At Rome, the population was launching into one of the most popular festivals of the year. Stretching back hundreds of years, the Ludi Plebeian, or “people’s games,” ran from November 4 to 17. With various festivities, including a street parade by the members of the Equestrian Order, the fourteen-day festival would culminate in three days of chariot racing, a sure way to divert the public mind from worries of war.

Cicero always avoided the metropolitan hustle and bustle of the holidays. Now, at his Puteoli villa on the coast, he was in a quandary. He had just received two letters from Octavian in one day, with both urgently proposing a meeting in Rome. Octavian, Cicero knew, had been in Campania for weeks recruiting retired legion veterans to his cause, basing himself at Capua.¹

Octavian had spent much time, and money, in veteran colonies such as Calatia and Casilinum, receiving an ecstatic reception from veterans settled at Cales and Teanum on the Via Latina before moving on into the Samnium region, winning the loyalty of thousands of former soldiers of the 7th and 8th legions—apparently including men recruited here by Antony to serve in his Praetorian cohorts only months before who had since gone home again.²

“Now he wants me to return to Rome,” Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus at the capital. “He says he wants to work through the Senate. I replied that the Senate could not meet before the Kalends [first] of January.”³ Under Roman law, when both consuls were absent from Rome the city praetor was authorized to convene sittings of the Senate. But Brutus was the current city praetor, and, of course, like the consuls Antony and Dolabella, he was away from Rome. With little likelihood that either Antony or Dolabella would soon return, Cicero gave the excuse that it was unlikely that the Senate would again be convened until the new consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, came into office on January 1, and for that reason he had no plans to return to Rome before then.

In fact, Cicero was stalling. He had not been impressed by Octavian’s sudden, if brief, renewed alliance with Antony, and was not altogether certain how to deal with the young man. “He presses, and I play for time. I don’t trust his age, and I don’t know what he’s after.” Cicero’s quandary was that he feared to go back to Rome yet dreaded not being there should something major occur without him being on the spot to counter it, or embrace it. “I ’m nervous of Antony’s power and don’t want to leave the coast,” he told Atticus. “But I’ m afraid of some star performance during my absence.”

Cicero told Atticus that he had also just heard from a mutual friend, Marcus Terrentius Varro, arguably then Rome’s greatest living scholar. Varro, although put in charge of Rome’s library by Caesar, was an unrepentant republican who had commanded Pompey’s legions in western Spain during the Civil War before surrendering to Caesar. Varro, now age seventy-two, had written to tell Cicero that he did not think much of Octavian’s plan to recruit veterans with whom to counter Antony’s legions. Like so many of the older senators, Varro was letting Octavian’s youth get in the way of his judgment of the young man’s ability.

Cicero had once felt the same way, but not any longer. “I take a different view. He has a strong force at his back and can have Brutus [Albinus]”—as an ally. “And he’s going to work quite openly, forming cohorts at Capua and paying out bounties. War is evidently coming any minute now.” But on which side would the fearful Cicero find himself?

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