LVII

DECEMBER 7, 43 B.C.

KILLING CICERO

Marcus Cicero and his brother Quintus were at a villa at Tuscullum when news of the proscriptions reached them. The shock to Cicero must have been immense. From the East, the latest news of the Liberators was all good. In Syria, Cassius had defeated Dolabella, whose own bodyguard had decapitated him after his defeat. Cassius had taken the island of Rhodes by storm when it resisted him, and had done the same to cities in Syria, and in Judea, where “he reduced four cities into a state of slavery” after the Jewish authorities had refused to pay taxes he levied.¹ Cassius and Brutus now controlled the Roman East in the name of the Republic. Yet here, in Italy, the enemies of the Republic were running riot.

The first proscribed man to die was Salvius, tribune of the plebs. Although he had initially prevented the Senate from naming Antony an enemy of the state, Salvius had later sided with Cicero against Antony. Salvius was dining with friends when legionaries stormed in. As the horrified dinner guests were made to watch, a centurion grabbed Salvius’s hair, pulled him full-length across the dining table, and hacked off his head.

Cicero’s younger brother Quintus had served Caesar as a faithful but inept army commander during the Gallic War, but his blood connection with his elder brother was enough to now put a price on his head. Once they learned of the death list, the brothers immediately set off in their litters for Astura, on the coast, planning to acquire a boat and sail to Macedonia to join Brutus. Halfway there, Quintus decided to return home to secure his valuables. The pair embraced; then Marcus continued on while Quintus turned back. On reaching his home, one of Quintus’s servants informed on him. Caught by searching troops, Quintus was beheaded on the spot, together with his young son.

Marcus Cicero reached Astura and set sail, but when the boat put into shore because of bad weather he decided to return to Rome, telling himself that Octavian, whom he had supported so strongly, would save him. A dozen miles into this journey he changed his mind; from Macedonia, Brutus had repeatedly written to warn him not to trust Octavian, and now Cicero’s doubts prevailed. He returned to the coast and took a boat to Capitae. From there he set off down the coast in a litter, accompanied by a large band of retainers. But an execution squad led by a military tribune, Gaius Popillius Laenas, was in the vicinity, and, tipped off by a former slave of Cicero’s brother, the soldiers set off in pursuit of Cicero’s party.

The troops intercepted Cicero’s litter as it emerged from a shady walk near the sea. Cicero ordered his bearers to set his litter down. He recognized the tribune, having some years before successfully defended Laenas in court when he was accused of his father’s murder. The tribune may have hesitated, but a centurion named Herennius did not, pulling Cicero’s head toward the edge of the litter and raising his sword. “It took three blows and some sawing through” to sever the famous man’s head. Cicero’s hands also were chopped off—the hands that had written the Philippics in condemnation of Antony.² Eleven months earlier, Cicero had said, “If I am called on to lay down my life, I think I shall have accounted for myself not without glory.”³

“When Cicero was beheaded, the voice of the people was severed,” Velleius was to lament. The tribune Laenas conveyed Cicero’s head and hands to Antony, who displayed them on the Rostra at Rome for the world to see. Antony was so pleased with Cicero’s death that he multiplied the reward money received by Laenas ten times, to 250,000 sesterces. Only Brutus and Cassius, controlling the East, remained to carry the republican standard.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!