s start with Antony, because even though he’s the loser at Actium, you spend a lot of time on him in the book. When he faced off against Octavian, Antony was older, more mature, and had better resources than his opponent. He had a better strategic position. Yet he lost. Why?
Strauss: Antony had superior technological and financial resources, but he was only a good general—not a great one. He was not especially audacious. And he found himself facing a team in Octavian and his general Marcus Agrippa that was absolutely great. They were willing to take risks. Antony didn’t reckon on that.
OR: One of the things that comes out in the book is that Actium represented a shift from land to naval warfare, and that Antony couldn’t adapt.
Strauss: Agrippa and Octavian had already fought a big naval campaign in Sicily, where they defeated Sextus Pompey, who was the son of Pompey the Great and a very worthy opponent. Then they’d gone on to fight a land and sea campaign in what’s now Croatia. They gained a lot of experience by doing this. I think it is fair to that they had mastered naval war and Antony had not.
OR: You say Antony wasn’t a great general. Yet Octavian wasn’t a particularly good general either.
Strauss: Many successful commanders in history have depended on their number twos, but the imbalance has rarely been as great as it was here; Octavian just couldn’t have succeeded without Agrippa. And Octavian had to be shrewd, because when you do rely on a brilliant number two, you always run the risk that they’ll replace you. Of course, Octavian had an advantage in that regard; at that point in history, it would have been very difficult for anyone without a connection to Roman nobility to become emperor, and Octavian—who’d been adopted by Julius Caesar—had that connection, whereas Agrippa didn’t. But that wasn’t enough, Octavian still had to manage Agrippa very carefully. And while Octavian might not have been a great general, he was an utterly masterful politician, so he was able to pull it off. It’s a measure of Octavian’s greatness that he was able to not feel threatened by Agrippa and to follow his advice.
OR: Can you talk a bit about how this was a moment in Roman history when, for the first time, people were able to excel based on talent rather than just lineage?
Strauss: Before Julius Caesar, Rome was run by an extremely narrow nobility. You can’t overestimate how narrow they were, and what blinders they had on. Before Caesar, the Romans should have been bringing in new talent from Spain and from Gaul—from all over the Roman empire—but they wouldn’t. Caesar recognized that problem, and I think that’s one of the reasons he succeeded against the purblind ultra-conservative reactionary nobility. And it’s one of the reasons that Octavian, who came from the wider world, was also able to do so well.
OR: Are we more nostalgic than we should be for the Roman Republic?
Strauss: Well, we certainly should be nostalgic for the degree to which liberty existed in the Republic. Senators had the freedom to say whatever they wanted, and they had no-holds-barred debates. Once the Roman monarchy started with Caesar, that was no longer true; Senators could lose their heads for saying the wrong thing. Furthermore, in the Republic, the Roman people got to vote in elections, and candidates had to go around and solicit their votes. In that sense, it really was a republic and there was genuine political liberty, and we should be nostalgic for that.
OR: Was Octavian’s legacy and the Pax Romana positive or negative?
Strauss: It was definitely positive overall. The civil wars had gone on for a century, and the Pax Romana put an end to them. The Augustan era was a time of relative peace, with very little piracy and no great naval battles fought in the Mediterranean. Rome became the first—and to this day, the only power—in history to unify the entire Mediterranean under one rule. That was real, and the prosperity of Rome was real. Of course, there were many rebellions against the Roman Empire. But by and large, things were better than they had been before.
OR: Why do you think the Augustan Age saw such a cultural flowering?
Strauss: The usual recipe: victory, confidence, money. Augustus was a great patron of the arts. He put a lot of emphasis into turning Rome into a much greater cultural capital than it had been before. Rome became a magnet for intellectuals. Greek philosophers, writers, and rhetoricians, who might have gone to Alexandria before now went to Rome. Rome became the largest Greek city in the world. It had an enormous Greek population. And Latin literature flourished under Augustus’ patronage.
OR: How much of the myth about Cleopatra is true? How much influence did she have over Antony?
Strauss: The myth that Cleopatra was a sex toy and nothing but is not true. She was a queen, and we should think of her in the same way we think of Catherine the Great or Elizabeth I. She was very powerful and ambitious and ruthless. She was a strategist and she also held the purse strings in her partnership with Antony. She paid for his fleet and she paid for his soldiers. So she got a significant vote. It wasn’t an ideal partnership in the way the relationship between Octavian and Agrippa was. But that was partly because Antony’s interests and Cleopatra’s interests didn’t entirely jive.
Cleopatra was a Ptolemy [part of a Hellenistic dynasty descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals]. She wanted to defend the independence of her kingdom. And she was controversial: many Romans were uncomfortable with a woman who was so powerful and had so much of a say. Octavian also directed a propaganda campaign against her. He never declared war on Antony, because he didn’t want to look like he was starting yet another a civil war. So he declared war on Cleopatra, which was a brilliant move PR move.
OR: The traditional story of Actium is that Cleopatra fled, and Antony followed her, abandoning his men. In the book, you point out that this was probably a smart move, tactically speaking. But it was more in Cleopatra’s interests than it was in Antony’s. After all, she left with her fleet intact, while Antony must have known he was going to be vilified for leaving his army, and would become even more dependent on her.
Strauss: It was really bad. They had mismanaged the Actium campaign, and Antony was left in a terrible position, with only two choices. One was to go for broke, attack the enemy, and possibly go down fighting with his men. The other choice was flee with Cleopatra and hope that something would turn up. Which is what he did.
OR: Do you think there was real love between them?
Strauss: They were great power brokers, so on one level, it was clearly a merger of forces. But was it that cynical and cold? As historians, we always feel more comfortable saying everything is a rational calculation about power, but I’m not sure that was 100 percent true in this case. Yes, Cleopatra knew that she couldn’t keep her kingdom without having patrons in Rome. So on the one level, she was a user. And she was being used by Antony as well. But does that mean there was no love, no chemistry? I don’t think we have to say that.
OR: It seems like people switched side a lot during the war. Why was that?
Strauss: There wasn’t a whole lot of principle at stake. The old republicans saw Antony as their best bet; at least he was a noble. Whereas they saw Octavian as a kid who wasn’t a real noble and who didn’t care about the republic or the Senate. So when Octavian declared war, 300 or so senators fled Rome to join Antony and start a new Senate in the east. But people switched sides all the time. Think of it as a gangland war.
So when Antony started managing the war so miserably, there was a mass defection. Things started going bad for him in March of 32 B.C., when Agrippa, sailing across the Mediterranean at a bad time of year, pulled off a very audacious attack and seized Antony and Cleopatra’s main supply base at Methone. Having cut off their supply lines, he then proceeded to pick off their other important bases. Then, when Octavian crossed the sea from Brindisium to the Greek Adriatic coast and built a base north of Actium, Antony failed to cut him off or to induce him to come out and fight. So it became clear to Antony’s allies that he wasn’t going to win, and they started to abandon him.
OR: Do you fall into the camp of people who think that world events are driven primarily by people and personalities?
Strauss: Absolutely. There are limits—if you don’t have the resources, you don’t have the resources. But if you do have access to substantial resources, personality makes a big difference. Octavian had an amazing personality. He was unbelievably talented and ruthless and ambitious, and very savvy politically. He had learned some things from Caesar. Of course, Antony had too, and Antony wasn’t a nobody. But he just couldn’t compete at the Olympian level of Octavian and Agrippa.
OR: The U.S. political system is modeled on the Roman system to some degree. Do you think we’re living in the Republic period or the Imperial one?
Strauss: I think that we’re struggling. I think our educational system needs to put more emphasis on citizenship, and on freedom of speech, and on the other freedoms that we enjoy. I think a little humility on all of our parts would be good. And I think a sense that republics can be destroyed from within would be important. Having a multiethnic and multiracial republic, with real equality for all its participants, is not easy. It requires a lot of work. So, where are we? We’re a struggling republic that I hope will not turn into a monarchy or an empire.
OR: Did the Romans put a greater emphasis on citizenship than we do today?
Strauss: Like Rome, we have a republican tradition. But I think that people need to do more to support open debate and cooperation. We have to remember that we’re in this together. We have to try to understand one another. The Roman Republic made the fatal mistake of limiting control to a small number of people. They Romans only grudgingly gave citizenship to the people of Italy. And they never were wholehearted about it. We have to do better.
OR: What are the lessons that you take from Actium?
Strauss: One, as we said, is that personality matters. I definitely believe in the great person theory of history, with the caveat that you can’t just study biography—you also have to study the system and its resources.
Second, if you want to be number one, you need a good and reliable number two. Third, Cleopatra reminds us that there have been powerful and important women in history. Fourth, I think that strategy really counts. It’s important not to be overconfident and not to think that just because you’ve got the technological edge, you’re going to win. Technology’s really important, but it’s not everything, as the United States discovered in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.
Finally, history really does have engines. It really does have these moments when everything is at stake. And even a single battle can have ripples that go on for centuries or millennia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.