Book Review: The Battle of Actium 31 BC: War for the World


by Lee Fratantuono

Yorkshire and Philadelphia: Pen & Sword, 2022. Pp. xxxiv, 194. Maps, notes, biblio., index. $26.95. ISBN: 1473847141

The Decision at Sea that Shaped the Fate of Rome

Despite being among the most important naval battles in history, many questions remain about the encounter between the fleet of Octavian and that of Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. In this book Prof. Fratantuono (Maynooth) seeks to clarify what is known about the battle and how it was fought.

Fratantuono opens with a short introduction offering some background and commentary on the implications of the battle. But then, unlike earlier authors who’ve written on the subject, he does not immediately plunge into explaining what happened and why. In fact, we don’t encounter a narrative treatment of the campaign and battle until about two-thirds of the way through his text. Instead, Fratantuono gives us a long, detailed examination of the evidence that can be drawn about the events from ancient Greek and Roman texts, not only histories and biographies, but the occasional comments, references, or allusions to the battle in other literature, such as poetry. For example, he includes the Aeneid, in which some episodes throw some light on the battle, and, of course, archaeological and even experimental evidence

In the final third of the text, Fratantuono gives us an analysis of what he concludes happened, which at times is at variance with most earlier treatments.

This reviewer found Fratantuono’s approach quite valuable. But his claim that the flight of Cleopatra and her ships, with Antony promptly following, was not pre-planned is difficult to accept; if flight was not intended, why did their fleets retain their masts and sails, rather than, like Octavian’s – and every other ancient fleet preparing to go into battle – leave them ashore to lighten ship, thus improving maneuverability? In addition, like many writers on the campaign, he rather slights Agrippa’s strategic strokes in the capture of Methone, Corinth, Patras, and Leuca, which severed Antony’s lines of communication.

Although not wholly satisfying, this is nevertheless definitely an important read for anyone interested in the Roman civil wars or ancient naval warfare.




Note: The Battle of Actium is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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