Reading The Roman Revolution 12: The Senate Against Antonius

In the 12th chapter of The Roman Revolution, Ronald Syme immerses the reader in the tense action of the year 43 BC in the immediate aftermath of Antonius’s consulship. Cicero takes center stage as the leader of a reluctant Senate. 

Syme has prepared us to understand Cicero’s position in the Late Republic with considerable cynicism. His opportunistic character, exaggerated view of his own historical and political significance, and desperate desire to align himself with power compromised any noble motivation that history might impute. In 44 and 43, Syme makes clear that his return to significance was as much the product of the power vacuum created by the dearth of consulars whose ranks civil war, age, and wariness of the overheated political environment had thinned. 

As a result, Syme’s prosopographic approach had to take a backseat to his ability to describe the actions of the elite. At a few points, he still couldn’t resist a pithy shot at some of the major actors of the Late Republican drama. “Where Lepidus stood, if the word can be used of this flimsy character, was with Antonius…” Aulus Hirtius, despite his somewhat uneven reputation in the ancient literature and his being a “comfortable person of scholarly tastes, in high repute as a gourmet…” in Chapter 5, could, in Chapter 12, still rise “weak and emaciated from his bed of sickness, [to] set out for the seat of war.” Hirtius would fall later that year at the Battle of Mutina and I find it charming to imagine that Syme approved of the scholarly and sophisticated consular emerging as an early martyr for the Republican cause.

Octavian, for his part, remains marginal in this chapter, as Antonius, Cicero, and the Liberators arrange their alliances and move toward conflict. In the East, Brutus and Cassius appear to have marshaled the Caesarean forces against Antonius. Cicero convinced the Senate to authorize their unconventional commands. While Antonius had allies in the West, like the spineless Lepidus, they were distant from his position in Cisalpine Gaul and reluctant to commit to what might be a lost cause. The Senate marshaled forces in Italy who filled the ranks of the legions sent north to face the increasingly isolated Antonius.

Syme presents the lead up to the Battle of Mutina in a series of fine passages. Short sentences and short paragraphs create a sense of acceleration and urgency and tension:

Seven days later, Antonius was forced to risk a battle at Mutina. He was defeated but not routed; on the other side, Hirtius fell. In the field Antonius was rapid of decision. On the day after the defeat he got the remnants of his army into order and set out along the Aemilia towards the west, making for Gallia Narbonensis and the support of Lepidus and Plancus, assured to him a month earlier, but now highly dubious.

At Rome the exultation was unbounded. Antonius and his followers were at last declared public enemies…

Syme allows us to revel in the success of the Republican cause for just a moment. He reminds us: 

Cicero had boasted in the Senate that the Caesarian veterans were on the wane, no match for the fervour of the levies of patriotic Republican Italy. When it came to battle at Mutina, the grim and silent sword work of the veterans terrified the raw recruits. The carnage was tremendous.

More than that, Syme reminds us in the final paragraph of the chapter that Cicero’s strategy was flawed: “The ingenious policy of destroying Antonius and elevating Caesar’s heir commended itself neither to the generals of the western provinces nor to the Liberators … The unnatural compact between the revolutionary leader and the constitutional party crumbled and crashed to the ground.” 


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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