The Truth About Cleopatra

One of the most important Roman discoveries of the last fifteen years is still little known. Unearthed in northern Greece, it is the monument erected to commemorate the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, fought between Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) on the one side and Mark Antony, with his lover and financial backer, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, on the other. Victory effectively handed to Octavian control of the Roman world, and ended the decade of civil wars that had followed the assassination of Julius Caesar. Antony and Cleopatra, the rival claimants to power, sloped back to Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. The vast memorial to the battle is a major work of Roman state art, with terraces, colonnades, freestanding statues, and a large altar covered with sculpture celebrating the new Augustan regime. It stood on a prominent headland, overlooking the site of the battle, reportedly on the exact spot where Octavian had pitched his tent before the engagement and just outside his new city of Nikopolis (“Victory Town”).

The site of the monument has been known since the early nineteenth century and it has been sporadically excavated ever since. In the 1980s the façade of the structure was examined in detail: a large retaining wall, over sixty yards long, with more than thirty empty sockets that had once held bronze rams, taken from the captured warships of Antony and Cleopatra. This series of enemy weapons, jutting out all along the front of the monument, was a powerful boast of Octavian’s victory—as well as an open warning to anyone in the future who might consider challenging the regime. The Roman principate tended to conceal its autocratic power under a veil of civility, but—as this Actium monument shows—the threat of violence was never far from the surface.

The most spectacular discoveries were not, however, made until the 1990s. These were the fragments of the relief sculpture, in the finest Athenian marble, which once ran around the altar (originally extending for more than fifty yards). Found in over 15,000 pieces, this has been gradually reassembled by a team led by the archaeologist Konstantinos Zachos. He has shown that the sculpture was arranged in two registers. The lower register showed a variation on a standard Roman theme: images of weapons and armor, artfully composed to look as if they had fallen at random.

The upper register is a much more striking find, rivaling in importance the famous Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) or Forum of Augustus, both in Rome. For it depicted Octavian’s triumphal procession celebrated in Rome in 29 BC, to honor his Actium victory. Surviving portions depict a group of leading Romans accompanying the procession, and a few, very fragmentary, prisoners and lictors carrying the fasces, the bundle of rods that was the symbol of Roman official power.

By immense good fortune, what must have been the central image has also been preserved. This is the triumphal chariot of Octavian, an elaborately decorated …

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