The great battle which was to decide who was to rule over the Roman Empire was fought at Actium, on the west coast of Greece, in 31 b.c.
Here Cæsar and Antony arrived, each with a great fleet and a great army. Antony was not accustomed to fight at sea, nor were his generals or soldiers. Yet to please Cleopatra he had decided that the first battle should be between the fleets.
The queen herself was at Actium, and had sent sixty of her own vessels to join Antony's fleet.
Several skirmishes took place, in which Cæsar was successful, and Cleopatra grew impatient and anxious. Then she tried to persuade Antony to withdraw without risking a battle.
In Alexandria, she said, they would be safe, for her towers were strong, and could be well garrisoned. If Cæsar followed and attacked them there they could easily defy him.
To withdraw should have been impossible to a soldier, yet so strong was the influence of Cleopatra that Antony at length promised to do as she wished. But for four days a gale blew so fiercely that it was not possible to leave Actium.
Early on the morning of the 2nd September, Cleopatra saw with delight that the weather was favourable. She knew no rest until the signal was given, and Antony's fleet began slowly to sail out of the bay.
Cæsar saw that the enemy's fleet was moving, and he at once ordered his vessels to follow, and if possible to surround it.
By yielding to Cleopatra, Antony had really only provoked battle, and he was now forced to give the signal to attack. Then as he knew that his soldiers were uneasy at having to fight at sea, he went in a small boat from one ship to another and urged them to think of their large decks as solid earth and to fight for victory.
Antony's ships were larger than those of Cæsar, and proved difficult to manage when the sea was heavy, as it was that day. The smaller vessels of Cæsar were able to move swiftly, and after hurling darts on to the enemy's deck, they could easily withdraw out of reach of Antony's missiles. Fiercely the battle raged, but when morning had passed, neither side had gained the victory.
Cleopatra was not used to the strain of battle, and her anxiety made her fretful and peevish. She determined to endure the miserable uncertainty no longer. It was intolerable. Away from the noise and the confusion, she could forget that Antony was fighting for an empire.
With no thought save the desire to escape, she gave the signal for retreat. Her sixty vessels at once hoisted their sails, and struggling past the ships that were engaged in battle, they fled for safety and for home.
Antony saw the ships with their sails filled, speeding away, and he knew that Cleopatra had deserted him.
Perhaps he thought that this would seal the fate of the battle, that the sight of the flying vessels would soon spread a panic through the entire fleet, perhaps his one desire was to follow the queen. In any case, Antony sprang into a galley and set off in pursuit of Cleopatra.
But when he reached the vessel in which the queen was seated, happy now and at her ease, and was taken on board, the thought of his dishonour suddenly took hold of him. Without a word to Cleopatra or even a look in her direction, he walked to the prow of the ship, and there, covering his face with his hands he bemoaned his dastardly deed. He thought that in the eyes of his army he was disgraced even now, and he did not hide from himself that he had become unfit to be a leader of men.
But the soldiers could not believe that the general who had often led them to battle had fled, and they fought bravely on, thinking that at any moment he would be among them to lead them to victory.
And so firm was their faith in Antony, that when the fight was over, they refused, for seven days, to surrender to Cæsar, lest their own general should yet appear. The officers were less loyal than the men, or perhaps they knew Antony better. They did not hesitate to leave their troops and to submit to Cæsar. Only then did the soldiers believe that Antony had indeed gone, and they also went over to the conqueror.
When the battle of Actium ended, Cæsar had won a decisive victory. He did not, however, go to Egypt until winter was over.
Antony, who had resolved if it were possible to redeem his flight, at once began to gather together an army ready to oppose Cæsar. But at the same time, both he and Cleopatra were trying to pacify the victorious general.
The queen sent him a gift of a gold crown, and offered to abdicate if Cæsar would allow her sons to reign. Antony also sent a gift of money, and begged to be allowed to live in Athens as a private citizen. If Cæsar proved ungracious they both hoped to be able to flee beyond his reach.
To Antony's request Cæsar paid no heed. But he encouraged Cleopatra to believe that he would do all that she wished for herself and for her children, if she would put Antony to death, or send him away from Egypt.
But even if she proved faithless to Antony and betrayed him to his enemy, Cæsar still meant to take the queen to Rome to adorn his triumph.