Battle of Alexandria in 30 BC: History, Major Facts & Timeline
Known as last major battle fought before Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) ushered in Pax Romana – a period of relative peace and prosperity – the Battle of Alexandria in 30 BC pitted two fierce Roman generals against each other.
Here are the key events and facts associated with the battle:
Demise of the Second Triumvirate
Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Rome was thrown into chaos. This led to a power struggle between various factions, with the most significant figures being Octavian, Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Together, they formed the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC.
The Triumvirs initially worked together, but tensions grew, especially between Antony and Octavian. These tensions were exacerbated by Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra VII, the queen of Egypt, which led to political and personal disputes.
The rivalry culminated in 32 BC when Octavian declared war not on Antony but on Cleopatra, positioning the conflict as Rome against the foreign threat of Egypt.
The Prelude to the Battle
Earlier in 31 BC, the naval Battle of Actium saw the forces of Octavian, led by his general Agrippa, decisively defeat Antony and Cleopatra. This battle diminished Antony’s military capabilities and his influence in Rome.
After the defeat at Actium, Antony and Cleopatra retreated to Egypt, where they prepared to defend themselves against Octavian’s inevitable invasion.
Battle of Alexandria in 30 BC
In 30 BC, Octavian invaded Egypt. Antony’s forces met him near Alexandria for a final stand.
However, the battle did not go well for Antony. With a majority of his forces already defeated at Actium, he couldn’t hold off Octavian’s legions. Many of Antony’s troops defected to Octavian’s side, further weakening his position.
Leveraging his numerical advantage, Octavian initiated a two-pronged attack on Alexandria from both the east and west. His forces successfully besieged and captured the city.
Realizing that all was lost and wanting to avoid capture, Antony took his own life. Cleopatra, deeply grieved and unwilling to be paraded as a prize in Octavian’s triumph in Rome, also committed suicide nine days after the battle.
What happened after the siege?
When Cleopatra learned of Antony’s death, and with Octavian’s forces closing in, she too chose to end her life, reportedly by the bite of an asp or by poison, to avoid capture.
With the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt became a Roman province, and Octavian was left as the unchallenged ruler of the Roman world. In 27 BC, he took the title “Augustus” and became Rome’s first emperor, marking the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
Significance of the Battle of Alexandria
The Battle of Alexandria marked the end of the Hellenistic period and the start of Roman dominance in the eastern Mediterranean.
The battle also led to the annexation of Egypt, which became one of Rome’s most vital provinces.
The defeat of Antony and Cleopatra cleared the way for the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), a period of relative peace and stability across the empire that lasted for over two centuries.
Why did Octavian win?
The naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC was a significant precursor to the Battle of Alexandria. At Actium, Octavian’s general Agrippa decisively defeated the combined forces of Antony and Cleopatra. This victory weakened Antony’s position and diminished his military capabilities.
Octavian was adept at propaganda and public relations. He positioned the conflict as Rome against the foreign influence of Cleopatra, rallying more of Rome behind him. He had also secured the loyalty of many Roman legions and key senators. With respect to the latter, its estimated that Octavian had the support of two-thirds of the body.
By this time, Octavian controlled the Western Roman territories, which were wealthier and could supply more troops and resources. This meant he had a larger, better-equipped army than Antony.
As the situation became increasingly dire for Antony and Cleopatra, many of Antony’s soldiers and allies defected to Octavian, feeling that his victory was inevitable.
Questions and Answers
How did Octavian consolidate his power after the Siege of Alexandria in 30 BC?
Caesarion was the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and thus, he posed a potential threat to Octavian’s claim to power as the sole heir of Caesar. Antyllus was Antony’s eldest son. To consolidate his position and eliminate possible rivals, Octavian had both of them executed.
Despite the ruthlessness shown in the executions of potential rivals, Octavian demonstrated clemency to Antony’s other children. He entrusted them to his sister, Octavia (who had also been Antony’s wife). She raised them as Roman citizens, ensuring that they were treated with dignity and respect despite their father’s opposition to Octavian.
What happened to the other children of Mark Antony?
The youngest of his sons died young, under circumstances that aren’t clearly documented or understood in historical records.
The rest, despite the challenges they faced as children of a man defeated and discredited by Octavian, managed to secure influential positions within Roman society. Their lineage eventually became even more illustrious, as they became the direct ancestors to three of Rome’s most infamous emperors: Claudius, Nero, and Caligula.
How did Augustus make Egypt the private property of the Roman Emperors?
Once Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt, which was one of the wealthiest and most influential kingdoms of the time, was annexed and brought under Roman control. The fertile lands of the Nile Delta and the wealth of the Egyptian temples made Egypt a crucial asset for Rome.
The Roman social order was divided into various classes, with the two most prominent being the senatorial class (senators) and the equestrian class (knights). By sending only equestrians to administrate Egypt, Octavian made a strategic choice. Equestrians were wealthy and influential, but they didn’t have the political clout of senators. Thus, they could manage the province efficiently without posing a threat of establishing an independent power base.
Octavian’s prohibition on senators visiting Egypt without his direct permission further emphasizes his intent to keep Egypt under tight control. Senators were the most powerful individuals in the Roman state, and by limiting their access to Egypt, Octavian ensured that no senator could leverage the province’s wealth or military resources to challenge his authority or that of his successors.
How old was Octavian at the time of the battle?
He was thirty-three. This underscores how young Octavian was when he rose to unparalleled power. Considering the complexities and challenges of the ancient political world, achieving such supremacy at a relatively young age was a testament to his strategic acumen, tenacity, and adaptability.
The events surrounding this battle can be put into a broader timeline, which provides a context for the final confrontation:
- September 2: The Naval Battle of Actium takes place off the western coast of Greece. Octavian’s fleet, commanded by Agrippa, decisively defeats Antony and Cleopatra. This battle drastically reduces Antony’s naval and military strength.
- Early-Mid Year: Antony and Cleopatra retreat to Alexandria, anticipating Octavian’s invasion. They begin strengthening the city’s defenses and gathering the remnants of their forces.
- July: Octavian lands in Egypt, and his forces begin their march toward Alexandria. Along the way, they meet little resistance as many of Egypt’s territories and soldiers capitulate or join Octavian.
- Late July: Realizing the dire situation, Antony attempts to break Octavian’s lines but fails. Around this time, many of Antony’s remaining troops and allies defect to Octavian’s side, further weakening his position.
- August 1: Antony receives false news of Cleopatra’s death. In despair, he takes his own life by falling on his sword. He is brought to Cleopatra where he dies in her arms.
- August 12: Octavian takes control of Alexandria with little resistance. Cleopatra, to avoid capture and humiliation, commits suicide, traditionally believed to be by the bite of an asp or by poison.
- Late August: Egypt officially becomes a Roman province after Octavian’s victory.
Did you know…?
In 28 BC, Cicero, the son of the famous Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (who had his own issues with Mark Antony), took the symbolic act of removing all busts of Antony from Rome. This act would have served as a public denunciation and an attempt to erase Antony’s legacy from the city.
However, as the wheel of history turned and Antony’s descendants rose to power, there was an effort to restore his legacy. The busts of Antony were returned to their places of prominence in Rome, likely as a nod to the familial lineage of the emperors who descended from him.