Actium

by Pierce Nahigyan

The gulls circled over the cape, the waters below red and brown, flotsam dragging men still groaning into shore, armor shining on the shining sea. The gulls landed on the rail of a ship still floating, its mast destroyed by fire, the fire withered to snakes of smoke, and the cinders snapping under buckets dredged from the bloody foam to kill them too. The ship turned in an eddy, the anchor dragging on the seafloor lost, the men without buckets seated on barrels and boxes and on the bare decks unwilling to raise it. Out in the smoke, Octavian’s fleet was closing in on the surviving ship. They would all be prisoners. They could not be more ambivalent about their fate.

The captain tossed the gulls two hard crumbs of bread. They dove for them, flapping and snapping. He looked to the shore, and looked out to the sea, to the fleeing ships, the lonely refugees of Agrippa’s blockade. They were further out now, almost beyond the dip in the horizon, where the Earth turned down.

“Sir,” said a centurion, “permission to abandon ship?”

“Granted,” said the captain. “Neptune keep you afloat, soldier.”

The centurion relayed the news to the men. Few reacted. Those that could swim, or would swim, or try to swim, began to disrobe. Gladii crashed on the deck. Helmets rolled the way the ship was tilting.

“I curse Actium,” the centurion said, unbuckling his belt. “The sea is no place for a Roman to fight.”

“Rome has won this fight,” said the captain. “And Rome has beaten Antony.”

“Octavian’s Rome is no Rome for me, sir.”

“Best swim then,” said the captain. “It’s coming.”