cover image The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium

The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium

Barry Strauss. Simon & Schuster, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-1-982116-67-5

Historian Strauss (The Caesars) delivers a gripping account of the war for control of the Roman Empire that culminated in Octavian’s decisive victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in western Greece in 31 BCE. Strauss situates the conflict in the epidemic of violence that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE and the disintegrating relationship between Octavian and Antony, which was exacerbated by Antony’s decision to divorce Octavian’s sister, Octavia, and ally with Cleopatra. Tracking the six-month military campaign that led up to Actium, Strauss spotlights Octavian’s “right-hand and indispensable admiral,” Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa; rehabilitates Antony’s reputation as a strategist; and details how the lives of legionaries, sailors, and ordinary citizens were upended by the war. The book’s centerpiece is a vivid reconstruction of the Battle of Actium, which pitted 600 warships with crews totaling nearly 200,000 people against each other. Though Strauss’s comparisons between ancient and modern warfare are occasionally jarring (at one point, he references the disparaging of “rear-echelon mother—ers” during the Vietnam War), he has an eye for telling details and a knack for explaining the era’s complex political alliances and rivalries in clear terms. Ancient history buffs will be riveted. (Mar.)