Octavian Chronicle #11, Sea Battle of Actium-31 BC, tells the whole story.
In September 31 BC, Octavian and Marcus Agrippa trapped the combined fleets of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the Gulf of Ambracia. Agrippa’s strategy of defeating Antony’s fleets one port at a time starting from the southwest corner of Greece and working his way north to Actium had been an outstanding success. Octavian had worked his way down from the north and set up their camp. Then he and Agrippa put Antony and Cleopatra under siege.
With their men sick and starving, Antony and Cleopatra had to decide whether to fight a sea battle or a land battle. Antony’s commanders wanted a land battle. They recommended marching inland so that the men could regain their strength and prepare for battle. Cleopatra, on the other hand, wanted a sea battle because all her personal treasure and much of Egypt’s treasure was loaded on her ships. Antony called them together for a strategy session.
Dellius took a sip of wine and set his cup down. He made a face and said, “This wine’s sour. I realize that this is a council of war, but I must say if Cleopatra can’t bring in wine from Egypt that’s fit to drink, then our situation is more desperate than I thought.”
He looked up. Antony had paid him no mind. Canidius had only glanced over at him, then went right back to looking at the maps. But, across the table, Cleopatra was glaring at him. She said nothing, but the look on her face sent a cold chill through him. He thought, I just made another mistake.
Canidius said to Antony, “Marcus, without a doubt you’re the greatest leader of land armies in the world. Looking at our situation here, we have to face the fact that we’ve lost the war at sea. Our only chance of winning now is by a land battle. There’s nothing wrong with our admitting that the sea battle’s lost. They’ve obviously gained a great deal of sea experience fighting against Sextus.”
The other six generals spoke up in agreement.
Cleopatra said, “If you fight a land war, how am I going to sail my ships back to Egypt”
Antony turned to her and said, “We’ve talked about this before. You can try to break out by sea, but there’d be little chance that you’d get through without being defeated and captured. You can try that, or you can abandon your ships and travel back to Egypt by land.”
“I won’t abandon my ships!” Cleopatra said stubbornly. “They have all my personal treasure and much of Egypt’s treasure on them. You must fight and win the battle at sea!”
Dellius knew that Cleopatra’s survival hung in the balance. It depended on whether Antony would decide to fight a land battle or a sea battle. He thought, She’s a dangerous person right now.
Cleopatra asked, “Canidius, what makes you think you can win a battle on land? You’ve lost every battle and skirmish you’ve had with Caesar’s army. That’s something you should be ashamed of. Besides, the men are sick and starving. I don’t think they have the strength to fight a war on land.”
“Once we move away from here,” said Canidius, “our men will be able to find food and fresh water. Our army is still much larger than theirs.”
“Is it, Canidius?” asked Cleopatra, an edge her voice. “Haven’t you noticed that your men are dying and defecting every day?”
“The point you make, Cleopatra,” said Canidius, “is the same point I’m making. I agree that our soldiers lack strength, but we don’t have enough men to row our ships either. If we count the number of men who are in good enough condition to row, we can only use half of our ships.”
“Then burn those we can’t use,” said Cleopatra.
Dellius asked her, “Can you fit all your treasure on fewer of your ships?”
“We don’t need any more of your sarcasm right now, Dellius.”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic.”
“Well then, keep quiet. We don’t need your advice on military matters.”
Dellius shrugged and thought, I’m done with these people if they decide on a sea battle.
Antony sat down and put his head in his hands for a moment. Then he looked up and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’ll fight the sea battle, but as soon as it starts, Canidius, you’ll march the land army away and take the northern route back over to Asia. If you’re attacked, you can decide whether to fight or continue marching away and escape.
“As we’ve already said, we’ll have to burn the ships we can’t use. They’ll be of no use to us, and we don’t want them to fall into the hands of the enemy.” He turned to Cleopatra and said, “That includes some of yours.”
Cleopatra nodded her agreement.
Dellius noticed a gleam in her eye. He thought, She’s getting her way.