XVII

MARCH 17, 44 B.C.

THE JOSTLE FOR CONTROL

Dawn was not far off, and most of the senators of Rome, apart from the members of the Liberator party camped on the Capitoline Mount, were hurrying through the city streets, heading for the Temple of Tellus. Brutus, Cassius, and their colleagues would not attend, as they did not trust Antony, fearing that in convening a sitting of the Senate he was setting a deadly ambush for them.

One of the hundreds of leading men making for the temple was the unpopular praetor Cinna, Caesar’s brother-in-law, who had spoken in favor of the assassins. He was spotted by a mixture of city residents and some of the ex-soldiers. Cursing him and throwing stones at him, they chased Cinna down the street. When the desperate Cinna took refuge in a house and barred the door, the mob gathered wood and piled it up at the house’s door. Cinna’s pursuers were on the point of setting the wood alight when Marcus Lepidus arrived on the scene with a party of soldiers, probably men from Tiber Island.¹

The appearance of troops quickly dispersed the mob, and a shaken Cinna was able to continue on his way. Lepidus, too, made his way to the temple, where the Senate was due to sit. Although there is no further reference to the body of soldiers who had been accompanying Lepidus, it is likely that he posted them around the Temple of Tellus, to provide Antony and himself with protection from the potential interference from the Liberators’ force of gladiators while the pair attended the Senate sitting, for Lepidus and Antony were just as nervous about their opponents’ intentions.

Inside the Temple of Tellus, the temporary Senate benches filled up, and with the sun climbing above the eastern horizon, Mark Antony, sitting in the president’s chair at the front of the chamber, called the Senate to order. The first speakers, current magistrates and former consuls, made it swiftly obvious that the vast majority of senators sympathized with Caesar’s assassins and were in favor of a return to the Republic. They sought to help the Liberators, proposing that they be invited to come down from the Capitol and take their seats in the Senate chamber; a resolution to this effect was passed by a great majority. “Antony made no attempt to block this resolution, ” said Appian, “knowing they would not come. And they did not.”² As the sitting continued, the nervous Liberators remained on the Capitoline Mount.

Senate motions were then proposed by some members granting honors to Brutus, Cassius, and their fellow assassins. Other speakers were not in favor of granting honors, because, they said, the Liberators did not want honors, for their actions had not been motivated by a quest for rewards; they proposed that the assassins be simply saluted as benefactors of Rome. Others opposed even this, and moved that the Senate should merely vote to spare the lives of all the men involved in the assassination. Others again, while openly aghast at the murder of Caesar, were prepared to pardon the murderers because they represented Rome’s greatest families. All through this, Mark Antony sat and listened without saying a word, gauging the strength of the political wind in one direction and another, sizing up who was in favor of what.³

One unidentified senator now declared that they must all vote in favor of one of two motions—“either they declared Caesar a tyrant or they granted the murderers immunity” from prosecution. With Caesar likely to be officially declared a tyrant, a host of speakers rushed to disassociate themselves from their past support of him, saying that they could not be held responsible for decrees of Caesar they had endorsed while he was alive, claiming they had been forced to do so because “they had come to fear for their own lives after the death of Pompey and the subsequent death of thousands of others.”

Here, Mark Antony saw his opportunity, “and decided to upset their arguments by playing on their own fears and their concerns for themselves.” For, as Antony well knew, like himself these men had been appointed to their existing or future posts by Caesar—consulships and the other magistracies of Rome, priesthoods, governorships of the provinces, and army commands, extending over the next five years. Antony called for silence. When he had it, he said, “Those who have asked for a vote on Caesar should be aware of this—if he held office legally and was our elected leader, all his acts and decisions remain valid. But if our decision is that he was an upstart who ruled by force, his body is cast out unburied beyond the borders of his country and all his acts are invalidated.”

Of course, Caesar had never been elected to rule over the Romans, and had indeed seized and maintained power by force, in which case his reign had been illegal, and he could validly have now been declared a tyrant under Roman law. But here was Antony’s street cunning at work, for if Caesar were adjudged a tyrant, then all his appointments were, by definition, illegal. Antony now informed his fellow senators that if they truly felt that Caesar’s rule was illegal and tyrannical then they must all willingly resign their existing or future appointments made by this tyrant Caesar. When they all indicated they were willing to do this, said Antony, he would put the question of whether Caesar was a tyrant to a vote.

This brought a clamorous response. Many senators immediately leaped to their feet, loudly protesting that they should not have to submit themselves to elections, preferring instead to hold on to the appointments they already had. Some of these men had received their appointments from Caesar in contravention of the laws that set minimum ages for various posts. Publius Dolabella was chief among these—Caesar had made Dolabella a consul to succeed him even though Dolabella was now only twenty-five. Under republicen Roman law, a man had to be forty-two years of age before he could be a consul, and even then the law required him to be elected, not appointed.

According to both Appian and Dio, in the Forum on the afternoon of the Ides of March, Dolabella had spoken in favor of Caesar’s murder. Appian said that Dolabella had even claimed to have previously known about the plot, declaring that while he had not actually plunged a dagger into Caesar, he would have done so had he been afforded the opportunity. Appian added that some of those in the Forum that day would later assert that Dolabella had gone on to propose that forthwith the Ides of March be celebrated as Rome’s birthday, in recognition of the fact that the Republic had been reborn this day of Caesar’s murder.

Now, at the Temple of Tellus sitting of the Senate, said Appian, Dolabella changed his tune. Desperate to hold on to the consulship that Caesar had promised him, young Dolabella had seized Caesar’s abandoned fasces and insignia of office. Now he claimed that with Caesar dead, his appointment had automatically come into effect. Antony did not speak against Dolabella’s assumption of consular office—he or Lepidus may have even counseled it, to turn Dolabella out of the Liberators’ corner. There being no precedent for this, many senators were unsure whether Dolabella was now legally a consul.

To keep his consulship, Dolabella rose and spoke against those who were in favor of voting for the murderers and against Caesar. His adversaries countered that they were prepared to surrender their magistracies, as they were confident that, in elections, the public would restore their posts to them. The praetors among them even made a show of removing their insignia of office and laying it aside. Dolabella, of course, had no such hope of receiving his consulship through a popular vote, for under the old law the twenty-five-year-old was not entitled to run in a consular election for another seventeen years.

While this rancorous debate was continuing, with Dolabella holding the floor and, in Antony’s view, entitled to preside as his co-consul, Antony and Lepidus slipped from the chamber in response to messages sent from outside. A vast, noisy crowd had gathered around the temple, and when the consul and former Master of Equestrians were seen on the steps, people shouted questions at them. Antony, wearing his senatorial toga, raised his right hand for quiet, and eventually the shouting died away. As silence reigned, and Antony was about to speak, someone in the crowd yelled, “Be careful they don’t do it to you!”¹ Clearly, he was referring to the murder of Caesar.

In answer to this, Antony undid a little of his tunic, to reveal to the crowd that beneath it he was wearing a protective breastplate. This promoted a new wave of shouting, with some members of the crowd calling to him that he should take revenge for Caesar’s murder. These sentiments were countered, and outnumbered, by other voices, which called for the preservation of peace.¹¹

Antony, identifying the members of this peace party in the crowd, called back to them, “This is what we are debating, how to have peace and make it last. For it is difficult to find a guarantee of it now, when hundreds of vows and solemn curses were useless even to Caesar.” Turning to those who had called for vengeance, he commended them for their loyalty to Caesar and said that he would have lined up with them had he not been the sole remaining consul and duty-bound to take the expedient course. “For that is what those men inside urge on us.”¹²

Members of the crowd favoring revenge then called on Lepidus to share his views, but others cried that he should come down to the Forum, where everyone could hear him. “Thinking that the populace was already swinging his way,” Lepidus set off for the Forum, followed by the crowd, while Antony rejoined the Senate sitting. Once Lepidus reached the Forum and mounted the Rostra, “he groaned and wept in full view for a long time” to make a show of his grief at Caesar’s murder. Then he began to speak, telling the by now vast crowd spread around the Rostra that the last time he stood on this very spot it had been the morning of the Ides of March, with Caesar. Yet here he was now, forced to ask the people what they wanted him to do about Caesar’s murder.¹³

“ Avenge Caesar!” a number of people called from the crowd.

“ Peace for the city!” others cried.

“Of course,” Lepidus replied to the latter. “But what kind of peace do you mean? What oaths can make it safe? We all took the traditional oaths to Caesar, and we trampled them underfoot.”¹

When those seeking vengeance persisted, Lepidus responded that the Senate was at that very moment debating the question of what action was to be taken, but that the majority were not for vengeance, for the sake of all who survived Caesar. Someone urged him to forget the Senate and personally keep his vow to avenge Caesar. That was his inclination, he said in answer, but acting alone would achieve nothing. Other members of the crowd now praised him for his restraint, and, perhaps at Lepidus’s instigation, called for him to be elected pontifex maximus in Caesar’s place. Lepidus, clearly in favor of the idea, asked them to kindly remember that proposition later, if they still thought he deserved the post. With many members of the crowd urging him to support peace, he departed the Rostra and hurried back to the Senate sitting.¹

When Lepidus resumed his seat in the Senate, Dolabella was still speaking, having delivered a long, tiresome speech about why he should now hold the consulate that Caesar had intended for him. In Appian’s opinion, Dolabella had been “holding forth in a disgraceful way about his office.”¹

Antony, said Appian, had watched Dolabella with amusement, for the pair had until now been bitterly at odds. When Antony had tired of the speech-making, and knowing that the crowd outside had quieted and could not be expected to influence affairs any further, he called for silence.¹ Antony was later to say, “I considered that we Caesarians could safely survive only if Caesar were not judged a tyrant. Now our enemies and the Senate itself were gripped by a similar fear, that if Caesar were not a tyrant, then they would be guilty of murder.”¹

Once the Senate had come to order, Antony rose to his feet. Looking around the worried faces on the packed benches, he said, “Gentlemen, my equals in rank, I expressed no view while you were debating the fate of our citizens who have broken the law.” Now he inserted his opinions into the debate, speaking with “unusual deep intensity and urgency.” If those who held appointments made by Caesar resigned them, he said, they would be acknowledging that they had obtained them undeservedly. And if they gave up what Caesar had given them as undeserved, so too must every city in Rome’s empire surrender honors and rights bestowed by Caesar. They would also have to deprive the retired soldiers of the land they had been given or expected to be given by Caesar.¹

As for declaring Caesar a tyrant, Antony said, “Do you think that the men who served in Caesar’s army will stand and watch while his body is dragged in the dust and broken and thrown aside unburied? For these are the penalties prescribed for tyrants by the law.” He warned his fellow senators to have nothing to do with such proceedings. “I propose that we ratify all Caesar’s acts and projects.” At the same time, he said, they should vote to spare the murderers by granting a general amnesty to all involved in Caesar’s assassination, provided that their friends and family in the Senate agreed to acknowledge that it was a favor to them.²

Antony would later explain that facing violent argument in the Senate from those who wished to see Caesar declared a tyrant and his assassins granted honors, “I therefore gave way to them when the amnesty was proposed in place of the honors, so that I could obtain the things I wanted in exchange.”²¹

The amnesty was agreed by a large majority, with the pro-Liberator senators inserting “in the public interest” preceding the wording of the enabling resolution where it referred to recognizing all of Caesar’s acts. At the forceful requests of the leaders of the ex-soldiers in the city, another motion was then passed validating all the previous land grants to Caesar’s former soldiers, and a third resolution did the same for all proposed land grants to ex-soldiers. Antony then adjourned the momentous sitting.

Most of the senators were in no hurry to leave the House, preferring to wait until the crowd outside dispersed, for there was the fear that those members of the public who had called for vengeance would not be happy that the Senate had pardoned Caesar’s assassins, and would attack them for it. The members stood in the temple talking in groups, with one particularly large group forming around Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Caesar’s father-in-law. A consul in 58 B.C. and a neutral during the Civil War, Piso was by law entrusted with Caesar’s will and had charge of his funeral arrangements. Pro-Liberator senators now urged Piso not to make the contents of Caesar’s will public or give Caesar’s body a public burial, in case these things incited a fresh public disturbance. When Piso would not agree to this, some of the senators around him threatened to launch legal action against him for defrauding the Roman public of a large sum of money when he was in office.

Piso, not surprisingly, was affronted, and loudly called to Mark Antony to reconvene the sitting. “They are stopping me from burying the pontifex maximus,” he cried, and “threatening me if I reveal the contents of the will.” Piso said that the decision regarding a funeral was Antony’s as consul, “but in the case of the will, it is mine.”²²

This sponsored an angry shouting match across the chamber between those who did not wish to see Caesar’s will made public and those who did. Among the latter, said Appian, were members who had hopes of being beneficiaries of the will. Antony reconvened the sitting as Piso had demanded, and once the senators had resumed their seats and order had been restored, a motion was put, and passed by a majority vote, that the contents of Caesar’s will be made public, and that Caesar be the recipient of a state funeral. With the passing of this resolution, the Senate again rose, this time for the last time that day.

A proclamation from Antony now called a meeting of the Comitia next day, to endorse the Senate’s resolutions.

Word of all that had taken place in the Senate that morning was quickly conveyed to Brutus, Cassius, and the others on the Capitol. Brutus and Cassius immediately issued a proclamation calling a public meeting on the Capitoline Mount, and a large crowd duly assembled there.

Brutus addressed them. Without referring specifically to the debate and resolutions in the Senate that morning, he put a case that he and his colleagues could not be condemned for breaking their oaths to safeguard Caesar, for Caesar, he said, had become a despot. Brutus reminded his listeners that even Sulla the Dictator had, after destroying his political enemies, returned the Roman people’s democratic rights and stepped down. Caesar, on the other hand, had been about to embark on a new military campaign, having deprived the Roman people of democratic elections for the next five years. He reminded the crowd of how, ignoring the law that protected them, Caesar had removed and banished the tribunes Marullus and Flavus.

Brutus then asked those members of his audience who were ex-soldiers and had received or expected to receive land grants from Caesar to identify themselves. Many men in front of him raised their hands. Brutus praised them, and said they were entitled to their land. But, he said, the process implemented by Caesar’s agents, who had ousted thousands of farmers from their land to redistribute it to Caesar’s ex-soldiers, was unjust and gave rise to uncertain title. Brutus and his associates would correct that act of Caesarian despotism, he said, by paying dispossessed farmers for their land from the public purse, “so that you may own your allotments not merely with good title but also without incurring hostility.”²³

This went down well, and the crowd dispersed feeling “full of admiration” for Brutus and his companions, “because they seemed to be undaunted and very much on the people’s side.”² That night, the Liberators remained encamped on the Capitoline Mount with their gladiator guard. Progress had been made; the Liberators had won the Senate amnesty for their deed, and the public, most importantly Caesar’s ex-soldiers, seemed to be softening their attitude toward the murder of the Dictator. But the people remained divided.

Another uneasy night passed in the Eternal City.

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