Reading The Roman Revolution 14: The Proscriptions

This chapter of The Roman Revolution is chilling. Syme describes emergence of the so-called second triumvirate and the proscriptions that they enacted on the Roman aristocracy. The chapter starts with Octavianus occupying Rome and negotiating an alliance with Antonius and Lepidus who were both the proximate threats to his position and shared his animosity toward the Liberators who had amassed an army in the East. 

The alliance between Octavianus, Lepidus, and Antonius occurred at Bononia and once it was formalized in Rome under the Lex Titia, the city “shivered under fear and portents.” Syme does not mince words: “Roman society under the terror witnessed the triumph of the dark passions of cruelty and revenge, of the ignoble vices of cupidity and treachery.” And he does not deflect the blame from Octavianus onto the more experienced Antonius and the flaccid Lepidus:  “Caesar’s heir was no longer a rash youth but a chill and mature terrorist. Condemnation and are apology, however, are equally out of place…The Triumvirs were pitiless, logical and concordant.

The proscriptions were designed to eliminate whatever opposition remained and to accumulate wealth from the the sale of their properties. By the end of the proscriptions, the Senate and aristocracy was unrecognizable. Those who were not killed fled: “Less spectacular than the decadence of the principes, but not less to be deplored, were the gaps in other ranks and orders. The bulk of the nobiles, both ex-Pompeians and adherents of Caesar, banished from Italy, were with the Liberators or with Sex. Pompeius.”

The triumvirs repopulated the senate with their creatures and watered down magistracies by expanding their number and the frequency of their appointments. Under their reign, the Senate increased to over 1000 members. Syme, who felt only the weakest sympathy for the traditional Roman aristocracy and the old order, noted: “The foundations of the new order were cemented with the blood of citizens and buttressed with a despotism that made men recall the of Caesar as an age of gold.” The new leaders of the Caesarean party, at least in the field, included many of non-Latin origin.

Syme’s treatment of the proscriptions was both distant and elusive. He barely notes Cicero’s demise and from this point forward in the book, the last hope for the Republic recedes from view to become a well-cited source for past practices. There’s something anti-climatic about this chapter considering the weighty and somber paragraphs the mark its conclusion: 

The Republic had been abolished. Whatever the outcome of the armed struggle, it could never be restored. Despotism ruled, supported by violence and confiscation. The best men were dead or proscribed. The Senate was packed with ruffians, the consulate, once the reward of civic virtue, now became the recompense of craft or crime.

‘Non mos, non ius.’ So might the period be described. But the Caesarians claimed a right and a duty that transcended all else, the avenging of Caesar. Pietas prevailed, and out of the blood of Caesar the monarchy was born.”


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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