At Arles in France, the retirees of the 6th Legion were still coming to terms with civilian life after twenty years in the military when, late in March, the stunning news reached the town that on the Ides of March Julius Caesar had been murdered in the Theater of Pompey at Rome. The veterans of the 6th heard how Caesar had received twenty-three stab wounds. How Brutus had been wounded in the hand in the frantic flurry of strikes at the seated dictator. How, in the panic that swept the city, Antony had disappeared, only to be located later inside his barricaded house. How the conspirators had marched to the Capitoline Mount escorted by Albinus’s gladiators, and there from the temple steps Brutus had made a speech in support of the assassination, a speech that had been elegant but that lacked passion or power. How Marcus Lepidus had led the 7th Legion from Tiber Island to the Theater of Pompey, before the legion decided that with Caesar dead, Lepidus no longer had the authority to command them, and they’d returned to the island.
A story would have soon reached Arles, a story later related by Suetonius, about an event in Campania that involved legion veterans and that would have intrigued the highly superstitious retired legionaries of the 6th. Back in January, a group of veterans who had been settled near Capua, the Roman Casilinum, in Campania, south of Rome, had been out looking for stone with which to build houses on their newly allotted farmland. These were men from either or both the 7th and 10th Legions, Spaniards like the veterans of the 6th, men who had fought against the 6th at Pharsalus and with them at Munda.
With the bonuses and booty they’d gathered over their years in military service, these veterans could have won many a maiden’s heart by buying all the expensive perfumes on prosperous Capua’s Via Seplasia, a street renowned for its perfume shops—and still had plenty of change. But, having come by their money through years of blood, sweat, and toil, they were not about to pay for anything they didn’t have to. So when they set about building their farmhouses, avoiding the local quarry operators, they’d gone looking for ancient stone tombs they’d heard were in the area, in search of free stone.
Finding the tombs in question, irreverently and enthusiastically they’d attacked them with sledgehammers and crowbars as if they were enemy fortifications, breaking them up and carting away the stones for their farmhouses. Breaking into one tomb, their eyes had lit up when they’d discovered a large hoard of ancient vases, which they’d also taken away, to sell. The story went that one of these looted tombs proved to be that of Capys, the Greek who had founded the town of Capua centuries before, and in it the scavenging veterans found a bronze tablet with an inscription in Greek: “Disturb the bones of Capys, and a man of Trojan stock will be murdered by his kindred and later avenged at great cost to Italy.”
In the wake of Caesar’s assassination, this was taken to be an omen for the death of Caesar, who, like many noble Romans, was considered to have descended from Trojan soldiers who had fled to Italy after the fall of Troy. According to Suetonius, this tale was recorded by Lucius Cornelius Balbus, Caesar’s former staff officer who published Caesar’s memoirs. At the time of Caesar’s murder, Balbus was serving in western Spain as quaestor to Asinius Pollio, who Caesar had made a major general and governor of Baetica after the Battle of Munda. While in Spain, Balbus may well have heard this story of the inscription in the tomb, from Spanish relatives of the Spanish colonists of Capua, who in turn had heard it via letters from their kin the veterans.
Through the last days of March and into April news of rapidly changing events at Rome would have reached Arles daily. The agitated men of the 6th heard how Antony and Lepidus had made a deal with Brutus and Cassius, after which the Senate had voted to pardon all conspirators. How Antony had convinced Brutus, as City Praetor, to permit Caesar’s funeral to take place inside the city—cremations and burials were normally only permitted outside the city walls—and how Antony had used his funeral oration for Caesar to turn the population against the conspirators. The ex-soldiers also would have been interested to learn that Antony also had recalled six thousand retired veterans who were living near Rome, putting them in the reformed Praetorian Guard, an ancient corps that had fallen into disuse over recent decades, and was using the Praetorians as his private protection force.
All this would have generated considerable unrest among the veterans at Arles. Their legion had been Caesar’s elite unit through the last key phases of the civil war, and he had recognized them and honored them accordingly. They would have wanted to wreak vengeance against Brutus and Cassius and their leader’s other assassins, ridiculing the conspirators’ claim that they were the Liberators of Rome. Veterans of the 6th such as Publius Sertorius and Lucius Acilius would have taken swords and shields down from the walls of their homes, and brought out the whetstone to sharpen blades. The terms of their military discharge required them to be available to serve a total of another four years in emergencies, and this, to them, was definitely an emergency. The 6th Legion veterans would have met to dictate messages to Consul Antony and sent pledges to him that they were ready to re-form behind their standards and march against Caesar’s murderers as soon as they received the order.
Word would have come back from Antony that he wanted the veterans of the 6th to be ready for active service by conducting regular arms drills, and their military equipment was to be inspected monthly by their colony’s senior officials—instructions that Antony delivered personally to veterans settled closer to Rome during visits to their colonies during this period.
In the June twilight, with tears running down her cheeks and with her son Bibulus at her side holding her hand, Porcia watched the cargo vessel slowly draw level with Cape Palinuro, heading south into the Tyrrhenian Sea off Italy’s western coast, until its stern light was all that was visible. And then that, too, was gone, as the ship slipped beyond the point and disappeared into the growing darkness.
On board the vessel were Porcia’s husband, Brutus, and her brother Cassius, together with their most loyal friends and servants. It had been a wretched farewell. Porcia had wanted to go with Brutus, to share his fortunes as she had ever since they’d left Rome within days of the Ides of March. But Brutus feared that what lay ahead for Cassius and himself was not something he could subject his wife and stepson to, and once they’d reached the seaside village of Velia, near modern Elea, south of Salerno, he’d instructed her to travel back to their house at Rome and wait for him to return as the savior of the Republic.
This flight from Italy by the two principal Liberators, as history would come to know them, had been sparked by Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar. Whipped up into a rage against Caesar’s murderers by Antony, the crowd in the Forum had stripped wooden furniture from nearby buildings and from the front of curbside stores lining the Forum, piled it high, and cremated Caesar’s body right there, in the Forum, ignoring Rome’s laws and conventions.
Then, with burning brands in their hands, members of the throng had run to the houses of Cassius and Brutus and tried to set them alight. The houses’ servants had been able to keep the mob out, but Cassius and Brutus had realized that their lives and those of their families were now at risk. They’d quickly gathered up family and staff and left the capital, going to a seaside villa on the West Coast at Anzio, the Roman town of Antium.
This was an outcome that Mark Antony would have been hoping for. It would have been preferable if Brutus and Cassius had been killed by the mob, but to have them driven out of the capital suited his purposes well enough. Now he could do as he pleased in Rome. Antony subsequently made his move on power through April and May, issuing decrees that used the heading “Memorandum of Caesar,” implying they had been made by Caesar before he died.
These memoranda appointed friends and relatives of Antony to senior posts, freed men from prison, and recalled exiles. And as the veterans of the 6th had heard, Antony also re-formed the defunct Praetorian Guard as his personal bodyguard. It was the only military unit at the capital now, in the wake of the transfer by the Senate of the 7th Legion from Rome to Albe in central Italy. From Anzio, Cassius and Brutus had tried to counter Antony politically, through their supporters in the Senate.
On June 5, while Cassius and Brutus waited nervously at Anzio, those supporters had pushed a motion through the Senate appointing the pair to the newly created posts of Special Commissioners for the Grain Supply, with a roving commission to travel to any part of Italy or the empire to inquire into the provision of Rome’s vital grain imports. This gave Cassius and Brutus a valid reason to stay outside the capital and not meet their obligations as praetors in the city. But Brutus had been in favor of returning to Rome and confronting their opponents, most particularly Mark Antony. For the moment, he had been talked out of it by his friends.
On June 7, Brutus and Cassius were joined at Anzio by Marcus Cicero. Brutus had sent for Cicero, as he wanted his advice on what he and Cassius should do. Arriving before midday, Cicero was warmly welcomed by Brutus and ushered into a room crowded with the family and friends of Brutus and Cassius, including Brutus’s wife, Porcia; Cassius’s wife; Brutus’s sister Junia; and Brutus’s mother, fifty-four-year-old Servilia, onetime lover of Caesar. Servilia and Caesar had continued to remain close over the years, although not intimate—he’d reputedly given her a fabulous pearl worth a fortune when he was consul for the first time in 59 B.C., had given her other gifts during the Civil War, and had conveyed several properties to her for a song when auctioning off the confiscated assets of Pompey and his closest supporters.
Also present at the Anzio gathering was General Marcus Favonius, Pompey’s former aide and Brutus’s good friend. Contrary to the earlier fears of the plotters, Favonius had unhesitatingly supported the assassination of Caesar once the deed was done, and had quickly thrown his support behind the assassination conspirators and against Antony.
In his own words, Cicero didn’t trust Antony a yard. He was not alone. He had heard that Aulus Hirtius, Caesar’s former staff officer and now a consul elect, considered Antony’s present disposition “as bad and as treacherous as can be.” As Cicero would later record in detail in a letter to a friend, he began to give Brutus the advice he had been formulating on the way to Anzio—that Brutus and Cassius should accept the appointments as grain commissioners and get out of Italy before Antony mobilized Caesar’s retired army veterans against them. As far as Cicero was concerned, Brutus was the bulwark of the Republic, and his safety was paramount.
As Cicero was giving this advice, Cassius walked into the room, so Cicero repeated his advice in full for Cassius’s benefit. Cassius agreed with Cicero’s assessment that the Liberators should leave Italy. He said that he himself would go to Greece.
Cicero would record the exact words that followed, for posterity. “What about you, Brutus?” he asked, turning to the other chief Liberator.
“To Rome, if you agree,” the forty-one-year-old Brutus replied.
“But I don’t agree at all,” Cicero responded. “You wouldn’t be safe there.”
“Supposing I could be safe? Would you approve?”
“Of course. And what’s more, I would be against your leaving for a province either now or following your praetorship. But I can’t ask you to risk your life at Rome.”
Cicero knew that Antony, in his capacity as consul, had already sent subordinates to the retired legion veterans in Italy, telling them to have their arms ready and to be prepared to defend the decrees of Caesar. And it was clear that the veterans of Caesar’s legions, men such as the retirees of the 6th, incensed by Caesar’s murder and ready to revenge his death, were looking to Antony for direction. Soon nowhere in Italy would be safe for any opponent of Mark Antony.
The conversation then lapsed into recriminations about what should have and shouldn’t have been done by the conspirators on the Ides of March, with Decimus Brutus Albinus in particular coming in for criticism for failing to use the muscle of his gladiators to enforce the will of the conspirators. In essence, the Liberators had underestimated Antony, and they were paying the price for it. As it turned out, Cicero, had he known the assassination was planned, would have urged that Antony also be killed. But, as he now told Brutus and Cassius, it was no use crying over spilled milk. At the very least, he said, Brutus and Cassius should have summoned the Senate and the pair of them taken over leadership of the empire before Antony had a chance to act.
To this, Brutus’s mother, Caesar’s former lover, exclaimed: “Upon my word! I never heard the like!”
Cicero held his tongue after that, for he could see that Brutus and his family had no ambitions for personal power. Brutus had merely wanted to see the Republic of old restored, but, naively, he had thought that with the dictator out of the way, that idealistic Republic would somehow reemerge of its own accord. In killing Caesar, all he had done was allow another despot, Antony, to rise in the place of the first.
“I found the ship going to pieces,” Cicero was to despondently write to his friend Atticus that night, following this meeting with Brutus and Cassius. “No plan, no thought, no method.” Cicero could see that the disorganized republican movement was doomed. And he could see that he himself might not be able to look forward to a long future if his bitter enemy Antony had his way. “I have the feeling the sands are running out,” Cicero wrote to Atticus that night in June.
But at least Cicero did manage to convince Brutus that returning to Rome was not an option. Brutus and Cassius began to plan their departure from Italy, but in the greatest secrecy; if Antony realized what they were up to, he would certainly try to stop them.
As Urban Praetor, Brutus was responsible for organizing the annual Ludi Apollinares, the Festival of Apollo, due to take place in Rome from July 7 to July 13. In late June, under the pretext of checking out a troupe of actors in Naples for the festival, Brutus traveled there from Anzio. After booking the Naples troupe for the festival, Brutus, his family, and his friends hadn’t returned to Anzio. Instead, they’d quickly proceeded down the coast road toward Salerno. Continuing through old Paestum, they’d rendezvoused with Cassius and his party at a villa at the seaside town of Velia.
The next day, Brutus and Cassius boarded a cargo ship with their aides and servants and sailed with the evening tide, leaving their wives and young children behind. Their planned route would take them down through the Strait of Messina, around the boot of Italy, and across the Ionian Sea to Piraeus, the port of Athens. There, Brutus and his party would leave the ship to base themselves in Athens, from where he would commence to build support in Greece, while Cassius continued on to Syria.
Officially, Cassius and Brutus would be carrying out their jobs as grain commissioners in the East. But once Antony and his supporters came to hear of their destinations, they would realize the pair was up to something, and would guess they were raising money and men for a military tilt at Antony.
At Velia, once the ship carrying their menfolk had disappeared from view, and as the night closed around the relatives of the two men, sobbing women escorted by helpless servants made their way down from the promontory from which they’d watched the craft depart. As Brutus’ wife, Porcia, and her son Bibulus climbed into a litter, Porcia was inconsolable. At dawn next day they would begin the journey back to Rome and back to uncertainty, but for now they would return to the house at Velia, where they’d spent the previous night with Brutus.
Plutarch says Porcia’s son Bibulus later wrote that on a wall of that villa at Velia there was a painting of Hector, chief warrior of Troy, parting for the last time from his wife, Andromache, as he set off for war. Porcia, he says, had been in tears ever since she’d arrived at the villa and first laid eyes on the picture. Porcia’s dread, says Plutarch, was that, like Andromache, she would never see her husband again. And so it would turn out to be.