BMCR 2006.10.30

Caesar’s Legacy: Civil War and the Emergence of the Roman Empire

, Caesar's legacy : civil war and the emergence of the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xii, 440 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521855829 $29.99 (pb).

Table of Contents

“The Triumviral period is tangled, chaotic and hideous. To take it all for granted, however, and make a clean beginning after Actium … is an offence against the nature of history …”1 Syme’s famous footnote insists that there is no Augustan history without Triumviral history. But for all that, soon after the death of the historian who dominated the field for half a century, there occurred a rush to new perspectives and re-evaluations of the Augustan period, yet the triumviral remained forgotten. The chapter headings in the handbooks of Latin literature attest a clean break between the late republic and the age of Augustus, the golden age. Horace, Livy, Vergil: all are Augustan authors. Sallust and Cicero belong to the late republic. Augustan culture lies apart, and we are strangely inclined to study it on its own.

One can speak with validity and compendiously about an Augustan age. But ignoring the triumviral period or treating it, however unwittingly, as a vague appendage, is like writing a book on early American history and starting chapter one just after Yorktown, with the war of independence and its preliminaries summarized in the introduction for historical context. Yet the upheaval the Romans experienced in the transformation to the principate was longer and hardly less traumatic, and the themes that emerged during them no less important for their new system.

Josiah Osgood (hence O.) offers us the first real attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of the triumviral period, to hear the forgotten voices of those who experienced that apocalyptic pandemonium and felt the final relief of the principate. As he shows from the outset, providing a narrative of the time was problematic even in antiquity (the emperor Claudius was discouraged from writing about it, and there are famous silences in the Res Gestae). From the start it must be stated that I feel that O. has succeeded in creating something useful, original and noteworthy.

In his introduction, the author outlines a comprehensive and Herculean treatment of the period that incorporates virtually every available source: poetry, historical narratives, Cicero’s epistles and speeches, biographies, coins, inscriptions, art and archaeology. He does not limit his application of the sources to Rome and Italy, but includes provincial material too. His method generally seeks to situate the reader into the narratives and constructs of the period in real time, as events unfold, and he has a wonderful way of walking the reader through events and then pausing to let the sources speak for themselves. More importantly, the fact that he does not limit his source material, or make his chapters author- or genre-specific, means that often these sources speak to one another.

As I will explain later, O.’s work is very diffuse, and more concerned with generating an overall picture by lacing historical narrative with sources than creating an argument that carries the reader to a new conclusion. Thus, I will provide a more detailed description of the first chapter only, to give the reader a sense of how O. utilizes a wealth of sources. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the author follows in the same vein for the other chapters too.

O. begins with a rich, almost literary account of Caesar’s funeral and the general uncertainty of the immediate aftermath, mostly drawing on Cicero’s correspondence. He then turns to Italian and provincial reactions, concentrating on contemporary and later sources (especially Julius Obsequens and Vergil’s Georgics) for the portents that occurred at the time, some of which were clearly genuine phenomena — e.g., the darkening of the sky due to the eruption of Mt. Aetna and the famous comet. From there, O. turns to a day-by-day analysis of the letters of Cicero to Atticus from April 15-24 May 44 BCE, in order to “give an unmediated account of what it was like to be on the ground,” mostly to show the anxieties and decisions Cicero faced as events developed, and to introduce the major players of the period. Since the complexity of the period prevents him from continuing with the remaining evidence in the same detail, he switches to a broader perspective to follow out the experiences of Cicero to the end of the summer of 44. O. then looks through the eyes of the soldier, tracing events through Forum Gallorum and Mutina from the viewpoint of the Fourth Legion.

In the next two chapters, O. handles the proscriptions and land confiscations, crucial because the Romans viewed these experiences as the nadir of the triumvirate, and constructed from them a narrative of illegitimacy and resistance seminal for the genesis of imperial ideology. He balances this with an account of the brutal exactions demanded by the liberators in the eastern provinces. The aftermath of Philippi introduces the topic of suicide and accounts by survivors, and then Antony’s reorganization of the east. From there, O. makes excellent use of Eclogues 1 and 9 to evoke the voices of those who either saved or lost their land. The theme of “Mantua! Alas too close to wretched Cremona!” introduces the fact that far more than just 18 of the wealthiest Italian towns suffered — as archaeological survey confirms. The point of view of the beneficiaries, however, emerges too, with a glance at contemporary coinage.

In the fourth chapter, the author structures his sources around the Perusine war in Italy and the Parthian invasion in the east. O. underlines the difficult decisions and consequences Italian communities faced at the time, and how these became woven into the collective memory of the empire. The next section comprises the diffusion of a standard Roman culture across Italy, focusing on the shifts in nomenclature and stylistic elements found in the tomb of the Volumnii in Perusia. The perspective then shifts to the eastern provinces and the Parthian invasion before turning back to Italy, the Peace of Brundisium, and the celebration of the new concordia. This naturally introduces a discussion of Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue, with its hopes for the dawning of a new age.

The next two chapters cover the period from the Peace of Misenum to the battle of Naulochus. Here, O. focuses on those who received amnesty as a result of the peace, and, more generally, newcomers to the ranks of the political elite and their strategies of adaptation. Varro, who buried himself in antiquarian studies, finds a place next to Horace, with his emphasis on Epicurean frugality and self-reliance. O. then glances briefly at the epitaphs of two brothers displaced from Cremona before turning to Atticus’s neutrality and concern for citizen life through a lifetime of civil war. The narrative shifts again to the East and recounts interactions between the triumvirs and the communities of Stratonicea, Mylasa and Aphrodisias vis-à-vis the consequences of their resistance to the Parthians.

O. then covers the dynastic marriages of Agrippa and Octavian, before looking at more utopian images in literature, read against the resumption of hostilities with Sextus. The famous dinner scandal during the famine of 38 briefly introduces the divine pretensions put on by the dynasts. The narrative then moves to the pact of Tarentum, and Antony’s dealings with Herod and Cleopatra in the East. Chapter 5 ends with an exploration of the poetic circle of Maecenas, and Horace’s trip to Brundisium in Satires 1.5.

Chapter 6 very successfully focuses on social developments of the period. O. begins with Pollio’s triumph and establishment of the Atrium Libertatis to explore the experiences of novi homines. O. makes deft use of Sallust’s disappointment with and withdrawal from the political scene, then moves on to evidence, especially Horace’s Fourth Epode, for general social frustrations at seeing the enrichment and social promotion of those of servile origin. He then adroitly examines the issue from the opposite perspective, making use of material sources to supplement the picture. These include a funerary relief in which the son of a freedman proudly displays his equestrian ring. Munatius Plancus (with analysis of his mausoleum) and P. Ventidius Bassus round out the picture of high ranking novi, before the reader encounters Horace’s anxieties over his lack of ancestors.

Chapters 7 and 8 cover the period from Naulochus to the aftermath of Actium. The victory over Sextus (and consequent propaganda) along with Antony’s disastrous Parthian campaign segues into contemporary reflections on the evils of avarice and the need for old-fashioned austerity. This need prompted a crucial shift in Octavian’s public image that contrasts with Antony’s less successful self-presentation in the east, especially as regards the “donations” at Alexandria. O. then provides a brief tour of the region, concentrating on Corinth, Ephesus, Cos and Judaea.

The final chapter covers the period from the build-up to Actium through the part of its aftermath that preceded the restoration of the Republic. O. presents Octavian’s dehumanizing propaganda, then investigates the oath of loyalty recorded in the Res Gestae (p. 25). He enriches the account here with the recently discovered oath to Caligula partially preserved at Conobaria. He then turns to the ritual declaration of war and other preparations on both sides, a reconstruction of Actium, then a set of inscriptions regarding post-Actian relations between Octavian and the community of Rhosus in Syria. He then discusses the early monumental and poetic attempts to glorify the battle, before hurrying to the finish with Octavian’s settlement of the east, the battle of Alexandria, and the orderly settlement of the veterans after the conflict (with a glance at some of their funerary monuments). The celebration of the victory, the closing of the Temple of Janus, and the economic boom sparked by booty from Egypt form pointed contrasts to the previous exactions and turmoil.

O. has, in general, written a very good book. He manifests a remarkable enthusiasm to embrace as many types of sources and perspectives as possible, and does so gracefully. At times, he uses comparative evidence to round out the picture, such as when he draws from the denunciation files from Nazi Germany to illuminate the proscriptions, and later compares Octavian’s propaganda campaign before Actium to the American dehumanization of their Japanese enemies in WWII. His book represents the type of scholarship one would like to see more of. My foregoing summary labors under the difficulty of presenting something that does not easily lend itself to generalization. The fact that much of his work is descriptive and uncontroversial prompts a colorless summation of something much more felicitous.

There are, however, a few weaknesses. First, while it was perhaps impossible for O. to write a short book, he could sometimes quicken the pace and be more economical in what he says and how he says it. In a related sense, he often includes images – especially coins and statues – that do not make any point or further the argument in any way. Prime examples of this might be the face of a helmsman from the Scylla group at Sperlonga (which O. unwisely excises from its art-historical context) on p. 93, or the sling bullets from Perusia on p. 167, or the gratuitous statue of a youth by Stephanos that would have stood in the Atrium Libertatis. On the other hand, while O. discusses the funerary relief of the Furii (pp. 333 ff.) to demonstrate that private portraiture was beginning to “draw inspiration from the official representations of Octavian and his wife Livia,” he includes no images of these figures as comparanda. Likewise, one wonders why O. did not include diagrams of the several battles he discusses, especially of the Battle of Actium, which he asserts “is worth going into in some detail, trying to picture it in one’s mind, because it is otherwise impossible to make sense of what would later be said about it” (p. 372).

At times, the author could exercise better judgment in choosing which sources and events to focus on or synthesize. One section, for example, from pp. 25-39, fixates on a day-by-day analysis of the correspondence of Cicero from April 15-24 May 44 BCE. On the one hand, this ostensibly allows the genre of epistolography to offer its own unique standpoint, yet it also means sacrificing other potential perspectives and experiences. Why, for example, is it more important for the reader to attend to Cicero’s interests in the education of his son in Athens, or his first impression of Octavian, than to hear of the occasion when the Macedonian veterans offered to march on Rome, or of the reactions of provincials at Apollonia ( FGrH 130), or of the affair of Pseudo-Marius? Since Marcus fils draws such attention, why does O. forgo mentioning the significant occasion when, as suffect consul, he announced the death of Antony from the same rostra to which his father’s head had once been affixed? Moreover, near the beginning of his book the author discusses the omens reported after the death of Caesar and their validity, but misses the opportunity to refer to the report that a halo appeared around the head of Octavian when he entered Rome – modern scholarship has determined the phenomenon to be a valid meteorological possibility.2

Moreover, O. displays an aureus with the head of Brutus (again, a relatively gratuitous image), but would it not have been possible to show the famous image of the pilleus between the two daggers ( RRC 508/3) and relate this to the speech of Cassius narrated by Appian (4.90-100), in order to reconstruct the stirring ideology that motivated the republicans? O. certainly had no trouble using as illustrative evidence (pp.355-6) Octavian’s speech before Actium as reported by Dio (50.25.1-2). With regard to the Caesarians, one could likewise have desired a little more on the presentation of Octavian’s pietas in avenging Caesar’s death. To the coins of the liberators, O. could have juxtaposed mints bearing the sidus Iulium, and outlined the religious devotion he wished to instill in his supporters on his behalf.3 In general, one could see more of the “propaganda” that expressed the ideologies and justifications that motivated the followers of either side, an essential component along with the ever present financial incentives. Likewise, O. makes much of the Concordia touted in the sources (especially the coins) concerning the Peace of Brundisium, but overlooks the Concordia flaunted on the coins produced at the inception of the second triumvirate ( RRC 494/41, 42c) – Appian narrates that this Concordia confounded contemporary Romans ( BC 4.14).

While O. gives an excellent account of the voices that emerge from the period, he could, perhaps, give a little more attention to their reception, re-articulation, and manipulation by the powerful. For example, he misses an opportunity to show how Octavian manipulated the cult of Concordia in order to cast blame on Antony.4 Likewise, he could have strengthened his work through occasional nods to the Augustan program, because this would demonstrate how closely it responded to the period he investigates. One could, for example, have connected his excellent analysis of Roman dissatisfaction with the “unworthy” social elements that had attained status through triumviral favor, with the later censorial “purges” of the senate after Actium. Likewise, O.’s account of the scholarly activities of Varro, Atticus, and others (pp. 239 ff.) ignores the crucial role their recovery of Roman mos played in contextualizing the imperial system.5 While he does discuss the importance of Octavian’s refusal to assume the pontificate in Lepidus’ lifetime (with reference to the Res Gestae), he seems unaware that another scholar made this point in a mainstream publication on the Augustan age.6 Thus, O.’s narrow chronological focus sometimes induces tunnel vision.

There are a few secondary works that would have strengthened O.’s endeavor. His account of the soldier’s perspective, for example, would have been greatly improved by consulting Nicolet’s Le Métier de citoyen dans la Rome Républicaine; that of Atticus, by a look at Olaf Perlwitz’s essential work on this personality.7 Geoffrey Sumi’s recent book on triumviral politics is perhaps too recent for O. to have made use of, but it would have been complementary, especially with regard to Sumi’s observations on the substitution of the ovatio for the triumph, and the possibility that the fetial ceremony was invented.8 Moreover, O. adopts Suetonius’ report ( Aug. 17) that Octavian exempted the colony of Bononia from taking the oath, yet K. E. Petzold has confirmed epigraphically Dio’s report (50.6) that Octavian attached this particular colony by changing the charter to make himself the founder.9

The places I disagree with O. are very few. He should, however, have used Horace’s dedicatory First Epode to illuminate the oath to Octavian only with great reservation — as a personal expression of loyalty, it is a poem of the court. Instead, the author (p. 363) takes it as strong evidence that the oath “did not expire at the end of the campaign,” unconvincingly taking Linderski to task here.10 Moreover, I do not find convincing his disagreements (p. 375 n. 102) with Gurval’s analysis of the battle of Actium, who argued that it was an affair deadly to many.11 That, at any rate, was the way the Romans themselves wished to remember it. It was a point of honor to the losing side that they fought long and hard. The fact that the “official” account reflected this was a matter of insistence, not a generous act on Octavian’s part (Vell. 2.85.4).

These quibbles, however, are minor, and should in no way detract from a fine achievement. A lesser scholar would have easily lost the way in the array of sources from which the author gleans and rearranges his material in a stunning montage. A vision of the triumviral period now exists where none existed before. In his first book, Mr. Osgood provides an admirable demonstration of original scholarship, and he is to be warmly congratulated.


1. R. Syme, The Roman Revolution, Oxford, 1939, p. 3 n. 3.

2. See the extensive discussion in A.J. Woodman, ed. Velleius Paterculus: The Caesarian and Augustan Narrative, Cambridge, 1983, 119ff.

3. O. (pp. 40-1) seems determined to imply that the sidus, being actually a comet, was generally taken to be a bad omen. While this may be true, it does not mean that Octavian’s desire to interpret it as the katasterism of Caesar was thwarted. Andreas Alföldi, in Oktavians Aufstieg zur Macht, Bonn, 1976, pp. 69ff. pointed out that Octavian had an easier time of this because the imagery of the star was prefigured in February and March on the coinage of Caesar himself.

4. B.A. Kellum, “The City Adorned: Programmatic Display at the Aedes Concordiae Augustae,” in Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate,, K. A. Raaflaub and M. Toher (edd.), Berkeley, 1990, 276-307.

5. As demonstrated by Wallace-Hadrill in his fundamental article ” Mutatio Morum : The Idea of a Cultural Revolution,” in The Roman Cultural Revolution, T. N. Habinek and A. Schiesaro (edd.), Cambridge, 1997, 3-22.

6. G.W. Bowersock, “The Pontificate of Augustus,” in Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate,, K. A. Raaflaub and M. Toher (edd.), Berkeley, 1990, 380-94.

7. C. Nicolet, Le Métier de citoyen dans la Rome Républicaine, Gallimard, 1976; O. Perlwitz, Titus Pomponius Atticus, Hermes Einzelschriften 58, 1992.

8. G. Sumi, Ceremony and Power: Performing Politics in Rome between Republic and Empire, Ann Arbor, 2005.

9. K.E. Petzold, “Die Bedeutung des Jahres 32 für die Entstehung des Principats,” Historia 18, 1969, 334-51, n. 65, drawing on CIL 11, p. 133 (no. 720). O. could also have usefully consulted Petzold on Octavian’s consensus building before Actium, as well as H.U. Instinsky, “Consensus Universorum,” Hermes, 1940, 25-78.

10. J. Linderski, “Rome, Aphrodisias and the Res Gestae : the Genera Militiae and the Status of Octavian,” JRS, 1984, 74-80.

11. R.A. Gurval, Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War, Ann Arbor, 1995.