Perusine War

When Octavian returned to Rome after the victory at Phillipi, he engaged in a programme of settling the veterans in colonies. Twenty-eight towns had been earlier identified, but others were likely added to the list. Land was expropriated from those towns. Some of it may have been purchased, forcibly; other land was likely just acquired.

The result was violence and chaos spread through Italy and the displacement of at least some of the rural population. The Roman poet Virgil treats the evens as the background to his Eclogues. The poems were written within a particular literary tradition of writing about the countryside. This pastoral poetry was not a realistic depiction of rural life, but tended to blend the rural and mythic in order to write of the countryside in Arcadian terms as a unspoilt and divine landscape in which one might meet shepherd poets, nymphs, and other divine or semi-divine beings. But his first Eclogue is a dialogue in which Tityrus explains that he has been to Rome, met Octavian, and secured the right to remain on his land, while Meliboeus is being driven off his land by the settlement programme.

It is very abstract and literary but:

  • Virgil cannot write a poetry of pastoral escape any more because the politics of Rome is transforming the remote corners of Italy.
  • Safety comes from the personal intervention of Octavian, not from law, customs, traditions, or rights.
  • A way of life was being torn apart.

By Eclogue 9, even the power of petition and song has to give way before the might of the soldier. It is the sword and nothing else which decides the ownership of the countryside.

The issue over land caused substantial conflict in Rome. The requisitions displaced people from the countryside. They had nowhere to go but Rome and there they petitioned the consuls to support them. Senators and other major landowners found their property under threat and applied political pressure to be exempted from the confiscations.

The soldiers were well aware of the politics of the settlement. They too applied pressure to Octavian to keep his promises. Since the soldiers appear to have been brought to Rome to await the land allotted to them, the city had a potentially explosive mix of soldiers, senators (and their supporters), and the displaced. Riots resulted (Dio, 48.8-9). Octavian’s political position was difficult, but the decisions he had to make were probably simple (Appian, Civil Wars 5. 12-13):

  • Should he renege on his promises to the soldiers?
  • Should he seek friends and supporters among the senatorial elite? If he did so, would the senators support him?
  • Should he reward the soldiers who had fought for him? If he did so, would the soldiers and veterans support him?

But if Octavian’s position was clear, politics were made more complicated by one of the consuls for the year, Lucius Antonius, Mark Antony’s brother.

There were two issues. One was the role Antony should have in the settling of the troops. Lucius Antonius and Fulvia (Antony’s wife) were annoyed that Octavian seemed to be claiming all the credit for settling the soldiers. They complained that Mark Antony and Antony’s children by Fulvia were not involved.

Lucius Antonius and Marcus Antonius Coin BM

Coin of Marcus Antonius and Lucius Antonius (British Museum)

The second issue was the population displaced by the settlement programme. The Italians appealed to Lucius Antonius and he made attempts to limit the soldiers to what they were entitled.

This conflict worsened the relationship between the military and the political class, leading to riots and murders (Appian, Civil Wars 5. 15-16). The soldiers feared that the senators would either oppose the colonisation programme or find someway of undermining it.

Quite what Lucius Antonius and Fulvia were planning or wanted is obscured by the extreme and hostile accounts of them in our sources. Dio, 54.4, depicts Fulvia as the controlling influence, becoming almost a commander of the Antonian group (54.10). Appian (Civil Wars 5.19) even suggests that the whole conflict was stirred up by Fulvia in order to persuade Mark Antony to come home, because she was consumed by jealousy by reports emerging of his liaison with Cleopatra. Starting a civil war from jealousy is a little extreme, but the accusation demeans her role (and all women who were involved in politics), seeing her motivation not as political, but sexual.

Lucius Antonius depicted himself as fiercely loyal to his brother and as a Republican. This may be the clue to his behaviour. As consul, he was responsible for the operation of laws. Octavian ruled above the law, as triumvir for the constitution of the Republic. With the assassins dead, was the Republic constituted and safe? Should the triumvirs defer to the consul and restore normal government? He supported the reward of the soldiers, but it had to be done properly, legally, and with due consideration of Antony’s interests.

The lack of trust was such that war broke out in 41 BC (Appian, Civil Wars 5.30-51). The main contenders were Lucius Antonius and Octavian. The latter was supported by Marcus Agrippa. Several other armies advanced into northern Italy, led by men appointed by Antony and Octavian. Lucius Antonius retreated to the hill-top town of Perusia, probably in the hope that one of those armies, or his brother, would come to his rescue.

There was an attempt to relieve the siege and Antony dashed from the Eastern Mediterranean, but Lucius was starved out. The legionaries with Lucius were received back by their fellows fighting for Octavian and Agrippa. Lucius Antonius was spared, though he seems to have died soon after. The lesser figures were not so lucky and once more Octavian slaughtered those who opposed him (Dio, 48.14). It was a brutality which was long remembered (Suetonius, Augustus 15; Propertius, 1.22).

Antony arrived at Brundisium (Brindisi), seemingly intent on revenge. He was supported by  Sextus Pompeius. It looked very much as if the war would bring the triumvirate to an end. But it did not.

The soldiers did not want to fight. They wanted Antony and Octavian to work together. Perhaps neither of the two men wanted to fight either. Antony was already committed to a campaign in the East against Parthia. Remarkably, peace broke out.

It was probably aided by the death of Fulvia, leaving Antony a widower (forgetting temporarily about Cleopatra, as Antony seems to have done). Octavian had a sister, Octavia, who was recently widowed.

Antony and Octavia (CNG)

Coin celebrating marriage of Antony (left) and Octavia (right) (CNG)

The mood changed. From war, there was marriage. And with the inter-marriage of what was increasingly looking like two political dynasties, there was a chance of peace (and this is the context of Virgil’s extraordinary Eclogue 4).



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