Death of the Republic

Actium, Egyptian ship with battering ram

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Actium, the final major conflict of the civil wars that wracked the dying Roman republic from 133BC (if you ascribe to the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus origination) or   from 49BC (if you take it from the Rubicon Crossing) to 31BC.

The poet Virgil was effectively a propagandist working on behalf of Octavian, to counter popularity for Marc Anthony and solidify the transition to Empire.  Virgil worked with Maecenas, the agent of Octavian.  The poem below is clearly propaganda.  Octavian and the Romans are portrayed as the home team supported by the “right” gods.  They are bright lights against the gathering darkness, Anthony is portrayed as deviant, relying on a gaudily dressed ill fated woman, a rag tag coalition speaking a babble of tongues.  They bring strange animal gods from the East.  They are the foreigners, the others, interlopers.

The Battle of Actium; by Virgil (trans. John Dryden)  

Betwixt the quarters, flows a golden sea;
But foaming surges there in silver play.
The dancing dolphins with their tails divide
The glittering waves, and cut the precious tide.

Amid the main, two mighty fleets engage:
Their brazen beaks opposed with equal rage.
Actium surveys the well-disputed prize:
Leucate’s watery plain with foamy billows fries.

Young Caesar, on the stern in armour bright,
Here leads the Romans and their gods to fight:
His beamy temples shoot their flames afar;
And o’er his head is hung the Julian star.

Agrippa seconds him, with prosperous gales,
And, with propitious gods, his foes assails.
A naval crown, that binds his manly brows,
The happy fortune of the fight foreshows.

Ranged on the line opposed, Antonius brings
Barbarian aids, and troops of eastern kings,
The Arabians near, and Bactrians from afar,
Of tongues discordant, and a mingled war:

And, rich in gaudy robes, amidst the strife,
His ill fate follows him–the Egyptian wife.
Moving they fight: with oars and forky prows
The froth is gathered and the water glows.

It seems as if the Cyclades again
Were rooted up, and justled in the main;
Or floating mountains floating mountains meet;
Such is the fierce encounter of the fleet.

Fire-balls are thrown, and pointed javelins fly;
The fields of Neptune take a purple dye.
The queen herself, amidst the loud alarms,
With cymbal tossed, her fainting soldiers warms–

Fool as she was! who had not yet divined
Her cruel fate; nor saw the snakes behind.
Her country gods, the monsters of the sky,
Great Neptune, Pallas, and love’s queen, defy.

The dog Anubis barks, but barks in vain,
Nor longer dares oppose the ethereal train.
Mars, in the middle of the shining shield
Is graved, and strides along the liquid field.

The Dirae souse from heaven with swift descent;
And Discord, dyed in blood, with garments rent,
Divides the press: her steps Bellona treads,
And shakes her iron rod above their heads.

This seen, Apollo, from his Actian height
Pours down his arrows; at whose wingèd flight
The trembling Indians and Egyptians yield,
And soft Sabaeans quit the watery field.

The fatal mistress hoists her silken sails,
And shrinking from the fight, invokes the gales.
Aghast she looks, and heaves her breast for breath,
Panting, and pale with fear of future death.

The god had figured her, as driven along
By winds and waves, and scudding through the throng.
Just opposite, sad Nilus opens wide
His arms and ample bosom to the tide,
And spreads his mantle o’er the winding coast;
In which, he wraps his queen and hides the flying host.

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