This is yet another good campaign title precisely because it is, as a reviewer on Amazon.com put it, "more about the struggle between Antony and Octavian than about the battle per se". This is partly because, to understand the battle itself, there is a need to understand the geopolitical background and context where winning the propaganda war or what in modern terms would be something like "winning the hearts and minds" of the Romans was at least as important as winning the campaigns and battles themselves.
Rather than being only about the campaign of Actium, this book covers the period 42 BC to 30 BC, with the aftermath being centred on Octavian's consolidation of supreme power over the following years. Actium, at first sight, appears as the big naval battle, the crushing defeat and the climax that sees the "downfall of Antony and Cleopatra." However, as this volume shows very well, this rather conventional view which ultimately derives from the victor's propaganda, has been debated and disputed. Some of the best pieces of the book are the careful analysis of how Octavian and his advisors waged and won this propaganda war against Antony who started out the period as being very much the more powerful of the two.
When reading the book, you cannot avoid the impression that the battle was already lost for Antony before it started. He had been out-generaled by Agrippa who seems to have largely managed to cut his supplies and communications with Egypt and to take his naval bases along the western shore of Greece. Having successfully refused to be brought to battle when the conditions were too favourable to Antony, Agrippa and Octavian seem to have managed to blockade the enemy army and fleet until Antony had no other issue than to force a battle under the worst possible conditions.
The author (and others) contends that, for Antony and Cleopatra, the main purpose of the naval battle was not to fight to win but to fight in order to escape with as many ships that they could take with them and with Egypt's treasury, abandoning the army in the process. This, which was so unlike the behaviour expected from Antony, finished ruining his reputation and confirming Octavian's propaganda against him: he had been "bewitched" by the Egyptian queen. Historians do not necessarily believe that Antony was so madly in love with Cleopatra from the very beginning. He certainly needed the riches that Egypt could offer and the grain from Egypt could be withheld and used against Octavian to undermine his position in Rome. However, her influence over him does seem to have grown over time and the importance he gave to what was essentially a client kingdom of Rome alienated many of Antony's partisans and fellow-Romans.
The battle itself is rather well told, although there are plenty of other books where this is also the case. I did not, however, like Christa Hook's plates very much and would very prefer if she refrained from this rather "impressionist" touch she has so that all the faces are somewhat blurred. The choice of plates was, however, rather good. A particular nice touch was to have one illustrating Mark Antony's little known Parthian campaign during which he tried - and failed - to avenge Crassus and show himself as Caesar's successor (Julius Caesar had been planning a campaign against the Parthians when he was murdered). Another little quibble, perhaps, is that the author does not explain why Antony resorted to very large ships, what he really intended to do with them and why they were so important for his strategy. To learn about this, you have to read William Murray's "The Age of Titans".
This is a rather good introduction to the last years of the Republic and the last clashes between its last warlords. Highly recommended.
A clear account of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra and how this led to disaster for both of them. A well presented book that is easy to follow. Good for readers who have an interest in Roman History but want it explained in everyday language.