Reading the Roman Revolution 7: The Consul Antonius

With the assassination of Caesar, the real consequences of the Civil War and the political resilience of Caesar’s party emerge, at least for a moment, in the ascendency of M. Antonius. In chapter 7 of his The Roman Revolution Syme’s description of Antonius finds once again in a more lyrical mode through which he balances his vivid description with doses of political theory and narrative. 

The will of Caesar was upheld allowing for both the liberators and the members of Caesar’s party to enjoy the rewards offered by the dictator. And, it almost appeared, for a moment, that Rome would return to a kind of constitutional rule. 

This was illusory: “Antonius had played his hand with cool skill. The Liberators and their friends had lost, at once and for ever, the chance of gaining an ascendancy over the Senate. The people, unfriendly to begin with, turned sharply against them. Accident blended with design.”

To Syme, the Antonius’s funeral oration for Caesar was just made the fate of the Liberators clear. They had little support and the assassination of Caesar was, in Cicero’s words: “animo virili, consilio puerili.” The ratification of Caesar’s laws two days after his death and the distribution of magistracies and provinces ensured that partisans of Caesar and of the Liberators both had reasons to preserve Caesar’s legacy.   

For whatever reason, I love this passage, maybe because I am a Romanist working in the Greek world: “The Liberators had not planned a seizure of power. Their occupation of the Capitol was a symbolical act, antiquarian and even Hellenic. But Rome was not a Greek city, to be mastered from its citadel.”

Antonius controlled the situation on the ground and revealed himself to be not lacking political skill. The absence of the old guard nobility, largely killed or discredited during the Civil War, created an environment for Antonius to wield considerable influence with few rivals. Even Cicero (in another brilliant passage): “Cicero, who had lent his eloquence to all political causes in turn, was sincere in one thing, loyalty to the established order. His past career showed that he could not be depended on for action or for statesmanship; and the conspirators had not initiated him into their designs. The public support of Cicero would be of inestimable value after a revolution had succeeded.”

Syme’s analysis of the Roman plebs is also likewise pessimistic: “Debauched by demagogues and largess, the Roman People was ready for the Empire and the dispensation of bread and games.”  The Italians were no more willing to support the Liberators, even after their flight to various communities in Latium, the wealthy equites were not willing to fund their resistance (“Demonstrations of sympathy cost nothing. Money was another matter”), and the legions were loyal to Caesar’s memory and Antonius.

And, in the end, despite the negative impression of Antonius (a Roman Alcibiades) left in the sources, Syme reminds us (mixing a bit of historical critique with some political theorizing): “He belonged to a class of Roman nobles by no means uncommon under the Republic or Empire whose unofficial follies did not prevent them from rising, when duty called, to services of conspicuous ability or the most disinterested patriotism. For such men, the most austere of historians cannot altogether suppress a timid and perhaps perverse admiration. A blameless life is not the whole of virtue, and inflexible rectitude may prove a menace to the Commonwealth.”

In other words, whatever the flaws of his character, “Chance and his own resolution had given Antonius a position of vantage. At first he seems harmless: before long he was seen as a resourceful politician presenting a double front, both Caesarian and Republican, and advancing steadily.”

The chapter ends with Antonius out of Rome working on the settlement of some of Caesar’s legions in Campania. “When he returned, it was to discover with dismay that a new and incalculable factor had impinged upon Roman politics.”



The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

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