XXXI

MAY 31, 44 B.C.

REFORMING THE PRAETORIAN COHORTS

To raise money, Octavian had been selling Caesar’s property, as well as his own property inherited from his father, Gaius Octavius, and even the property of his mother and stepfather, for whatever price he could get. His cousins Pedius and Pinarius also gave him their one-third share of the inheritance from Caesar’s estate. Much of the money raised by Octavian in this way he gave to the officials of Rome’s voting tribes, for distribution among male citizens at Rome according to the terms of Caesar’s will, which provided for a largesse of three hundred sesterces to every citizen at Rome.

Octavian’s apparent generosity was rightly perceived by Mark Antony as a strategy to win public favor at the expense of Antony’s popularity. Antony had just returned to Rome after spending four to five weeks visiting the veteran colonies in central Italy. He had not returned alone. The Senate had given him approval to raise a military force to maintain law and order at Rome, and during his travels he had enrolled as many as six thousand former legionaries, creating a number of cohorts, each a thousand men strong. Antony called them the Praetorian Cohorts. After the foundation of the Republic in 509 B.C., the praetors of Rome had raised cohorts to police Rome, and these had later come under the control of the consuls. The Praetorian Cohorts, erroneously called by later historians the Praetorian Guard, had fallen into abeyance by early in the first century B.C., but Antony, as a consul, was technically within his rights to reestablish them.

Appian, who put the number of six thousand on Antony’s Praetorians, claimed all were former centurions, but that number would represent the centurions from one hundred legions, an impossible number when Caesar’s army had, at its height, numbered little more than forty legions. Nonetheless, these were all experienced, hardened soldiers. Whatever the number of men involved, the Senate considered it too many. When authorizing Antony to raise this force, the Senate had made the mistake of failing to put a limit on the number of men he could recruit. Senators now called on Antony to reduce his force, which he was now using as his personal bodyguard. He undertook to do so—but when the security situation at Rome permitted.

Given renewed confidence by the Praetorian Cohorts at his back, Antony encouraged opposition to Octavian, and when some landholders brought suit against Octavian for selling land that had been seized by Caesar after they had been exiled or fled the country, putting the title in dispute, both Antony and Dolabella found in favor of the complainants and against Octavian, even though in doing so they also were finding against the acts of Caesar.

Every day, Octavian would walk through the city “accompanied by a crowd like a bodyguard,” and like a modern politician he would solicit public support in the street. He urged people to overlook the “disgraceful treatment” he was receiving at the hands of the consuls but instead “to defend Caesar, their commander and benefactor, against the dishonor being inflicted by Antony.”¹

At every opportunity, Octavian would climb up on temple steps or the plinth of a statue to address the public. Typically, in one of his speeches, the eighteen-year-old said, at the top of his voice, “Don’t be angry with Caesar on my account, Antony. Do not insult the man who has turned out to be your benefactor.” He said that Antony could heap as much indignity on him, Octavian, as he liked, but he should stop plundering Caesar’s property. “In my poverty,” Octavian said dramatically, “I shall be content with my father’s [Caesar’s] glory, if it lasts, and the legacy to the people, if you let it be paid.”²

Octavian was able to stoke so much feeling against Antony that the military tribunes commanding the new Praetorian Cohorts asked Antony to soften his attitude toward Octavian. These young tribunes, all members of the Equestrian Order, reminded Antony that they, like him, had loyally served under Caesar, and they did not think it right that Antony should treat Caesar’s heir and adopted son so shabbily. They asked him to “moderate his arrogance,” both for their sakes and his. Antony, although he complained that Octavian was “most painfully conceited despite being so young, and showed no deference to his elders,” feigned a change of heart, and agreed to moderate his behavior if Octavian did the same.³

Armed with this concession, and with the last of Antony’s Praetorian recruits due to report to him at Rome on June 1, the officers brokered a meeting between the pair. With the Praetorian officers guaranteeing his safety, Octavian came to Antony’s mansion in the Carinae. After each criticized the other in front of the officers, they buried the hatchet, shook hands, and “accepted each other as friends.” It was a reconciliation with the capacity to totally reshape Roman politics.

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