BMCR 1994.02.08

1994.02.08, Weigel, Lepidus the Tarnished Triumvir

, Lepidus : the tarnished triumvir. London: Routledge, 1992. 1 online resource (179 pages). ISBN 9780203032633.

The title of this book immediately suggests that it is going to be written from a certain point of view, that it will persuade the reader that M. Aemilius Lepidus (cos 46) has been hardly done by and that most works about him are substantially at the mercy of hostile sources and therefore wrong. The first chapter, which sets out the problem, confirms the impressions of the title. ‘Through a careful examination of the three specific incidents contributing to the generally negative impression of Lepidus, one can see that a large part of that judgement was politically motivated and far from objective’ (p. 4).

The work thus has a stated purpose: to redeem Lepidus from the unkind judgement passed on him by history. Although Weigel states that he does not intend to gloss over the faults of the subject (p. 4), by locking himself into the genre of ‘redemptionist biography’, he must necessarily do so. By focusing on one figure in a very complex period, and that figure, for all the work would like to prove otherwise, still not a major one, Weigel allows to slip by him much of the peripheral vision which might allow Lepidus to take his true place in his context. By dismissing the judgements of Lepidus’ contemporaries upon him, the author refuses to see their significance. They are tendentious (which judgements in such a situation of civil war are not?!), but there is reason behind them and it does not pay to divorce Lepidus from them.

Weigel’s work is most useful in dealing with Lepidus in the forties, the decade in which he was most successful and a period which is too often overlooked in the race to get to the Augustan age. He points out the relationship between Caesar and Lepidus and the trust which Caesar legitimately placed in someone everyone else found untrustworthy. While I might disagree with some points of argument, the general significance of this relationship is rightfully explored. However, the underlying need to prove that Lepidus was really a reasonable human being takes from the overall usefulness of the work. Nor does the author really come to terms with what Caesar is and represents in the period.

There is a noticeable tendency throughout the work to write in the subjunctive. The book is overfull of ‘probably’, ‘must have been’, ‘might have been’, ‘it seems quite possible that’, or ‘it seems most likely’. This denotes Weigel’s lack of ability to come to terms with the limits of his evidence. Some effort to fill in the gaps of history should certainly be allowed to the historian, but the desire to do it so often results in an annoying feeling that there is nothing really to grasp at. Nor are theoretical explorations of Lepidus’ psyche particularly helpful, for example (p. 42 on the death of Caesar): ‘In some ways, it was like the period of his life when his father and oldest brother were taken away suddenly, but this time so much more was expected of him individually’.

The more fatal flaws in the book are revealed at points where Weigel fails to provide any real analysis of key problems. He skirts around the question of exactly when it was Lepidus threw in his lot with Caesar, suggesting at one point that it might have been in the early fifties and later that Lepidus might still have been an optimate in the late fifties. He notes the trauma of Caesar’s death for Lepidus without going on to say that this in fact was the true beginning of Lepidus’ end, because all Lepidus’ power (so obvious in the forties) was actually derived from Caesar and Lepidus was not successful in setting up any really lasting basis for power. He comes very close to realising it, for example on p. 29: ‘It probably did not trouble Lepidus too much that his success was to some extent a result of his loyal service to another man because that condition was becoming practically mandatory for the ambitious Roman noble of his time.’ However, Weigel does not bring home that this is the crux of Lepidus’ problem; that this is where he differs from Mark Antony, who in various ways made sure that his power had a wider foundation, and so was able to give Octavian a far better run for his money; that, as the quotation from Gowing’s work on the subject provided on p. 135 of the work shows, Lepidus was out of his league.

Lepidus’ competence is correctly stressed, especially in the field of administration and diplomacy, both talents which made him extremely attractive to Caesar and very important in the dictator’s regime. However, it is only when Lepidus is placed in the context of his times, when the trends of the period are analysed, that his amazing career and the reasons for his contemporary vilification can be fully appreciated. The hatred of Cicero and Decimus Brutus should be separated from Octavianic propaganda which sprang from a very different set of needs. Neither should Shakespeare, a dramatist after all, trouble the historian quite as much as he appears to trouble the author. A study of Lepidus needs now to ask why he aroused such hatred when he was such a reasonable and pleasant person, why a ‘typical Roman noble’ could end in such a heap. A biography which principally seeks to remove the tarnish can at best fulfill this need only in part.