Philippics 2.80 essay

In the run-up to the election of Dolabella as suffect consul, Antony seems to have announced that he would try to prevent the election of Dolabella to the consulship by making use of a religious veto that he could issue in his capacity as augur. In the event, he made good on his threat. Over the next few paragraphs, Cicero rakes him over the coals for this. To understand his lines of attack, we need to come to terms with some technicalities of Rome’s civic religion. This dimension of Roman culture is not easy to get one’s head around: its ‘cultural logic’ is in many ways quite alien to our own religious intuitions. 

For our concerns, it is important to distinguish between Roman religion tout court (in the sense of any religious thought and practice in republican Rome) and ‘Rome’s civic religion’, i.e. the religious dimension of Roman politics. Religious and political practices and procedures were therefore mutually implicated: changes in the field of power could not help but have repercussions for Rome’s civic religion and, conversely, reconfigurations or innovations in the handling of religious material were bound to be politically sensitive. The enmeshing of religious and political concerns that we capture in our late-republican sources and that has often been taken as evidence for a decline in religion was in fact co-extensive with the Roman commonwealth. Much of the communication that Rome’s civic community entertained with the divine sphere revolved around apparent signs from the gods, which manifested themselves in atmospheric phenomena (thunder and lightening, esp. when the sky was otherwise clear), the entrails of sacrificial victims, or monstrous occurrences that violated the natural order of things (such as the birth of a double-headed calf). Elaborate protocols regulated how such signs were to be identified and processed: who was entitled to report or look for them, what they meant and who was charged with interpreting them. Since Rome’s civic religion co-evolved with the political culture of the republican commonwealth and formed an integral part of it, it should not surprise that its peculiar outlook suited the needs of a society whose gravitational center was the senatorial oligarchy. The religious communication that formed part of Rome’s public sphere was designed to promote, not least, a politics rooted in consensus: the possibility of a religiously motivated veto by a magistrate or priest against any course of action constituted a strong incentive to ensure widespread acceptance and collaboration ahead of any major decision. This set-up helped to keep the willful politics of maverick power brokers in check — but it of course also opened the possibility that an individual with the right to communicate with the gods could (ab-)use his religious veto to obstruct political proceedings or decisions he disliked for purely personal reasons.

In 44, Antony held two positions that gave him the right to interact with the divine sphere — though in two slightly different ways:

                           i.As consul he had the right of spectio: he could actively look for divine signs (of disapproval) before an event and even announce that he would do so. Since the assumption was that anyone seeking an unfavourable divine sign would also find it, events were cancelled or postponed as soon as a magistrate announced that he would exercise his right of spectio.

                         ii.As augur — a priesthood he held since 50 BCE — he was able to report adverse signs that materialized during the course of the actual event (= nuntiatio), such as thunder or lightening. 

During the election of Dolabella to the suffect consulship Antony seems to have conflated consular spectio and augural nuntiatio: he announced he would make use of his religious veto ahead of the election; the election went ahead nevertheless; but towards the end he pronounced the augural formula that rendered the proceedings invalid from a religious point of view. Or, in the words of Linderski (1986: 2198):

In his description of Antonius’ obnuntiatio against the election of Dolabella as consul in 44, Cicero contrasts the spectio of the magistrates and the nuntiatio of the augurs (Phil. 2.81): Nos enim nuntiationem solum habemus, consules et reliqui magistratus etiam spectionem. The augurs could report only oblative signs, and oblative signs had to be observed entirely by chance. It was not possible to predict that one would see them. And according to the rule of vinculum temporis … governing the observation and interpretation of oblative signs, the augurs could announce only such oblative signs that occurred after the beginning of the comitia. The magistrates had on the other hand both spectio and nuntiatio: the right to take impetrative auspices and to announce adverse omens. They could proclaim in advance that they would watch the skies; however, as the magisterial nuntiatio was exclusively based on impetrative auspices, the magistrate had to make the announcement of an adverse omen before the beginning of the comitia. Antonius, who was consul and augur, had proclaimed in advance se Dolabellae comitia … prohibiturum auspiciis, thus implying that he would block Dolabella’s election by means of the announcement of adverse auspices based upon his right to spectio. However, when he actually reported an adverse omen, he did it in his capacity as augur, for he uttered the ritual formula alio die after the beginning of the comitia or, more exactly, shortly before the conclusion of the gathering. He obnuntiated on the basis of an oblative sign, the occurrence of which it was impossible to predict, and hence Cicero was justified in contending that it must have been a fake.32

According to Cicero, Antony was plain stupid (end of § 80: stupiditas) for reasons specified in § 81: he would have been much smarter to object on religious grounds in his office of consul (rather than as augur); and also shameless (§ 81: impudentia).