Biographies & Memoirs

Part Three




BY THE TIME THE MESSENGER got to Apollonia (today, Pojani in Albania), he was stressed and gloomy. A freedman, he had left Rome about ten days earlier on the afternoon of the Ides of March. He hurried across the Adriatic Sea even though it was a dangerous time of year for sailing. In his hands he held the fate of a man or maybe a country. Julius Caesar’s niece, Atia, sent him to her son, Octavian, with a letter containing the news of Caesar’s murder. With the future uncertain, Atia recommended that Octavian come home. So did the messenger. He emphasized both the danger to Caesar’s family and the large number of assassins (or so he thought).

It was a shock and a comedown to Octavian. Four months earlier, he arrived in the strategic city of Apollonia. It was a thriving port and the naval link between northern Greece and the harbor of Brundisium (modern Brindisi) in southern Italy, where a highway led to Rome. Apollonia was also the gateway to the Via Egnatia, the great road that ran all the way east to Byzantium (modern Istanbul). No wonder Apollonia was the staging point for much of the army that Caesar gathered for his Parthian campaign. There were six legions, a large number of cavalry and light-armed troops, as well as abundant weapons and military machines. Octavian was there to learn the art of war and to prepare to march east with his uncle the dictator, who had appointed Octavian Master of the Horse. Now, everything had changed.

At eighteen, Octavian was preparing for a career at the top. During his stay in Apollonia he hobnobbed with the army’s officers and drilled with the cavalry. He had an informal council of friends with him, of whom the most important was Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. About the same age as Octavian and raised with him in Rome, Agrippa was drawn to a soldier’s life. His advice now was for Octavian to approach the army and convince it to march on Rome and avenge Caesar. Meanwhile, some officers went to Octavian and offered to fight for him in order to avenge Caesar, but Octavian declined. He was too young and inexperienced, the attitude of the Roman people was too uncertain, and the number of enemies too great. About the soldiers, though, he had no doubts. While Caesar had lived they enjoyed his good fortune. Caesar gave them offices and wealth and gifts beyond their wildest dreams. They would avenge him.

There would be time later to circle back to the soldiers. For now, Octavian needed to see for himself the lay of the land in Rome. He also needed to consult the wise men of Caesar’s inner circle and financiers who could bankroll his ambitions. So he took a relatively small entourage and braved the still-wintry Adriatic. Instead of landing at Brundisium they chose a point even farther south where the strait is narrower. After disembarking, Octavian went on foot not to the port city of Brundisium but to Lupiae (modern Lecce), a small, inland town. The cautious young man worried that his enemies held Brundisium and he wasn’t taking any chances.

Messages arrived from Rome with up-to-date news about Caesar’s funeral, the turn against the assassins, and Antony’s success in gathering support from Caesar’s veterans. Most important was the news of Caesar’s last will, naming Octavian his son and heir, and giving him three-fourths of Caesar’s huge estate. Octavian cried but he barely dried his tears before moving on. His mother wrote and warned about his enemies. His stepfather wrote and urged him to give up his inheritance and retire to the safety of private life. Octavian wasn’t having any of that. He knew that Caesar owed everything to taking strategic risks and he planned to do likewise.

He now knew that Brundisium was safe, so he headed there. The troops there welcomed him and hailed him as Caesar. The road to Rome lay open. Rome itself was another matter because it was full of people who would not accept without a fight the man who would be Caesar.

For both the men who killed Caesar and those who wanted to avenge him, it was a time of struggle. For their women, it was a time of rallying support on the home front. For Cicero, the last lion of the Republic, it was a time of heroic resistance from the well of the Senate. And for Octavian and Antony, the two men who wanted to inherit Caesar’s mantle, it was a time of rivalry.

Decimus and Cassius quickly came to the conclusion that the only thing that mattered was the soldiers and the resources to pay them. It took Brutus longer to reach the same end but he got there, too. So much for turning the state back over to the Senate and the people—that was premature while Antony and Octavian had armies at their disposal. To restore the Republic the assassins and their supporters would have to fight. If they won, then, after reestablishing peace, if they moved slowly and wisely and made necessary reforms, they could have the Republic back. For now it was a distant goal.

For three years after the assassination, the Roman commonwealth unraveled and came together again, but in a new and garish pattern. Armies marched, soldiers mutinied, tax collectors squeezed, secret messages flew, aristocratic ladies plotted, assassins’ daggers flashed, orators thundered, the Senate debated and decreed, the people rallied, battle roared, and even the specter of Pompey rose again in the West—all in all, a story that could have filled a third book of Commentaries had Caesar been alive to write it.

The world without Caesar was still a world about Caesar. His wealth, his soldiers, his supporters in the urban plebs, his advisors, his contacts abroad, and even his mistress—all were in contention. Octavian claimed Caesar’s heritage, but the young man’s hold onthat would be only as secure as his stomach for a fight and his ability to navigate in a storm.

Rome after Caesar resembled Macedon after Alexander. In each case, the great man’s marshals fought over the empire that he had won. Both were warrior cultures that could not suddenly embrace the arts of peace. In each case, the army missed its fallen chief—while always keeping an eye out for a good deal with a new chief. “Vengeance” and “loyalty” became the watchwords of the day, often with grotesque results. Romans were hunted down and murdered merely for sympathizing with Caesar’s assassins, but that was less gruesome than what had happened in Macedon—the murder of Alexander’s mother, widow, and sons.

Even dead, Caesar set the tone in Rome for the years following the Ides of March. “Where were you on the Ides of March?” became the unspoken question of the day. For Antony and especially for Octavian, loyalty to Caesar—pietas, in Latin—was a key card to play. The assassins, meanwhile, brandished their daggers like primitive victory trophies. Love Caesar or hate him, conquest and power still made Roman hearts beat faster. Even Brutus rendered homage to Caesar by putting an image of himself on his coins while still alive, a practice that Caesar had begun, thereby overturning centuries of Roman tradition that frowned on something so immodest.


Antony kept his options open in March and April 44 B.C. He arranged land allotments in Italy for Caesar’s veterans while suppressing a radical movement in Rome. He showed respect to the Senate and Caesar’s assassins, especially Brutus. Antony and Brutus always shared a certain mutual regard. As two members of the old Roman nobility, they were confident they could settle the world’s fate with a handshake. Not Cicero. He had little sympathy for Antony and suspected him as an enemy of the Best Men. A new man who had risen from the Central Italian aristocracy, Cicero felt no class solidarity with Antony. He despised Antony for marrying Fulvia, the widow of Cicero’s archenemy, Clodius. He was convinced that Antony was forging alleged decrees of Caesar—which had the force of law—and making off with Caesar’s fortune. Cicero always believed the assassins made a mistake by letting Antony live on the Ides of March.

Left on his own Antony might have become a prince of the Republic like Pompey or like Caesar without the monarchical airs. A son of the Roman nobility, Antony had residual respect for the system, and he had skills as an orator and as a general to rise to the top of it. But no one was willing to leave him on his own. Brutus and Cassius challenged Antony first from various places in Italy and then from the East. Sextus Pompey represented a growing threat in Hispania and Massilia. Decimus honed his army in the foothills of northern Italy’s Alps. The other provincial governors ran hot and cold on Antony. Beginning in summer of 44 B.C., Cicero rallied opposition to Antony in the Senate. Last but not least there was Caesar’s heir, young Octavian. He challenged Antony for the leadership of Caesar’s faction. Octavian raised a private army among Caesar’s veterans, siphoned off some of the legions returned from Macedonia, and rallied support among the urban plebs of Rome.

Faced with these challenges, Antony decided to use his position as consul to amass a power base. His opponents did not leave that decision unchallenged. Ultimately, Antony became a revolutionary who wrecked what was left of Rome’s traditional government, although he was forced into it.

During a brief trip to Rome in April, Octavian officially accepted his adoption by Caesar. Afterward, Octavian began to call himself Caesar. Most of the ancient sources refer to him by that name. To avoid confusion, even if not historically accurate, we will continue to call him Octavian, although to his contemporaries, he was Caesar.

One title that Octavian did not inherit was Chief Priest. Before Caesar’s death, the Senate had decreed that Caesar’s son or adopted son would replace him as Chief Priest. But Antony ignored that decree and now arranged for Lepidus to become Chief Priest. Antony did not want the office to go to Octavian and, besides, he saw the value of building bridges with Lepidus, who was about to take office as governor of the important provinces of Narbonese Gaul and Nearer Hispania. For good measure, Antony had his daughter engaged to Lepidus’s son, probably the same son who had been a hostage on the Capitoline on March 17.

Around the same time that Octavian came to Rome, Cleopatra left. She did not depart quickly after the Ides of March. Cleopatra wasn’t just a bereft mistress but a queen, and she needed to ensure the continued friendship for Egypt of Rome’s new rulers—whoever they would be. She might even have been hoping to get official recognition for Caesarion, Caesar’s alleged son. If so, she failed.

No sooner had the ashes cooled on Caesar’s funeral pyre than men wanted to consecrate the spot. A column and altar were erected there at the behest of the man known as Herophilus or Amatius, the demagogue who claimed to be the son or grandson of Marius and who had once upstaged Caesar in his villa. Neither of the two consuls, Antony or Dolabella, favored such monuments. Dolabella supported the assassins (for now) while Antony had no use for anything with so radically populist a taint and so likely to shine glory on Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian. Antony was able to have Amatius-Herophilus executed and Dolabella could order certain rabble-rousers thrown to death from the Tarpeian Rock—an archaic punishment for traitors. But neither of them dared stop the other pressure group behind the monument—Caesar’s veterans.

The veterans now erected a new column, possibly with Octavian’s support. Carved from a single block of ornamental marble, it stood twenty feet high and contained an inscription: TO THE FATHER OF THE FATHERLAND. It was a title voted for by the Senate. A statue of Caesar posssibly topped the column.

The column on the site of Caesar’s cremation was a reminder and a challenge. It recalled the great honor of being cremated within the Sacred Boundary of the city. It defied the assassins and anyone who thought that Caesar had been justly killed. Finally, it brought up unfinished business—the cult of Caesar’s divinity that the Senate had established before his death but which had been left by the wayside.

In September 44 B.C., Antony set up a competing statue of Caesar at the other end of the Roman Forum on the Speaker’s Platform. This was a compromise. It honored Caesar without stirring up the emotions of the site of his funeral pyre. But it had something to offend everyone—Caesar’s veterans, who wanted the maximum respect for their old chief, and republicans, who wanted no honors for Caesar at all. As Antony discovered, revolutionary times are hard on moderates.

Octavian had no such problems. With his stepfather’s estate on the Bay of Naples as a base, he wooed prominent supporters of Caesar. He also met Cicero, whom he was determined to make an ally. Octavian courted the great orator. Cicero had mixed feelings about the high-powered youth. But as summer approached and a rift opened between Antony and Octavian, Cicero began to think of Octavian as the lesser of two evils and a useful tool. It was a gamble.

Octavian was ruthless, energetic, and determined to have not only Caesar’s name but also his power. It was a tall order for an eighteen-year-old in a still fairly conservative society, but Octavian’s age was also an advantage. Since he had little invested in the old system, he had little inhibition about overturning it. And the veterans’ cry for blood vengeance for Caesar suited his purposes.

Antony and Octavian dueled over money—Antony blocked Octavian’s access to Caesar’s funds—and Caesar’s legacy. To pay Caesar’s promised bequest to the Roman people, Octavian raised the funds on his own, and so endeared himself to the ordinary folk of Rome. In late July, Octavian put on the funeral games in honor of his adoptive father. Antony had to tolerate this, although he refused to allow the display of a golden chair and wreath—honors that the Senate had granted Caesar when still alive. Octavian later claimed that the urban plebs and Caesar’s veterans supported him against Antony.

When a comet appeared during the games, Octavian turned what was usually considered an ill omen in Rome into a symbol of Caesar’s new place in heaven with the gods. This made splendid propaganda. Unusually bright, the comet was visible during the daylight hours, and so caught the public’s attention. When a soothsayer saw it as a sign of the dawning of a new age, the notion resonated with the Roman people.

Antony, meanwhile, pivoted. In April, he conciliated the Senate. He made it possible for Brutus and Cassius to remain praetors although absent from Rome. Although Caesar himself had named Antony as High Priest for the worship of Caesar as a god, Antony did nothing to go forward with the new religion. But then the presence of Octavian forced Antony away from the Senate and toward Caesar’s veterans and the urban plebs. In late April and early May, he visited the veterans in Campania and promised them more land.

Meanwhile, Antony prepared to deal with Decimus, who was now governor of Italian Gaul. The Senate had assigned Antony a different province after his consulship ended on December 31, Macedonia. It was an important position, especially since Macedonia included six legions that had been chosen for Caesar’s Parthian Expedition. Italian Gaul was more important, however, because its location controlled Italy. So Antony made clear that he intended to switch provinces—trading Macedonia for Italian Gaul—while also keeping the six legions. It was a dark cloud on the horizon.

In the spring of 44 B.C., no one trusted anyone in Rome. Everyone talked peace but feared war. The few moderates, men like Hirtius, Caesar’s friend and one of the consul-designates for 43 B.C., had little room for maneuver in such a climate. As spring became summer, each of the leading players began turning his attention away from talk and toward arms. For Antony and Octavian their base consisted of Caesar’s veterans and the legions in Macedonia that had been allocated for Parthia. For Decimus, it was the legions of Italian Gaul as supplemented by his allies in the Senate. For Brutus and Cassius, it was the armies stationed in the East.

Each attracted supporters from the Roman political and military leadership class. Each side needed money—a lot of money, and money in a hurry, because the urban plebs had to be appeased and soldiers had to be armed, fed, and paid. The result was taxation, and, soon enough, looting and murder.

Caesar had predicted a new civil war if he died. He understood something about the Romans very well, that they liked to fight. Politics fascinated them, but it did not take much to make Romans resort to the sword.

Only a few of the older generations of leaders were left and they returned to the scene for one last act, doing what they had always done best, only more so. For Cicero that meant giving speeches, holding meetings, and writing letters to make deals, all for the cause of the Republic. He pushed hard against the man whom he considered the biggest threat—Antony. For Servilia, it meant behind-the-scenes maneuvering to advance her son and save her family.

It’s a reasonable guess that even before they raised their daggers against Caesar, Brutus and Cassius considered the possibility that they might have to leave Rome. It was not news to Roman politicians that men who played for the highest stakes sometimes had to go into exile and regroup. There was plenty of precedent for going east to raise money and manpower. Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar had all done so and only Pompey failed—and even he won great success on his first expedition in the East. Both Brutus and Cassius had substantial connections in the East dating back ten years and they also had the support of Deiotarus, the king of Galatia, who had been accused of trying to assassinate Caesar. There was also the intriguing possibility of help from Parthia.


Antium (Anzio, of World War II fame) was a seaside town south of Rome where Brutus and Cassius withdrew after leaving the capital in April 44 B.C. Lined with villas, the area was virtually Rome’s Gold Coast. Cicero’s villa was nearby at Astura, and he called it“a delightful place, right by the sea.” But Brutus did not go to Antium for the waters. He held a virtual court in exile there.

Brutus tried to win the power game in Rome by a combination of force and persuasion, but he was outfoxed and outmuscled by Antony. Like any good Roman aristocrat, Brutus now turned to the one certain haven in a heartless world—his family. Or, as a Roman might have put it, his familiares—a broad term including friends, servants, and even property as well as relatives.

Brutus was hardly passive. He was well aware that money was the mother’s milk of politics. His friend the Roman knight Gaius Flavius tried to organize a group of wealthy knights as contributors to a fund for Caesar’s assassins. Brutus did his part by wining and dining Atticus, the prince of Roman political financiers. Atticus was an old friend of the family but he was a pragmatist and a survivor. Atticus was Antony’s friend, too. Rather than take a chance, Atticus had declined and so torpedoed Brutus’s fund. Perhaps this is what Brutus and Cassius were referring to when they wrote to Antony a few weeks earlier and said they had dismissed their friends from the cities of Italy at his advice. But Brutus looked for other ways of building a power base.

He called Cicero for advice and on June 7, the orator went to see Brutus in his villa at Antium, a scene later described by Cicero in a letter to Atticus (who was also a friend of Cicero). The other people present were Cassius (who arrived late); Brutus’s wife, Porcia; Cassius’s wife, Junia Tertia (in some sources called Tertulla), who was also Brutus’s half sister; and Servilia, mother or mother-in-law to most of the people in the room. Rounding out the group was Marcus Favonius. Like Cicero, Favonius was left out of the conspiracy to kill Caesar but showed his support for it right afterward.

The fiasco at the Lupercalia on February 15, the dinner party at Lepidus’s on March 14, the funeral of Caesar, and, of course, the assassination itself—these are all events that make the historian wish he could be a fly on the wall. But for the combination of fear, spite, and theater of the absurd, nothing matches the scene in Brutus’s villa at Antium on June 7, 44 B.C.

The purpose of the meeting was to consider an offer from the Senate, made at Antony’s prodding, to put Brutus and Cassius in charge of collecting grain in Sicily and Roman Asia (western Turkey). The decree also gave them permission to leave Rome, where, as praetors, they were supposed to serve. It was a graceful out and Cicero advised them to take it. Brutus wanted to go back to Rome and preside at the games that he was giving as urban praetor. Cicero pointed out that Rome wasn’t safe for Brutus, and he flattered Brutus by saying that his safety really mattered because Brutus was the Republic’s only defense. Brutus eventually agreed that Rome was dangerous.

Then Cassius entered and angrily refused the job of grain commissioner, which he considered an insult. He said that he was going to Greece and from there to Syria, where he was scheduled to serve as governor in 43 B.C. Cicero had the impression that Brutus was going to go to Roman Asia, where he could join Trebonius, who was governor. Although it was Brutus who called the meeting, Servilia was not shy. She spoke as if she had real influence in the Senate and she promised to get the grain commission withdrawn from the Senate’s decree.

Then the talk turned to lost opportunities. Everyone was bitter, especially Cassius. They heaped the most blame on Decimus, probably for not using his troops in Italian Gaul against Antony. This was just talk because Decimus’s troops were untested and no one, least of all Brutus, would begin a civil war lightly. Cicero said they shouldn’t dwell on the past, and then proceeded to blame the conspirators for their passivity after killing Caesar on the Ides of March and the next few days. Servilia proceeded to cut him off.

“I’ve really never heard anyone say that!” Servilia exclaimed. Cicero told Atticus that he now stopped her, but it was the other way around. Cicero was still rehashing past politics while Brutus and his family had moved on to the clash of armies in addition to the funds needed to raise and outfit them.

Wheels began to turn after the meeting. By summer’s end, the Senate assigned Brutus and Cassius new provinces, Crete and Cyrene (in modern Libya). If Servilia had worked her magic, it wasn’t a potent spell, since these provinces were still relatively small and unimportant. Brutus and Cassius had much bigger things in mind.

In letter after letter from this period Cicero calls Brutus depressed, but if Brutus was down he was not yet out. With the help of family and friends he was actively building a new power base. Yet Brutus had good reason to be depressed. He had wanted peace and reconciliation but both sides were digging in their heels. Caesar’s veterans wanted loot and vengeance. Caesar’s enemies wanted their confiscated lands back.

In July, for instance, Brutus and Cicero met a very important envoy on Brutus’s estate on the little island of Nesis (modern Nisida) on the Bay of Naples. A former praetor, he was Sextus Pompey’s father-in-law and he brought news of Pompey’s continued military success in Hispania. No deal was made but the door was open to an alliance between Sextus and Caesar’s assassins.

On August 4, Brutus and Cassius wrote a letter to Antony from Naples. First they blasted him for writing them an abusive and threatening letter. They were praetors after all, and men of dignity. In his letter, Antony denied ever accusing them of raising troops and money or of tampering with the soldiers and sending ambassadors overseas. For their part, Brutus and Cassius said that they knew nothing about any of these charges. They cattily added that they were amazed by Antony’s restraint, considering his inability to keep from angrily taunting them with Caesar’s death. They couldn’t resist a warning before closing: “Bear in mind not only how long Caesar lived but how briefly he reigned.”

That surely did little to ease Antony’s suspicions about Brutus and Cassius. Their fellow assassins had already laid a bridgehead in the East. Probably in April, Trebonius went to Roman Asia and Cimber went to the nearby province of Bithynia, both as provincial governors. Other assassins and their friends also took up important civil and military positions in the eastern provinces. Meanwhile, the long, slow courtship of Sextus Pompey went forward. Decimus held Italian Gaul while Cicero remained in Rome to anchor the cause in the capital.

In mid-August, Brutus left Italy for the East. Before his departure, he and Cassius issued edicts saying that for the sake of the Republic and to avoid civil war, they were going into exile. But Brutus’s actions said otherwise; they bespoke armed conflict. He and Porcia had a tearful farewell in the city of Velia, south of Naples. This was the Roman equivalent of a photo op. Velia had formerly been the Greek colony of Elea, famous for its philosophers. Brutus and Porcia let it be known that they parted in front of a painting of Hector and Andromache, the doomed couple of Homer’s Iliad. No doubt they felt deep emotion, but it was also a message for the Greek East: Brutus is coming and he is one of you. He spoke Greek, he loved philosophy, and he would be polite as he shook down city after city for the money needed to fund the war for the Republic. Cassius, who followed shortly afterward, would be less diplomatic.


From the day that Decimus left Rome in April 44 B.C. to the moment he stepped into a trap in a pass in the Iura (modern Jura) Mountains on the modern French-Swiss border, his post-assassination life was an epic. Actually, it had been an epic from the day he first served in Caesar’s army. The last phase was merely the most dramatic.

If ever there was a man suited to the province he governed, it was Decimus in Italian Gaul. He was, once again, among Celts. From boyhood he heard about his grandfather’s exploits among the Celts in Hispania. He spent much of his adult life among Celts in Transalpine Gaul, what is today France and Belgium. He even spoke the Gaulish language. Rome had begun colonizing Italian Gaul in the third century B.C. By Decimus’s day, Latin was mandatory for the local elite. Yet there was still a heavy Celtic flavor to the region, especially in the foothills and mountains of the Alps. Decimus would have felt at home.

As governor, Decimus had two legions, one composed of veterans, the other men with one year’s experience. Decimus spent the summer of 44 B.C. attacking the Alpine tribes. He claimed to have fought exceptionally fierce enemies, laid waste to many strongholds, and captured a great deal of loot to distribute to his men. They, in turn, saluted him as imperator, great commander, the title customarily given to a general after a successful battle. The experience honed his two legions and made them more attached to their commander. Decimus wrote to Cicero in Rome to help him get formal recognition from the Senate. Cicero promised to take care of Decimus’s dignitas—it was dearer to him than his own, said Cicero.

No doubt Cicero had better things to do with his limited resources in the Senate but he knew to whom he wrote. He refers in other letters as well to Decimus’s dignitas. He assures Decimus how much the Roman people love him for freeing them from tyranny. He ends one letter with the firm hope that Decimus will be the greatest and most famous man of all.

In any case, by then, Decimus’s actions in Italian Gaul were illegal. On June 1, Antony got the people to vote him command of Italian Gaul, for a term that was soon extended to five years. Antony protected his dignitas and attacked that of the assassins. It was a blow to Decimus, who was to lose his governorship of the province, and he refused to accept this insult and threat. He disobeyed the law and stayed in command in Italian Gaul. Then in October, Antony’s friends arranged for the execution of a slave named Myrtilus for allegedly aiming to assassinate him. They claimed that Decimus was behind the whole thing.

If Decimus led the republican cause in Italian Gaul, Cicero led it in Rome. He never trusted Antony and, by September 44 B.C., he made his opposition public. He gave a series of speeches against Antony that he called Philippics, after a famous set of speeches against King Philip of Macedon by the Athenian orator Demosthenes in the mid-fourth century B.C. Cicero’s speeches savaged Antony and praised Octavian. He hailed Decimus as a defender of the Republic, a member of a family (the Brutus family) with a divine mission to protect Roman liberty. Cicero could only hope for more success than Demosthenes, who rallied the public to a losing cause—Philip won and conquered all of Greece.

Whatever happened, Cicero could be sure of one thing. Never again would he have to say that he lacked courage. By taking his stand, particularly at the age of sixty-two, Cicero risked everything for the Republic.

At first, Cicero helped to push Antony out of Rome. In October 44 B.C., three of the Macedonian legions chosen for Antony landed in Brundisium, with a fourth on the way. Antony went to meet them and got an angry reception for his policy of reconciliation with Caesar’s killers—the soldiers wanted vengeance. Antony offered the men a small sum of money to appease them, but Octavian’s agents had already promised more and they refused. Finally, Antony ordered that some of the troops be executed in order to restore discipline.

Octavian had already recruited three thousand veterans of Caesar in Campania. This private army was illegal but that did not stop the young man whose name was now Caesar. Years later, Octavian boasted of his action, which he brilliantly rebranded as a way of saving the Republic:

At the age of nineteen I raised an army at my private initiative and private expense by means of which I set free the Republic that had been oppressed by the unrestricted power of a political faction.

In November, Octavian marched his new army to Rome but quickly left again as Antony approached. After regrouping, Octavian learned that two of the Macedonian legions had mutinied and would now join him. They were veterans, which made them valuable. Many of the legions of this period were inexperienced or undersized. Octavian mustered his army in a hill town in Central Italy. He promptly paid each man 500 denarii and promised them much more if they defeated Antony—an additional 5,000 denarii each, almost as much as Caesar had paid his men at his Triple Triumph in 46 B.C.

Decimus was bold, courageous, and stubborn. From his base in northern Italy he jeopardized Rome. Both Antony and Octavian knew it and they both courted Decimus. Either would be a dubious ally but Decimus chose Octavian, no doubt because the youth seemed less threatening than a senior leader like Antony. Cicero championed this course, risky though it was. Besides, Octavian was a very good salesman. And so Decimus stayed and fought, although many considered that a fool’s errand. Behind the heroics of Cicero’s Philippics lay a leap in the dark.

Antony now marched his men, including the remaining Macedonian legions, to Italian Gaul. He made a similar promise of booty in the event of victory. First, he had to deal with Decimus. It was late November in 44 B.C. Antony could count on four veteran legions as well as bodyguards, auxiliaries, and new recruits. In December, he demanded that Decimus surrender his province but Decimus refused. Cicero and other senators wrote to Decimus from Rome and urged him to resist. Finally, on December 20, Ciceromanaged to get the Senate to decree that Decimus and all governors should keep their provinces. The Senate sent ambassadors to Antony to negotiate his withdrawal from the province but he refused. Instead, he made ready for war with Decimus.

Safe in Greece, Brutus was not impressed—he feared Octavian, as he said, and he refused Cicero’s requests to come to Decimus’s aid with troops from Macedonia. Sextus Pompey also declined to come to Decimus’s aid, saying he didn’t want “to offend” Caesar’s veterans by the presence of their old enemy’s son. The smart money, in short, was on getting out of Italy. But Decimus stayed. If he wanted to be a leading figure in Rome he had no choice. Sextus Pompey had a base in Hispania and was able to find a second one in Sicily. Brutus and Cassius had long histories in the Roman East. Decimus had spent his career in Gaul and so it made sense to stay there. The rewards of victory south of the Alps were so great that he preferred to stay there and fight. There would be time later, if need be, to cross the Alps and seek refuge in his former province.

He went to Mutina (modern Modena), a wealthy agricultural city in the Padus (Po) River Valley of Italian Gaul. He occupied the place, closed the gates, confiscated the property of the inhabitants, slaughtered and salted all his transport cattle, and generally prepared for a long siege.

By now, Decimus had raised a third legion, but they were new recruits and inexperienced. He could put more trust in his gladiators. Like several other commanders of this era of civil war, Decimus used gladiators for his bodyguard. They replaced or formed a large part of the Roman general’s traditional bodyguard, the 500-man-strong praetorian cohort. Appian says that Decimus had “a large number of gladiators” with him in Mutina. Perhaps they—or at least some of them—were the same gladiators who had been with him on the Ides of March.

In December, Antony laid siege to the city. Decimus’s forces were no match for Antony, who would soon have six legions as well as a praetorian cohort and cavalry. Antony surrounded the city with a wall. It was like Caesar’s siege of Alesia, except that this time, the two generals who had served Caesar there were on opposite sides. In a poignant moment in Rome the next month, Decimus’s wife, Valeria Paula, asked Cicero to include her letter with his next one to her husband.

In January 43 B.C., things moved rapidly. There were two new consuls, Hirtius and Pansa. Although friends of Caesar, they were political moderates with respect for the Republic. Like Cicero, they had decided to throw in their lot with Octavian. The hope was that they could keep the young man under control. The Senate demanded that Antony withdraw from Italian Gaul; they gave Octavian the rank of substitute high official (proprietor) and sent him along with the consul Hirtius to help Decimus. The three men had seven legions among them.

While a private citizen Octavian raised an army. That was illegal but the Senate dealt with that by giving him a public office. Yet Octavian was not fooled. He knew that the Senate was using him only until Antony was defeated.

In February 43 B.C., news arrived in Rome from Asia that Dolabella had executed Trebonius the month before. Few people changed sides as often as Dolabella. A follower of Caesar in 45 B.C., he supported the assassins after the Ides of March but then turned against them. Now Dolabella killed Trebonius in Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey) and placed his head in the marketplace at the foot of a statue of Caesar. Trebonius had told Cicero that he was proud of his part in the death of Caesar but now he had to pay for it. He was the first of Caesar’s assassins to die. The Senate condemned Dolabella and named him an enemy of the state.

Like Decimus, Trebonius had been part of Caesar’s old guard and yet he had turned on his chief. He was enough of an old Roman that, like Cicero, with whom he corresponded, Trebonius couldn’t bear Caesar’s violence to the republican form of government and to the honor and power that senators like him possessed. On the Ides of March he had played the vital role of detaining Antony.

Back in Italy, Decimus became something of a legend for his masterful control of his army during the siege of Mutina. He and his allies carried out several grand gestures. Before Antony shut off the city he sent in spies to try to corrupt Decimus’s soldiers, but Decimus suspected this and managed to smoke them out. After Hirtius and Octavian approached Mutina, they made their presence known to Decimus by sending divers to swim across the river at night with messages on rolled-up lead tablets attached to their arms. Decimus got the messages and sent one back; the two sides continued to communicate this way. Hirtius and Decimus also communicated by carrier pigeon. In February, Decimus got word that a certain senator in Mutina had defected to Antony. Decimus magnanimously sent the man his baggage. This gesture supposedly convinced some of the neighboring towns supporting Antony to switch sides.

The main problem for the men in Mutina was food. At one point Decimus’s allies managed to float salt and sheep down the river to a place where they could be brought into the city undetected, but this was a one-time measure. Conditions in Mutina were, in general, dreadful. The remarkable thing is that nobody opened the city gates to Antony. That is surely a tribute both to Decimus’s vigilance and to his skill as a leader of men. He evoked loyalty, either to himself or to the cause, or both.

The fate of Mutina was decided in April 43 B.C. On April 14, Antony defeated the consul Pansa at the battle of Forum Gallorum (“Forum of the Gauls”), a small place on the Via Aemilia, the Roman road that ran from the Adriatic coast northwestward to Placentia (modern Piacenza) on the River Padus. If Appian is right about the battle, the veterans slammed into each other in silence, where they fought locked together like wrestlers. Galba, one of Caesar’s assassins and formerly a legionary commander in Gaul, commanded one of Pansa’s legions. Galba sent Cicero a memorable account of the fierce fighting where he was in the thick of things and barely escaped being killed mistakenly by his own men. This would not have surprised any reader of Caesar’sCommentaries, whichchronicle Galba’s military missteps in Gaul.

Pansa was not as lucky and received a mortal wound. Still, Antony had no chance to savor his victory. Reinforcements led by the other consul, Hirtius, arrived later in the day and crushed Antony’s troops, forcing him to retreat. A week later, on April 21, a second battle took place outside Mutina. Octavian was now present with his legions to reinforce Hirtius. Decimus too participated in the battle by sallying out from the city with at least some of his men. Mutina was free. Ironically, it was Decimus’s birthday.

The combined forces defeated Antony but at the cost of Hirtius’s life. Octavian survived. Antony claimed that Octavian ran from the battlefield at Forum Gallorum and lost his military cloak and his horse—to the Romans, a disgrace. Whether that was true or not, it appears that the sources agreed that Octavian was a hero at the second battle at Mutina. When the eagle-bearer of his legion received a bad wound, Octavian shouldered the eagle and carried it himself for a while.

Another fallen soldier at Mutina was Pontius Aquila, Decimus’s lieutenant. Earlier, when the city was still under siege, Pontius was in northwestern Italy, where he defeated one of Antony’s lieutenants. He came back to Mutina to fight. It was the end of a courageous man. Pontius was the second assassin of Caesar to die. As People’s Tribune in 45 B.C., he had defied Caesar during his triumphal reentry to Rome. Cicero moved successfully that a statue be erected in Pontius’s honor.

Although he had lost the battle, Antony still had most of his forces intact. He decided on an orderly retreat westward to meet up with his allies elsewhere in northern Italy and his potential allies over the Alps in Gaul. Lepidus was governor of Narbonese Gaul and Nearer Hispania, Plancus was governor of Gallia Comata, and Pollio was governor of Further Hispania, with many legions among them. All had promised to support Decimus and the Senate, but all had been supporters of Caesar and none could be trusted not to switch to Antony.

Antony began his march almost immediately, on April 22. Decimus prepared to pursue him but his army was weak and depleted in numbers. He had no cavalry or pack animals. What he did have, however, was some of Hirtius’s and Pansa’s newly recruited legions; Octavian kept the rest, plus his veterans. Decimus had political capital, too, for what it was worth—the enthusiastic support of the Senate. It named Antony and his allies as public enemies.


Octavian was a question mark. The death of Hirtius and Pansa, the two consuls, left him great freedom as a commander. It was a boon for his career but a blow for the republican form of government. The question was, how big a blow?

Now free from the siege, Decimus met with Octavian. It would be hard to imagine a less comfortable encounter. Two years earlier Decimus and Octavian had ridden together in Caesar’s victorious entourage. Since then, Decimus had become Caesar’s murderer while Octavian had become Caesar’s son. Now, according to Appian, Decimus tried to smooth the way by sending word to Octavian before the meeting. An evil spirit, said Decimus, had deceived him; others had led him into the conspiracy. The report is plausible but can’t be trusted because Appian also states that Octavian refused to meet Decimus—which was untrue—saying that it was unnatural for him even to look at his father’s murderer, let alone hold a conversation with him.

However Octavian might have felt about Decimus’s betrayal of Caesar, Octavian received him anyhow—and Octavian was more than civil. In a letter to Cicero on May 9, 43 B.C., Decimus states plainly that he met with Octavian and came away trusting him, although he hadn’t trusted Octavian before. Decimus told Octavian that he planned to cross the Apennines to pursue Antony and urged him to do the same, but Octavian refused to commit himself. He also refused to turn over the dead consuls’ legions that he still commanded.

Decimus was a powerful person, and Octavian wanted to be a player, so it makes sense that Octavian behaved as he did. It also makes sense that he later denied that the meeting ever happened. That is surely the reason why Appian states this denial as fact. Octavian did not agree to help Decimus against Antony because it served Octavian’s purpose to wound Antony but no more. Octavian did not want to help Decimus win.

A letter of Decimus to Cicero on May 5, 43 B.C. tells the tale. Decimus expressed frustration at Octavian’s inaction:

If Caesar [Octavian] had listened to me and crossed the Apennines, I would have forced Antony into such dire straits that he would have been destroyed by lack of supplies rather than by iron. But Caesar cannot be ordered about, nor can he get his own army to obey his orders—both of which are very bad things.

Better for Decimus to blame Octavian than himself. Proud Decimus was not the sort of man ever to blame himself.

Decimus worried about Octavian’s loyalty. He wrote to Cicero at the end of May with a report that the young man’s veterans were cursing Cicero and urging their commander to force him to give them a better deal. Decimus also wrote that Octavian had gotten wind of a remark by Cicero that angered him. Supposedly, Cicero had said “the young man should be complimented, honored and lifted up—and out.” Octavian had no intention of being forced out of power.

Decimus was right to worry. Far from helping Decimus destroy Antony, Octavian adopted a position of neutrality. Was he thinking of changing sides and joining Antony? That would have been a cold-blooded move but it suited an unfeeling era. Even Shakespeare’s hero, Brutus, was a serial betrayer—of his father’s memory; his chief, Pompey; his uncle, Cato; and his patron, Caesar. Besides, the Senate had made its opinion of Octavian clear. Not only did it refuse to grant him equal power or honor to Decimus, but it also cut the payments it had promised to Octavian’s troops. Decimus was voted a triumph while Octavian had to settle for the lesser distinction of an ovation. Decimus was put in charge of the war against Antony and given the dead consuls’ troops. But Octavian had no intention of dancing to the Senate’s tune.

Octavian knew that as soon as the threat of Antony was removed, the Senate would drop him altogether. Although it was risky for him to support Antony, it was certain failure to continue supporting the Senate. And so Octavian stayed out of the fight against Antony and contemplated a change of course. Like Caesar before him, he savored risk.

In early May, three legions recruited in Central Italy by one of Antony’s associates joined Antony in northwestern Italy, not far from today’s Genoa. Antony and Decimus each now had seven legions, but Antony’s were veterans and he had five thousand cavalry to boot. Decimus could not compete, especially because he had run out of money. He wrote Cicero that, to feed his troops he spent not only his own fortune but asked his friends to lend him money.

Cicero was not impressed. He criticized Decimus for failing to pursue a wounded enemy and letting Antony escape. That hardly seems fair, not with Decimus’s troops exhausted and inexperienced and with him lacking cavalry and pack animals, and not with Octavian refusing to fight further against Antony.

Antony planned to cross the Alps, after which, as Decimus feared, he would join forces with Lepidus and Pollio—a prospect that Lepidus vehemently denied, not that Decimus believed him. He thought that Lepidus was unreliable.

Another man might have given up the chase, but not Decimus. He was very ambitious and he wanted nothing less than to rid himself of his greatest military threat in Italy—that is, to rid himself of Antony. At stake was the future of Italy. Defeat Antony and the Senate would rule Rome again and Decimus would be a prince of the Senate.

Decimus knew that the only way to defeat Antony was to cross the Alps himself and to meet up with the forces of Plancus in Gallia Comata. Plancus had four legions and allied cavalry but Decimus and Plancus could not defeat the combined forces of Antony and Lepidus. Still, Decimus plunged ahead, reckless and fearless, just as Caesar might have done. Decimus did not lack self-confidence. Gaul was his comfort zone, the area of his past military triumphs. So he took a pass through the Graian Alps (today’s Little St. Bernard Pass), somehow coming up with the money for the tolls demanded by the local inhabitants.

Decimus might also have expected to find native allies in Gaul. Around June 10, he met Plancus at Cularo (Grenoble), a town of the Allobrogian Gauls—the same tribe that had allied with Catiline twenty years earlier. Decimus’s mother, Sempronia, had opened her house to a group of Allobroges during the revolutionary days of 63 B.C. Decimus was in contact with the Allobroges so he might have had reason to think they could provide men, money, and supplies.

Although Decimus and Plancus had a large number of troops—but few veterans—bad news from southern Gaul kept them from acting and surely discouraged any Allobrogian support, if that had ever been possible. Antony had arrived in Narbonese Gaul (modern Provence) in mid-May. He borrowed several leaves from Caesar’s book by camping near Lepidus’s army, allowing the men to fraternize, and growing a beard in mourning for his fallen men—all ploys that Caesar had used. Lepidus’s men were charmed and defected as a group, and Lepidus soon followed. On May 29, the two armies were one.

They had as many legions as Decimus and Plancus, more veterans, more cavalry, and better equipment. Cicero asked Brutus and Cassius to send help to Decimus but none came. For more than two months, the armies of Decimus and Plancus stayed put. Then, disaster struck.

At the end of August, first Pollio and then Plancus deserted Decimus, announcing for Antony. By then, a revolution had shaken Rome.

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