Philippics 2.89 essay

Cicero here revisits the tense period right after Caesar’s assassination, 15–17 March. Here is a brief blow-by-blow account of the most important developments over these action-packed few days: 

15 March: c. 11 a.m.

murder of Caesar; Antony and other Caesarians flee from the senate house; the conspirators march to the Capitoline Hill; when they test public opinion later in the day, they are greeted with a significant level of hostility; start of negotiations with Antony (as consul) and Lepidus (Caesar’s Master of the Horse).

Night of 15/16 March

Antony, acting either on his own or together with Lepidus, summons some of Caesar’s troops into the city; Caesar’s widow Calpurnia hands over Caesar’s state papers to him, as well as funds (4000 talents according to Plutarch, Life of Antony 15). Antony also secures the war chest Caesar had deposited in the temple of Ops for his campaign against the Parthians (see also Phil. 2.35 and 93).

16 March

tense negotiations between Antony and the conspirators, who fear for their safety; as surety, Antony and Lepidus hand over their sons as hostages (see Phil. 2.90 below; also Phil. 1.31).

17 March

senate meeting in the Temple of Tellus; Caesar’s veterans surround the building; the outcome is a compromise: amnesty for the assassins (still holed up on the Capitoline Hill) on a motion by Cicero in return for the en-bloc ratification of Caesar’s already published acts and arrangements. (According to Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar 82.4, the conspirators would have preferred to chuck Caesar’s corpse into the Tiber, confiscate his property, and declare all his political arrangements null and void (= acta rescindere)).

This bare-bones version of the main events does nothing to capture the striking degree of uncertainty that must have prevailed at the time. Everything was up in the air: further moves by the liberators and key Caesarians, the mood of the populace (and Caesar’s veterans), the cred of the assassins (criminal killers or heroes?), the postmortem image of Caesar (public enemy or murdered benefactor?), the status of his appointments and decrees, the future of those of his policies that were in the works but not yet finalized and officially disseminated, access to his unpublished papers. It soon transpired that the liberators wished for no further bloodshed and wanted to reach out to Antony (as consul) to negotiate some sort of compromise, which then actually came to pass during the senate meeting of 17 March.

When Cicero revisits this period here in invective mode, the uncertainty and volatility of the situation all but disappears. He reduces politics to personality. His assessment of Antony’s character — rotten — is all he needs as guide for political action. Cicero claims that already at the time he warned against any course of compromise and conciliation with someone he considered the public enemy number one — but his premonition and recommendations were left unheeded.