Saturday, 30 January 2016

After the assassination

Mark Antony: Caesar's co-consul.
 Would he also be his heir?

Antony: the heir of Caesar?

The Liberators, as they called themselves, believed they had restored the Republic; later, they had coins struck with daggers and the cap of liberty. But they made a fundamental mistake, naively assuming that once Caesar was removed the Republican government would automatically regain full vigour. As Cicero was to point out, they left ‘a fine banquet’ unfinished.

The immediate reaction to the assassination was panic. The Senators fled from the scene. One of those who escaped was Mark Antony, Caesar’s co-consul and his trusted friend. Cassius had wanted him to be assassinated along with Caesar, but Brutus had successfully argued that his life should be spared. However, Antony did not know this. In the general alarm following the murder, he put off his senator’s toga, disguised himself in plebeian dress and escaped.

Following the assassination, the conspirators went up to the Capitoline Hill, and with their hands smeared with blood and brandishing their naked daggers, they called on the citizens to assert their liberty. But their speech met with a mixed reception, and when they did not receive popular support, they retreated in confusion into the Capitol where they were joined by Cicero.

The key actor in the drama of the next few weeks was Antony. As head of state, it was up to him to make the first moves. A popular soldier and an extravagant and boisterous character he had had a dissipated youth; the Greek historian and biographer Plutarch was to accuse him of ‘drinking bouts, love affairs, and reckless spending’. But he also commended the ‘noble dignity’ of his appearance’. It was his skilled handling of the crisis that now dictated the pattern of events. He quickly formed an alliance with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. He was an insignificant character, but he was governor of Gallia Narbonensis and had troops outside Rome.  While Lepidus was bringing his troops to the capital, Antony secured Caesar’s letters and papers from Calpurnia.  He was thus able to negotiate with the conspirators from strength. 

On Cicero’s proposal, the Senate met and a compromise was worked out between the Caesarians and the Republicans. Caesar’s murderers were to receive an amnesty, while Caesar’s will and acts were to be respected and his funeral was to be celebrated. Brutus and Cassius dined on the Capitol with Antony and Lepidus.

'Friends, Romans, countrymen'

When Caesar’s will was opened on 20 March, Antony learned to his dismay that Caesar’s heir was his sickly nineteen-year-old great-nephew rather than himself.  The will also revealed that Caesar had left his fine gardens beyond the Tiber to the Roman people and had bequeathed 300 sesterces to every Roman citizen. This news was followed by Caesar’s funeral at which, against Cassius’ advice, Brutus allowed Antony to deliver the customary oration. This was a fatal blunder as Antony used the occasion to stir up the mob against the Republicans, possibly with the help of actors, though we do know know his exact words (allowing Shakespeare to compose a speech for him!).  Less than a month after the murder, Brutus and Cassius were forced to flee from Rome, leaving Antony in control. He promptly secured for Lepidus Caesar’s old office of pontifex maximus, and appeased the Senate by proposing the permanent abolition of the dictatorship. He then carried an agrarian bill to provide land in Italy for Caesar’s veterans. By these steps he had put himself in control of Rome, and caused Cicero to confide that ‘at times one could almost wish Caesar back’.

Octavian: the young pretender

Shortly before the Republicans left Rome, events took a new turn when Caesar’s great-nephew landed at Brundisium (modern Brindisi) in the far south-east of Italy. Gaius Octavius was born 24 September 63 BC, the year of Cicero’s consulship. By his marriage to Caesar’s niece Atia, his father, the elder Octavius, became close to the heart of politics, and it was probably only his premature death in 58 that stopped him from standing for the consulship.

Caesar, who had no legitimate son of his own (according to Roman law Caesarian was illegitimate because his mother was not a Roman citizen), showed great interest in Octavius. In his will, drawn up in September 45 BC he had named him as his son and heir, a common practice in Roman families with no male heirs of their own. As a result Octavius became known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus; for the sake of convenience, historians call him Octavian. However, he did not learn about his adoption until Caesar’s will was made public.

Octavian was 18 when he heard the news of Caesar’s murder. He was then in Illyricum, getting military training for the Parthian war. As soon as the news reached him, he made the bold decision to cross to Italy to cultivate Caesar’s friends. He arrived in Rome in April 44, where he was rebuffed by Antony, who was bitter at the provisions of Caesar’s will. His most important ally was Cicero, an old man but one who commanded enormous prestige and influence, who saw him as a buffer against Antony’s ambitions.  Octavian had made a point of visiting him in his house in Naples on his journey to Rome. The historian Robin Lane Fox notes
‘It is one of history’s great meetings, the senior statesman so often wrong, and the most dangerous eighteen-year-old in the world.’ 
Cicero persuaded the Senate to support the ‘divine youth’. For Octavian, this was very welcome attention – under normal circumstances he would have had to wait more than twenty years before he would be able to stand for the consulship. But Cicero was also uneasy because Octavian was already calling himself ‘Caesar’. 
In late July 44 Brutus and Cassius left Italy for Greece in order to build up an army. In September Cicero composed the first of his Philippics against Antony, leaving no part of his public or private life untouched. On 20 December, when Antony was out of Rome, he denounced him before the Senate.

The Second Triumvirate

At the end of the year, Antony’s consulship had expired and he went north to take control of Cisalpine Gaul. (It was the normal procedure for the Senate to give the governorship of a province of his choice to a retiring consul.)  However (spurred on by Cicero), the outgoing governor, the conspirator Decimus Brutus, refused to quit, and Antony besieged him in the town of Mutina (Modena). The Senate appointed an army to go north to relieve Brutus, even though Antony was acting legally, and appointed Octavian one of the commanders, even though he had not gone through the required cursus honorum 

When Antony was defeated in April, the Senate commanded Octavian to hand over his army to Decimus Brutus. He refused, saying he would not cooperate with his father’s murderers. Instead he marched his troops on Rome (echoes of Sulla and Caesar!), demanded and won the consulship (though he was well under the legal age), then returned north. He met with Antony and Lepidus on a small island in the middle of a river near modern Bologna and on 27 November 43 BC the three men formed a triumvirate. Unlike the earlier triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar and Crassus, this was formally agreed upon and given the legal status to act as the government of Rome and the Empire. They had been invested with dictatorial authority.

Coin struck in 41 BC to commemorate the triumvirate. Where is Lepidus?