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Book I
Chapter II

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
John Buchan

published by
Hodder and Stoughton
London 1937

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book II
Chapter II

Book II: Caesar Octavianus

 p65  Chapter I

The Triumvirate: Philippi
(B.C. 43‑42)

My fate cries out,

And makes each petty artery in this body

As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve.

Still am I called!



Octavian moved north in September, nominally to oppose Antony as well as to do justice on the luckless Decimus. He waited in Cisalpine Gaul, while Antony and Lepidus, now joined by the troops of Plancus, came south to meet him. The meeting, prepared for by much correspondence, took place on an island in a tributary of the Po, between Bononia and Mutina, at the close of October or the beginning of November. For two days the three conferred, and terms of settlement were agreed upon. Octavian surrendered his consulship, which went to Antony's creature, the ex‑muleteer Ventidius Bassus; Lepidus and Plancus were to be consuls for the year 42; for the rest of the year, and for five years following, Lepidus, Antony and Octavian were to be appointed triumvirs for reconstituting the Republic, with overriding executive and legislative powers, a dictatorship without the name. Brutus and Cassius held the East, but the western empire was apportioned between the three. Antony took Cisalpine and Celtic Gaul, Lepidus the Narbonese and Spain, while to Octavian fell Africa and the islands, the least easy command, since Sextus Pompeius held the seas. The soldiers approved the pact, for it meant the narrowing of the possibilities, or at any rate the area, of civil war. They were further conciliated by the promise of large grants of good Italian land, and by the announcement of the betrothal of Octavian to Claudia, Antony's stepdaughter  p66 and Fulvia's child. The Caesarians were at last united.

The allies marched upon Rome and the triumvirate was proclaimed. Appian has preserved the terms of the proclamation.1 Vengeance upon the murderers of Julius was alleged as the chief motive, but before the arch-assassins, Brutus and Cassius, could be followed overseas, it was necessary to make Italy safe for the triumvirs. Also, to furnish a war‑chest and to pay bounties to the troops, money must be raised, since the state treasury was empty. That meant a proscription on Sulla's lines. A small preliminary list of the proscribed was drawn up in the north, on which appeared Cicero's name. Then came a long list of three hundred senators and two thousand knights — rich men whose money was wanted, dangerous and uncertain men, private enemies of this or that triumvir. Shakespeare has pictured the ghoulish chaffering:

Ant. These many, then, shall die: their names are pricked.
Oct. Your brother too must die: consent you, Lepidus?
Lep. I do consent —
Oct.     Prick him down, Antony.
Lep. Upon condition Publius shall not live,

Who is your sister's son, Mark Antony.

Ant. He shall not live; look, with a spot I damn him.2

Then till the close of the year the four horsemen of the Apocalypse rode abroad in the land. Some of the proscribed escaped overseas to Brutus and Cassius and Sextus Pompeius. Some were saved by the fidelity of their slaves and kinfolk. Some were begged off by gentle women like Octavia. But blood ran like water, and Pedius, the other consul, died of the horror of it. The triumvirs achieved their purpose. They could now cross the sea with a maimed and silent land behind them, and they had amassed from confiscations enough to furnish the sinews of war.

Death of Cicero Among the first to die was Cicero. He had little estate, only debts, but Antony could not forgive the lash of the Philippics. Plutarch has told the tale of that winter afternoon in the wood by the sea‑shore when the  p67 old man stretched out his frail neck to the centurion's sword, and of that later day in Rome when the head was fixed by Antony's order above the Rostra, and "the Romans shuddered, for they seemed to see there, not the face of Cicero but the image of Antony's soul."3 He met his death in the high Roman fashion — the only misfortune of his life, says Livy, which he faced like a man. The verdict is scarcely fair; juster is the comment of the same historian that he was so great a figure that it would require a Cicero to praise him adequately. In the wild years when the Roman Republic fell, the thinker and the scholar does not fill the eye in the same way as the forthright man of action, and Cicero is dim in the vast shadow of Julius. His weaknesses are clear for a child to read, his innocent vanity, his lack of realism, his sentimentality about dead things, his morbid sensitiveness, his imperfect judgment of character, his frequent fits of timidity. The big head, the thin neck, the mobile mouth of the orator could not dominate men like the eagle face of Julius. He failed and perished because he was Cicero. The man of letters in a crisis, who looks round a question, cannot have the single-hearted force of him who sees the instant need. Yet it is to be remembered that he could conquer his natural timorousness and act on occasion with supreme audacity, a far greater achievement than the swashbuckling valour of an Antony. And let it be remembered, too, that it was Cicero's creed which ultimately triumphed. His dream came true. His humanism and his humanity made him the prophet of a gentler world. The man to whom St. Augustine owed the first step in his conversion,4 who was to St. Ambrose a model and to St. Jerome "rex oratorum," the scholar whose work was the mainspring of the Renaissance, has had an abiding influence on the world. While others enlarged the limits of the Roman empire, he "advanced the boundaries of the Latin genius."5

 p68  The proscription of the triumvirs is the darkest stain upon Octavian's record. So dark, that ancient writers looking on the beneficent rule of Augustus, were driven to assume what psychologists call "dissociated personalities" — youth debauched, pitiless and self-centred, which by some miracle was changed by success into a pattern of virtue. Others have attributed the transformation to sheer satiety with evil.6 Human nature has a love for violent drama and undue simplification, which sober history cannot accept. It must not be forgotten that Octavian lived under a fierce light, and that in a civil war the wildest gossip is believed. When, after the fall of the Julio-Claudian house, historians need no longer be circumspect, ancient tattle was resurrected. It may fairly be said that most of the scandals about Octavian's youth should be taken as the malice of Antony's faction,7 reproduced in later generations for political ends. But one fact remains which no apologist has adequately excused,8 his responsibility for a campaign of brutal murder. A fissure in his nature, a miraculous change of heart, are too facile explanations. The proscription was in keeping with a character which had in it strange depths of good and evil, and which, though it broadened and mellowed with the years, remained in essence the same.

In Octavian the emotional side was slow to develop, but from the start the rational was all‑powerful. He had always a capacity for affection, even deep affection, but its area was strictly circumscribed. He had this love for his mother Atia, who died at the beginning of the triumvirate; for Julius, in whose case it was joined with a profound intellectual reverence; for Agrippa and Maecenas, where it had something of the camaraderie of youth engaged in the same adventure. In later years it was extended to certain members of his family. For these few it was a strong emotion; the rest of the world he regarded at first with suspicion, and never, even when success came, with more than a tepid benevolence. Octavian's PurposeBut on the intellectual side he had certain purposes held with  p69 a serious passion. The first was to finish the task of reshaping the empire which his great-uncle had begun. A second was to be himself the chief agent in that work. We need not credit him at the age of nineteen with even the rudiments of the policy which made the principate. What he possessed from the start were certain guiding ideas derived from Julius, a passion for order, a realism about facts, and a belief that he possessed a capacity for reconstruction. So in his intricate course he moved by the light of three principles. One was emotional — the avenging of Julius, a motive into which there entered something of the Roman "pietas." A second was intellectual, a determination to bring order out of chaos, a polity out of banditry. This purpose he held with the rigidity of a devotee. The state should be re‑made at whatever cost, and only violence could curb violence. To this task he brought both the stony-heartedness of self-absorbed youth, and the moral opportunism of the fanatic. His view was that of Horace Walpole: "No great country was ever saved by good men, because good men will not go the lengths that may be necessary."

There was a third purpose, in which the emotional and the rational were blended. He had a strong vein of superstition, unlike the cool scepticism of Julius, and he was avid of omens. He believed himself destined for a high mission, to which personal happiness, friendship, ease, common morality must all be sacrificed. Like Napoleon he followed his star. The conviction gave his youth that confidence which a Calvinist gets from the sense that his every step is divinely ordained. "Italiam non sponte sequor" — the cry of Aeneas was always his assurance and consolation.

To a mind thus constituted the proscription was warranted both by public and personal necessities. Brutus and Cassius, with the armies of the East, had still to be accounted for. The Senate and the republicans had revealed their bitter enemy. Their fangs must be drawn, and their estates mulcted. "Since we intend," ran the triumvirs' proclamation to the Roman people, "to conduct this war at a distance on your behalf, it does not seem to us to be safe either for us or for you to leave  p70 the rest of our enemies here behind us, since they would take advantage of our absence and lie in wait for the accidents of war. Nor do we think that, in the present emergency, we ought to be slow to act from any consideration for them, but rather we must put them one and all out of the way." Brutal, but not without warrant from common sense. It was undoubtedly what the republicans would have done to the Caesarians, had they been uppermost. As for Octavian himself, he was still on a razor edge. He was facing implacable foes. Assassins waited for him at every street corner. He had painfully built up his purchase with Antony; if by a half-hearted policy he should weaken the alliance, and the alliance failed, he himself would be the first victim. To insist upon clemency in the circumstances would not only have required quixotic courage, but would have demanded the surrender of every hope he had cherished since boyhood, and the sacrifice of the toil of eighteen desperate months. On the facts Octavian's conduct can be understood, if it cannot be defended.

We must judge it, too, in the light of the moral standards of his day. The past century had been a reign of terror, for Rome had seen nine separate civil wars, four deliberate massacres, and a long series of political murderers from the Gracchi to Julius. The life-and‑death struggle with Hannibal, with incidents in it which were no better than human sacrifices,9 had permanently debased the Roman temper and left in it a core of hard inhumanity. Cicero might found law upon the natural love of man for man,10 but the Roman jurist would have had a long search for that commodity. Even Virgil, the prophet of a better world, permits Aeneas, the ideal figure which to some extent personified the later Augustus, to suffer prisoners in bonds to be immolated on Pallas's funeral pyre. To the Roman of the day the triumvirs' doings cannot have seemed more barbarous than other events in comparatively recent history, than the Gracchan slaughterings, or Sulla's proscription, or  p71 the public butchery of seven thousand Samnites, or the six thousand gladiators of Spartacus crucified along the road to Capua.

Of the three men responsible Octavian alone showed some glimmerings of mercy. He had at the start opposed the proscription, but when it was agreed upon he bargained as closely as his colleagues, and he was inflexible in carrying out its main purpose, on the ground that that kind of thing must be done effectively or not at all.11 But it is clear that, outside that purpose, he alone of the triumvirs tried to mitigate the hideous business. His cruelty was politic, not temperamental. In the beautiful story of Vispullo and Turia it was Octavian who removed the husband's name from the list of the doomed.12

Octavian and Cicero It is his consent to Cicero's death that has most smirched his repute with posterity. But between him and Cicero there was no kindness. The young man had learned from the elder much that he was one day to put into practice, but the link was of the head, not of the heart. Forty years later, when he found a grandson reading a book of the old philosopher, he spoke of the author as a good man who loved his country,13 but it is fantastic to see in that tribute penitence for his share in his death. To Octavian, Cicero must have been always the head and front of offence. He had been notoriously ungrateful to Julius who had befriended him; he had exulted hysterically at the Ides of March, and had made gods and heroes of the assassins; he was the brain of the faction which sought to revive the derelict Republic. He had been willing to use Octavian as a tool, but had made no secret of his intention to discard him when he had served his purpose. Was it unnatural that Octavian should do the same by Cicero?


The year 42 B.C. opened anxiously for the triumvirs. They had made a peace of death in Italy, but outside Italy  p72 formidable forces were massing against them. Pompey's son Sextus had maintained himself after Munda in the western seas, and had drawn to himself a great following of old Pompeians. Antony had negotiated with him, but could not pay the five millions sterling which he demanded as the value of his father's property; the Senate had promised him everything and made him admiral-in‑chief; the triumvirs had put him on the list of the proscribed. Sextus retaliated by seizing Sicily and Sardinia, and making these islands a cave of Adullam for exiled republicans, and threatening the sea‑borne supplies of Rome. The pirate had become an independent potentate. In the East the situation was still more menacing. Cassius was in control of Asia, and busy levying troops and amassing treasure. He had scared Dolabella into suicide, and had got together a formidable fleet, part of which was used to immobilize Cleopatra in Egypt, and part, under Statius Murcus and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, to watch the Adriatic. Brutus relinquished his province of Macedonia, and in the early spring met Cassius at Smyrna and settled a strategical plan. They believed that Sextus Pompeius would keep the triumvirs busy in Italy, and that their first task was to strengthen their grip on the East. They plundered the cities of Asia, patched up a peace with Orodes of Parthia, and in September crossed the Hellespont and took up a position west of Philippi, astride the Via Egnatia and within reach of their fleet at Neapolis. They controlled the sea and the richest part of the empire, and they believed that they could hold the triumvirs to a stalemate till hunger or sedition broke down their armies.

Antony had a difficult part to play, for he had to keep facing both ways. He sent Gaius Norbanus and Decidius Saxa with eight legions across the Adriatic, while he got together the twenty legions which were to be his main expeditionary force for the East. But difficulties of transport and the constant threat from the sea delayed him, and it was not till well on in the summer that the ships could sail. Octavian meantime had his own troubles. On January 1 the Senate had deified Julius, so now — for what it might be worth — he was "divi filius,"  p73 the son of a god. He was instructed to take order with Sextus Pompeius, but the expedition which he sent against him under Salvidienus Rufus was a fiasco. Then his health failed him; it had never been good, and it had been weakened by the excitements of the past two years. But when Antony summoned him and his fleet to his aid at Brundisium he dared not refuse. If Brutus and Cassius were to be crushed, Antony could not be allowed to have all the glory; if they won, he could do nothing in Italy to stave off the irretrievable ruin.

Norbanus and Decidius, marching along the Egnatian Way, secured Amphipolis, passed beyond Philippi, and occupied the passes of the hills. There in late September they came into touch with the advancing republicans. But the latter by a flank move compelled the triumvirs' advanced guide to fall back on Amphipolis, and themselves took up at Philippi a strong position on high ground defended on the north by mountains and on the south by a sea‑marsh. Antony, fearing for Amphipolis, hurried along the Egnatian Way, and Octavian, whom ill‑health had delayed at Dyrrachium, forced himself to join him.

Before Philippi Philippi, though a decisive event in the world's history, is without military interest as a battle. The armies were nearly equal in infantry, each nineteen legions, and the better quality and training of the Caesarians was balanced by the republican superiority in cavalry. The aim of Brutus and Cassius, with the fleet and the rich East to support them, was to let the enemy break his strength on an impregnable fortress, while that of Antony was to bring matters to a decision at once, since he could not afford to wait. During the first days of October, a season of wind and rain, he offered battle many times but without result. Then he decided to try to cut the enemy's communications with Neapolis, and began to construct by night a causeway across the sea‑marsh. The campaign had become a struggle of engineers, like so many of Julius's. Cassius, who commanded on the enemy's left, started counter-works, and battle was joined apparently more by accident than design. The troops of Brutus on the right routed  p74 Octavian and broke into his camp, but Antony's fierce assault carried the day in his section and drove Cassius from his entrenchments. Cassius, ignorant of Brutus's success and believing his own capture inevitable, fell on his sword, and the news of his death forced Brutus to retire from the ground he had won. For a fortnight he held his position, but he could not restrain the impatience of his troops and was forced to take the offensive. The triumvirs were quick to seize the chance, for news had come that Murcus and Ahenobarbus had destroyed the transports carrying their reinforcements. The fighting began in the late afternoon of October 23, and in a short time the triumvirs had broken the three lines of the enemy, and, while Octavian stormed the camp, Antony pursued the fugitives into the hills. Brutus with four legions retreated in good order, but next morning, finding escape impossible, he induced a freedman to slay him.14

Brutus With Brutus perished the republican cause, for he alone of its leaders had the moral authority which can dignify stagnation and reaction. It is a strange accident which has given him so great a name in history, for the man himself was inconsiderable. Of the two chief enemies of Julius, Cassius was the more vigorous and resolute in action, but he was a type common in history, the ambitious condottiere who can readily adapt a principle to self-interest. Brutus was a rarer species, who both impressed and puzzled his contemporaries. Julius out of friendship for his mother Servilia was his constant patron, and seems to have regarded him with a half-amused respect as an interesting relic; it was his policy, too, as it was Napoleon's, to be polite to the old nobility. The famous comment on him, "Quicquid vult valde vult,"15 is as much a criticism of his limited outlook as of  p75 his intensity of purpose. Cicero wrangled with him and flattered him, but does not seem to have greatly liked him. Brutus had a solemn condescending manner, a hard face, a pedantic style in speech and writing, and a stiff ungracious character. He was capable of extreme harshness, as he showed in his treatment of the Asian cities before Philippi, and he was to the last degree avaricious. There was little principle about him when his investments were in question, and he extorted forty-eight per cent from one wretched Cypriote community.16 His philosophy of life was not profound, and he died abjuring his creed.17 He was an egotist and a formalist, yet he won an extraordinary prestige, for to his contemporaries he seemed the living embodiment of certain ancient virtues which had gone out of the world. To adopt Sydney Smith's phrase about Francis Horner, he had the Roman equivalent of the Ten Commandments written on his countenance and about him an air of inaccessible respectability. History has by one of its freaks perpetuated this repute, and he remains the "noblest Roman" when in truth he was a commonplace example of aristocratic virtues and vices. Cicero was in a far truer sense the last republican.

The half-educated Antony had an admiration for acquirements and qualities which he did not share, and was prepared to treat the dead regicide with honour. Octavian is said to have been harsh to the prisoners, and especially to have insulted Brutus's remains. The stories do not hang together,18 but one thing is plain: Octavian could not away with Brutus, disliking both the individual and the type. He detested the man who had been Julius's protégé and also his murderer. As for the type, he was as intolerant of it as his great-uncle had been of Cato. It seemed to him, in Cicero's phrase, a mere desert island, "shore and sky and utter desolation."

The Author's Notes:

1 IV.6.

2 Julius Caesar, Act IV.

3 Plut. Cic. 47, 48.

4 "Ille vero liber (Cicero's Hortensius) mutavit affectum meum, et ad te ipsum, Domine, mutavit preces meas et vota ac desideria mea fecit alia." Confess.III.4.

5 Julius's own tribute. Cic. ad Brut. 72; Pliny N. H. VII.117.

6 "Lassam crudelitatem," Seneca, de clem. I.9.

7 e.g. Suet. Div. Aug. 68, 69. See pp88‑9 infra.

8 Attempts will be found in Vell. II.61, and Dio XLVII.7.

9 Livy XXII.57.6.

10 "Natura propensi sumus ad diligendos homines, quod fundamentum iuris est." de Leg. I.43.

11 Suet. Div. Aug. 27.

12 App. IV.16; Val. Max. VI.7.2;º C. I. L. VI.1527; Dessau, 8393.

13 Macrob. Saturn. II.4.18; Plut. Cic. 49.

Thayer's Note: In the edition of Macrobius online, Caesar is speaking not of Cicero, but of Cato.

14 The authorities for Philippi are App. IV.108 sqq.; Dio XLVII.41 sqq.; Vell. II.70; Plut. Ant. 22; Brut. 41 sqq. For the troops engaged see Rice Holmes, I.217. The date of the second battle is fixed by the latest found fragments of the Fasti of Praeneste. The battle has been reconstructed by Rice Holmes, I.84‑8, and Ferrero, III.201‑7; cf. also Kromayer, Schlachten-Atlas Roms, Abt. IV. There is a careful study of the preliminary movements by P. Collart in Bull. de C. bell., LIII (1929) 351‑64.

15 Cic. ad Att. XIV.1;º cf. Tyrrell, V.249.

16 Cic. ad Att. V.21; VI.1.2.

17 Dio XLVI.49.

18 They will be found in Suet. Div. Aug. 13; App. IV.135; Plut. Ant. 22; Brut. 53; but see Mon. Anc. I.13‑15, and Ulpian, Dig. XLVIII.24.

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