Ancient History & Civilisation


Liberation Betrayed

As for the boy Caesar (Octavian), his natural worth and manliness are extraordinary. I only pray that I may be able to govern and hold him when he is in the full flush of honours and favour as I have done so far. That is more difficult, it is true, but still I do not despair. The young man is persuaded (most of all, through me) that our survival is his business

Cicero to Marcus Brutus, c. 21 April 43 BC

The events after Caesar’s murder are the supreme chapter in the story of freedom in ancient Rome. The days and months are wonderfully evoked for us by partisan survivors, and by Cicero’s contemporary letters and speeches. Cicero’s aims failed, but he was not always deceived. Despite moments of fear and retreat, he seldom fell below the level of events, although he was sixty-two years old. His faults were the same as always, and venially fatal: his wit and polemic against other big men’s failings and his habit of seeing events as he himself wished them to be.

In Cicero’s view, the golden chance was lost: as soon as Caesar lay dead, the Senate should have been called to the scene and the people summoned at once to liberty. In fact, like many tyrant-slayers in Greek history, the conspirators did nothing more: one of them hoisted a ‘cap of freedom’ on a spear and the corpse was left lying, ‘lawfully slain’ and fit only for throwing into the Tiber.1 In fact, three slaves took it home. The surviving consul, Mark Antony, had fled, but that very evening, it seems, Antony’s plans were already being feared as the ‘very worst, the most treacherous’.2 Above the Forum, noble Brutus had addressed an audience on the Capitol hill, but his speech, in Cicero’s view, was too elegant and too short of fire.

When Alexander the Great died his officers faked his ‘last plans’ to ensure that they were publicly rejected. When Caesar died Mark Antony took what he claimed were Caesar’s plans and two days later, on the 17th, artfully urged reconciliation at a meeting of the Senate. Caesar’s murderers, he proposed, were not to be avenged: that, at least, was a relief. Caesar’s plans, however, and his actions, past, present and future, were all to be ratified. It was a crucial moment. So many of the senators owed their rank and prospects to Caesar’s recent decisions that the measure was sure to be passed. In case they hesitated, armed soldiers, Caesar’s veterans, were already present to clarify their minds. So the senators agreed. They also agreed that Caesar’s body should have a funeral, a public funeral indeed, on the urging of his father-in-law.

‘Liberty’, Cicero’s option, was beset with difficulties. Almost all the legions across the world were loyal to Julius Caesar; many of his veterans were still at large, waiting to be paid off; vast spoils, booty and revenues could be dispensed from his personal sources by his political successors; Rome’s common people plainlypreferred Caesar to yet more ‘concord’ and ‘liberty’ for the upper classes. ‘Things which Caesar would never have done or allowed’, Cicero would soon remark, ‘are now being brought forward from his forged “plans” ’, the papers which Caesar had left and which Antony now controlled and, no doubt, doctored.3 Yet Caesar’s armies, the money and the people’s loyalties made it hard to turn the clock back as if he had not existed.

On the Ides of March, Cicero would write, they had left a fine ‘banquet’ unfinished: there were still the ‘leftovers’, Mark Antony. How right he proved to be: if only Antony had been killed too, the Republic really could have had a good chance of restoration. But he was not to be carved up and although Cicero wanted him killed, he was a consul still in office with an obvious technique of appeal. On 20 March he gave a taste of it. Caesar’s will was opened and he was found to have left his gardens to the public and a cash sum to each citizen at Rome. It was time for Caesar’s public funeral, an occasion which Cicero rightly dreaded. After the body had been brought up through the Forum with an escort of actors and singers, Antony raised the tempo by addressing the assembled people in the Forum. There are two main versions of what he said to those ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’, as Shakespeare memorably puts it, who lent him their ears. One, which many scholars have preferred, is that he said only a few words after a proclamation bya herald. Another, which arguably goes back to a contemporary, is more compelling and builds on what we can infer from Cicero.4 The body on its ivory couch was set in a gilded shrine modelled on the shrine of mother Venus. After speaking of Caesar’s deeds, Antony began to work with the rising emotions of the crowd (the ‘pathetic praise’, surely, on which Cicero comments). He chanted a lament of his own and began to weep. He held up Caesar’s bloodstained toga on a spear; as feelings rose, he then displayed a wax model of Caesar’s wounded corpse. Songs of lament are said to have followed from the crowd, in which Caesar himself appeared to be speaking. Evidently, Antony had mobilized actors and theatre-groups to orchestrate the occasion, people who are such an important element in crowd-scenes in Rome. This staged dialogue with the crowd caused them to erupt. Caesar’s body had been supposed to be taken off to the Campus Martius, but it was carried by the people up to the Capitol, turned back by the priests and then cremated in the Forum by popular action. There was even an attempt to burn the houses of the ‘Liberators’. The people’s potential had been stirred, a warning to Antony’s opponents.

For the moment, there was an obstacle. Caesar’s plans had been upheld, but he had left the command of northern Italy to one of the men who had then murdered him (Decimus, not Marcus, Brutus) and he was believed to have booked Syria and Macedonia, two provinces with armies, for Brutus and Cassius.5 Antony needed to alter these allotments and also to maximize his own. While he waited, Cicero began to treat Antony’s aims more lightly. On 9 April he writes: ‘Antony is more interested in the make-up of his dinner than in planning any mischief.’6 Antony had even proposed that the dictatorship should be abolished for all time, a sharp comment on why Caesar had been murdered. In the same month, however, some of the plebs made moves of their own. A pillar was put up in the city in Caesar’s honour and had to be demolished. Briefly, even Antony was outmanoeuvred, by the reappearance of one Amatius who had already been a thorn in Julius Caesar’s side. Rumour spread that Amatius was Marius’ grandson, a real populist echo of the past. Amatius probably had strong links with the ‘colleges’ or associations among the people of Rome, trouble-spots which Caesar had alreadyhad to regulate. He was rapidly put to death, and then Antony turned to the outstanding problem, the demobilization and settlement of Caesar’s veterans in Italy.

By mid-April, however, a new presence appeared, Caesar’s adopted heir by will, the eighteen-year-old Octavian who had been abroad in north-west Greece at the time of the murder. He was Caesar’s favoured great-nephew, but as his great modern historian, Sir Ronald Syme, reminds us, he was by birth merely the ‘grandson of a municipal banker’.7 An unknown, unproven quantity, he was not even a senator. Yet he was to show a cool ruthlessness, a calculation and a lack of heroics which were to carry him eventually to forty-five years of supreme power. The recent stirrings among the plebs were a good omen for his prospects.

On arriving at Brindisi, in south Italy, Octavian seized one of the two most important commodities, money, and then used it to win over the other, some of Caesar’s soldiers. It was a bold start, and as the young man travelled up Italy in spring 44 he stopped at the Bay of Naples and stayed in the next-door house to Cicero’s. He is ‘totally devoted to me’, Cicero wrote at the time; ‘extremely friendly and extremely respectful’.8 But the boy was already calling himself ‘Caesar’, which Cicero did indeed dislike. And how could he remain a sound citizen, ‘one of us’, when he reached Rome? It is one of history’s great meetings, the senior statesman, so often so wrong, and the most dangerous eighteen-year-old in the world. Scarcely a month later, Cicero would already be writing that he ‘did not like the look of Octavian’s games, nor his agents’; in mid-May Octavian was already trying to have funeral games held. The problem was that Antony was even worse. On 1 June, with further help from armed supporters, Antony‘legitimized’ bya vote of the ‘people’ in Rome the exchange of provincial commands on which he was to rely for his power-base. He also set up a commission to distribute lands to Caesar’s veterans which his brother, usefully, would head. Brutus and Cassius were insulted by their unjust treatment and prepared to leave Italy for harmless jobs abroad; Antony had taken northern Italy for himself. Cicero was left to complain that there was ‘nothing planned, nothing thought out, nothing organized’. The Liberators’ ‘resolve had been manly, but their policies were childlike’.9 He himself had spent these weeks giving lessons in oratory to prominent pupils, including the next year’s consuls. He reproached himself for it, but he had done it nonetheless. After news of Antony’s laws, he planned to leave Italy, to visit his son in Athens and to see if he was making progress in his studies abroad.

At Rome, meanwhile, Octavian moved where Antony, so far, had feared to tread. He announced that, as Caesar’s heir, he would avenge Caesar’s murder; he paid the cash left to each member of the urban plebs, as ordered in Caesar’s will; he then tried to have Caesar’s notorious golden throne brought back into public view. In late July he personally held the ‘Games in Honour of Caesar’s Victory’ which had been denied official celebration. During them a comet burned in the sky for seven days. The Roman people hardly needed to be encouraged to think that this ‘star’ symbolized Caesar’s divine status. Caesar and Alexander the Great are the only rulers in antiquitywhose divinity was widely believed in. The young Octavian had already changed his name and was calling himself ‘Caesar’ too; he placed symbols of the star on coins and on a statue of Caesar which was dedicated in the Forum. The comet had overtones of a ‘new age’, but ‘inside, he himself rejoiced in the sign of the star to which he himself would ascend’.10 His actions put important pressure on Antony: if Caesar’s loyal family-heir was making such running, surely Antony, his political ‘heir’, must raise the tempo too? So Antony began to claim that it was he, not Octavian, whom Caesar had adopted and to denounce the Liberators, Brutus and Cassius. In late July the two of them left Italy, but answered back in a fine, restrained letter sent on 4 August. ‘We wish to see you being a great and honoured man in a free republic,’ they told him. ‘We are not fastening any quarrels on you; however, we value our freedom more than your friendship.’11 Other Romans were to rank these priorities differently.

In earlyAugust Cicero set sail for Athens and his son, but the winds detained him and, fortunately, he could turn back to Rome on hearing better news. For at last, attacks on Antony’s unduly Caesarian stance had begun in the Senate. Even so, Antony’s biggest problem was not this opposition, but that the real Caesarian, Octavian, might steal his pre-eminence. As tension mounted between the two of them, veteran soldiers actually intervened to oblige Caesar’s two heirs to sink their differences and make things up. Cicero reached Rome on 31 August, to be greeted by open hostility from Antony: once again, he was threatened with demolition of his house in Rome. But Cicero still had authority, as a speaker and a moral voice. In early September, he lent his pen to the senatorial fray, by composing the first of his fourteen powerful Philippics against Antony’s character and conduct. By doing so, Cicero was not creating an enemy out of a possible ‘moderate’. Antony had already reshuffled the provinces to take the most important for himself and he could not continue to be ‘moderate’ after Octavian’s rival star dawned: as if to prove it, on 2 October Antony told a public meeting in Rome that the Liberators were conspirators and that Cicero had been the ringleader. Cicero still kept out of the public eye. In late October he began to write On Moral Duties (the De Officiis, or ‘Offices’). It stresses that luxury is a vice (a worse one in old age), justice is the crowning virtue (it upholds private property, not socialism) and Julius Caesar was a criminal who had deserved to be killed.12 On the strength of it, posterity has praised Cicero as a ‘pagan Christian’. But the work was based on the texts of Greek Stoic philosophers. It was only written in his one last interval from life’s real business, political affairs.

As for Antony, after an open challenge by Octavian in Rome he fixed next year’s provinces at an illegal night-time meeting of the Senate (28 November) and then went early to the province which he had set for himself. He intended, surely, to wait and watch. But forces were gathering against him: Octavian, and the Decimus Brutus whom he was trying to remove from his province in north Italy. Seeing these allies, Cicero abandoned a low profile and prepared his case against Antony’s ‘tyranny’. On 20 December, in Antony’s absence, he denounced him before the Senate in a speech which he regarded as the reinvigoration of a weary Senate and the Roman people’s first hope of recovering their freedom.13 There was a willing audience, but there was still a reluctance to pass the ‘ultimate decree’. In speech after speech, Cicero’s invective rolled on, painting Antony as a man of utter debaucherywhose household was filled with male and female prostitutes and whose wife Fulvia ‘sold off’ public property in her private rooms. After more days of debate a state of public ‘tumult’ was eventuallydeclared and byFebruary 43 it was possible for troops to be turned against Antony in northern Italy.

However, Cicero’s call for the ‘Republic’ had encompassed an ironic choice of ally: Octavian, the ‘new Caesar’. In November this young man had alreadyled an illegal private army and marched with troops into Rome. At a public meeting, he had gestured ominously with his right hand towards the newly erected statue of his adopted father and prayed that his own deeds would be worthy of Julius Caesar. However, his troops were not prepared to fight fellow veterans of Caesar just yet. He was ‘taking the steam out of Antony neatly enough for the moment’, Cicero wrote at the time, but ‘may I never be saved by such a man as this’.14 He was not, then, entirely deceived, but by January he was speaking as if safety and the Republic relied on Octavian’s support. His hope, at times too rosy, was to split the Caesarian supporters by playing Julius Caesar’s young heir against Antony, his consul. There were genuine differences of opinion to exploit here, even among Julius Caesar’s loyal admirers, but the strategy relied on Octavian being dispensable in the longer term. On 3 January 43 not just Cicero but also the Senate in Rome voted Octavian, the young outsider, a place among their own number. They added the powers and distinctions of a praetor and the right to a consulship in only ten years’ time. They were nurturing a young viper, but Cicero promised them that this young ‘Caesar’ ‘will always be such a citizen as he is today and as we should especially wish and pray him to be’.15

By February 43 events seemed to be turning the Liberators’ way. Brutus and Cassius had gone on to Greece and the East and were becoming established with legionary support. Antony was still trying to claim his command in northern Italy, but was caught up at Mutina (modern Modena) besieging the man (Decimus Brutus) whose provincial allotment he had overturned. In November 44 Cicero had been despondent, thinking of running away and reduced to writing a book, On Friendship. It was indeed an issue of the moment. But now he saw only what he wished to see, claiming ‘universal consent’ and wholehearted support for his plans both in Italy and among the common people. Octavian was that ‘egregious young man’; he ‘has entered on the affairs of the Republic in order to strengthen it, not to overturn it’.16 Octavian was even calling him ‘father’. But the ‘consent’ which Cicero saw around him was probablymore for Caesar’s young heir than for his own beloved Republic. His hope of ‘liberty’ rested on a man whose promotion had been highlyirregular, and it required war with an ex-consul who had the backing of a ‘law’ of the people, voted in June. Admittedly, it had been voted under threat and with irregularities, but so had many other laws in the past twenty years.

In late April Antony’s troops were defeated near Modena in a fearful battle which involved Caesar’s hardened veterans on each side. There was dreadful bloodshed and, unlike Alexander the Great’s veteran soldiers, Caesar’s veterans would never be keen to fight each other again. Antony’s remaining troops then headed northwards to the western provinces where he might hope for support. At this point, Cicero was chillingly opposed to ‘clemency’ or mercy. In invaluable letters, we can watch the governors of the provinces in Antony’s path and the generals who were chasing him professing support to Cicero for the Republic and ‘liberty’. But when the choice came those same governors wavered, lied and ended by doing deals with Antony, the ‘enemy’. The cause of ‘liberation’ was already wavering, and Octavian was still an uncertain quantity. In early June Cicero was complaining that the Senate was no longer his ‘tool’ and that freedom and the Republic were being betrayed.17 How true it was. At Modena both the consuls of the year had been killed, and in August Octavian turned round with troops and marched on Rome for the second time. He forced the Senate to elect him to a consulship in their place. He was not yet twenty years old.

As a complex summer unravelled Octavian’s troops would not fight Antony’s again, even if asked: their one taste of blood near Modena was still more than enough. In the East, meanwhile, Brutus and Cassius were raising huge armies of ‘liberation’ with looting and taxes in the provinces: the Senate proposed their command should be ‘greater’ than that of other governors in the East. The obvious answer for the Caesarians was to combine and take on their mutual enemies.

On 27 November, near Bononia (modern Bologna), another three-some, Rome’s ‘triumvirate’, was set up, once again for ‘settling the Republic’. Antony and the new ‘Caesar’ included the elderly Lepidus as a noble sleeping partner, and agreed that their powers were to run for five years. Thereafter, they would in principle be renewable.

These powers have been understood by some modern theorists as the legal powers of a consul, active in Rome and Italy, combined with the legal powers of an ex-consul in the provinces. Despite their approval by a ‘law’, they cannot be analysed so formally. The Senate and the people’s assemblies would still meet during the new arrangement; elections went on being held at Rome for various magistracies, but henceforward the three triumvirs could make or cancel laws, give personal judgements without appeal and appoint the governors of all the provinces and the consuls for the coming years. They promptly proved their paralegal, emergencystatus by listing, or ‘proscribing’, a large number of senators and Roman knights (probably 300 and 2,000 respectively) to be put to death. Sulla had set the precedent in this, but the triumvirs revived it to protect their hold on Italy while they marched eastwards against the Liberators. This dreadful terror became the subject, understandably, of many books long after the event. Some of them, perhaps, ‘went a long waytowards compensating for the absence of prose fiction among the Romans’,18 but there was also a real loss of life and property in Italian towns. It was not a class war, of poor against rich, but it did give old hatreds and new ambitions a free rein in the upper classes. In that sense, it was a revolution; in another, it contributed to a revolution because the winners, importantly, would not exactly be people devoted to the cause of Rome’s old constitution. They had not taken power for any new system or ideology, but when one came about they would support it, so as to hang on to their gains.

Many of those named as ‘proscribed’ on the triumvirs’ lists fled to a fourth, remarkable figurehead, outside the ‘gang of three’: Sextus Pompeius, the son, no less, of the great Pompey. The history of the next seven years is too often written around the dominant triumvirs only, Antony and Octavian. But this fourth man was extremely important, and we should not dismiss him as a ‘pirate’ adventurer. Like Octavian, he was the young son of a great man too. Like Octavian, he would soon present himself as the son of a god. In Spain in 45 BC he had survived his brother’s death and Julius Caesar’s victories, and by mid-44 he was negotiating for recognition. He raised a fleet on the coast of Spain and by late April 43 he had even been recognized ‘as Prefect of the Fleet and the Coastline by decree of the Senate’.19 He moved over to Sicily, increased his naval strength and became a refuge for Italian landowners and run aways laves, the victims of the paralegal proscriptions. Sicily and Sardinia were parts of Octavian’s ‘territory’, but Sextus soon held them both. He was now a major alternative to the new young ‘Caesar’, while controlling a bigger navy than any of the triumvirs. Remarkably, the contest of Pompey against Caesar was set up for a replay in this war between their sons. In Rome, Antony was occupying the great Pompey’s house, but the ‘pious’ Sextus rightly wanted it back.

First, the proscriptions ran their course. Among the names proscribed, inevitably, was Cicero’s. Even if Octavian was well disposed to him, he had said and provoked too many insults against Antony. In March 43 he had pilloried a blunt letter from Antony line by line in a scornful Philippic, the thirteenth, which is thus our best verbal memorial of Antony himself. Ever witty, Cicero was also said to have remarked that the ‘young little fellow’, Octavian his ‘ally’, ‘must be given praises, honours – and then, the push’.20The story became known to Octavian.

Human to the end, Cicero was torn between flight and one last visit to Rome. Fifteen miles away from the city, at a seaside house of his own, troops caught up with him. They were directed into the grounds byone of his brother’s freedmen, a man whom Cicero had once taught and educated in fine literature. Dishevelled, but calm, Cicero looked out from his litter and was killed by a centurion. His head and his right hand (perhaps both hands) were hacked off and taken up to Antony in Rome. There, they were put in the lap of Fulvia, the wife of Cicero’s two great enemies, first Clodius, and then Antony. She pulled the tongue out of the skull, we are told, and stabbed it with a pin taken from her hair.21 After a woman’s revenge, the head and hands were nailed as trophies onto the Rostrum in the Forum, the very platform from which Cicero had spoken so memorably. They are terrible symbols of the loss of ‘liberty’.

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