Roman Life in the Days of Cicero - Alfred J. Church

Antony and Augustus

There were some things in which Mark Antony resembled Cæsar. At the time it seemed probable that he would play the same part, and even climb to the same height of power. He failed in the end because he wanted the power of managing others, and, still more, of controlling himself. He came of a good stock. His grandfather had been one of the greatest orators of his day, his father was a kindly generous man, his mother, a kinswoman of Cæsar, a matron of the best Roman type. But he seemed little likely to do credit to his belongings. His riotous life became conspicuous even in a city where extravagance and vice were only too common, and his debts, though not so enormous as Cæsar's, were greater, says Plutarch, than became his youth, for they amounted to about fifty thousand pounds. He was taken away from these dissipations by military service in the East, and he rapidly acquired considerable reputation as a soldier. Here is the picture that Plutarch draws of him.

Mark Antony


There was something noble and dignified in his appearance. His handsome beard, his broad forehead, his aquiline nose, gave him a manly look that resembled the familiar statues and pictures of Hercules. There was indeed a legend that the Antonii were descended from a son of Hercules; and this he was anxious to support by his appearance and dress. Whenever he appeared in public he had his tunic girt up to the hip, carried a great sword at his side, and wore a rough cloak of Cilician hair. The habits too that seemed vulgar to others—his boastfulness, his coarse humour, his drinking bouts, the way he had of eating in public, taking his meals as he stood from the soldiers' tables—had an astonishing effect in making him popular with the soldiers. His bounty too, the help which he gave with a liberal hand to comrades and friends, made his way to power easy. On one occasion he directed that a present of three thousand pounds should be given to a friend. His steward, aghast at the magnitude of the sum, thought to bring it home to his master's mind by putting the actual coin on a table. "What is this?" said Antony, as he happened to pass by. "The money you bade me pay over," was the man's reply. "Why, I had thought it would be ten times as much as this. This is but a trifle. Add to it as much more."

When the civil war broke out, Antony joined the party of Cæsar, who, knowing his popularity with the troops, made him his second in command. He did good service at Pharsalia, and while his chief went on to Egypt, returned to Rome as his representative. There were afterwards differences between the two; Cæsar was offended at the open scandal of Antony's manners, and found him a troublesome adherent; Antony conceived himself to be insufficiently rewarded for his services, especially when he was called upon to pay for Pompey's confiscated property, which he had bought. Their close alliance, however, had been renewed before Cæsar's death. That event made him the first man in Rome. The chief instrument of his power was a strange one; the Senate, seeing that the people of Rome loved and admired the dead man, passed a resolution that all the wishes which Cæsar had left in writing should have the force of law—and Antony had the custody of his papers. People laughed, and called the documents "Letters from the Styx." There was the gravest suspicion that many of them were forged. But for a time they were a very powerful machinery for effecting his purpose.

Then came a check. Cæsar's nephew and heir, Octavius, arrived at Rome. Born in the year of Cicero's consulship, he was little more than nineteen; but in prudence, statecraft, and knowledge of the world he was fully grown. In his twelfth year he had delivered the funeral oration over his grandmother Julia. After winning some distinction as a soldier in Spain, he had returned at his uncle's bidding to Apollonia, a town of the eastern coast of the Adriatic, where he studied letters and philosophy under Greek teachers. Here he had received the title of "Master of the Horse," an honour which gave him the rank next to the Dictator himself. He came to Rome with the purpose, as he declared, of claiming his inheritance and avenging his uncle's death. But he knew how to abide his time. He kept on terms with Antony, who had usurped his position and appropriated his inheritance, and he was friendly, if not with the actual murderers of Cæsar, yet certainly with Cicero, who made no secret of having approved their deed.

For Cicero also had now returned to public life. For some time past, both before Cæsar's death and after it, he had devoted himself to literature. Now there seemed to him a chance that something might yet be done for the republic, and he returned to Rome, which he reached on the last day of August. The next day there was a meeting of the Senate, at which Antony was to propose certain honours to Cæsar. Cicero, wearied, or affecting to be wearied, by his journey, was absent, and was fiercely attacked by Antony, who threatened to send workmen to drag him out of his house. The next day Cicero was in his place, Antony being absent, and made a dignified defence of his conduct, and criticised with some severity the proceedings of his assailant. Still so far there was no irreconcilable breach between the two men. "Change your course," says the orator, "I beseech you: think of those who have gone before, and so steer the course of the Commonwealth that your countrymen may rejoice that you were born. Without this no man can be happy or famous." He still believed, or professed to believe, that Antony was capable of patriotism. If he had any hopes of peace, these were soon to be crushed. After a fortnight or more spent in preparation, assisted, we are told, by a professional teacher of eloquence, Antony came down to the Senate and delivered a savage invective against Cicero. The object of his attack was again absent. He had wished to attend the meeting, but his friends hindered him, fearing, not without reason, actual violence from the armed attendants whom Antony was accustomed to bring into the senate-house.

The attack was answered in the famous oration which is called the second Philippic. If I could transcribe this speech (which, for other reasons besides its length, I cannot do) it would give us a strange picture of "Roman Life." It is almost incredible that a man so shameless and so vile should have been the greatest power in a state still nominally free. I shall give one extract from it. Cicero has been speaking of Antony's purchase of Pompey's confiscated property. "He was wild with joy, like a character in a farce; a beggar one day, a millionaire the next. But, as some writer says, 'Ill gotten, ill kept.' It is beyond belief, it is an absolute miracle, how he squandered this vast property—in a few months do I say?—no, in a few days. There was a great cellar of wine, a very great quantity of excellent plate, costly stuffs, plenty of elegant and even splendid furniture, just as one might expect in a man who was affluent without being luxurious. And of all this within a few days there was left nothing. Was there ever a Charybdis so devouring? A Charybdis, do I say? no—if there ever was such a thing, it was but a single animal. Good heavens! I can scarcely believe that the whole ocean could have swallowed up so quickly possessions so numerous, so scattered, and lying at places so distant. Nothing was locked up, nothing sealed, nothing catalogued. Whole storerooms were made a present of to the vilest creatures. Actors and actresses of burlesque were busy each with plunder of their own. The mansion was full of dice players and drunkards. There was drinking from morning to night, and that in many places. His losses at dice (for even he is not always lucky) kept mounting up. In the chambers of slaves you might see on the beds the purple coverlets which had belonged to the great Pompey. No wonder that all this wealth was spent so quickly. Reckless men so abandoned might well have speedily devoured, not only the patrimony of a single citizen, however ample—and ample it was—but whole cities and kingdoms."

The speech was never delivered but circulated in writing. Towards the end of 44, Antony, who found the army deserting him for the young Octavius, left Rome, and hastened into northern Italy, to attack Decimus Brutus. Brutus was not strong enough to venture on a battle with him, and shut himself up in Mutina. Cicero continued to take the leading part in affairs at Rome, delivering the third and fourth Philippics in December, 44, and the ten others during the five months off the following year. The fourteenth was spoken in the Senate, when the fortunes of the falling republic seem to have revived. A great battle had been fought at Mutina, in which Antony had been completely defeated; and Cicero proposed thanks to the commanders and troops, and honours to those who had fallen.

The joy with which these tidings had been received was but very brief. Of the three generals named in the vote of thanks the two who had been loyal to the republic were dead; the third, the young Octavius, had found the opportunity for which he had been waiting of betraying it. The soldiers were ready to do his bidding, and he resolved to seize by their help the inheritance of power which his uncle had left him. Antony had fled across the Alps, and had been received by Lepidus, who was in command of a large army in that province. Lepidus resolved to play the part which Crassus had played sixteen years before. He brought about a reconciliation between Octavius and Antony, as Crassus had reconciled Pompey and Cæsar, and was himself admitted as a third into their alliance. Thus was formed the Second Triumvirate.



The three chiefs who had agreed to divide the Roman world between them met on a little island near Bononia (the modern Bologna) and discussed their plans. Three days were given to their consultations, the chief subject being the catalogue of enemies, public and private, who were to be destroyed. Each had a list of his own; and on Antony's the first name was Cicero. Lepidus assented, as he was ready to assent to all the demands of his more resolute colleagues; but the young Octavius is said to have long resisted, and to have given way only on the last day. A list of between two and three thousand names of senators and knights was drawn up. Seventeen were singled out for instant execution, and among these seventeen was Cicero. He was staying at his home in Tusculum with his brother Quintus when the news reached him. His first impulse was to make for the sea-coast. If he could reach Macedonia, where Brutus had a powerful army, he would, for a time at least, be safe. The two brothers started. But Quintus had little or nothing with him, and was obliged to go home to fetch some money. Cicero, who was himself but ill provided, pursued his journey alone. Reaching the coast, he embarked. When it came to the point of leaving Italy his resolution failed him. He had always felt the greatest aversion for camp life. He had had an odious experience of it when Pompey was struggling with Cæsar for the mastery. He would sooner die, he thought, than make trial of it again. He landed, and travelled twelve miles towards Rome. Some afterwards said that he still cherished hopes of being protected by Antony; others that it was his purpose to make his way into the house of Octavius and kill himself on his hearth, cursing him with his last breath, but that he was deterred by the fear of being seized and tortured. Anyhow, he turned back, and allowed his slaves to take him to Capua. The plan of taking refuge with Brutus was probably urged upon him by his companions, who felt that this gave the only chance of their own escape. Again he embarked, and again he landed. Plutarch tells a strange story of a flock of ravens that settled on the yardarms of his ship while he was on board, and on the windows of the villa in which he passed the night. One bird, he says, flew upon his couch and pecked at the cloak in which he had wrapped himself. His slaves reproached themselves at allowing a master, whom the very animals were thus seeking to help, to perish before their eyes. Almost by main force they put him into his litter and carried him towards the coast. Antony's soldiers now reached the villa, the officer in command being an old client whom Cicero had successfully defended on a charge of murder. They found the doors shut and burst them open. The inmates denied all knowledge of their master's movements, till a young Greek, one of his brother's freedmen, whom Cicero had taken a pleasure in teaching, showed the officer the litter which was being carried through the shrubbery of the villa to the sea. Taking with him some of his men, he hastened to follow. Cicero, hearing their steps, bade the bearers set the litter on the ground. He looked out, and stroking his chin with his left hand, as his habit was, looked steadfastly at the murderers. His face was pale and worn with care. The officer struck him on the neck with his sword, some of the rough soldiers turning away while the deed was done. The head and hands were cut off by order of Antony, and nailed up in the Forum.

Many years afterwards the Emperor Augustus (the Octavius of this chapter), coming unexpectedly upon one of his grandsons, saw the lad seek to hide in his robe a volume which he had been reading. He took it, and found it to be one of the treatises of Cicero. He returned it with words which I would here repeat: "He was a good man and a lover of his country."