Weidenfeld and Nicolson (2020) h/b 274pp £20.00 (ISBN 9781474613156)

Cicero was right, of course, when in his letter to Trebonius of 43 BC he lamented not having been invited to the banquet of the Ides of March, and how, had he been, there would have been no ‘left overs’: no Mark Antony, at any rate, probably along with a few more. Though one wonders what excuses Cicero would have made had he actually been invited.

Anyway, when the balloon went up there was a lot less immediate excitement than hoped. No doubt the assassins expected immediate acclamation, the people accompanying them to the Capitolium rejoicing for the Republic, as Caesar’s body was launched into the proper place for dead tyrants, the Tiber. But instead it was all more ambivalent: a shuffling of feet, an isolated cough, and the sound of a thousand people wondering what on earth this meant for their chances. They could, of course, bank on another civil war. But before that there was the Felliniesque monstrosity of the tyrant’s funeral, the wax image turning like a kebab to display the wounds to the recitation of the names of the assassins—murderers or liberators?—all now considering the future that S. so dramatically maps out for us.

Inevitably the factions form, assassins led by Brutus and Cassius, avengers by Mark Antony, with bit players who take some time slotting into place—Cicero, Sextus Pompeius and Octavian Caesar.

The ensuing war slowly expands across the Mediterranean: Italy, Greece, Near East, Egypt, Sicily. The advantage wavers, people reconsider their positions. Troops are recruited, bribed, promised someone else’s land. Antony and Octavian decide who is to die and use some, at least, of the money they thus sequestrate for recruitment and land. One such victim, of course, is Cicero, his accommodations with Antony not saving him from his Philippics, and his flirting with Octavian producing no intervention either. And then the rest, all nineteen assassins, killed in battle, tortured to death, hunted down and slaughtered. Many of them were committed Epicureans, and where had that got them?

But amidst all the confusion of such a civil war, the flexible loyalties, the slaughter, the pardons, the paranoia, the ambitions, and Fortune’s wayward career, there was an emerging constant. A twenty-year-old with a plan: consistently hunting down assassins, making agreements for the present and future, there with his troops at the great onsets, though usually on the safe side of the battle line, building that plan step by step. His propaganda war is unsurpassed, but then he had Virgil and Horace on his side, and at last he could present to the Roman world an enemy that could not be denied, of whom there could be no doubt, one who would reduce Rome to an oriental monarchy—Mark Antony. He must be destroyed.

S. presents all this as a bloody drama. It’s not a novel—there’s no dialogue, but so much takes place in the hearts and minds of the players. We learn what the characters are thinking and feeling, and can see where this is likely to take them. The style is hugely allusive, and there are moments of such concept-density, that information almost invades one: ‘He (Octavian) had to deal with two consuls for the year 41 BC, both appointed at Bononia, each linked to the triumvirs by birth and marriage but neither a reliable help. The first was Publius Servilius Vatia, son-in-law of Caesar’s mistress, Servilia, husband of one of Brutus’ sisters, a veteran conservative of Caesar’s age but no admirer of his heir. The second was Lucius Antonius, Mark Antony’s vicious youngest brother who, like Sextus Pompeius, had yearnings for the old republic but had also adopted the title Pietas to show his family loyalty above any other’. This approach looks back to and keeps us abreast of family history, relationships and loyalties; provides personal motives; and accounts for next steps. Passages like this form literary nodes, reinforcing the logic of the narrative.

And so, of course, Cicero was right: they all should have gone. Octavian knew this, too, and did not stop until every one of the nineteen had been dealt with.

In sum: vivid, dramatic, evocative, and a unique narrative line tracking the assassination and its aftermath.


Adrian Spooner