History in a novel: The Battle of Actium

Actium is the second battle that my young protagonist had as a final examination in my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy . He had to imagine he was fighting in Antony’s place. Antony and Octavian had faced off before, and as a peace offering, Antony had to marry Octavian’s sister. He did, but then abandoned her for Cleopatra, so this time there was war. For some reason that I do not understand, Antony and Cleopatra took their forces to the south side of the Gulf of Ambracia, although there was a small force on the north side. Then, for another reason I do not understand, when Octavian’s forces arrived, almost a year passed during which Antony did very little. During this time, his forces degenerated, either through a lack of adequate supply, or possibly disease struck. At the same time, Antony seemed to have spent too much time being drunk. The Egyptian fleet was bottled up inside the Gulf, which was in effect a large harbour, and outside, Octavian was blockading him with a much larger fleet. There was much discussion as to what were the appropriate tactics, and rather than engage in a land battle, Antony elected to fight at sea. Part of this decision may have arisen from an argument with Cleopatra. In my opinion, the optimal strategy would have been to take the most strategic positions when it became apparent that Octavian was on his way, and to engage Octavian in a land battle as soon as possible after Octavian’s forces landed. Antony had Caesar’s legions, the most battle-hardened in the Roman army. Further, Antony may have learned that Marcus Agrippa was with the fleet. Agrippa was by far the greatest commander on Octavian’s side. However, for the purposes of the story, my protagonist had to fight at sea.

Accordingly, on September 2, 31 BC, the Egyptian fleet put to sea to engage Octavian. Octavian seriously outnumbered Antony, and had small and very agile ships, while the Egyptian fleet were far more massive, and had plated hulls. Sinking a ship in those days was achieved mainly by ramming, while boarding was a lesser means, but the only means of capturing a ship. Neither side could manage either method. Octavian’s ships could not do much to the plated hulls of the Egyptian fleet, and boarding was not practical because the bigger ships had far more soldiers on them. The Egyptians could not ram Octavian’s ships, except by accident because they could not catch them. Accordingly, both sides sailed around, yelling insults, throwing spears, and not doing much damage. Cleopatra fled, and the besotted Antony set out after her, apparently desirous of trying to make up for an argument of the previous night. His abandoned troops then more or less gave up. Why fight for a commander who flees?

So, how should my young protagonist answer? This is a question of strategy, and the first rule of strategy is, you have to say, “We are here,” and if you know, “and they are there.” In other words the young strategist has to accept what has happened, although for the purposes of the exercise, while he had to fight on September 2, he was allowed to prepare for a naval battle.

My protagonist dealt with this problem this way. The first problem was that the characteristics of both fleets were known, and each side would know that following standard procedures, neither side could do much to the other. Therefore, the answer must involve finding a way to do more damage to the other ships. Because the Egyptian ships were much bigger, and much higher, I had my protagonist resort to “Greek Fire”. Actually, I could be accused of error here, because the official “Greek fire” was not developed until several centuries later, nevertheless incendiary devices involving petroleum and sulphur had been used by Greeks over 400 years before Actium, and I had my protagonist describe what he was going to do as mixing pitch and sulphur, and having it able to be set alight, after which it would be propelled onto the enemy ship. Not exactly what later became called “Greek Fire”, but I think it should still have worked.

You might ask, why bother imagining a different result in an ancient battle? The purpose of all this was to build up my protagonist as someone with ability to use logic, and to take advice. Claudius (the stutterer) had advised my protagonist that it would please Tiberius to use something Timothy had taught him, and had also advised him to try to think up new ways of fighting. Pleasing Tiberius was imperative for my protagonist. Finally, my protagonist had to show that he appreciated military situations and could do something unusual. I suppose also it was fun to imagine what could have happened, although it is most likely that all Antony really had to do to win was to drink a lot less, concentrate on his immediate problems, and keep Cleopatra in perspective.