It was in the evening that eighteen-year-old Octavius, studying at Apollonia in Epirus, received the news from Italy that his great-uncle had been slain in the Senate House at Rome. That first message he received was brief, and failed to tell him how Caesar had been killed, or by whom, or why. He was simply informed that Caesar had been killed by those who were closest to him.¹
Very shortly after, centurions serving with the six legions encamped in Macedonia, north of Epirus, came riding into Apollonia. These legion officers, who had frequently visited Octavius over the past six months because of his family connection with Caesar, also had heard that the Dictator had fallen. They came to vow their allegiance to Octavius, and urged him to accept their services and those of their men, and to return to Macedonia with them for safety’s sake.
Two of Octavius’s friends were studying with him at Apollonia. One was nineteen-year-old Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a bright young man of obscure background. The other, Quintus Salvidienus Rufus, while a young member of the Equestrian Order, had no ancestors of note of whom he could boast. Octavius, Suetonius was to observe, chose his friends for their loyalty rather than their connections, and was in turn staunchly loyal to them. Both Agrippa and Salvidienus now strongly advised Octavius to accept the centurions’ offer.²
But Octavius preferred to wait for more details of what had taken place at Rome before he took any step that might rebound against him. “He felt fearful, and wondered whether the deed [Caesar’s murder] had the support of the whole Senate,” Appian would write, suggesting that Octavius was aware of Caesar’s broad underlying unpopularity with Rome’s leading men. Equally, Octavius worried “whether the ordinary people were pleased” with Caesar’s death.³ Likewise, Octavius seems to have been aware that Caesar had lost his popularity with the ordinary people. If it proved to be the case that both the Senate and the man in the street supported Caesar’s murder, Octavius knew that since he was a relative of Caesar, his own life could well be in danger.
The next communication came in a brief letter from Octavius’s mother, Atia, and stepfather, Lucius Marcius Philippus, at Rome. This told him no more about the assassination than he already knew, and failed to inform him that Caesar had made him his principal heir in his will; their letter seems to have been written prior to the contents of Caesar’s will being made public on March 19. In this letter, Octavius’s mother and stepfather counseled him to “choose the less dangerous course of behaving more like a private person” than a relative of Caesar, and urged him to “come quickly and circumspectly to them at Rome.”⁴
Accompanied by Agrippa and Salvidienus, Octavius immediately set off north, to hire a boat and cross the Strait of Otranto to Italy.⁵