The War that Made the Roman Empire: An Interview with Barry Strauss

Barry Strauss

Almost every civilisation has seen its history on the outcome of major wars, or even particular battles, and Ancient Rome was no different. Among the most pivotal events in Roman history was the Battle of Actium, a naval conflict fought off the western coast of Greece in 31 BC. Far from being an attempt to subdue a foreign enemy, this was a civil war; the two co-rulers of the Roman world, Octavian (63 BC–AD 14) and Mark Antony (83–30 BC), entered into a titanic fight for supremacy over the ever-expanding empire.

Earlier this year, military historian Barry Strauss published a new book which reassesses this landmark clash: The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium. The Antigone team is very pleased to have discussed with Professor Strauss the context and consequences of this epic battle, the challenges of historiography, and the importance of keeping ancient history alive.

For those who do not know why the Battle of Actium matters so much, could you explain, in a nutshell, its significance as a defining moment in Roman history?

At the time of Actium, control of the Roman empire was divided between Mark Antony in the east and Octavian in the west. Antony’s main ally, as well as his lover, was Cleopatra (70/69–30 BC), queen of Egypt. The Battle of Actium, which marked the culmination of a longer naval campaign, tipped the balance decisively in Octavian’s favor. He went eastward the following year and defeated Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt. As a result, Octavian became sole ruler of the empire. Three years later he received the name by which he is better known: Augustus. He was Rome’s first emperor, and would rule for 40 years (27 BC–AD 14).

No less important, Actium meant that the empire would look westward. If Antony had prevailed, the empire’s center of gravity would have shifted eastward. The Egyptian city of Alexandria would have become the de facto second capital, and Greek, the language of the Alexandrian elite, would have added to its already great prestige. Cleopatra’s four children – three by Antony and one by Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) – would have become immensely powerful. The conquest of Mesopotamia and Persia, not Germany and Britain, would have become Rome’s priorities. Today, the culture of Europe might have a Greek and not a Latin base.

The array of forces at the Battle of Actium (credit: Future Perfect of Sunrise/Lencer/Leo2004 via Wikipedia); a larger version may be viewed here.

For most periods, historians of Ancient Rome don’t have a Herodotus or Thucydides to rely on (or indeed complain about!). In fact, the variety of sources we need to consult to reconstruct the 1st century BC is nothing short of bewildering. You are very careful throughout your book to express how limited and partial the extant sources are. In bringing this conflict to life as a readable historical narrative, what have your greatest challenges been?

The challenge is always to balance careful scholarship, with its meticulousness and humility, with good storytelling, which requires imagination and flair. As an author, you’re always engaged in a high-wire act. In addition, Actium stands in the shadow of Shakespeare and Hollywood, so you have to dissect some myths as well. And you don’t have the luxury of following the dictum of the film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which is: “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Promotional poster for Cleopatra (detail; 1963, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) featuring Elizabeth Taylopr as Celopatra, Richard Burton as Mark Antony (left), and Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar (right).

What surviving sources are the most illuminating about the Battle of Actium itself, and what particular piece of evidence do you regret the loss of most?

The most illuminating surviving sources about the battle itself are Cassius Dio’s Roman History, Books 49–51 (written in the early 3rd century AD) and Plutarch’s Life of Antony (written in the early 2nd century AD). Neither, of course, is a contemporary source. We get a few tidbits from contemporary poets such as Horace (65–8 BC) and Virgil (70–19 BC). We also learn a lot about the propaganda of the war from the surviving coins of the period.

Two lost documents that I would love to have are: the autobiographical Memoirs of Augustus and Mark Antony’s pamphlet offered in self-defense, On His Drunkenness. Livy’s lost books concerning the civil wars (written during Augustus’ rule) would also be great to have. I would also love to see Asinius Pollio’s lost History of the Civil Wars (also written under Augustus), which stopped short of Actium but surely offered insights into the leaders of the era, whom Pollio knew well.

Commemorative relief sculpture of the Battle of Actium, found at Palestrina (ancient Praeneste), Italy (now in the Vatican Museums, The Vatican).

Given its importance in antiquity, the Battle of Actium has been a long-standing battleground for Classical scholars. Which modern works have taught you the most about the conflict and its context? Are there ways in which your reconstruction of the battle and its significance differs from those of other historians?

To write on Actium is truly to stand on the shoulders of giants. Among the many outstanding scholars whose work I have learned from, I’ll mention John M. Carter’s excellent The Battle of Actium (1970), Christopher Pelling’s superb commentary on Plutarch’s Life of Antony (1988); William M. Murray’s groundbreaking work on Octavian’s victory monument at Nicopolis – along with Konstantinos Zachos – as well as Murray’s fundamental analyses of Hellenistic naval warfare and of Actium; Adrian Goldsworthy’s first-rate book on Antony and Cleopatra (2010); Lindsay Powell’s insightful study of Agrippa (2015). There have also been several terrific biographies of Cleopatra in recent years from which I have profited greatly. And this is just to mention works in English.

The surviving ruins of the Augustus Monument at Nicopolis, a city founded in 29 BC to commemorate his victory at Actium.

It is quite a common trope to mock Octavian for doing little to help secure victory at Actium, and then reframing himself as the dominant figure in the fight, ahead of his formidable naval commander Marcus Agrippa (c.63–12 BC). Do you think it is fair for us to scoff at this convenient, politically-motivated fiction, or does Octavian in fact deserve a little more credit for his role?

Octavian played a big role in the Actium campaign. He branded the war as a fight against not Antony but Cleopatra, held together the support of an Italian public that revolted against a raise in taxes to finance the war, and forced the entire senate into sailing to Greece to join the fight – thereby keeping them from causing trouble at home. He surely approved Agrippa’s bold plan to raid Antony’s supply base at Methone. After sailing across to the Actium area with the bulk of his fleet (Agrippa had gone on ahead), Octavian kept his cool and declined Antony’s repeated challenges to fight a land battle, which would have favored Antony. And who but Octavian could have sealed the deal on the delicate negotiations that convinced so many of Antony’s supporters to defect at Actium?

The “Room of the Masks” in the Domus Augusti, the private home of the emperor on the Palatine Hill in Rome.

It’s perhaps unfair to ask whose side you would prefer to have supported, had you been involved in the conflict yourself. But can you say with whom you sympathise most among the Romans involved, directly or indirectly? Through whose ancient eyes do you prefer to see the Civil War as a whole?

It’s hard not to sympathize with Asinius Pollio (75 BC–AD 4), the principled neutral. This veteran statesman and soldier was a supporter of Antony. He negotiated an agreement between Antony and Octavian in 40 BC. Then he remained in Italy under Octavian’s rule. In 31 BC Octavian asked Pollio to join him against Antony at Actium, but he refused. He said that he had done too much for Antony and benefited too much from him to fight against him now. “I will be the victor’s booty,” said Pollio. If so, he was treated gently. Unpunished by Octavian, he went on to enjoy three-plus decades of retirement in leisure, devoting himself to literary pursuits, including the now-lost history I mentioned earllier.

The Battle of Actium, Lorenzo Castro, 1672 (National Maritime Museum, London, UK).

Did you find that your own attitude to the battle and its major players changed during the course of writing this book? Do you think a lesson about historiography (including your own) emerges for your readers, whether they be active scholars or general enthusiasts?

Yes, my attitude to the battle and its major players certainly changed while writing the book. I came to realize that Antony’s resources at the outset were stronger than I had thought. Hence his defeat was all the stranger, and requires explanation. His failure to exploit those resources, that is, his failure as a general, stands out in stark relief. In addition, I hadn’t realized just how pivotal the seizure of Methone in southwest Peloponnese was to the course of the Actium war, nor how great an achievement.

Did I fail as a historian because I didn’t grasp these things at the outset? On the contrary, I think we succeed as historians precisely when we approach the evidence with an open mind. We ought to hope that the evidence surprises us. I would go so far as to say that unless we change our opinions during the research process, then we haven’t done our jobs as historians.

Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Gustav Klimt, 1885 (Croatian National Theatre Ivan Zajc, Rijeka, Croatia).

You have famously written about learning how to row later in life. Has this passion helped shape your insights into naval warfare and sea battles?

Rowing taught me the importance of some basic elements of ancient naval warfare: training, teamwork, the winds, equipment, food and water, and the importance of having a friendly shore to land on. Rowing made it real.

Commemorative marble relief of the Battle of Actium from the mid-1st century AD, found in Avellino, Italy (now in the Duques de Cardona Collection, Cordoba, Spain; photograph by Carole Raddato).

Why is it so difficult to write about Octavian/Augustus, as compared to more seemingly charismatic figures such as Julius Caesar, Brutus, Mark Antony or Cicero? After all, there is a wealth of available material and documentation, and yet it seems hard to get a good hold on the man.

The man we call Augustus is hard to pin down, starting with his name. He is best known as Augustus, a title he received around the age of 35, but he was born Gaius Octavius. After accepting posthumous adoption by his great uncle, he should have been called Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, following standard Roman nomenclature. But he insisted on being called simply “Gaius Julius Caesar”. Still, most historians today call him Octavian during the years of his rise to power (i.e. up to 27 BC). The man chose the sphinx as his seal; a later emperor called him a chameleon. Augustus was proud of keeping his own counsel. He benefited accordingly as a ruler but we suffer in equal measure as historians.

Fresco of Apollo Citharoedus (the Lyre-Player) in the Domus Augusti (Palatine Museum, Rome, Italy; photograph by Carole Raddato).

People inevitably reach for comparisons and points of contrast between Roman imperial politics and the dramas of our contemporary society. Do you think that there is anything particularly striking or important about Late-Republican politics that we might do well to reflect on in 2022?

The Romans knew that peace doesn’t just happen: you have to work at it. Likewise, republics don’t survive without work. In particular, republics require a will to compromise. Without that will, politics degenerates into a set of factions seeking to defeat each other. Factionalism destroys republics, as Late-Republican politics in Rome shows all too well.

Cleopatra, John William Waterhouse, c.1887 (priv. coll.).

You have had a distinguished career as a Classicist and historian. What is your advice to amateur Classicists, and to younger people who are fascinated by the ancient world but in search of opportunities to develop their knowledge further? In particular, what would be your advice, or recommendation, for those who might not have the opportunity to enrol in formal classes, and don’t have the privilege of a teacher or tutor?

The best way to study anything, in my opinion, is to find a good teacher. If that isn’t available to you, and you thirst to know more about the ancient world, then the next best thing is to read (which you should be doing in any case!). Recent decades have seen a flowering of books on the ancient world by public-facing scholars. A few of us, we hope, write in an engaging manner. So, read! And if you don’t have a teacher, then please consider forming a reading group with like-minded friends to discuss what you are reading. Learning is better together.

Antony’s meeting with Cleopatra in 41 BC, Laurence Alma-Tadema, 1885 (priv. coll.).

As a historian, what do you understand to be the primary purpose or value of retelling ancient history for a popular audience? With such a wide reach now possible online, but with so many possible and divergent subjects for curious minds to pursue, do you feel the public appetite for ancient history is growing or decreasing? Do you have any worries about the longer-term future for the academic discipline of Greco-Roman history, or of Classics more broadly? What do you think will best secure an important place for ancient history as part not just of scholarly life but of our everyday culture?

Change is inevitable. Societies prosper when they embrace change, but not when they turn their backs on their heritage. A healthy society needs also to preserve what is important about its past. That means teaching the young the essentials of a society’s traditions. If one of our traditions is freedom, then we need the Greco-Roman Classics. These ancients were proudly, one might even say madly free, but they were not just free: they were also part of a community. They invented citizenship and democracy and republics. We need students to immerse themselves in that legacy.

And we need students, frankly, to learn Greek and Latin. Those languages open the door to understanding what it means to be a citizen in a republic. In Greek, for instance, the words for “city”, “country”, “politics”, “citizen”, “regime”, and “constitution” all come from the same root – polis (πόλις). And the Greek language is, simply, beautiful. Beauty isn’t everything, and it certainly isn’t the basis of our society today, but it helps us to know why people were passionate about freedom, and why they were willing to put their lives on the line for it.

Do we still share the same passion today? I wonder, awash as we are in a tide of technocracy and of rule by a digital elite. Can a free society remain afloat? We need to give young people a life preserver, and that means teaching the Classics. Without apology and without fear.

Barry Strauss is the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies in the Departments of History and Classics at Cornell University. He is also the Corliss Page Dean Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Updates of his activity can be found here.

The portrait photograph above is credited to Dede Hatch; the image of the Actium relief (from the mid-1st century AD), found in Avellino, Italy, and now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary, is credited to Carole Raddato.