Rome’s civil-war years saw a drastic redistribution of wealth, as the victorious warlords oversaw the confiscation of property and land owned by those who ended up on the losing side of history. It was one of the ways by which the winners were able to reward the loyalty of their supporters, many of whom (according to Cicero) joined Caesar’s cause precisely in the expectation that it would prove financially beneficial. As he says in Philippic 4.9 about Antony and his followers:
sed spes rapiendi atque praedandi obcaecat animos eorum, quos non bonorum donatio, non agrorum adsignatio, non illa infinita hasta satiavit; qui sibi urbem, qui bona et fortunas civium ad praedam proposuerunt.
[But hope of pillage and plunder blind the minds of men whom no gift of property, no assignment of lands, nor that never-ending auction [sc. of property confiscated from Pompey and his supporters] has sated; men that have set before themselves for plunder the city and the goods and fortunes of its citizens.]
In this paragraph and the following two, Cicero focuses on the property of Marcus Terentius Varro, in part because Varro, in terms of literary standing in late republican Rome second only to Cicero and the acknowledged ‘polymath of the Roman World’, was a particularly illustrious Pompeian, whose live(lihood) and property came under threat in the civil war period. Here are some brief biographical details:
- c. 116: born into an established senatorial family
- Education: wide-ranging, including in Greek culture (L. Aelius, the Academic philosopher Antiochus)
- 67: commander in Pompey’s campaign against the pirates
- 49: declares for Pompey and commands the republican forces in Spain
- 48: surrenders to Caesar near Corduba, gets pardoned and released; he joins the Pompeian forces again at Dyrrhachium; after Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus, Varro (just like Cicero) gives up active resistance and withdraws from public life
- 47: while Caesar is in Egypt, Antony tries to get his hands on Varro’s villa near Casinum, but Caesar objects
- 45: reconciliation with Caesar upon Caesar’s return to Rome; gets put in charge of establishing and stocking what would have been Rome’s first public libraries with Greek and Roman books, a project that never came to fruition. See Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar 44:
Nam de ornanda instruendaque urbe, item de tuendo ampliandoque imperio plura ac maiora in dies destinabat: … bibliothecas Graecas Latinasque quas maximas posset publicare data Marco Varroni cura comparandarum ac digerendarum.
[In particular, for the adornment and convenience of the city, also for the protection and extension of the Empire, he formed more projects and more extensive ones every day: … to open to the public the greatest possible libraries of Greek and Latin books, assigning to Marcus Varro the charge of procuring and classifying them.]
- 43: Antony has him put on the list of the proscribed — he gets spared Cicero’s fate through the intervention of Fufius Calenus who manages to hide Varro from the henchmen (Appian, Bellum Civile 4.203); his library, though, gets plundered
- 27: dies, 90 years of age
Varro was one of the most learned men of Rome, the antiquarian par excellence, who produced a massive literary oeuvre. One of his writings, the De Re Rustica (3.5) contains a detailed description of his property at Casinum (the dialogue was written in the 30s, so Caesar must have ensured that he got it back). §§ 103–05 revolve around this estate, with Cicero, for invective purposes, deliberately and confusingly skipping back and forth between two occasions several years apart:
1.Sometime in 47 BCE, Antony attempted to confiscate Varro’s property. The attempt failed because Caesar, who was fighting in Alexandria at the time and whom Antony consulted by letter, withheld his approval.
ii.During his sojourn in Southern Italy in April / May 44 BCE, Antony and his entourage visited Varro’s villa and enjoyed some (enforced?) hospitality.
What does Cicero make of this?
- § 103a: Ab hac perturbatione … liberavisti: reference to the visit of 44 BCE, but with the (false) insinuation that Antony came to confiscate the property (as he had tried to do in 47 BCE)
- § 103b: Varronis quidem … praeconis audivit: rejection of the notion (held by nobody) that any part of Varro’s property was ever confiscated and sold at auction
- § 103c: misisse … magnum fuit: reference to Antony’s unsuccessful attempt to confiscate Varro’s property back in 47 BCE
- § 104a: quis vero audivit … detractam: renewed rejection of the notion (held by nobody) that any part of Varro’s property was ever confiscated and sold at auction
- § 104b: quid? si etiam scripsit ad te Caesar … temeritatis tuae: renewed reference to Antony’s unsuccessful attempt to confiscate Varro’s property back in 47 BCE
- § 104c–105a: At quam multos dies … scorta inter matres familias versabantur: description of the disgraceful conduct of Antony and his mates during their visit at Varro’s villa in 44 BCE
Put differently, Cicero uses an initial reference to Antony’s visit at Varro’s villa in 44 BCE to slip back in time and rehearse the tussle over ownership that happened in 47 BCE. This enables him (a) to draw, yet again, a sharp contrast between Caesar and Antony; (b) to recall a failure by Antony; (c) to insinuate that during his recent visit Antony behaved as if he owned the property.