As young Octavian was presiding over his great-uncle’s games at Rome, a bright-tailed comet was seen streaking across the northern sky about an hour before sunset, for seven days in succession. “This was held to be Caesar’s soul elevated to heaven,” saidSuetonius.¹ Having been considered a god on Earth during his lifetime, many interpreted the comet as a sign that Caesar had joined the gods in the heavens.²
With the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris stoking nostalgic feelings about Caesar among the populace, and with both Octavian and Antony claiming they intended punishing his murderers, despite that pair’s own duel for the affections of the Roman people, Cicero had put into motion his plan to emulate Brutus and Cassius and leave Italy. Athens in Greece was to be his destination. He knew that Brutus and Cassius also would be making for Athens. And his son Marcus was at the Greek capital, studying.
To reach the East at this time of year, when the Tyrrhenian Sea off the western coast of Italy was prone to northerly gales, the well-heeled Roman would normally travel overland down to Brundisium, then Italy’s principal port, on the southeastern tip of the boot of Italy, and sail from there. But that route passed through or near many military colonies, and Antony’s legions were at Brundisium. By this time the ex-soldiers living in the colonies were being stirred up by both Antony and Octavian. Being closely associated with the Liberators, and having failed to hide his enmity for Antony, Cicero decided from the outset that he should make his way by sea, for safety’s sake.
His Tyrrhenian Sea journey, in small boats, had taken him, always within sight of the coast, to Pompeii and Elea, then Vibo, and now to Regium, on Italy’s southwestern shore, where he landed on July 28. Typically for him, Cicero had occupied his time on these voyages by writing a book inspired by Aristotle’s Topics.
Three days before, at Vibo, Cicero had written to Atticus, who would be his eyes and ears at Rome, asking him to handle his business affairs in Italy while he was away.
In this letter, he pondered, “What am I running away from? Danger? At present, unless I am mistaken, there is none.” He had plans to return, or so he told Atticus. “You say that my going abroad is enthusiastically approved, but on the understanding that I return before the Kalends of January”—January 1, when the new consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, were due to take office—“which I shall certainly make every effort to do. I would rather be frightened at home than secure in your Athens.”³
Before long, Cicero would resume his journey, on August 6 taking passage for Greece on a cargo ship sailing from Leucopetra, modern-day Tarentine, a port on the heel of Italy.