Did Cicero Inadvertently Doom the Roman Republic?

Nic Fields

3 mins

07 Feb 2019

Following the brutal and sudden end of his chief and mentor Caius Iulius Caesar, Mark Antony seemed to be the new power player in Rome. Yet the balance of power was in danger – the assassins, styling themselves as the Liberators, gained for themselves a vital and vocal supporter: Cicero.

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Quelling vile Antony

Cicero, for one, was jubilant at Caesar’s liquidation, even though he played no part in the conspiracy. Fittingly, from Cicero’s point of view, he would assume the role of the older, disciplined and dignified senator working against the out-of-control, base and vile Antony.

The Philippics, the fourteen blistering orations he delivered against Mark Antony, thus belong to the last phase of Cicero’s career, leading up to – indeed helping to bring about – his murder.

Cicero did manage to cobble together a coalition against Mark Antony, consisting of a reluctant Senate (under his leadership), the two (Caesarian) consuls of 43 BC, Aulus Hirtius and Caius Vibius Pansa, who both commanded (mainly raw) legions, and Octavian and his private army of Caesarian veterans.

Meanwhile, with the endgame of his time in office fast approaching, Mark Antony withdrew from Rome and headed for Gallia Cisalpina.

The events of winter 44-43 BC (Bounford, (C) Osprey Publishing).

From a war of words to a war of force

Cicero’s personal war with Antony was one of words. Conversely, Antony’s was one of physical force, which was to be played out at Mutina, an important Roman town of Gallia Cisalpina, situated astride the Via Aemilia, between Parma and Bononia.

It was here the ‘senatorial’ coalition that Cicero helped put together against Antony slogged it out with the Antonian forces, the first at Forum Gallorum (14 April) and the follow up outside Mutina itself (21 April).

The victories, if we can call them such, soon turned out to be hollow ones. Octavian switched sides and Cicero was history.

Why was the Battle of Mutina so significant?

While Mark Antony managed to snatch victory from seemingly undeniable defeat, the real significance of Mutina was the fact Octavian was now marching along the trail that would lead to him becoming the dominating figure of Augustus, the most admired of all Roman emperors.

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Most of us today, I trust, prefer democracy over dictatorship. The basic difference between democracy and dictatorship comes down to means and end. Democracy is about means, not ends. A dictatorship, by contrast, is only about ends. Those ends are the goals of the dictator – at minimum, preserving and accumulating personal power.

To achieve those ends, a dictator will use any means necessary. This brings us back to Octavian. If his adopted father’s liquidation taught him anything it was this: if you have power, people will always try to take it away from you.

As we have seen, then, with Rome still in political turmoil more than a year after Caesar’s assassination the course of history was turned by the double engagement outside Mutina, an affair that would make the events of 27 BC possible.

Cicero’s folly

Cicero mistakenly portrayed Mark Antony as the chief villain of the piece in a Rome that was sliding once more into authoritarianism.

Of course, it would be Antony’s final tragedy at Actium that saw the metamorphosis of Octavian into the princeps Augustus move closer and loom larger, but Mutina established the nineteen-year-old Octavian as a key player in the soon-to-be defunct Roman Republic.

With the remorseless petty and personal squabbling between the members of Rome’s ruling élite causing its social fabric to un-spool violently, the pragmatic and clear-sighted Octavian did what political circumstances required. He acted cynically, but politically and was the political victor.

Dr Nic Fields is a former Royal Marine turned classical scholar and now freelance author specialising in ancient military historian. He has been writing for Osprey Publishing since 2003. His latest title for their Campaign series is Mutina 43 BC: Mark Antony’s struggle for survival.