Archive for July, 2018

Appian: The Civil Wars

July 14, 2018

The Civil Wars
Appian of Alexandria
Translated from the Greek by John Carter
(Penguin Classics, 1996) [c.150]
xliii + 436 p.

Lives of the Noble Romans
Gaius Marius, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cato the Younger, Brutus, Antony, Cicero
Translated from the Greek by John Dryden
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]

Livy’s surviving history broke off in the 160s BC. At that time the Roman Republic controlled the Italian peninsula, most of Spain, Asia Minor, and Greece, along with the swath of Northern Africa formerly held by Carthage. It was the end of a long period of consistent triumph for Rome. But fortune’s wheel turns, and the next 150 years were a time of tumult, trial, and war, a period, as Appian says,

well worth the attention of any who wish to contemplate limitless human ambition, terrible lust for power, indefatigable patience, and evil in ten thousand shapes. (I, 6)

It resulted finally in the collapse of the Republican government and the emergence of Imperial Rome.

Appian’s history of the Roman civil wars covers the period 133-35 BC in five Books; it is but a part of his more comprehensive history of Rome, but it attracts special attention, despite his defects as a historian, because it is our only surviving ancient source for the period 133-70 BC, years of great interest and import for what happened later.

“The hour calls forth the man” is a proverb (and, if it isn’t, it ought to be). In previous periods of Roman history one could usually focus on one or perhaps two main threads and major figures at any one time, but as the first century BC progressed and the political crises deepened they seemed to summon up a crowd of powerful personalities — in the year 50 BC, for example, a list of important political figures then living (if not all then in power) would include Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Octavius, Marc Antony, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, and Cato — so that any adequate account has to slow down and descend into the details — which Appian certainly does, devoting about half of his history to the two or three years surrounding the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC. Obviously I can’t do the same in this forum, but I will try to sketch, in rough outline, how things developed as the Republic slowly crumbled.

The faltering Republic was beset by an abandonment of political traditions and breakdown of the rule of law. We can look, for instance, at the careers of the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, who were grandsons of the great general Scipio Africanus. Tiberius became tribune and proposed a number of reforms — specifically to redistribute land from the wealthy to the poor and to extend Roman citizenship more broadly to the conquered peoples of the Italian peninsula — and, when his programme encountered resistance, broke with both longstanding tradition and law by standing for (and winning) a second term as tribune. When Tiberius was opposed by the Senate, he simply sidestepped them — after all, their ratification was only customary, not necessary. And when he was opposed by another tribune during a vote, Tiberius had his opponent forcefully removed from the Forum, in flagrant violation of the long tradition of holding the person of the tribune sacrosanct. Harmless enough, you might think, and in the service of a good cause, perhaps, but the Roman tradition of rotating political offices every year was one of the oldest and most venerable political traditions they had, and the immunity of the tribune from violence or prosecution was quasi-sacred in nature; both had always been understood as safeguards against political tyranny. His younger brother Gaius was even more radical in his political programme and in his conduct: he held the tribunate for three years. Both brothers met violent ends at the hands of mobs, another sign that Rome’s political life was straining.

These trends continued in the career of Marius, who was first consul in 107, but who went on to hold the consulship a record seven times. Marius was a military hero who rose to prominence from an undistinguished background on the strength of his generalship. His greatest military achievement was, perhaps, his reform of Roman military tactics; he abandoned the maniple system Rome had used for centuries in favour of a new, three-line system that ensured that fresh troops would rotate to the front on a regular basis, and he achieved great success in the field. When in 91 the so-called Social War broke out between Rome and the subject peoples of Italy — a war that sounds more genteel than it was — Marius led the effort to put down the rebellion. But then, for complicated reasons, he returned to Rome and allowed his army to pillage the city, taking up residence as something like a military dictator.

He was opposed by Sulla, one of the most intriguing men to enter this history. He too had military success, in battles against Mithridates in the east, but when Marius occupied Rome Sulla returned with the intention of dislodging — and, as it turned out, displacing — him. Comments Appian:

“In this way the episodes of civil strife escalated from rivalry and contentiousness to murder, and from murder to full-scale war; and this was the first army composed of Roman citizens to attack their own country as though it were a hostile power” (I,60)

As it turned out, his job was done for him: Marius died, and Sulla moved in, declaring himself — or having himself declared — dictator. The office of dictator had been an official political role early in Roman history, invoked in periods of crisis, but it had always been understood as being limited in term to about 6 months or a year. Sulla was declared dictator for life. It would be hard to come up with a more radical upending of the Roman political system, but for Sulla it was just the beginning. He published proscription lists of his enemies; they were to be captured and executed, along with anyone who might try to help them escape. Sulla’s was a reign of terror. The paradox is that he was essentially a conservative figure: his radical measures aimed to restore the proper functioning of the Republican system. He saw that system buckling under strain, overtaken by violence and revolution, and he sought unrestricted power to shore it up. He broke the law in order to restore the law. And, in one of the most surprising turns in this or any other history, once he thought he had achieved his goal he relinquished his absolute power, walked away from political life and retired to a quiet country villa. But he had not achieved his goal, for what the next generation took from Sulla were not his objectives, but his methods, and those could be used against the Republic at least as effectively as Sulla had used them for it.

In Sulla’s conflict with Marius for control of Rome, he had been assisted by two able men: Crassus and Pompey, and in the aftermath of Sulla’s rule a rivalry between them brought both to prominence in Rome’s public life. They collaborated to put down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus in 73-71, but were thereafter at one another’s throats, jockeying for political position.

Into this fraught conflict came one Gaius Julius Caesar, a man of relatively humble station (patrician, but poor), who convinced the two that they would be stronger in partnership than in conflict, and that he could help them to achieve together both wealth and power. Thus was born the ‘first triumvirate’ — a rather distinguished title for what Mary Beard opts to call The Gang of Three, and what Varro called The Beast with Three Heads — an alliance that Caesar was to use to propel himself not only to an equal rank with Crassus and Pompey, but to the first rank, and that would effectively bring an end to the Republican government of Rome.

It all happened fairly rapidly. The alliance was formed in 59. Caesar took an army to Gaul where, for ten years, he fought his famous campaign (recounted in his Gallic Wars) that nearly doubled the size of the Roman empire, and brought Romans to Britain for the first time (albeit briefly), bringing Caesar immense wealth and popularity in the process. Crassus led an army to Parthia where, however, he was killed in 53, leaving Caesar and Pompey as the leading men of Rome. And, on the principle that “Three is company, but two is a crowd”, the alliance degenerated into a rivalry once again. In 49 Caesar returned to Italy, crossing the Rubicon with his army in violation of Roman law and setting the spark to inflame civil war. (Parenthetically, I was surprised to learn that historians do not know which river was the Rubicon.) Pompey, taken by surprise, took his army and fled to Greece, there to regroup, and Caesar occupied Rome.

Not resting on his laurels, Caesar pursued Pompey and they met in August 48 at the Battle of Pharsalus, at which Pompey went down to defeat. He fled to Egypt, where he was killed while going ashore by order of Egyptian authorities eager to get into Caesar’s good books. They, along with everyone else, could see the writing on the wall. Caesar was evidently the great man of the age, whom Appian describes as

“a man extremely lucky in everything, gifted with a divine spark, disposed to great deeds, and fittingly compared with Alexander.”

(Indeed, he goes on to compare Caesar and Alexander at some considerable length. [Book II,149-54])

But Caesar’s rule, as we know, was short. There were yet those in Rome who wanted to restore the Republic, and who resented these great men bent on treating Rome as their personal property, and of course Romans had a long-standing horror of kingship. Caesar appeared to them to be a king in all but name. And so it was that in 44 a conspiracy of about 10 men, led by Brutus (thought by some to be Caesar’s biological son, and certainly a man greatly favoured by Caesar) and Cassius, was formed to assassinate him. This assassination, narrated by Appian in Book II, 117, and in more detail by Plutarch in his life of Caesar, is of course well-known to us from Shakespeare’s play.

Following Caesar’s death, the conspirators fled, and much of Appian’s history is occupied with tracing what became of them, as, one by one, they were picked off. Brutus and Cassius met their end in 42, at the Battle of Philippi. Of them, Appian says in tribute:

“They were Romans of the highest nobility and distinction, and of unchallenged virtue, without a single stain…” (IV, 132)

which is slightly odd, because elsewhere he tends toward apologetics on behalf of Imperial Rome, and I would have thought that he would have consequently disapproved of Caesar’s assassins, as Dante did.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, the power vacuum left by Caesar’s death and the departure of the conspirators begged to be filled. The natural man for the part, in his own eyes at least, was Marc Antony, a man who, though given to drunkenness and debauchery, had a proven record of military prowess and had been Caesar’s protege. But when Caesar’s will was read it was discovered that he posthumously adopted as his son and heir his great-nephew, Octavian, then just 19 years old. Naturally this precipitated a rivalry between Antony and Octavian, a rivalry temporarily set aside in 43 by the formation of another alliance of convenience, the so-called ‘second triumvirate’, composed of Antony, Octavian, and Lucius Lepidus, one of history’s most notable third wheels.

This second Gang of Three began another, even more frightful, reign of terror to purge Rome of their enemies. Proscription lists were once again published in the Forum, and Appian devotes a long section (Book IV, 1-51) to stories, both happy and tragic, about what happened to those whose names appeared on these lists: betrayed by their wives, perhaps, or saved by their slaves. Perhaps the most famous name to appear on the list was Cicero’s; he had initially sided with Octavian against Antony, and with the formation of the triumvirate Antony insisted on his execution. He, who was by some reasonable measures the greatest of all the great men swaggering through this episode of history, was captured and killed in December 43.

In subsequent years the uneasy alliance within the triumvirate continued. Appian describes the relationship of Octavian and Antony in these terms:

“Their behaviour constantly swung between suspicion, arising from their desire for power, and trust, arising from their current needs.” (V, 94)

They fought together against Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey, who led an effective naval blockade against Rome that prevented grain reaching the city. Antony went east on campaign where he fell under the spell of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

Appian’s history of these civil wars comes to an end in 35, with the finale of the story yet untold. From other sources we know that, soon enough, open war broke out between the two, and in 30 Antony, seeing that he was beaten, committed suicide, leaving Octavian, at 28 years old, the unchallenged leader of the largest Empire the world had ever known.

It is said that Octavian went to Egypt after Antony’s death, and, like many before him, stood at the tomb of Alexander the Great. He was perhaps the only person in history who could do so without feeling humbled at the comparison. He returned home, and three years later took the name Caesar Augustus, the first unequivocal emperor of Rome.


Almost everything about this history has been fascinating. Of course I knew bits and pieces of it, but I had not before seen them all put together, with the gaps filled. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Appian is not a historian with the talents of Livy — how I wish Livy’s account of this period had survived! His account is sometimes disjoint and he makes mistakes of fact — the latter not such a problem in this Oxford edition, which is festooned with copious notes. My main complaint is that he is not good at conveying the character of the people whose actions he describes; they rarely come to life as real historical people. I supplemented my reading, therefore, with a number of Plutarch’s lives, and, for good measure, with Shakespeare’s plays on Caesar and Antony (and Cleopatra). I would recommend the same sensible and rewarding course to others interested in this period of history.

Feast of St Benedict

July 11, 2018

Listen carefully, my child, on this festive day, to the sons of St Benedict at Pluscarden Abbey:

(Tonsure-tip: Sacred Miscellany)

Chagall in noise

July 4, 2018

Poems about Olivier Messiaen are not plentiful; it’s a pleasure to read one. Micheal O’Siadhail begins in this way:

I hear the bells and singing stained glass birds
As, Olivier Messiaen, you shift the scale
Of chirps from semitones to tones or thirds
For tawny owl or tenor nightingale.

There’s a good deal of solid matter in the poem — references, direct and oblique, to quite a few of Messiaen’s pieces, to his synesthesia, to the musicians and instruments with which he was associated — but most of all the poem communicates a love for him and his music, a love that I heartily share.

There is a line that I cannot parse:

Our spirit’s here and there both correspond;

Perhaps it’s just because I haven’t slept properly for a while, but I can’t see how that apostrophe doesn’t spoil the sense of the line. Please correct me.

Our envoi has to be Éclairs sur l’au delà — which is not about desserts.